News judgement

Had a riveting discussion about news judgement in my intro to journalism class at Manhattanville College this morning.

First, a student named Matt told everyone the story of the time he was berated and cursed out by a customer at Barnes & Noble, where he works parttime. Then we had to write a story about the incident.

Matt said the woman was in her mid-20s; was well-dressed, with blonde hair. The students asked whether those details belong in a news story. I said no, only the age. Then we discussed race—I said no, unless it’s a crime story and the police are looking for the suspect. Then we discussed personal details—what if the woman was 400 pounds? What if the woman had a crazy tattoo on her arm? What if it was a guy with a swastika carved into his forehead? What if it was someone dressed in a giant Twinkie costume?

There are obviously ways to lean here—but no exact science. In order, I wouldn’t mention the weight or the tattoo. I would certainly mention the swastika, probably in the lede, and also the Twinkie. Definitely the Twinkie.

This is all part of the joy and pain of teaching journalism. Two plus two will always be four. E=MC squared. George Washington crossed the Delaware and JFK was assassinated in Dallas. But what do you put in a story, and what do you leave out? How do you write the ideal lede? What about the transition from lede to meat? I tell this to the students nonstop—this shit is hard. For me, for you, for them. It never comes 100% easily, and if it does it’s probably because you’re not trying to be great.

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