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Terry Woster: Breaking news before social media

In the days before instant media, newspapers sometimes sent reporters out to the street to interview random people about topics breaking in the news.

Assignment editors believed that getting input or opinion from the first six or eight women and men on the sidewalk gave a common touch to stories. These days, any man, woman or child with access to the internet can weigh in on any topic in the world any time they wish. In the time before social media, reporters had to work harder to track down uninformed opinions on breaking news.

(You may have noted, perhaps, that I wrote “internet’’ in lower case. It used to be a capitalized word, but the AP Stylebook changed its mind recently and decided it’s a lowercase word. No idea why, but as a one-time AP writer, I’m going with the newsperson’s bible.)

Sometimes those "person on the street" assignments were enjoyable. Often they were pure misery. I hated approaching people I didn’t know, interrupting their shopping or plans for lunch or few minutes of alone time. (I’d have been a lousy candidate for office, wading into a crowded diner, shaking hands and making small talk with people who just wanted me to drop off the face of the earth so they could finish their blue-plate special in peace.)

Often, it took several approaches to find three or four people willing to give an opinion or answer a question. This really was before social media, wasn’t it? Sometimes, the citizens had no idea what I was talking about, and sometimes the question surprised, even shocked them.

Once in particular, late March of 1969, I was ordered out of the newsroom with a camera and notebook to get reaction to the news that former President Dwight D. Eisenhower had died. My top editor, Anson Yeager, had just ripped the bulletin from The Associated Press printer. He was pretty sure people would fall all over themselves in their eagerness to react to the breaking news. (Why does news always “break,’’ anyway?)

Problem was, people on the street didn’t know that Eisenhower -- not only a president for eight years but also the nation’s top military commander in World War II -- had died. Talk about breaking news. I was out on the street breaking the news to each of the citizens I stopped. And, frankly, it was a terrible assignment, because many of the citizens reacted as if they’d just unexpectedly just lost their dad or grandpa or big brother or favorite uncle. They didn’t want to talk to me at that moment. They just wanted to process the passing of a genuine American hero. I had a couple of “I didn’t know that’’ comments when I returned to the newsroom, and we bagged that story idea.

Think about it. None of these people carried a phone with Twitter access or any sort of “breaking news’’ alarm for events such as the death of a former president. If any of them carried a radio, it was a transistor radio that had scratchy reception at best and was undoubtedly turned off and in their pocket because people didn’t just walk down the street in public listening to a radio, not in those days.

So the editors watching the AP machine found things out more quickly than other citizens. I recall being told of John Kennedy’s death in November of 1963 while I sat in sophomore ROTC learning to field-strip an M-1 rifle or something. First thing I did when class was dismissed early was walk across the street to the journalism building and join a group of students clustered around the AP printer at the north end of the second-floor hall. That was the quickest way to get accurate information about one of the major stories of my lifetime.

The idea of asking average citizens on the street what they thought of breaking news was noble, I suppose. It gave them some ownership of the news of the day. But it was haphazard, inexact and not always productive.

These days, social media provides the person-on-the-street perspective. It, too, can be haphazard, inexact and not always productive.

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