The News: The Tonight's headlines again ... and again ... and again

Trevor McDonald, Jon Snow, Peter Sissons: familiar faces, almost members of the family. But even credit anoraks don't know the editors who take the decisions about what Trevor, Jon or Peter are going to tell us, or what they do.

The basic tool with which these powerful backroom figures edit the news is the running order. It reveals priorities. It says who will be doing what. It allocates how much time will be given to each interview or "package". And of course, most important of all, it reveals what is being left out.

How much scope do editors and other journalists have to vary their interpretation of "the day's news"? What does the detailed examination of one day's running orders tell us about values, priorities, news cultures?

The BBC's traditional flagship news programme is Nine o'Clock News, though Six o'Clock News rivals it in importance. On Thursday the Nine, presented by Peter Sissons, began with four "headlines". First, Viagra. Doctors around the country were reacting too angrily to Health Secretary Frank Dobson's decision to restrict the groups of impotent men to whom the drug could be prescribed. They saw his decision as infringing a doctor's freedom to practise medicine as he sees best. Then the search for two missing 10-year old girls. And third, Iraq.

And so to the packages. First Viagra. Then the exclusive report from Humphrey Hawkesley about Iraq, suggesting that the West had made a mistake by focusing on the Sunni Muslim Arabs there, at the expense of non-Arab Kurds and Shia Arabs. Only then a package about Paddy Ashdown's resignation and a report on the air crash in Nottinghamshire, when an RAF Tornado rammed a Cessna, killing four men but narrowly missing a primary school. There followed a report from Kosovo, and another from the Clinton impeachment trial in Washington. Brief reports on food regulation and a girl who survived an 800-ft fall in the Glencoe range. And back to Viagra and good night, so to speak.

The ITN running order, that particular night, was more domestic and perhaps more populist. At the top, in the famous "bongs," anchored on Thursday by Julia Somerville, the air crash, the missing schoolgirls and Paddy Ashdown. In the body of the show, packages on Viagra, with an interview with Frank Dobson, and on the 10-year-olds, not omitting the fact that the Spice Girls had urged them to come home.

Then Paul Davies from Kosovo, Michael Brunson in Somerset and interviews with cagey rivals for Ashdown's leadership. The mountain rescue, a dog heart transplant, a House of Lords report on genetically modified food, a package on violently striking miners in Romania, and back to Viagra.

Channel 4 News, with the best part of an hour to play with, began with trailers for packages to come: on bribery in the International Olympic Committee; doctors cutting up rough about Viagra; paupers being buried in mass graves; companies advertising their "niceness"; the air crash; and a horrific story on genetically designed germ weapons that could wipe out specific ethnic groups.

The first package, on corruption in the Olympic movement, ended with an interview with the sports minister, Tony Banks, that moved the story forward well. A health minister, Alan Milburn MP, described the practice of burying paupers seven to a grave as "Dickensian" and saying he had ordered it to stop, but the report showed it was still going on. And the story about anthrax and other pathogens tailored to target specific ethnic groups, by Andrea Beach, had a chilling warning from a BMA spokesman, who estimated "we have got about a decade" before such horrors are upon us.

Sky News, at seven, headlined the plane crash, Gurkha soldiers being called out to help look for the missing schoolgirls - and a deaf dog whose owner thinks he can lip-read. Then five items, two or three minutes apiece, on the plane crash, the schoolgirls, Viagra, Kosovo and the Clinton trial. Then more headlines: the plane crash again, the Gurkhas, Viagra, the weather, and a trailer about the climber who fell 800 feet and survived, before the ad break. A minute's crisp sports reports, and a two-minute package on the deaf dog on his way to Cruft's. Then the weather, and a trailer to more sport on Sky.

Each bulletin covered a number of stories with obvious, if perfunctory, interest. Planes do crash, and however wrenching each case is, children do go missing. Viagra was perhaps the strongest, not only because it is a sexy subject, literally or perhaps potentially, but also because it poses important issues: rationing of health care, and where power lies between the Government and the doctors.

Sky did crisp, straightforward reporting, with no great effort at originality on the night. The same could be said of ITN. Of the two main exclusive packages, BBC's Iraq story struck me as lacking both topicality and point. Channel 4 News, with the advantage of a longer slot, took the honours for the Olympic story, backed up with two other fairly strong exclusives, the burials and ethnic anthrax.

It's dangerous to generalise from a single night's output. But comparisons of this kind confirm the admittedly crude theory that with the Cold War only a memory, both politics and foreign affairs have lost ground in the news agenda. Editors think that what we are most interested in now, apart from sex, is medical and health stories. And who is to say that they are wrong?