My story in this morning’s Argus Leader took a look at a lawmaker’s plan to bring a bill making it easier for families to opt out of mandatory vaccinations.
For some people, this story is highly questionable from the start. It’s dealing with a bill that hasn’t yet been introduced. Even though Sen.-elect Jeff Monroe SAYS he’ll introduce his bill, he’s under no obligation to do so, and could end up backing off. So why write about a bill so early?
On top of that, the opposition to this bill is fierce. Two similar bills got demolished last year, and even Monroe said up front he expects his bill to be defeated. Why waste newsprint on a story about a bill that’s likely to die in its first committee hearing?
Both of those are valid complaints, and I get why some journalists shy away from this kind of bill preview story. But I think stories like this one serve several purposes.
First, the issue of vaccines is one that affects lots of readers — everyone with kids has to go through getting them vaccinated, even if a much smaller percentage of the population feels very strongly about it. (The same applies to speeding tickets; just about everybody speeds, at least occasionally.)
Second, there is a subset of the population, on both sides, who feels very strongly about this issue. Anti-vaccine activists and public health experts all feel the question of vaccines is highly important.
So even though this bill is unlikely to become law, it’s covering an issue with a lot of reader interest. Moreover, it’s covering an issue that’s not going to go away even if the South Dakota Legislature kills Monroe’s bill. A newspaper story that informs readers about an ongoing public policy debate, through the hook of a planned bill, serves a real purpose for readers.
Finally, I would question the binary of “news” and “not news.” Some stories are more important and newsworthy than others, and as articulated above I believe stories like this one are newsworthy. The arguments against it still hold weight, though, which means that other stories without those drawbacks would be better worth my time and effort as a reporter.
But the period immediately before and after Christmas is also one of the slowest news periods of the year. Lots of people are on vacation. The big news in state politics is the imminent state legislative session, and giving readers a preview of upcoming controversial issues the state legislature will confront is definitely worth some ink.
(I would also point out the difference between being spun by lawmakers into giving them free press, and what I’ve done the past few weeks, which is call up legislators and talk to them about — and sometimes persuade them to reveal — issues they may bring to the upcoming session, then picking the most interesting issues they mention and turn each into a well-sourced story.)
So was a probably-doomed vaccine bill news? I think so. You may disagree. But that’s one of the benefits of the print media — unlike broadcast journalism, where you have to sit through all the inane stories in sequence to hear the ones you care about, print journalism is inherently disaggregated, and you can read only what you care about.
If you do care, my vaccine story can be read here.