Weird Ways of News.

Chapter Two: A View of Reality

What do you think our world is all about? Is this country crawling down the road to moral and ethical ruin? Or is life just getting better and better? Do you enjoy the challenge of your work or studies, or would you rather see movies and watch television? Is religion the most important thing in your life, or should it be outlawed as a dangerous drug?

As to what the world is all about, we take that for granted that Americans love to differ. But many Americans assume the opposite about the news media—that all their personnel think and act in just about the same way, from local weeklies to metro dailies, from NBC News in New York to the local news in the 210th largest market (i.e., Glendive, Montana). Common sense suggests that this can't be true.

In fact, news values generally guide decisions of news gatekeepers, just as other common values guide most Americans (pay your taxes, respect people's property, obey stop signs, shop at the mall, etc.). Beyond this, however, news gatekeepers interpret the day's events based on what their organization believes the world is all about.

Get Real

Let's again take that mundane example from Chapter One, the local city council meeting. Sitting in the audience, you notice several reporters from various news organizations at the press table. They, like you, are looking at tonight's agenda:

1. Approval of minutes.
2. City engineer report: Oak Street sewer separation.
3. City attorney report: County sexual harassment lawsuit.
4. Liquor Commission report: License for Joe's Bar.
5. Third reading: Abortion clinic picketing ordinance.
6. Consideration of bids: Library remodeling.
7. Adjournment.

Relying on news values, what item do you think will get news coverage? The obvious answer is the abortion clinic picketing ordinance. It's highly controversial, heavy on human interest and emotion, carrying serious consequences, and both local and timely. In fact, many an editor or news director will have prepped the reporter on the scene to watch this agenda item closely.

But the most obvious item on an agenda isn't necessarily the one that will become the big story of the meeting. Top management of each news organization will have invariably decided matters most. One publication may emphasize celebrities and show biz with stories about famous people in town and lots of photos. A local television news operation may decide the area is dangerously infested with criminals, so they will cover crime in great detail. A third news operation may focus on doughty entrepreneurs, emphasizing new building, town businesses, restaurants, and economic development. A fourth may see economic development as a problem, and offer readers exposés and critical assessments of economic costs.

This is simply a particular view of reality. A publisher, editor, news director, or station owner says, "This is what I think our world is all about, and here's how we are going to present it to you." In fact, most media consumers vaguely realize this, even if media hardly ever state it explicitly. We expect certain news operations to emphasize certain stories over others. Good public relations people have that realization honed to a fine point, and know how to focus a story to attract particular media.

How does a news operation establish its view of reality? Often it's not a formal process. Try thinking like a dog. Dog lovers know that an old dog which has learned the rhythm and expectations of owners will often turn into the teacher to a young dog just coming on board. The young dog will learn and be rewarded for certain behavior that matches owners' expectations. Similarly, young dogs joining a news operation quickly learn what kind of writing and editing most likely will find favor with the editors—even with the big bwana, the owner or chain manager. They too are rewarded with pay and promotions for behavior that matches these expectations. Nothing may appear in a policy manual, or be specifically stated about the operation's view of reality, but the staff gets the message, and passes it on to a next generation.

Is this tradition-bound? Well, news media operations traditionally like being traditional. Change is upsetting, especially to newspapers, but change does take place. Why? Because news media in the United States aim to make money. Profit trumps tradition every time. Ultimately gatekeepers realize they must attract readers and viewers to make a profit, to keep their jobs, or even to stay in business. How they choose to make a profit influences their view of reality.

For instance, television news operations like to cover crime, especially in major cities. It offers opportunities for gritty, emotion-wracked video footage, a stab right in The Big Three, sure to attract viewers. Many newspapers, however, relegate such stories to an inside page under a smallish headline. You might jump to condemn the television station for raw, irresponsible pandering. But hold that crouch for a moment. Most people think newspapers have a tough time competing with television, but television has its problems too. Even large cities today have become one-newspaper towns, while television news directors must compete with at least a couple of other television news operations. And the competition is brutal: the sweeps fly past three times a year, and if a news show drops a few points, talking heads roll. In contrast, most newspaper editors work in a less frenzied pace based on longer-term circulation goals.

Newspaper operations also have the luxury of space. Television news must be all things to all people. If you don't like a story, you have no option but to turn to another station. Newspapers, however, can offer something to everyone. If you don't like their news coverage, you don't necessarily throw the whole sheaf into the recycling bin. You can page back to the sports, comics, letters to the editor, or bridge column. Newspaper owners don't care why you buy the newspaper, as long as you do buy. Some people think it's worth spending two or more quarters a day for crossword puzzles. That keeps up circulation, and keeps advertisers interested. So a print news operation can run material that appeals to tiny segments of Americans—that bridge column, for instance—while television news operations must generally appeal to the lowest common denominator. A news director who produces a series on an important but not telegenic issue—say, the city's budget—takes a gutsy risk with her ratings.

On television the consequences may be heavier than "too bad, we blew that one." It may be "too bad, hope your resumé is updated." Hence, television news directors are not likely to take risks with their audience. Especially during ratings months, will revert time and again to The Big Three, even if that skews their normal view of reality.

But we're still sitting near the press table of that city council meeting. The abortion picketing ordinance may well become the big story, we have to temper that assumption by assessing the view of reality held by a particular news operation. If, for instance, a view of reality suggests that scandals and shenanigans shape city politics, then a harassment lawsuit would perhaps take a more central role. If, on the other hand, a view suggests that the business of America is business, then the contractor subset of the community's business might be particularly interested in progress of a sewer separation. If the world defines itself along lines of moral and religious division, the liquor license question may get top billing.

Just because any news operation has its own peculiar view of reality, it doesn't mean—well, it doesn't mean a couple of things you might assume:

1. It doesn't mean other stories will be ignored—not usually. Most primary gatekeepers (reporters) will report the other issues, particularly in newspapers and on websites with their luxury of space. It's a matter of priority, however; stories that fall within the scope of the view will be emphasized, while others will receive less significant treatment.

2. It doesn't mean a news operation isn't objective. In fact, let's consider in more detail this shibboleth of ethical journalism.

Trying to Be Objective

Journalism students are sometimes surprised to hear that the ideal of objectivity was not part of American journalism for most of the Republic's history. "News" in our founding fathers' time was really one editor's opinion, usually political. The Daily Blabbeth of the period offered, say, "News according to the Federalists." The Daily Screecheth offered "News according to the anti-Federalists." No newspaper generally offered "News according to no politico in particular" until the advent of the New York Sun, the nation's first "Penny Press" newspaper and the first true mass medium. Still, the idea that a reporter ought to be objective didn't really take off until the twentieth century, as the number of newspapers supported by any particular town began to dwindle.

The nineteenth century's true marketplace of ideas, the published town square of opinion where inquiring minds could read many viewpoints, shrunk in the next century to the local media we find in most cities today: one daily newspaper and about three television news operations. True, you'll occasionally find a news-oriented radio station and some free-circulation weeklies and magazines, but most of these don't purport to fill the daily niche we know as "news." As the number of voices shrunk, the call for a more responsible journalism rose through some of the most influential media figures and critics of the last century's turn, such as Joseph Pulitzer and Walter Lippmann. This new and more responsible approach came to be known as "objectivity." Today media consumers bandy that word about as if it were some sort of constitutional right. Every so often we hear a puffed-up local press critic observing with consternation that coverage of some issue slid into the mortal sin of the journalism world: it failed to be "objective!" As if the free-press First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees no such thing!

Most American journalists today are steeped in the ethical principles taught by the journalism and mass communication programs established in nearly every publicly supported university in the country. These programs, and the effort they have made to turn the news-gathering game into a respectable and responsible profession, are contemporary inventions. The first undergraduate program resides in the University of Missouri, dating from 1926. By the 1950s most large public universities offered journalism and mass communication, but only in the last quarter of the century did nearly every other university jumped on the cash-wagon. (Majors in J and MC are among the country's most popular choices, although most students today seek more lucrative careers in advertising and public relations, and not in news-mongering.)

Nearly all of these schools require the study of journalism ethics, and "objectivity" is a lofty goal. It means, at least, learning to write a news story that reflects all sides of an issue without overt favor or covert bias. This is difficult to do, but many competent reporters come close. For instance, if a reporter writes about the abortion picketing ordinance debate at our city council meeting, she would listen carefully to comments and take accurate notes. She would reflect all opinions expressed. If confused about a comment or background information, she would speak to participants after the meeting. She might call other relevant and competent spokespeople for responses to actions taken at the meeting. She would try hard to craft a story reflecting the spirit of the debate and, if lucky, she would see that story aired or printed in its entirety.

This constitutes the craft of a responsible reporter. But it has nothing to do with the news operation's view of reality. A responsible reporter can write an objective news story on just about any event. But the decision to cover the story, the way a reporter manufactures it, and the way a news operation plays it is determined by the view of reality.

To explore this concept, we can first identify the most common approaches to reality in local and regional news operations today. In general, how does a newspaper or television news department reflect the significance of the world around it? Most common views of reality are:

1. It's All Politics

The activities of this country's political leaders mold the world we live in, and newspeople need to scrutinize their actions. News operations that hold this world view commonly assert traditional values of what news people ought to be doing: watchdogging the government. Investigative reporters may look behind the desks of legislators for scoops or exposés, but will generally assume politicians are doing the public's business in a reasonably sound manner. Sometimes also targeted for investigations are business leaders in town, on the assumption that they are doing dirty to the public's rights and freedoms. Some critics decry these news operations for their perceived "liberal slant," although traditional concepts of liberal and conservative really have little to do with most news operations.

2. It's All Money

Politics may seem important, but the country thrives on business, and private industry is what makes the United States powerful and prosperous. News operations that hold this view commonly celebrate big businesses, and small entrepreneurs, whether they be the athlete and his manager, the car dealer and her sales force, or the legislature and its troublesome regulations. Generally this view of reality doesn't seek to uncover the dark side of business operations, but happily report the foibles of politicians. Some critics might call this view of reality "conservative."

3. It's All Celebrities

Politics and business may seem important, but what really influences society in this country is popular culture. News operations that defend this view regularly point out the huge crowds attending rock and country music concerts, the huge salaries commanded by sports celebrities, the huge audiences for television sitcoms, and the huge fascination with violent video games. American pop culture reaches around the world, and certainly creeps into every corner of our lives. Some critics call this view of reality "liberal," particularly if they decry the morality of the celebrities featured.

4. It's All Crime

Politics, business, and celebrities may be important, but what people are really concerned with in their day-by-day existence is safety and security. This view of reality, particularly favored by urban television news operations, emphasizes the dangers of the streets with extensive coverage of murders, muggings and other crimes, as space and time permit (who could possibly keep up with all of it?). This invariably produces a dark, pessimistic view of reality, because crime reportage inevitably carries with it the usually unstated concern that the government authorities assigned to protect the streets can't cope. Some critics might call this view of reality "conservative," if it suggests "law and order" values as a solution to the dangers of our daily existence, or "liberal" if it suggests root causes in poverty and racism.

5. It's All a Mundane Mishmash

Politics, business, celebrities, and crime may seem important, but for most of us life is filled with little daily comings and goings, small news, interesting tidbits, and little interludes. In real life we don't talk to politicians or celebrities. Most of us don't run big businesses. Chances are we won't be mugged or murdered. These chatty and friendly local news operations—most of them weekly newspapers and small-market television stations—fill their space with human interest pieces, meeting announcements, store openings, workshops, concerts, speakers, high school sports, school plays, Rotary banquets, and other small stories—a drumbeat of daily life. Some critics call this view of reality neither liberal nor conservative, but inconsequential. Yet these newspapers make essential reading for the communities they serve. Most New Yorkers do not subscribe to the Times, but almost everybody in a small town subscribes to the local weekly.

Few news operations squat squarely in one category or another. A view of reality, like life itself, is more complex. Watching one night's newscast or scanning one morning's newspaper, isn't enough to help us decide what we're dealing with. Can you identify a person's view of life in one conversation? In the same way, you need to live with a newspaper or news show for a while, in order to get a feeling for its general viewpoint. Of course, it's more accurate to do a scholarly content analysis of your favorite news medium, but most of us who live day in and day out with the same local news media can get a pretty accurate feeling of what life's all about, according to, say, the Daily Drab or Nightly Nag. (Score your own medium using the Collins Media Type test below.)

The famous Myers-Briggs personality profile helps determine people's personality types. Along the same line, the Collins news media type profile test can help you find the "personality type" (view of reality) of your favorite local news organization.

The View for You

1. Do you read or listen to lots of stories about international affairs, national political debates, and local government, even though they may be dull? If stories of international, national, or local politicians generally dominate the first pages, or begin the newscast, you may be dealing with view of reality one—it's all politics.

2. Do you know a fair bit about business in your community, even if you're not in business yourself? If business news stories and features regularly command sizable chunks of time and space in a news operation, you may be dealing with view of reality two—it's all money.

3. Can you speak knowledgeably with pop-culture-driven pre-teens, despite seldom reading Vanity Fair or Seventeen? Do sports stars and celebrities regularly command the front page or top of the newscast? Consider view three—it's all celebrities.

4. Do you live in fear of neighborhood crime, even though you have little personal experience of it? Probably you've been influenced by your favorite news operation's coverage, view four—it's all crime.

5. Do you find your local news to be innocuous and mildly amusing, and expect to read or hear your name somewhere soon? You're likely dealing with view five—it's all a mishmash.

These five most common daily and weekly news views of reality are reflected on the pie chart.

World of news pie chart.

Note that the chart is divided into five equal sections representing the five common news views of reality. Toward the center fall the "classic" news operations emphasizing each of the five: New York Times for politics, Wall Street Journal for business, USA Today for entertainment, big city TV news for crime, and your local "East Shoe Gazette" for the mundane. You may argue, reasonably, that USA Today isn't nearly as celebrity-saturated as it used to be, or that your favorite big-city TV news operation doesn't target crime that much. So be it, but what these five choices have in common is their obvious set up as "news" operations, with the classic expectation of demanding deadlines based mostly on actual events, interview-based news articles, and quick turnaround.

Move up the chart toward the rim, and you can imagine classic non-news media operations: publications or television programs with similar views of reality, but no interest in journalism-style deadlines or approaches to articles. Vanity Fair, for instance, loves celebrities, but treats them to lavish features connected to no particular time element. ABC's "Entertainment Tonight" may have somewhat of a "time element" as a daily television show, but most of its celebrity news covers new movies, awards, or tummy tucks, not events based on an event that happened at a particular time.

Of course, considering the thousands of news operations trying to make a buck in this country by fine-tuning their own view of reality, news consumers are going to see considerable overlap among these five categories. The chart is designed to reflect this. Your familiar news operation may lean toward politics but have significant interest in celebrities too. If that's the case, put a red dot in the political category, but down toward the center, closer to the celebrities category. If your television news show likes celebrities and crime (a popular combination), pen a dot on the border between the two. If, on the other hand, your newspaper reminds you of a chatty shopper with lots of "news you can use," but not much material based on actual events or relying on deadlines, spot a dot toward the rim of the "mundane" category.

You'll likely see a particular news operation try all of these categories from time to time. A television news program will add a weekly "Just Folks" feature to interview those unglamorous everyday folk like you and me who don't run for office, get into trouble, or do anything that would promote them to a "source" (see chapter 3). A newspaper will run a whole tabloid devoted to the fall football season. A weekly will fill a regular pull-out section, something like "Biz Buzz."

Why do news operations occasionally step out of their normal view of reality? Because there's money to be made there. Even if it's not their normal scene, most news operations would hate to miss out on a possible extra cash critter.

More to read

History of Objectivity

David T. Z. Mindich, Just the Facts. How "Objectivity" Came to Define American Journalism." New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Michael Schudson, Discovering the News. A Social History of American Newspapers. New York: Basic Books, 1978.

The Way the Media Approaches the World

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Viking Penguin, 1985.

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.
• Daniel J. Boorstin. The Image or, What Happened to the American Dream. New York: Atheneum, 1962.

Elizabeth Jensen, "Alternative Realities." Brill's Content, December 1998-January 1999, 79-85.

Growth of Professional Journalism

William A. Hachten, The Troubles of Journalism. A Critical Look at What's Right and Wrong with the Press. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998, 152-63.

Liberal/Conservative Media Debate

Michael Schudson, The Power of News. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995, 1-33.


1. Compare two competing news operations using the World of News Pie Chart.

2. Evaluate your favorite local news source using the News Media Type Test below.

The Collins News Media "View of Reality" Test

What type is your media? You could do painstaking content analysis research. But that's expensive and time-consuming and, let's admit it, most of us don't know how to do it. But if you're a regular reader or viewer of a particular news operation, you've probably absorbed enough content to have a pretty good idea of what you can expect to read or see from those journalists. Based on the perception of what you'd expect to see prominently covered (front page, beginning of broadcast, top of website) by your favorite news medium, assess that medium's type based on this quiz.

Record the appropriate answer.

1. Lead stories cover debates in the state legislature.

2. Features on local businesses regularly play a prominent role.

3. A well-known entertainer in town will get a big share of that day's news coverage.

4. Murder stories get detailed treatment, sometimes for several days.

5. The local Burger Barn's "employee of the month" contest winners will be prominently mentioned.

6. Congressional bills enjoy painstakingly complete coverage.

7. Stock market foibles and fillips usually lead.

8. Celebrity sports figures and big teams hit the top of that day's news budget.

9. A string of three convenience store burglaries will see exhaustive coverage.

10. Photocopier breakdowns at the post office could be covered.

11. The mayor's task force on sewer separation will enjoy a complete report.

12. New business openings make a big splash.

13. "Local family related to the queen of England; stay tuned for details."

14. A documentary series focuses on drugs and crime in the trailer court.

15. Next week's school lunch menus are always described.

16. School board members are familiar faces on the news.

17. Inflation affecting building permits in the city is a huge story.

18. Last year's Super Bowl-winning coach is in town, requiring saturation coverage.

19. We read reports of more homeowners applying for concealed weapon permits, and/or installing security systems for protection.

20. A 1980 graduate of the local college, now a big star on an evening sitcom, is featured.

21. Top story: city task force debates community mission and vision.

22. Top story: city task force tackles downtown business climate.

23. Top story: city task force welcomes Lady Gaga to town.

24. Top story: city task force decries local prison overcrowding.

25. Top story: city task force holds pizza party for employees.


Award five points for each question answered "Always"; four points for "Usually"; three points for "Sometimes"; two points for "Seldom"; one point for "Never." Add points for these question categories:

Category One, Politics—Questions 1, 6, 11, 16, 21

Category Two, Money—Questions 2, 7, 12, 17, 22.

Category Three, Celebrity—Questions 3, 8, 13, 18, 23.

Category Four, Crime—Questions 4, 9, 14, 19, 24.

Category Five, Mundane—Questions 5, 10, 15, 20, 25.

Category score: 20-25. Very high. Your local news operation's version of reality probably gives unrealistic emphasis to this particular kind of news, at the expense of other stories. Usually this is done by design, either for ratings (crime and celebrities), by tradition (politics and money), for or a position among competing media (mundane).

Score: 15-19: Your news operation tends to favor such stories but feels a sense of responsibility or a need to attract as large an audience as possible by covering other kinds of news as well. Many local news operations fall into this range.

Score 10-14: Your news operation tries to please competing groups by asserting no clear discernable view. This may be seen as more "fair" or "objective," but sometimes journalists who do not demonstrate a clear view of reality may not leave viewers or readers a clear sense of "what they're all about." The most successful national news publications—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or CNN—clearly show their particular views of reality.

Score: 5-9: Your news operation tends to ignore or underreport this kind of news, perhaps by design, but more often inadvertently, as it just doesn't fit into operation's the view of reality. Some newspeople, for instance, find celebrity stories beneath their purview, although the obvious power of the celebrity draw nowadays make such a viewpoint more and more something from your grandparents' generation. Larger newspapers will consciously ignore the mundane category as outside their purview, and therefore left as scraps to be scraped off the round file and into the operations that thrive on category five. Usually these are smaller weekly newspapers, which will probably score poorly in politics, money, and crime.

By the way...

The Big Three: Sex, violence and humor attract readers or viewers to news stories. These three bypass our intellect to hit primal emotions, and journalists know that consumers find them appealing. The magazines on the supermarket racks have made an entire industry out of sexual lure. How many versions of articles featuring sex have you encountered in the last five years, just on the magazine covers at the checkout counter? Many readers continue to be more than a little curious about how Cosmopolitan presents the latest ways to spice up their whatever.

The "liberal" (or less commonly "conservative") news media: Media researchers have for many years tried to discern a liberal or conservative tendency among various news media. Results have been inconclusive, however; while certain news operations sometimes show a sustained bias one way or another, the whole of the huge news media operation in the United States, from the local weeklies to the New York 'Networks, cannot be branded as either liberal or conservative.

News consumers who criticize the media for a perceived political slant assume, understandably, that the media operates from a perspective similar to that of their consumers. This is not usually the case. News media operate from a certain view of reality, as reflected in the news-manufacturing process. This means a particular newsroom's world view may accommodate assumptions we call "conservative" as well as "liberal." For instance, if a view of reality states "it's all politics," the material presented by that news operation will emphasize a certain kind of material. Whether it's "conservative" or "liberal" politics doesn't matter—as long as its politics.

Of course, news operations that include editorials—nearly all of them newspapers—clearly will reflect a conservative or liberal view of its publisher. But most publishers clearly separate them from the day-by-day accretion of published material that gels to form a world view. And many television news operations have no opinion segment at all.

A view from the 'Net: Most news operations maintain companion internet websites. This offers an audience the choice of standard presentation, web-based presentation, or both. Part of the reason people call web-based presentation of information "revolutionary" is that, for the first time in history, you have some freedom to avoid an editor's view of reality as reflected in the placement of a story to indicate its importance.

Most web news sites offer indexed content and a few headlines in a "non-linear" format. That means you can start and stop where you wish, skip what you don't want to see, and generally plan your own news package around your moods and quirks.

Broadcasters can't offer this at all: they must give you each story packaged and presented in sequence, take it or leave it. Newspapers can do this a bit: you're certainly free to jump to the sports section, the comics, or the bridge column, and to skip the rest. Curiously, however, many of us apparently don't do that. We begin at the top of page one and from there finger through the edition. That means journalists have a chance to snag you into a story with prominent placement and compelling headlines, photos, and graphics. On the net, by contrast, you merely have one tiny screen (about one-third the size of a typical newspaper page) and an index. A dozen stories can't compete for your attention if they don't even get into your field of view. So you ignore them.

Research shows 72 percent of our standard newspaper reading comes from the first section of a newspaper—that is, the part most reflecting a journalism operation's view of reality. Almost half of readers say they begin at the front page. You're likely to read something if it's prominently displayed and looks important. The net has fewer such signals, and apparently viewers respond by taking from an online news operation a knowledge of the day's events quite at odds with that provided by the paper edition which emphasizes an editor's viewpoint.

Does this mean the whole concept of the editor's view of reality will fall by the wayside? Don't know. But we do know that right now, according to a recent survey, only 4.9 percent of Americans regularly turn to the net for the news. Probably even fewer do so for local news. No one knows what will happen to that percentage. It's bound to grow, but will there come a time when everyone gets news from the net while newspapers and broadcast news become either an elite luxury or vehicle for shock jocks? Bill Gates of Microsoft seems to believe so. Most media experts, however, predict the internet will indeed grow in the news forest, but won't bulldoze the rest of the trees.

Shopper: A local newspaper which contains 70 to 80 percent advertising or more is a shopper, and people expect to pick it up for free in supermarket lobbies. An editor may not call his newspaper a shopper, and may wish he could charge for it, but if it's stuffed with ads, the reading public will regard it as a shopper and treat it accordingly. Columnists and reporters who work for shoppers generally enjoy less credibility and influence than those who work for newspapers that used to have a standard advertising ratio of 50-50.

The Big Story: This is mostly a phenomenon of national news, although local operations get caught up as well. News gatherers orient themselves toward the quest for the "big story," the one event of the day—or week or month—that will command the attention of their news organizations and maybe get them a raise and a promotion. The concept dates to the last century when so many of our modern news standards become part of our everyday media consumption.

A big story is an event relentlessly promoted, often at first by a single news organization, which hopes to "scoop" the competition by getting the story out first.

Because news organizations are almost obsessively geared to competition for scoops, most will immediately jump on the big story for fear of being left behind. The move gathers a frenzied momentum (you've heard of "media frenzy"?) often out of proportion to the original news value of the story, until it's played out to the boredom of the public and the exhaustion of the media.
Obvious recent "big stories" have included the the Casey Anthony child murder trial, the O. J. Simpson celebrity murder trial, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Space Shuttle explosion, aid to Somalia and, of course, the events of September 11, 2001.

That last one surpassed others to become perhaps the biggest big story since Hitler invaded Poland. Ye olde time big stories included, most famously, the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping of the 1930s.
In some cases, news people themselves decry their lemming-like scramble from one part of the earth to another in quest of the big story, while other events equally as important (often more important) are ignored.

Nevertheless, they can't help themselves, given the competition and demands of timeliness in the news biz. During the O. J. Simpson trial, widely criticized as a media frenzy, ABC News, then first in the ratings, decided to opt out of running nightly segments. NBC news, on the other hand, covered it relentlessly. ABC then lost its first-place ratings spot to NBC. "Frankly, I think it cost us," said ABC News anchor Peter Jennings of the 'Network's seemingly sensible decision.

Unfortunately, in many cases, when the momentum falters and the news gatherers leave, the story isn't finished. What was going on in Somalia after the press corps left? People were still starving, aid was still critical, but America's attention turned away as the press moved to the next big story.