Publishing Nothing

Posted November 24, 2009 in Journalism, Ottawa

Sometimes stories aren't news, and sometimes we don't write them.

For a recent story, I spent time in an H1N1 vaccination clinic in Ottawa. Prior to opening hour, the nurses' supervisor gave a pep talk “off the record.” (In this case, I can write that the meeting took place but not what was said. This sort of ethical agreement is important to journalists and their sources.)

I assure you: nothing damning happened. There was no talk of covered-up vaccine-related deaths and they didn't discuss plans to gain mind control over visitors by injecting surreptitious serums. It was mere procedure: a few tips to make nurses' jobs easier.

Why the secrecy? Because the media (and, by extension, citizens who listen) are deemed uppity: they assault the slightest mishap—an allergic reaction, for instance—at reality's expense.

Consider two fictional headlines: “Everybody is healthy” and “Man gets H1N1, blames vaccine.” The former is statistically closer to truth, but the latter is more interesting, regardless of its significance.

Journalists tell stories, not truth. We hate spreading rumours, but a job is a job: on those disastrous days when planes land, politicians parlay and bridges bridge, we have to improvise.

Last week I tried to connect a fatal fire at a women's shelter to a suspicious one at a women's boarding house, just because both involved one gender. It's an engrossing but misleading story or it's non-news. (As a moral compromise, I discarded almost all my work, paining my editors, my mark and my mood.)

Which is better: public outcry over a near-certain non-issue, or media silence around an unimportant but compelling story?