Non-story? Then don’t write it

According to a news release from the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, local residents would “welcome John McCain to Harrisburg by unveiling a new video called ‘Jobs’ at a press event.” As the reporter who covers local Obama events and issues, I was dispatched.

I quickly realized it wasn’t much of a story. The room consisted of two city council members, a school board member, an Obama delegate, and three or four other people used as sign-holding props. The press who took the bait on this thing were myself and a local TV cameraman.

The event itself was quick and unremarkable. Turns out Obama people don’t like McCain’s record on jobs. At the end, a Democratic staffer played the DNC-produced, Web-only video on a laptop.

So at this point we have a few local politicians talking about their opinions of John McCain, and standing around watching a video on a laptop.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve already come to this conclusion: There’s no story here.

Then I got back to the office, did a little research, and realized there was no freaking way this was a story.

You see, one of the few moderately interesting quotes that I scribbled down came from the school board member who said:

“John McCain’s claims that he’ll put jobs first are laughable with his history of putting his lobbyist friends first.”

You know who else thinks that? DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney:

“John McCain’s claim that he’ll put ‘jobs first’ is laughable in light of his history of putting his lobbyist friends ahead of America’s workers at every turn,” said DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney.

Much of the content of the event also matched the DNC news release, right down to mentioning the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Oh, plus there’s the little matter of this news release being sent out nationally Sunday morning, over seven hours before this press event in Harrisburg.

Oh, plus there’s the little matter of that YouTube video being posted a full day before this “unveiling.”

So now we not only have an uninteresting story, we have the Obama folks claiming to unveil a video that’s already been online, and local officials acting as intermediaries to get the DNC’s words through local mouths to hopefully get the local media to repeat them to a wider audience.

What followed was a newsroom tango. I argued that there was no story, editor argues it’s worth a short story. I write a short story focusing on the similarities with the DNC news release, and the fact the event was pitched to media as an unveiling but really wasn’t at all. Editor quickly wonders if it shouldn’t be recast as a straight “Dems respond to Mccain” story. I argue phony news events don’t deserve real news coverage. Editor finally sees it my way, the story is spiked, and you won’t read about it in my newspaper.

Thank goodness for that. We in the media can do our part to actually aid the discussion by checking these events out, then promptly ignoring them when they turn out to be duds.

Just because local politicians are speaking, and just because a reporter spent an hour listening to them speak, doesn’t mean we need to report on it. That the standard “Dems respond to McCain” story was considered, and that a TV station apparently aired the comments, is a signal that we need to be more vigilant in setting the standards of this campaign.

The campaigns can put on these events because local media keep drinking it up. When we decide we’re not going to be used, when we make clear our own standards are rising, they’ll have to move on to a better strategy.

  • Terry

    Bravo, Daniel! Proud to know ya!

  • Daniel

    Actually, you DO have a story here. A sad story about how the “hip” and “internet saavy” campaign for change uses traditional manipulation techniques– and gets called on it by a tech-saavy reporter!

    Could you get your editor to run this mini-expose’?


  • Terry

    Steve has a great point, and he’s right: That really IS the story, but it would have to be more broad in scope. I’d like to see a piece titled “Election stories you WON’T see in this paper and why”

  • I was once asked to go to a hearing on touch screen voting machines in State College. Problem? I had covered the EXACT SAME hearing the previous week in Bellefonte. While there would have been different residents in the audience commenting, it would have been the same article (plus they weren’t even going to run an article it was just a go for the hell of it type of deal!). I told them I was too busy to go, along with my feelings that there was really nothing new there. Talk about trying to waste a report’s time (not to mention I’m a student and it was during finals week).

  • Yet, haven’t you written about it anyway? Now that you’ve blogged it, we get to see what the “event” was. The way I see it, it was just the Dems trying to say their piece (whatever it was) and looking for consistency. What does this say about politics, I wonder? Am I hearing the views of the particular leader, or are they just a puppet?

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  • Political parties staging an event? Trying to manipulate people? That’s news?

    Daniel’s right. The blog post was interesting behind-the-scenes detail, though.

  • I’m the EIC of a business-to-business publication serving the jewelry industry. It happens to us in the trade media too. Most famously, it happened to me one morning at a trade show. Five days into a seven-day show with 20-hour days, there was a crack-of-dawn press breakfast to unveil “new research on trends in the bridal jewelry market.”

    “Trends in the bridal jewelry market” is a subject relevant to my readers, so I hauled my over-exhausted, hate-mornings-anyway self out of bed to attend what turned to be nothing more than a big fat commercial for a particular wedding ring manufacturer.

    His press person will never, ever forget the dressing down I gave her–nor has she ever asked me or my staff to attend one of those things again.

    Sometimes ya just gotta take the bull by the horns.

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