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posted: 9/26/2013 5:00 AM

Numbers don't tell whole story in news decisions

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In the complex practice of employing news judgment, the role of numbers is not always as obvious as you might expect.

Twenty-six shooting victims in a Chicago weekend may not even crack the front page of the city metros, let alone the suburban Daily Herald. But when 13 of the victims, a 3-year-old child among them, are injured in a single event, it is a different story altogether -- and, at that, one that overshadows the fact that no one died in the mass shooting while the other weekend shootings resulted in three deaths.

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Then consider an al-Qaida bomb attack in which 30 police die. It happened in Yemen and so warranted just a brief notice at the end of a world news digest in the same edition of the Daily Herald, Saturday, as our initial story on the park shooting on Chicago's South side.

Yet, just the next day, on Sunday, a different foreign outrage merited the dominant news headline on the front page, though its toll at the time was, at 39, only slightly higher than that of the Yemen bombing. Two days later, the deaths of 10 people in a Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, shooting apparently related to a feud over a baseball game again merited mere digest status -- which, by the way, was also the landing place Saturday of a report speculating on whether the president of Sudan would address the United Nations in spite of being under international criminal indictment for actions in a region where an estimated 300,000 people have been killed over the past 10 years.

Considering these diverse events out of context, one might be inclined to think news judgment a haphazard and capricious affair. And, to be sure, the practice does involve a fair amount of personal intuition; it is judgment, after all, and no two people, whether newspaper editors or everyday readers at the local cafe, are likely to share the same judgments on the same issues all the time.

But there are threads that do help explain the thinking behind the prominence and space allotted to similar stories like the various mass shootings of the past week.

The park shootings, for instance, hold an appeal not just for the proximity of the city to the suburbs, but also for the increasing brazenness of gun criminals in Chicago, where suburban residents have a wide range of ties.

The shooting at a Nairobi shopping mall occurred in circumstances with which many of us can readily identify. Even with the death toll at 39, the nature of the attack stirs questions that cry out for more detail. As the toll has mounted now to perhaps more than 100, including Americans and even someone with ties to the suburbs, the import of the story for Daily Herald readers understandably has grown.

By contrast, a terrorist attack in far-flung Yemen and a region where such tragedies are common sadly rings all too familiar for most suburban readers. Likewise even the senseless slaughter of revelers following a baseball game in Mexico suggests a distance not likely to compete well for space in a suburban newspaper. Even the story of the Sudanese president's speech amounts largely to speculation, and that about a situation that, horrific as it is, has continued for at least a decade.

Making decisions about how prominently or deeply to cover stories would be much easier if it were merely a matter of following the numbers. But it is not. A whole host of circumstances can be at play in a given story that affect its context and its potential interest for suburban readers. The real challenge of news judgment comes in considering those circumstances.

• Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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