Forget your conspiracy theories - chaos theory rules the newsroom

Jan 12, 2012

It happens. Sometimes my newsroom misses a story, or we don’t staff a press conference. Every once in a while it’s because we didn’t know about it, but more often than not it’s because we have a small group of reporters to cover the state of Michigan, and we can get spread pretty thin.

Every news director or assignment editor has to pick and choose between coverage opportunities. While the occasional slow news days exist, on most days there are more stories than we can cover and choices are made.

When the audience notices a missing stories (about their favorite issue or topic), they express strong opinions about why a story was skipped. They “know”, for example, that we didn’t cover the Congressman’s press conference because we’re biased against his party, or that we didn’t cover their protest because we’re prejudiced against their cause.

Academics make similar claims about our failings, although they use fancier words and more complicated constructs. It’s been a long time since I was in graduate school, but I remember the media critics.

There’s the “Political Economy Theory” (McChesney and others) which argues we make our news coverage decisions based on the bottom line. The simplified version of this theory is that we try to avoid stories that would anger our owners, advertisers, underwriters, and lean towards stories that reinforce existing power structures.

There’s also the “Dominant Ideology” (Althusser) or “Propaganda Theory” (Chomsky) which roughly claim that our coverage decisions are made with the goal of maintaining the status quo and building consensus in support of those already in power.

Poppycock.

(A quick aside to the hyperventilating educators - I did too pass my comps, but you’re right, I didn’t finish my dissertation.)

After decades of running newsrooms, I’ve determined the only adequate theory to describe why some stories get on the air and others do not comes from the field of mathematics – Chaos Theory. An adaptation of this theory would postulate that newsrooms are dynamic systems highly sensitive to initial conditions. (Don’t bother reading that sentence a third time, if you understand “the butterfly effect” then that’s what it’s talking about.)

Examples abound. This week we missed staffing a story because a reporter was pulled over for a speeding ticket on the way to the event. So instead of having her cover that story, I switched her assignment to an equally important story we hadn’t planned to cover, but that she could still make on time (even driving the speed limit).

When I shared this story with other news folks, it seemed there was no end to the list of similar unexpected events that drastically changed their original coverage plans. I heard about stories that were missed because of broken garage doors, because the video was messed up, and even a tale about a reporter who covered a story, but missed her deadline because she couldn’t find her car in the parking lot afterward.

My personal favorite was the time I went to cover a Presidential appearance, and the Secret Service determined the building was at capacity and simply locked-out everyone not already inside (reporters, party officials, busloads of school children). Honest, I tried to cover the story, but it’s tougher to change the mind of a Secret Service agent than you might think.

So take hear America – your newsrooms are not being run under some vast left-wing or right-wing conspiracy, we are doing the best we can while dealing with daily, random, unexpected setback. Seriously, it’s chaos.