What gets covered? What gets neglected?

Omission occurs when important information is not reported or is reported incompletely. We can think of omission as being news that should have been reported but is left out of the news we read, see and hear. When important news is omitted, we get a skewed or biased perspective. Obviously no news organization can cover every newsworthy story from every possible perspective. But news organizations and their reporters do have an obligation to seek the truth and be reasonably comprehensive in their reporting. The information citizens need to make informed decisions comes, to a significant extent, from news organizations. If important stories are ignored, are reported incompletely, or present facts that are not adequately verified, then the obligation to seek the truth is undermined. In these cases the news that is omitted can be as important as the news that is published.


Key Questions to keep in mind while reading the following example of Omission:

  • Does either article omit important information? If so, to what do you attribute the omissions?
  • Are there questions either reporter should have asked that were not asked?
  • Did the information for the story come from a single source or from multiple unaffiliated sources? Were multiple sources necessary for a full understanding of the story?
  • Are you likely to have a different understanding of the issue depending on which of the articles you read? If so, to what do you attribute the difference?

Here are two reports of a Harris poll on schoolchildren and violence:

Omissions Analysis:

It is often said that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. The misuse or misunderstanding of statistics can give us a distorted view of reality. One form of statistical information news organizations frequently use is polling. Polls have become an important part of our political and social discussions, often being used as evidence to promote or undermine a position or idea. One thing that makes them powerful is the appearance of scientific accuracy. Polling firms generally claim their results have a margin of error 3-5%. It is important to keep in mind that the results pollsters get often depend not just on the validity of the polling sample but also on the wording of the questions asked. Questions can be framed to – intentionally or unintentionally – elicit certain responses. When reading poll results, check to see if the exact questions that were asked are included. If they are not, the apparent results of the poll should be treated with skepticism. If the questions are included, consider other ways they could have been asked. If you can easily come up with fairer or less biased way to ask the question then, once again, skepticism is in order.
Reporters should not simply pass on polling results to their audience without verifying the quality of the polling and noting any polling results that may call into question the current findings. As in their other reporting they have a responsibility, when reporting on poll results, to question and verify. If they don’t do so, important information gets omitted. Information that an informed citizenry needs.

Top of Page

Example 2

Below are two articles, one real and one made up. The real article, from the New York Times, reports on the nation's shock and grief after the shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff, killing all aboard. The fabricated article is what a paper such as the New York Times may have been able to print if news organizations had done a better job of investigating and reporting on the U.S. space program.

Key Questions to keep in mind while reading the following example of Omission:

  • Does reading the articles excerpted below and reviewing the full Columbia Journalism Review article (see link below) give you a greater appreciation for the importance of omission in understanding the news?
  • Can you think of other news stories that were missed by major news organizations. If so, what effect did those omissions have?

Complete Articles:

Omissions Analysis:

According to the "Columbia Journalism Review" article excerpted above. "... over the years, there had been a series of conspicuous red flags pointing to shuttle unreliability" and that the news media failed to adequately report about these "red flags." There was some excellent reporting of the space program's problems in low circulation periodicals like the magazine "Science." Major news outlets were more likely to report problems in a fairly perfunctory manner with little or no follow up reporting. There was a tendency amongst many to take more of boosterish than an investigatory approach to coverage of the U.S. space program. The following headline from a 1981 article in the "New York Times" typifies the tone of coverage NASA tended to receive: "ASTRONAUTS CERTAIN OF SHUTTLE"S SAFETY."

It is impossible to know if better reporting would have made it possible to avert the Challenger disaster. It does seem reasonable to assert that what was omitted, from much of the coverage of the space shuttle program, made it more likely that such a tragedy would occur. Most instances of omission do not have the serious repercussions that this case does. But the failure to adequately report on important issues can and does have long term negative consequences. It can be difficult for consumers of the news to know when they are not getting the whole story. It is wise to watch out for boosterism or any other sign that the reporter is not casting a critical eye on that which he or she covers.

(Top of Page) (Example 1: School Violence) (Example 2: Challenger)