Former NBC Exec Lauren Zalaznick on How Punctuation Is the Difference Between News and Gossip (Guest Column)

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Zalaznick (second from left) in her days as a network TV executive.

She suggests substituting a simple question mark for an exclamation point to change the transfer of information as we all battle "a fundamental craving to judge, and gawk."

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Gossip is central to the human need to share information. It's neither inherently good nor bad. And it’s actually efficient. It's a useful way to keep up with the goings-on of a wider circle of people than those with whom we interact on a daily basis. That's the "analog" start to "the network effect": the transfer of information from one to many. Now, this basic currency of social media has transformed the role of the yenta into an algorithm. "Sharing" (on Facebook and other social networks) is a nice word for "repeating information without consequence."

When someone is giving me a new piece of information, I use a simple test to determine whether I consider it "news" or "gossip." How would I punctuate the sentence: "Did you know X about Y." With a question mark, I usually take it as interesting and likely newsworthy: "Hey, did you know X about Y?" Substitute an exclamation point, "Wow, did you know X about Y!" and I feel like a breathless ogler.

Journalists and editors make decisions to publish stories -- or not -- every day. So do bloggers and social media in aggregate. And so do each of us, individually. There's really no one I can think of that doesn't have the opportunity to fuel a negative conversation, every single day.

It seems easy to proclaim "just don't engage." But the long-standing journalistic, business and social fabric of the information-trading market makes that almost impossible. There is a fundamental craving to judge, to position information in relation to how we see ourselves in that same situation.

Gawker's founder and CEO Nick Denton has given us an equation to help navigate the gossip shark-infested waters: "True" plus "interesting" has to be greater than "hurt inflicted." He says the site made a mistake publishing a story [about an ostensibly straight married man seeking out male prostitutes] that was true, and interesting to a few people, but definitely not worth the hurt inflicted. The formula makes their future editorial decisions seem simple. But just how much "greater than" is where the math gets complicated.

For much of my professional life, I have tacitly agreed with the old adage that if something goes into print, some element of it has to be true. My personal experience over the past several years, however, has rendered that assumption 100 percent false.

How does that impact my personal attempts to solve the new math of the Gawker equation? It is an imperfect solution, to be sure. When possible, I hit "delete," literally on my computer or phone and figuratively by keeping my mouth shut. To keep the weight on the left side of the equation, to assess what is true and interesting, I ask myself why I think the other person, whether journalist or friend, means to ask the question: "Did you know X about Y?" Or do you want to stir it up, "Did you know X about Y!"

I try to stick with the question mark and avoid the exclamation point.

Lauren Zalaznick is a longtime media executive and the founder of the LZ Sunday Paper.

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