What is news?

Steven Garrity raises an interesting point about news reports of tragedies, and how numbers of dead are reported.

Having worked in a daily newspaper, albeit at the slicing and waxing end, not in any reportorial capacity, I have some feel for how this world works.

I think it’s best to imagine the world of facts reporting as a spectrum that starts at the daily newspaper (or, today, the web or CNN) and ends with Encyclopaedia Britannica.

As you move across the spectrum, additional layers of accuracy are overlaid on the factosphere as additional reporting is available. If you imagine “truth” to be a sculpture, you can imagine the first early whiffs of news as a rough outline of a finished work — enough to give you the idea, the proportions, the scale. As time passes, and we learn more, shapes emerge, details get filled in, and “truth” emerges.

The interesting thing is that the opportunity for insight probably occurs somewhere after television and daily newspapers are finished reporting the facts, but well in advance of the history books. I’d site this sweet spot at somewhere near the appearance of commentary in weekly newsmagazines (like Weekend Magazine and The New Yorker) and weblogs.

At this point in the journalistic cycle, enough of the facts have emerged to give us a fairly accurate picture of the situation, but the images of the event are still fresh enough in our minds to be visceral. Its news on the way from the stomach into the intestines.

Reading about a disaster in a weblog or weekly two years after the fact is of little use or interest, for the context of the time and space are missing and difficult to fill in. Both are ephemeral, and that’s what makes each, for my money, the most interesting of media.