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News / Clark County News

Press Talk: The art of news judgment

By Lou Brancaccio, Columbian Editor
Published: October 22, 2016, 6:10am

’Tis the season.

No, not that season. The political season. You know, where some of these candidate characters blame everyone except themselves for their troubles.

And guess who is at the top of their naughty list? You guessed it. The media.

But let’s take a closer look at reporters and how they do their jobs. It ain’t easy, I tell ya, but we all should consider ourselves lucky that they’re around. 

• • •

Meet Lauren Dake.

She’s our political reporter. The 36-year-old has a master’s degree from Northwestern University and grew up in Cottage Grove, Ore. 

After kicking around in Oregon, covering the likes of the Oregon Legislature, she landed here a couple of years ago. She’s been in the news business about a decade. And she’s good at what she does. Very good.

Making decisions

In life, we all make hundreds of decisions each day. What to eat, where to go, how to handle that contentious phone call. 

Reporters are no different. But when it comes to decision-making on a story, reporters know that every move they make will get scrutinized. Lauren knows that, as well. But does she live a purely objective life? Can anyone really do that?

“I have my own bias — everyone does — but I’m capable of writing an objective story,” she said.

And that’s the key. We’re not robots, but we can put our biases aside to do the job we’re assigned to do.

Editorial board meetings

A perfect example of that is covering our editorial board meetings. Editorial board meetings are where — for example — we interview candidates in order to decide whom to endorse for political office.

We let reporters sit in on the meeting, so if candidates say something newsworthy, we can report it.

But unlike most stories a reporter covers, editorial board meetings could address a dozen topics. And that means Lauren has to decide which of those dozen ideas she will focus on. It’s a judgment call she has to make.

“Probably 90 percent of what we cover are single-subject topics. Covering an editorial meeting is a completely different animal,” she said.

So Lauren’s decision-making gets more complicated. How does she choose which topic bubbles to the top?

“I think knowing the community is important. It’s also about context.”

She’s right, of course, but because our editorial board meetings are also recorded, you can go back and see exactly what judgment she made. And readers will decide if it’s the same judgment they would have made.


All of this leads to — essentially — taking our best shot at what is the correct decision.

We use the word “objective” a lot because that is always our goal. But there are judgments we make along the way to get to that objective story.

That’s why it’s called news judgment and not news science.

It’s really the same formula used in putting together a front page. I often ask — at our news meeting — what others think about a particular story’s making the front page. Trust me, the answers are often evenly split at our front-page meetings.

If it were science, that would never happen. But everyone has their own judgment, and it’s usually different from that of the person sitting next to them.

So, just like beauty, news judgment is in the eye of the beholder. We’re not saying we’re right or wrong when we make decisions. We’re saying we use our best judgment.

And that’s what Lauren and the rest of the newsroom do every day. And they’re awfully dang good at it.

Columbian Editor