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The Wrong Story Fallacy: How dare you cover Story A, when Story B is happening?

Posted at 11:48 AM, Aug 28, 2019
and last updated 2020-01-23 15:37:34-05

CLEVELAND — One complaint that many news organizations receive – ours included – goes something like this: How dare you cover Story A while Story B is also happening? For example: How dare you cover the fried chicken sandwich shortage while the Amazon is burning?

Sometimes the criticism is aimed directly at the news consumer. How can people care so much about Story A, when what they should care about is Story B?

The gist of both critiques is essentially the same: Why is attention being paid to one story when it should be paid to another?

This is the Wrong Story Fallacy – the belief that news organizations cover one story at the expense of another. News consumers have long voiced this complaint, and it’s exacerbated by the public’s reliance on social media for news.

The Wrong Story Fallacy is pervasive, but there are steps that can be taken to mitigate it.

We post about 40 stories a day on Facebook, but many of our followers rarely see them. Because of the way Facebook surfaces news stories into your feed, if you’re seeing a report from us, odds are that it’s because it’s generating a big reaction. That, or you’re seeing our stories because you’re a super-duper loyal News 5 follower, in which case, thank you.

But if you’re not one of our super-fans, you may not see much of our reporting on Facebook. What you miss might be our biggest stories of the day, in terms of what news they reveal, yet they don’t, for whatever reason, generate much of an audience on Facebook. Those stories are still experienced by many – on television, our app and our site, which have their own distinctive audiences, just maybe not on Facebook.

That’s the view from the consumer side: Hey, all I saw from you today was that viral story about the sandwiches – where’s the news?

On the news producer side, we have a different perspective. While you’re seeing Story A (chicken sandwiches) in your feed, we’re also producing Story B (Amazon fires) and Story C (county jail problems) and Story D (opioid crisis), etc.

We publish a story like Story A because we intentionally vary the types of news we produce. It can’t all be murder, corruption and societal failure. In addition to hard news and investigations, we offer stories of individual heroism, communities working together and – in the case of chicken sandwiches – that thing that a lot of people are talking about that day.

We don’t want to be all doom and gloom, and we don’t want to be all sunshine and puppies either. So we offer a mix, but it comes with a catch. In 2019, the individual stories that emerge from our mix that you actually see on any given day may not be determined by us here in Cleveland, but rather by an algorithm from a social media company headquartered in Menlo Park, Calif. If you purely get your news from us on Facebook, what you see is largely beyond our control.

Several followers noted that not enough attention was being paid to the fires in the Amazon. As we pointed out: We did that story, too. But that post was seen by less than half as many people as our short web post about the shortage of chicken sandwiches. Why is that? Our old friend, the algorithm.

(Tip: If you love yourself some News 5, and you want to try to defy the algorithm, go to our Facebook Page and select “See First” under “Following.”)

Now, all that said, we’ll be the first to admit that we do occasionally miss stories, because we are a news organization run by humans, and humans are imperfect. If you think we’re missing a story worth covering, you’re welcome to email us at newsdesk@wews.com. News 5’s motto is “On Your Side,” and that often means taking the tips we receive from viewers and turning them into news reports. A good number of your tips do actually wind up in our broadcasts and on our website in the form of stories.

Social media can be a fun and useful way to learn about the world, but if you leave it strictly up to social media to determine what news you do and do not receive, you may be understandably disappointed with our offerings. Your best bet, if you don’t want to miss anything important, is todownload our app,bookmark our homepage,subscribe to our newsletters, or stream andwatch our shows.

Or, hey, you can leave it to a secret algorithm that is optimized to serve ad impressions for corporations to determine the course of our democracy. Totally your call.

Joe Donatelli is the digital director at News 5 Cleveland. Follow him on Facebook @joedonatelli1 and Twitter @joedonatelli. Have a question, comment or tip? Email joe.donatelli@wews.com.


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