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The Route Maps Inside Our Heads

NOW that the Gulf war has been mostly wrapped up like a television miniseries, the Bush administration is turning to the more difficult task of winning the peace. And news organizations will have to figure out again just what the news is.

Not to underestimate all the events that will still need to play out in Iraq and Kuwait, even if the moment is not seized for epochal change in the Middle East.

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But we know that when the front page of the New York Times reports on the comeback of polyester, as it did a few days ago, things have calmed down a bit.

In some ways the news business is like sailing. The novice sailor may want to start out on a day of light breezes, but eventually learns that a brisk wind is easier to maneuver around in, even if the boat heels and takes on a bit of water.

And so in the news business: Crisis coverage can be the easiest kind, not only for reporters who like to chase the big story but for editors who can thank George Bush and Saddam Hussein for helping them decide what to put on Page 1. A major event like a war fills our sails; the readers don't have to be sold on the story.

On a lighter news day, though, our sails tend to luff a bit. It becomes more important to ask, and keep asking, What does the citizen need to know?

Fundamental to news judgment and story selection are the concepts of citizenship, empowerment, actionability. In an era of information overload, we serve our readers by giving them something they can act upon - whether by their ballots or other public acts, or by their prayers.

But of what community, or communities, do we see our readers as citizens?

A study by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations released earlier this month notes, "Many years ago Walter Lippmann talked about the maps in people's heads. What is the current 'map' of public affairs, and how and where does foreign policy fit into it?"

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The council's study found a slippage in the share of the public calling itself "very attentive" to news of local communities, from 61 percent in 1982, to 58 percent in 1986, to 55 percent in 1990.

Conversely, the proportion "very attentive" to news about other countries rose from 28 percent to 31 percent to 36 percent during the same years. The percentages of those "very attentive" to news about the relations of the United States with other countries rose from 45 percent to 49 percent to 53 percent.

The pattern for state news was 43 percent to 45 percent to 42 percent, and for national news, from 51 percent to 48 percent to 55 percent.

A greater interest in international news speaks well of broadening horizons, but what about the slippage in interest in local news? What does that say about citizens being spectators at the drama versus actors?

A reader writes in to suggest that "the media" have taken the place of community in some ways. He may be onto something.

Personal mobility and telecommunications have made for a world in which communities are not necessarily the people of a place, but rather are collections of networked individuals spread across great distances, maybe even around the world.

When I was out in Seattle a few years ago visiting Boeing, they explained to me how different airlines are interested in different kinds of aircraft according to their various route structures.

A regional domestic airline may fill small-to-middling aircraft and fly them for relatively short hops - an hour and a half or so in the air. A big international carrier like Japan Air Lines flies huge 747s full of hundreds of people over long distances. (The joke is that life in overcrowded Japan is easier than it might be because at any given time so much of the population is aloft in aircraft.)

But Swissair and Scandinavian Airlines, on the other hand, have relatively light loads but over long hauls - "A lot of long, thin lines," as one of the Boeing people told me.

A lot of us have lives like that - our personal route structures have a lot of long, thin lines. Millions of commuting suburbanites sleep, vote, pay taxes, and spend money in one political jurisdiction - and yet make money, and make whatever professional mark on the world they make in another.

The maps inside people's heads are continually being redrawn in response to changing times. News organizations would do well to follow those maps closely.

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