Anna Polumbo-Levy: Balancing relevance with salience

Wednesday, May 17, 2017 - 6:09pm

When a story first breaks, every newspaper, television station and magazine rushes to cover it. There’s a big to-do about it for a few weeks, with round-the-clock coverage that attempts to get at a story from all angles. Something big has just been exposed and everyone wants to be the among the first to cover the story. But then the next story breaks and we’re onto new headlines. And while reporters continue to cover stories no longer making headlines, and organizations are created to bring justice to those whom it affected, for the most part, these stories are old news.

When the Flint water crisis story broke — though it began arguably long before the story made it to the public — it was all over the news. You couldn’t flip to a newscast and see anything but the story’s developments. Over time, however, media attention dissipated, and so did everyday conversations. As much as I don’t like to admit it, my mind certainly began to drift to other breaking events.

But after talking about the Flint water crisis in class, I did some Googling and found that the Michigan Civil Rights Commission issued a report in February of 2017, naming “systemic racism” as the reason why the Flint crisis happened and why it went on for so long. As one of the Editorial Page Editors of the Daily, I thought that it would be an important thing to discuss with our Editorial Board. But as February turned into March, and March into April, and other issues on campus took priority, concerns about how relevant an editorial about the Flint water crisis would be became significant.

We never ended up writing an editorial on it, but it got me thinking and there were nights I would lie awake, wishing, even weeks and months after the report was issued, that we’d talked about it. Reflecting, I realize that learning to strike a balance between making sure what we are talking about is current and not forgetting to talk about something that will be constantly important, is something I struggle with as an Editorial Page Editor. More broadly, it made me think a lot about society’s tendency to forget about some issues as new “breaking news” surfaces.

News organizations structure their newscasts and lay out their print pages with their readership as a top priority. Stories they think the general public will think are most important go in the most prominent spots on the page. The stories that get the most views will go first in the broadcast. Therefore, it would be almost impossible to ask for change at an organizational level, when, and rightfully so, they must be attuned to the interests of the general public.

Wanting to keep takes “fresh” and making sure the stories we are publishing are “relevant” are two main journalistic goals, and important ones at that. In the Opinion section, we must constantly make hard decisions about what we are going to write editorials about. I fully recognize constraints that reporters and news organizations are under. Some stories push others to the back burner, and to attract viewers, you can’t have the same stories over and over again. But just because something such as a new report about Flint is no longer making front-page news, it doesn’t mean we no longer need to discuss it.

The change we seek will not come from news media alone.

And while I believe it is important for the news media to constantly reevaluate how they handle tough stories, as a society, we must push back against the need for “relevancy” as we see it now. Society is frequently looking to answer the question “what’s next?”, and “moving on” is a mantra drilled into our heads. But I encourage us to ponder, just a moment longer, when someone tells you something is no longer relevant, or it’s too late or we should move on. The Flint water crisis, and events of this magnitude, are all too important to become issues of the past. This crisis, in particular, has permanently changed the lives of Flint residents who still struggle to obtain clean drinking water, whose children have been exposed to lead and must now grapple with the severe long term health effects.

The news media and society as a whole need to begin to think more consciously about what we are sacrificing by feeding into our desire for short soundbites when these events deserve lengthier discussions. We need to continue to pay attention to them even after we have seemingly “moved on”to another story, especially when it is something as important as the Flint water crisis. Otherwise we will continue to perpetuate a cycle that allows critical issues to get left behind.