But was it news in the first place?

For a long time, I've had a working theory that news is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo. Everything else that often gets lumped in under the "news" umbrella is either information or events.

To see this in practice, consider this three-part example:

"It rained today" is simply a report on an event. Water fell out of the sky. Assuming the report is true, that may be useful knowledge, but in most cases, that's all it is.

"Today's rain brought the season's precipitation to within an inch of normal" is information. Again, the information may be useful. It may be interesting. It may even inform decisions or cause people to take some form of action. But it's not news.

"The rain washed out an important bridge and engineers think it will take three months to repair" is news. The status quo (the condition of the bridge) has been altered, and it's likely to have a material impact on people's plans and behavior.

The funny thing is that, by this definition, there's rarely enough "news" to fill newspapers or long-form newscasts. And consequently, the news gets blended with a lot of "events" and "information", which is entirely fine -- so long as the people who report and edit it understand the difference.

By this standard, what the Des Moines Register did with the Carson King story deserves much of the criticism it has received. In profiling King and including unflattering information about his past, the Register pushed too hard on an event (King's spontaneous fundraiser for the University of Iowa Children's Hospital), dug hard for information (about King's social-media footprint), and ended up instigating consequences that became news.

King's social-media history wasn't news, and it didn't need to be. Reporting on a story -- whether it's news, an event, or information -- doesn't require disposing of ordinary decency in the process. Reporters take anonymous tips, engage with sources, and observe embargoes all the time. Reportorial judgment is a skill to be learned, practiced, and refined. But what additional good was served by igniting a controversy over long-past comments on social media?

What would have been the harm in asking the subject of the story, "Do you still agree with these things you shared in the past?" Remember: It wasn't news, and it wasn't an event any longer, either. It was just a profile story -- a piece of information. If King had said "No", and then shortly afterward removed the comments from his social-media history, that could have been the end of it.

Plenty of people revise their opinions from the past, retract prior statements, or change their minds. That is, after all, a basic function of living in a civilization built around improvement. If we don't leave ourselves and others room to make mistakes (especially when young), to correct those mistakes, and then to grow, then we can rest assured that nobody is going to learn from the past -- because either people will refrain entirely from self-expression (meaning nobody will experience the kind of pushback, criticism, and argument that help to make us better), or people will learn that the only safe course of action is to dig in, never grow, and to ally one's self with a modern-day tribe that will defend its members unthinkingly.

In many ways, we're badly unprepared for the world that social media has brought into being: Private citizens can become public figures in an instant, and that publicity affords none of the necessary opportunity to grow into the role. Assuming that it's sub-optimal for our public life to be consumed entirely by people who have been groomed since birth for public roles, then we can't permit the consequences of errors, mistakes, and indiscretions to become the news when, at best, they are merely past events or trivial information.

Reporting the news is a valuable public trust. But the public deserves to trust the reporters to make the vital separation of news, events, and information into their proper places.

Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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