Paris Blackout

This is interesting. The AP is reporting this morning on the end of a news experiment. The Associated Press, as an organization, decided not to cover Paris Hilton for one week. No news of the celebrity was written by the globe-spanning news organization. The result?

No news bureaus clamored for Hilton stories. People noticed her absence, kind of. The AP knows this because they have received praise from some sources for the blackout, especially from other journalists who do not believe Hilton is newsworthy.

But here’s the thing: was this blackout experiment responsible journalism? If the AP can decide who is newsworthy and who isn’t, then report accordingly, who might they blackout next? What might be blacked out next? Casualties in Iraq? North Korean nuclear successes?

I’m not saying here that the AP intends to blackout anything that is “really” newsworthy. They are an upstanding organization, but this does open the door for something bigger and more sinister. Paris Hilton may be small bananas when it comes to the news, but remember that even Anna Nicole Smith’s case went to the Supreme Court.

Consider:

Newsworthiness is judged by editors and reporters in the field, covering the stories. They must pick and choose what would be interesting for readers based on myriad factors, including popularity and perceived interest. When a reporter chooses to cover one story and not another, hasn’t that reporter just performed a kind of blackout of her own?

So what the AP did last week was not unusual. It was pretty much standard practice for journalism, except… Except it was a mandate handed down from headquarters, directing reporters and editors not to cover Hilton. They didn’t get the chance to trust their news instincts; instead they were commanded from on high to ignore something.

Was this a social comment, then? Is the AP saying that perhaps public interest can become artificially inflated in a particular subject? Maybe Hilton doesn’t deserve all the attention that has been given to her by reporters and media analysts, and maybe the fact that media are already saturated with stories about her drives it further, a process that feeds on itself until something like the AP’s experiment asks us to question why it is that we care about Paris Hilton.

What is newsworthy? Who decides? Is it the responsibility or right of reporters to moralize, to comment on what we should be reading and viewing? The AP is not attempting to answer any of these questions, and rightly so. Good journalism does not provide explicit commentary. It lets us decide for ourselves.

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