When I was a television news producer, I was often asked how I decided which stories to put in the newscast. The two questions I most often thought about when considering the inclusion and placement of a story were the following:
Is it important?
Is it interesting?
Interesting stories are easy to spot, which is part of their charm. They are attention getting, provoke instant emotion and take little or no time to explain.
Important stories are more demanding. They can be complex, require context and background for full understanding and often require a greater time commitment, mental bandwidth and media real estate than is readily available.
Most stories tilt the scale in one direction or the other. Take the recent healthcare debate, for example. It is far more important than it is interesting. The outcome will affect the physical and financial health of millions of people in every state. The details are constantly changing and tough to absorb, even for the most seasoned news junkie. Last week, the U.S. Senate considered a veritable alphabet soup of plans including ACA (Affordable Care Act) BCRA (Better Care Reconciliation Act) and ORRA (Obamacare Repeal Reconciliation Act), all while maneuvering through a blinding number of Senate rules and regulations governing debate and voting.
Far too often these days, the scale tips towards the interesting over the important. The Boston Globe ran a story recently about how many crosswalk buttons are placebos that have absolutely no effect on traffic lighting patterns. It was interesting, but does the issue affect enough people to truly belong on the front page of the paper? Maybe not.
With the explosion of social media, it is easy to understand the crucial role interesting stories have. With ad dollars continuing to decrease, ratings and subscriptions are taking a back seat to online clicks and comments as a barometer of a successful story. I recently had a reporter turn down a story idea about a nonprofit education program because she feared it was too safe. “Today my stories are judged by how many clicks they get,” she lamented. “The stories that get clicks are ones that are controversial.”
I am just as vulnerable to clickbait as the next person. I catch myself reaching for my mouse when I see a provocative headline about whatever President Trump just tweeted, I have seen my valuable free time consumed by listicles full of tips for reorganizing my home, and (as my children can attest) I have watched the Youtube video showing a dog eating a banana too many times.
So what is a PR professional to do?
Throwing up our hands and giving up isn’t the answer. Instead, we fight the good fight and make sure the stories we are pitching have both substance and style. It takes extra effort to do the research necessary to find compelling statistics, line up the perfect person to highlight the good work of your client and then craft graceful, jargon free sentences that explain the context of the story in an easily understandable way. But the effort is worth it. Reporters are grateful for the legwork we do on their behalf. Readers, viewers and listeners are too, as they receive nutritious news stories rather than more junk food. The result of real and important news, vs. the titillating or interesting is that it provides valuable information that can foster meaningful conversations, and lead to good decisions for individuals and legislators.
Important is worth the effort.