News Values

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­Owen Spencer-Thomas

What are news values­

News values are general guidelines or criteria used by media outlets, such as newspapers or broadcast media, to determine how much prominence to give to a story. They are fundamental to understanding news production and the choices that editors and other journalists face when deciding that one piece of information is news while another is not. 

According to former Times and Sunday Times Editor, Harold Evans, a news story…

… is about necessary information and unusual events

… should be based on observable facts

… should be an unbiased account

… should be free from the reporter’s opinion

Evans,  Harold ‘’ Editing and Design: Volume 1’’ (1972)

However, the selection of news stories is subject to a wider range of influences than this simple basic definition.

 


The selection of news stories


What makes a story newsworthy

Information arrives in the newsroom from a wide range of sources minute by minute.  A news editor cannot report all this material, so he must be selective and filter out information that is not newsworthy.  Because he is in competition with other news outlets, he highlights only those stories he considers to be of greatest interest to his readers or audience. 

Reports, which are interesting and newsworthy, are distinguished by a broadly agreed set of characteristics called ‘’news values’’.   These values provide journalists with a mechanism to sort through quickly, process and select the news from that vast amount of information made available to them.

In practice, when a journalist makes a judgment as to whether a story has the necessary ingredients to interest his readers, he will decide informally on the basis of his experience and intuition, rather than actually ticking off a checklist.  Even so, many studies of news production show that most of these factors are consistently applied across a range of print, broadcast, and online news organisations worldwide.


Galtung and Ruge’s list of news values

One of the best known lists of news values was drawn up by media researchers Johan Galtung and Marie Holmboe Ruge. They analysed international news stories to find out what factors they had in common, and what factors placed them at the top of the news agenda worldwide.

Although their research was conducted nearly four decades ago 1965, virtually any media analyst's discussion of news values will refer to most of the characteristics they list. This list provides a kind of scoring system: a story which scores highly on each value is likely to come at the start of a television news bulletin, or make the front page of a newspaper.

The values they identified fall into three categories:

Impact

  • Threshold: The bigger impact the story has, the more people it affects, the more extreme the effect or the more money or resources it involves, the better its chances of hitting the news stands.
  • Frequency: Events, such as motorway pile-ups, murders and plane crashes, which occur suddenly and fit well with the newspaper or news broadcast's schedule are more readily reported than those which occur gradually or at inconvenient times of day or night. Long-term trends are unlikely to receive much coverage.
  • Negativity: Bad news is more exciting than good news. Stories about death, tragedy, bankruptcy, violence, damage, natural disasters, political upheaval or simply extreme weather conditions are always rated above positive stories such as royal weddings or celebrations.  Bad news stories are more likely to be reported than good news because they are more likely to score high on other news values, such as threshold, unexpectedness, unambiguity and meaningfulness,
  • Unexpectedness: If an event is out of the ordinary it will be more likely to make it into the news than an everyday occurrence would. As Charles A. Dana famously put it, "If a dog bites a man, that's not news. But if a man bites a dog, that is news!''
  • Unambiguity: Events which are easy to grasp make for better copy than those which are open to more than one interpretation, or where understanding of the implications depends on first understanding the complex background to the event.

 

Audience identification

  • Personalisation: People are interested in people. News stories that centre on a particular person, and are presented from a human interest angle, are likely to make the front page, particularly if they involve a well-known person. Some people claim this news value has become distorted, and that news editors over-rate personality stories, especially those involving celebrities.
  • Meaningfulness: This relates to cultural proximity and the extent to which the audience identifies with the topic. Stories about people who speak the same language, look the same, and share the same preoccupations as the audience receive more coverage than those involving people who do not.
  • Reference to elite nations: Stories concerned with global powers receive more attention than those dealing with less influential nations. This also relates to cultural proximity. Those nations which are culturally closest to our own will receive most of the coverage.
  • Reference to elite persons: The media pay attention to the rich, powerful, famous and infamous. Stories about important people get the most coverage. Hence, the American President gets more coverage than your local councillor.

 Pragmatics of media coverage

  • Consonance: Stories which match the media's expectations receive more coverage than those which contradict them.  At first sight, this appears to contradict the notion of unexpectedness. However, consonance refers to the media's readiness to report an item, which they are more likely to do if they are prepared for it. Indeed, journalists often have a preconceived idea of the angle they want to report an event from, even before they get there.
  • Continuity: A story which is already in the news gathers a kind of momentum – the running story. This is partly because news teams are already in place to report the story, and partly because previous reportage may have made the story more accessible to the public.
  • Composition: Stories must compete with one another for space in the media. For instance, editors may seek to provide a balance of different types of coverage. If there is an excess of foreign news, for instance, the least important foreign story may have to make way for an inconsequential item of domestic news. In this way the prominence given to a story depends not only on its own news value but also on those of competing stories. This is a matter of the editors' judgement, more than anything else.

Galtung and Ruge’s analysis cites pragmatic reasons why certain news stories are not reported.  For instance, the mass Burmese demonstration in 1988 failed to receive much media attention because the hostile regime of General Ne Win barred overseas journalists from the country.  By contrast, the mass demonstration in 2007 received far more attention because civilians themselves had the technology, with modern mobile phones and camcorders, to send instant messages and pictures out of the country to a waiting international media such as Reuters, BBC and CNN.

Galtung and Ruge argued that journalists tend to select stories with a high news value, that is, a high score on one or more of the news factors.   It is unlikely that a story will exhibit all of these.

Do journalists prefer bad news stories?

Galtung and Ruge’s list includes negativity as a news value.  However, journalists are at pains to point out that they select a story because of its interest value rather than simply because it is negative.  A bad news story is of interest if it is about events that make a considerable impact, are out of the ordinary, easy to grasp, or readily identified with. 

News stories can be bad for some and good for others.  A defeat for the Republicans in the USA, or the Conservative Party in the UK, will be good news for Democrats, or the Labour Party.  Likewise a sports match result is both good and bad news. 

News values as principles to be taught

The news values identified by Galtung and Ruge were an attempt to explain what actually happens in the selection of news stories. Many subsequent writers, particularly those concerned with the training of journalists, have taken this analysis as a starting point and developed from it a set of principles that journalists should use in their work to identify newsworthy information. 

So what are the ingredients of a good story?  What makes it interesting or newsworthy? Today's teachers say: 

  • Impact or broad appeal: events that affect many people – the more it affects the better the story. A proposed income tax increase, for instance, has impact, because it will affect a lot of people.
  • Timeliness or immediacy: news gets out of date quickly; it's timely if it happened recently. What is deemed "recent" is related to the publication cycle of the news medium in which the information appears. On BBC News 24 events that happened during the past half hour are timely. In your monthly parish magazine events that took place over the past 30 days are timely.
  • Prominence: stories involving well-known places, companies, groups or people, especially celebs.  If you or I trip and fall in church, no one will take much interest, because we aren't well known. But if the Archbishop of Canterbury trips and falls during a service, that's a news story.
  • Proximity or closeness to home: events occurring in the newspaper circulation area or the broadcast area are likely to be of most interest. 2,000 job losses in Taiwan won't get a mention. 20 redundancies in Cambridge may well make the front page of the local paper. The success of your summer fęte will be an essential story for your parish magazine.
  • Conflict: stories about people or organisations at odds with each other. Information has conflict if it involves some kind of disagreement between two or more people. Conflict has drama.
  • Bizarre or out-of-the-ordinary: what deviates sharply from what you would expect and experience of everyday life, unusual, strange or wacky. 
  • Currency or flavour of the month: events and situations that are currently in the news and being talked about.
  • Human interest: people are interested in people, so personalise your story.
  • About people’s everyday problems or interests: food, health, housing, schools, work, money problems. 

An interesting news story will contain some of these elements, but it’s unlikely it will contain them all.   However, all stories should be accurate and truthful. 

 

Immediacy and technology

Today’s media compete vigorously to be first with the news and immediacy is vital in the hard-nosed world of newsgathering.  The 21st century public pay scant attention to second-hand or stale stories and so editors will select only up-to-date information.  However, at the start of the 20th century when newspapers were the only source of news, competition was less fierce. 

The effect of technology on news deadlines:

Film

The arrival of the cinema newsreels in 1910 brought moving pictures of important news events to the public, but did little to change the unhurried deadlines adopted by the national newspapers.  Cinemagazines, such as British Movietone News and Pathe Pictorial, shown in cinemas until 1970, were produced at a leisurely pace ensuring carefully written, accurate scripts.  Each newsreel contained about five top stories which could take up to about a week to prepare. Immediacy was not a priority.

Radio and Television

The pace of newsgathering was hastened by the arrival of, first radio, and then television.  In the United Kingdom, the BBC, founded in 1922, began broadcasting sound, a new medium which had the potential for transmitting news quicker and more frequently than the daily newspaper.   By the outbreak of World War II, a growing number of people relied on their ‘’wireless’’, rather than their daily paper, for regular updates on the progress of the war. 

Before long radio news bulletins began to include interviews and ‘’actuality’’ –  sound bites of speech and background noise recorded live and inserted into a report, enriching the reporter’s words by enabling listeners to hear the event for themselves

The use of actuality in turn influences the news values in the selection of a radio news story.  Those stories which contain dramatic actuality are more likely to be selected than those that do not.   Thus a story which is considered  suitable for the written words on the front page of a newspaper may not necessarily be a suitable lead item for a radio news bulletin. 

Following the post-war resumption of BBC Television broadcasts from Alexandra Palace in 1946, the new medium began to grow rapidly in popularity. Television offered viewers another kind of immediacy: moving pictures of news events were transmitted directly into viewers’ homes.

Television differs from both radio and the press and has  slightly different considerations when selecting news.  For instance, a story backed by dramatic or eye-catching pictures is more likely to be chosen than one without.  

At first Television adopted the same format as the cinemas with the newsreel as a small part of the total programme output.  However, it was soon replaced by the news bulletin, which consisted of film and interviews, introduced by a newsreader.

The ‘’news flash’’, which  occasionally interrupted or replaced television programme schedules to provide news updates on events of great importance, was adopted later and reduced still more the time gap between the news broadcast and the event itself.   

The arrival of BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2 in 1967, followed by an abundance of local radio stations, opened the way for news bulletins on the hour, every hour, providing regular updates on world, national, regional and local news events.

The next logical development came with rolling news – TV channels that broadcast news 24 hours a day, such as Cable News Network (CNN) in the United States, which introduced the idea in 1980.  Nine years later Sky News soon gained a reputation for immediacy and innovation when it started broadcasting a 24-hour news service by satellite in the UK, around Europe and now worldwide. BBC News 24 become the first competitor to Sky News when it was launched in 1997 as part of the BBC's strategy to develop digital domestic television channels.

Breaking news is information about a current event that broadcasters feel warrants the interruption of scheduled programming in order to report its details. While, in the past, programming interruptions were restricted to extremely urgent news, such breaks are now common on 24-hour news channels. The term ‘’breaking news’’ has come to replace the older term ‘’news flash’’.

Information Technology (IT) 

Recent technological advances in newsgathering have made possible a level of immediacy unimagined a few decades ago.  IT has expanded to encompass many aspects of computing and technology which have revolutionised broadcasting. 

In the UK, for instance, BBC News 24 (or the BBC News Channel as it is now called) has been able to diversify its content, with two minute looped bulletins available to view via BBCi (the BBC's digital interactive television services), BBC News Online (the website of BBC News) and the BBC's mobile website, alongside individual weather and sport bulletins. Since May 2007, the channel can also be viewed on the BBC News website through a live stream.

The new technology is used to encourage an interactive service with viewers who can email their opinions and, more importantly, as citizen journalists, report news stories.  Viewers can also text information or send pictures and video clips of news events direct to the BBC Newsroom on their mobile phones.  Thus pictures and copy of breaking news can reach the newsroom long before professional journalists and camera operators reach the scene.  In the race for immediacy, the growing number of contributions from amateur journalists means that stories reaching the newsroom risk being less accurate and more biased. 

New technological advances mean people can see news as it is happening.  Increasingly television and radio journalists are reporting what is taking place rather than what has just occurred.  So with less time and opportunity to explain the background to a news story, reporters tend to be describing unfolding events in much the same way as a sports commentator reports a live match.

The insatiable media appetite for immediacy means that many of today’s news stories tend to lack any detailed explanation of what lies behind the event and run the risk of bias.  At worst, in an attempt to get an exclusive story, journalists are under pressure to adopt the dodgy dictum:  "Don’t get it right; just write."

Moreover technological developments mean media outlets are more open to audience input and feedback. Viewers and readers can text or email their opinions to newsrooms and indicate which news stories are of most interest to them. In an attempt to achieve relevance and maintain their share in a rapidly evolving market, news organisations may find themselves forced to adopt alternative news values that will attract and keep audiences. The growth of interactive media and citizen journalism is fast altering the traditional distinction between news producers and their hitherto passive audience.

 

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­­Citizen journalism

The concept of citizen journalism is based upon the public playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing, and disseminating news and information.  According to Jay Rosen, Citizen Journalism is "when the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another" (A Most Useful Definition of Citizen Journalism". PressThink).

At times a member of the public may stumble upon evidence crucial to the reporting of a story that is missed by the official media.  One instance is the well documented case of an English newspaper vendor who collapsed and died on his way home from work after being struck by a police officer during a protest rally in London in 2009.

No one from the official media had witnessed these events.  The first postmortem examination, conducted two days after the death, concluded that Tomlinson had died of natural causes after suffering a heart attack.   

However, an American banker had taken video footage of Tomlinson being hit by a police officer wielding a baton and pushing him to the ground. When he realised the significance of the footage which was shot just minutes before Tomlinson collapsed and died, he passed it on to The Guardian,who published it on their website. 

The footage was later used as evidence.  A criminal inquiry followed and an inquest jury found in May 2011 that Tomlinson had, in fact, been unlawfully killed. 

 

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News values as ethical standards

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Some news organisations use the term 'News Values' to describe a different concept: the ethical standards expected of journalists in their work.

These ground rules spell out the good practice journalists should apply as they gather and process news stories. They are simply a code of ethics or canons of good and responsible journalism. These guidelines attempt to ensure the integrity of the journalist and guarantee the reliability of the news story. Both professional journalism associations and individual news organisations often make these rules freely available so that the public may know what to expect from their journalists.

The Associated Press state their commitment to so-called news values, such as not plagiarising, misidentifying nor misrepresenting themselves to get a story, nor paying newsmakers for interviews, avoiding conflicts of interest that may compromise accuracy, and maintaining their commitment to fairness.

The BBC lists the following values:

• Truth and accuracy
• Impartiality and diversity of opinion
• Editorial integrity and independence
• Serving the public interest
• Fairness
• Balancing the right to report with respect for privacy
• Balancing the right to report with protection of the vulnerable
• Safeguarding children
• Being accountable to the audience

This list appears on the BBC website - Editorial Values 


© Owen Spencer-Thomas
18 November 2013

 


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