Why are some deaths and scandals considered more newsworthy than others?

The question is necessarily subjective but worth asking nonetheless.

HOW DO we decide what is newsworthy here? (photo credit: REUTERS)
HOW DO we decide what is newsworthy here?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The answer to the question “What is newsworthy?” is necessarily subjective. In contrast to the exact sciences, there are no quantitative measures by which one can answer it. One editor may consider a murder case to be important enough to fill up pages of the newspaper, while a different one might ignore it or at best put it on page 16 in a small column. Yet all of us do have some notions about it.
Certainly, something that affects the personal lives of many people if they know about it may be considered to be newsworthy. The COVID-19 pandemic is a clear example. The various governmental restrictions and their subsequent lifting are of interest to all of us and so are promptly reported.
Is the murder of a single soldier in the same category? Here in Israel, it is almost blasphemous to ask such a question, but the truth is that in many countries the answer is not unequivocal.
Why is it so newsworthy here? Perhaps it is due to the fact that many of our youngsters serve in the IDF and are in danger. Service in the IDF is mandatory. There is, as a result, a feeling of identity with the bereaved family, as it could happen to any one of us.
Some people feel that the large headlines and numerous interviews of family members in the media are a way to honor the fallen and keep memories of the fallen alive.
This does not happen as much when someone dies in a traffic accident or is killed due to criminal gang attacks, unless there is some very extraordinary aspect, including, unfortunately, not much other news that day. Nor is it the case when a soldier commits suicide. Why? Shouldn’t a life be honored?
The editors are not necessarily driven by the humanistic aspects. Undeniably, there is the political aspect. For some on the Left, it is another proof that we should get out of Judea and Samaria. The killing of our soldiers should help convince the population that our continued residence will only bring with it further grief. For some on the Right, it is but another example of the murderous intent of the Arabs and another reason we must continue to control their ability to fight us. Sadly, the victim and the family become a ball to play with in the hands of politically motivated editors.
When is the death of a public personality considered newsworthy? One would assume that a central element would be the question of whether the deceased touched the lives of many. What is many? Ten thousand people? One hundred thousand? Hard to answer, but in Israel the death of an Orthodox personality somehow has a newsworthiness threshold which is much higher than a singer, poet, media member or such.
We have noted in our previous columns outstanding rabbinical figures and religious assemblies that were quite underreported. The recently deceased Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch touched the lives of very many people. He was a remarkable educator, academic and role model, and possessed the personal courage to state his beliefs irrespective of whether they were politically correct. He had a revolutionary approach to the Halacha. Yet we suspect that had he not come under a falsely instigated investigation a quarter of a century ago, as though he incited the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, much of the coverage would not have been.
ON A more mundane level but not unimportant in the least, the question of newsworthiness is central to the latest revelations of journalist Ayala Hasson-Nesher, recipient of the Israeli Prize for Media Criticism in 2014 (sponsored by Israel’s Media Watch). In our op-ed article published in these pages on November 25, 2015, we brought the following citation from Hasson-Nesher’s acceptance speech upon receiving the prize:
“The true work of a journalist touches open nerves.... But there is something incredible: there are people who, when caught, accept the fact; they are not happy, but appreciate the rules of democracy. But there are those who do not accept this, and usually these are the people who are defended by your colleagues in the media.”
These past two weeks, Hasson-Nesher has been publicizing on Channel 13 excerpts of phone conversations and emails that indicate, if true, that Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi acted with impropriety a decade ago.
The central piece of evidence was considered by the State Attorney’s Office private. Subsequently, the Justice Ministry – in clear contrast to the case of Efi Nave, the former Israel Bar Association head, whose cellphone was stolen – insisted that the law prevents its publication.
Hasson-Nesher’s revelations seem to be damning. If half of what she alludes to is true, then the Justice Ministry and its leaders could be tried as criminals and even summarily fired. By whom? That is a good question. As the system does not provide for an independent prosecution, there is a clear lacuna here.
Be that as it may, the story seems to be newsworthy. Certainly Channel 13 thought so, and gave it headline status on the main evening news program. But most other news editors at other networks and newspapers did not consider this to be as important as the resulting hate letters which were sent to Mandelblit and which the police are investigating. While these phone messages were reported on extensively in the news, Hasson-Nesher’s revelations did not make it into the official news on Army Radio or KAN. Yes, she was interviewed, but guess by whom? Yakov Bardugo on Galatz and Amir Ivgi on KAN. Both are identified with Israel’s Right. Others simply ignored her revelations; they were not considered newsworthy.
For once, Hasson-Nesher’s colleague, Channel 13 legal correspondent Aviad Glickman, who, as we have noted, is quite voluble, was remarkably silent during at least one panel discussion we watched.
This brings us back to our opening question. It would seem that it was wrongly posed. There is no such thing as newsworthy. As to when does a certain item find favor with the editor and when does it not, it depends on the personal consideration of the news editor. Many editors are professional, but not all. Too many follow a certain pack trend, imitating rivals or simply falling in with a certain political or cultural outlook.
If you are a reporter, or an NGO, or just someone who has the urge to publish something that you think is “important,” remember, the news editor needs to agree with you. You need to package it as something close to the heart of the editor, to assure it is judged to be “newsworthy.” Or, better, don’t use the “newsworthy” concept as your criterion.
The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch.