05/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Media Literacy 101: Of Susan Boyle, Michelle's Arms and Bo the Dog

Consider a few of the most viral stories in the US media the past several weeks: Britain's Got Talent frowsy-haired singing phenom Susan Boyle, the toned arms and zeitgeist fashion sense of Michelle Obama, and Bo, the bouncy First Puppy.

If over 19 million people on YouTube have watched Boyle sing "I dreamed a dream" from Les Miz (and another 10 million have watched alternative videos of the performance), and she is mentioned in blogs from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and HuffingtonPost (not to mention the BBC and other sober British outlets) what does that say about what Americans (and Brits) want to see?

I compare those stories to the top news in Turkey where I was the past couple of weeks: wall-to-wall coverage of the Obama visit emphasizing the president's support of Turkey's entrance into the EU, stories on IMF loans to the country, and reporting on internal security crackdowns. Why during the Obama's visit to Turkey was the news entirely about what Obama said -- with almost no mention of the First Lady (arms or no arms)? When the First Couple visited London and Paris, reporting on Michelle (and her arm around the Queen) threatened to hijack all other stories about the presidential trip. Why?

What makes the news, anyway?

News can't possibly be everything that happens. There are certain events that are considered newsworthy and others that are not. Sometimes the public has a say in what's news: they vote with their clicks on a Susan Boyle YouTube video and then send the link around the world so the video garners even more visitors. Or they decide to follow Ashton Kutcher on Twitter and push him past CNN to be the first Twitter account to have 1 million followers signed up.

But how do mainstream media--on any platform--determine what is news in the absence of such public stampedes? The news media roughly considers three things:

1. What's important? "Important" means what's going to affect my country and my own future. Media coverage often reflects the serious priorities of governments: the economic crisis, national security, taxes, health care. The UK media dutifully covered the Obama visit, for example. What turned out to be greater news in London, however, was an intellectual and statuesque First Lady who could compete in the fashion stakes with Carla Bruni, the other tabloid-worthy First Lady. By contrast, in Turkey, the politics of power mattered more than the politics of style: Obama and his statements about the EU, about Islam, and about Iraq grabbed the headlines.

2. What's interesting? Quite often, what's "important" is not all that interesting--it's hard to tell a gripping story about the latest health care debate in Congress. So media can then choose to do one of two things: they can find the human anecdote that will make that health care story memorable, or they can bail on talking about health care and instead talk about how challenging it is to raise rambunctious Portuguese Water Dog puppies. (Full disclosure: I have a PWD and she's a dead ringer for Bo. See my dog's profile in the Baltimore Sun. I've read every Bo story I can get my hands on.)

3. What's accessible?
So an event looks to be important, and hey, it's maybe even potentially interesting. But if the media outlet can't get a reporter there, it's not likely to make the news. If Michelle Obama puts her arm around the Queen and no one sees it (or takes a photo) would it have been news? Nope. If Susan Boyle sings and a gadzillion people watch and email all their friends, is it news? Probably...unless there's something even more fabulous that's happening. Like say, it's the first Tuesday in November 2008, and the entire world is waiting to hear if a black American is going to be elected president. At a moment like that, nothing else is news.

Backstopping those three questions are three absolutes:

1. Money matters. Website traffic, the overnight ratings, the quarterly stockholder reports loom in the background of every conversation about what to put online, on air or in print. Media agonize over how many people are watching. listening or reading their stories and continually devise ways to try to retain or improve their market share of viewers, listeners or readers.

2. Time is money. Each media outlet is watching the clock, not only to meet its own unique deadline (which might range from essentially every second with an online site, to once every four weeks for a monthly publication), but to beat the competition. Why all the fuss, otherwise, about whether it was the Washington Post or TMZ or that was first with news and photos of Bo? In the online world of links, being first drives traffic, and traffic attracts advertisers.

3. The audience rules. Each media outlet is worried about what their audiences want. Do they want stock market reports or celebrity gossip, comic strips or political analysis? "Media" is a plural noun and there are no two news outlets that are alike in how they answer the questions related to what news they should cover. But all news outlets worry about attracting and keeping an audience and almost all worry about how to turn a profit. To do both of these, news organizations are chauvinistic: they focus on the news that is geographically and psychologically closest to their audience. The New York Times covers the Yankees more than it pays attention to the Chicago Cubs, the BBC covers cricket and largely ignores American baseball, CNN follows Obama more than it pays attention to British PM Gordon Brown.

In other words, you can't just look at an event in a vacuum and know whether it's going to be "news." You must ask: "Which media outlet?" and "Who's the audience?" Once you know the answers to those questions, then you must ask: "What else is happening?"


Note: Google News has recently added a new graphic that tracks the popularity of stories over time. It always displays on the right. And you only see it when you click to see the full list of stories on a particular topic. Click on these links for graphs of coverage of Susan Boyle, Michelle Obama's arms, and Bo the puppy. (Thanks to Leslie Walker for telling me about this.)