Candy, meat and the art of making news

There is making the news and then there is making the news. The two aren’t always the same.

Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor made news last week when he withdrew his support for a plan to extend Route 53. Argonne National Laboratory made news Tuesday when it launched a program to help entrepreneurs develop clean-energy business products. The city of Rolling Meadows made news Monday when it advanced a plan for a senior housing development.

These are actions that directly involve and shape people’s lives and communities. Scores of stories like them appear every week in the Daily Herald.

Another way of making news is not nearly as prevalent, but it is occasionally prominent and its distinction is worth noting.

Its most suspect variation comes in the form of studies that capture our attention under the guise of science or legitimate research. One of my all-time favorites dates back years, when a study made national news by finding that popcorn bags opened directly from the microwave oven can be hot enough to scald people. More-recent studies have found that coffee causes cancer, pets get jealous, Americans turn to prayer when they get sick, chewing gum can cause weight loss, and that young people eat worse but stay skinnier than older people.

These and countless stories like them are often specifically shaped by public relations agencies, universities, think tanks or individuals for the simple value that their headline offers in getting attention for themselves or their cause. On the Internet, they most often qualify under the sobriquet clickbait – or items intended to lure readers to call up a story promoting some product or idea.

Such “news” stories aren’t always irrelevant. They can sometimes have value, if you’re careful to look for the details and the context. They can often be fun. A variation on them qualified as “web candy” at an editors meeting this week – or “web meat,” if you prefer, as some editors did, giving you some indication of the distinctions that can animate editors’ discussions. The source this time was a survey declaring Naperville the wealthiest city in the Midwest. We were giddily brainstorming ways to report and build on this study, when we began to consider the details. What about Lake Forest? Kenilworth? Barrington Hills? Whoops, the survey’s sample featured only towns with populations above 65,000.

We started reflecting on similar such stories we’ve covered. Just last March, we reported a study’s listing of the best and worst cities in Illinois to raise a family. Another study that month declared Illinois the second-worst state for property taxes – but, as we pointed out, didn’t examine the state’s ranking for total taxation, which wasn’t so eye-catching. We’ve also reported on lists identifying suburban towns that have the best schools, the best neighborhoods or the best conditions for starting a new business. A couple of years ago, cynics no doubt loved the survey declaring Illinois the worst state in which to have a baby or another calling us the one with the most corruption.

Yes, it all makes news. But at the same time, it doesn’t exactly make news, if you get my drift.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher

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