News values

What makes a news story­?

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.

Journalists use news values to determine which stories to select for publishing and to filter out information that is not newsworthy.
Journalists use news values to determine which stories to select for publishing and to filter out information that is not newsworthy.

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.

These criteria describe the content of a story.  Typical news values a journalist might look for are:

Timely Close to home Bizarre
Unexpected Broad appeal Crisis
Conflict Human interest Scandal
Tragedy Celebrity Drama

 

But first, let’s be clear what constitutes News.

News must be accurate, truthful and fair.  According to former Times and Sunday Times Editor, Harold Evans, a news story:

News values diagram

  • 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)

Lester Markel, one time Sunday editor of The New York Times, makes a helpful distinction:  “What you see is news, what you know is background, what you feel is opinion.”

However, the selection of news stories is subject to a much wider range of influences than these simple definitions. When journalists are confronted by a potential story they must ask themselves, “Is it newsworthy?” Will their potential audience be interested?


The selection of news stories


What makes a story newsworthy?

Information arrives in the newsroom minute by minute from a wide range of sources by way of press releases, phone calls, social media, meetings, research and so on.

News values diagram
News Values Diagram

A news editor, who is limited by time and space, cannot report all this material. Journalists must be selective and filter out information that is not newsworthy. Because they are in competition with other news outlets, they highlight only those stories they consider to be of greatest interest.  They act as “gatekeepers” by weeding out the dross on behalf of their readers or audience.

Paramount in the journalist’s mind, will be the preferences of those who watch or read the news.  By opting for a particular broadcast channel or newspaper, consumers are “voting” for the news that interests them most.

Reports that are interesting and newsworthy are distinguished by a broadly agreed set of characteristics called ‘’news values’’. These values or criteria have developed over the years. They provide journalists with a mechanism to quickly sort, process and select news from the vast amount of information available to them.

Rather than actually ticking off a checklist of criteria, a seasoned journalist may decide the newsworthiness of a story on the basis of their experience and intuition.   Even so, many studies of news production show that news values are consistently applied across a range of print, broadcast, and online news organisations worldwide.

Because they explain how decisions are made in a newsroom, news values can also help public relations professionals to maximise news coverage of events.

Lists of news values, drawn up by scholars and journalists, are endless. Some aim to describe news practices across many cultures, while others are specific to news-gatherers from particular nations or places.


Galtung and Ruge’s list of news values

Johan Vincent Galtung
Johan Vincent Galtung

A ground-breaking list of news values or criterea was drawn up by two media researchers, Johan Galtung and Mari Holmboe Ruge.

Their work was part of a wider study on how international news events were reported in the Norwegian press in the early 1960s.

They analysed news reports on the Congo, Cyprus and Cuba crises 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 in 1965, virtually any subsequent analysis of news values will refer to most, if not all, of the characteristics they listed.

Mari Holmboe Ruge
Mari Holmboe Ruge

Their list of twelve factors describes events that together define what is newsworthy. These news values provide a kind of scoring system:

  • An event that satisfies one or more of these criteria is more likely to be reported.
  • An event which scores highly on these values is more likely to be the lead story on a television news bulletin or make the front page of a newspaper.

The values they identified fall into three categories:

  • Impact
  • Audience Identification
  • Pragmatics of media coverage

Impact

Threshold

The scale or size of the event.  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. A bomb that’s caused many casualties is more newsworthy than a hoax bomb alert.

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 engagements 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 something that happens every day. As the New York Tribune and Sun editor, 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 that are open to more than one interpretation, or where understanding of its implications depends on a broader knowledge of the complex background to the event.  In other words, the simpler and more straightforward a story is the more likely it is to appear in newspapers.

Audience identification

Personification

People are interested in people. News stories presented from a human interest angle and centre on a particular person are likely to be newsworthy, 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 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 them.

Their analysis fails to fully take account of the broader 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.

In identifying their news values, Galtung and Ruge focus on the event rather than the journalist, and so fail to account for those factors which can only be attributed to the journalist, and not the story itself.

At a personal level, practical everyday factors may also influence which story a journalist selects.  Much of what appears in the news can depend on a journalist’s determination to get the full story. For instance, the easy way out would be to run a story from a press release, and say no more.  However, a professional journalist will go the extra mile,  check out their facts and relate the full story from their own research.

Critique of Galtung and Rouge

In 2001, Tony Harcup and Deirdre O’Neill, in their study of the British press updated Galtung and Rouge’s original criteria. They analysed the content of three major national newspapers in the UK and put forward a contemporary set of news values.  They found some notable differences that contributed to the value of a news story, such as:

  • the growing interest in celebrity
  • a tendency to report good news as well as bad
  • the newspaper’s own agenda.

Given these changes and the rapid rise of digital technology in more recent years, Harcup and O’Neill further updated their own study in 2016.


Do journalists prefer bad news stories?

Galtung and Ruge’s list includes negativity as a news value. However, some 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 are:

  • out of the ordinary
  • making considerable impact
  • easy to grasp
  • meaningful and 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 either good or bad news depending on which team you support.

The overriding factor in deciding the newsworthiness of a story is whether it is of interest. In other words, the more news values it satisfies, the more  likely it is to be newsworthy.

Editors have a particular target audience in mind and each news organisation has its own system of setting a news agenda.  Journalists will have their own distinctive understanding of their circulation or broadcast area, drawing heavily on their own experience of what their audience expects and which stories have had the greatest impact on public consciousness in the past.


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 this into a simpler set of principles that journalists can readily use in their work to identify what information is newsworthy.

So what are the ingredients of a good story? Which stories does your audience find interesting or important? Which events make the front page?  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 “recent” depends upon the publication cycle of the news medium in which the information appears. On a television news channel 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 fête 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 brings drama to the story.

Unexpected or bizarre

Something out of the ordinary has more news value than something that happens every day. 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. As the old year ends the talk is about Christmas presents and New Year’s resolutions. A few months later the stories will switch to romance and chocolate.

Human interest

People are interested in people, so personalise your story. Related to this are people’s everyday concerns or interests, such as food, health, housing, schools, work, money issues.

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, information flies around the world at an ever greater speed.  The arrival of digital technology, wireless connectivity, and text messaging has dramatically altered the collection, assembly and dissemination of news.

The 21st century public pay scant attention to second-hand or stale stories.  Ever hungry to be first with an exclusive story, journalists can now cut the gap between the moment they receive information and the delivery of news to their audience.  Immediacy is paramount in the hard-nosed business of today’s news production.

At the start of the 20th century when newspapers were the only source of news, competition was less fierce.  But gone are the days of typewriters, newspaper clippings and messages left at hotel reception desks. Within the past couple of decades alone, the news media has changed more rapidly than any large-scale global industry.

The actual process of news gathering and reporting has benefited considerably from technology.  Greater collaboration has been made possible by easy access to a wide range of sources through mobile phones, email and social media.

Yet over the same period, what makes accurate and reliable journalism is much the same.  The basic news values that determine how much prominence to give to a story have changed only a litle. And journalists still depend on the basic tools of their trade, their eyes and their ears.

Achieving relevance, giving audiences the news they want and find interesting, will continue to be an increasingly important goal for media outlets seeking to maintain market share in a rapidly evolving market. News organisations will be more open to audience input and feedback, and this may force them to adapt still further and apply fresh news values that attract and keep a modern audience.

In the long run, the continuing effects of new technology, combined with other social changes, may in time radically influence an audience’s preference for certain kinds of news story.  So could these developments eventually bring about more fundamental changes to our currently accepted news values?

The effect of technology on news deadlines:

  • Film
  • Radio
  • Television
  • Information Technology (IT)
  • Social Media

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

The pace of news gathering was hastened by the arrival of, first radio, and then television. In the United Kingdom, the BBC, founded in 1922, began broadcasting sound.  Radio was a new medium which had the potential to transmit 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.  This enriched the reporter’s words and enabled listeners to hear the event for themselves.

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

The need for immediacy and the use of actuality have in turn influenced the news values used to select a radio news story. Those stories that contain dramatic actuality are much more likely to be selected than those that do not.

Drama becomes an overriding news value in radio news.  But, a story that makes the lead on radio may not be considered suitable for the written words on the front page of a newspaper.

For instance, radio can convey the feeling of an angry exchange between two politicians much better than a newspaper can.

Television

The same is true of television news which contains visuals and interviews with eye witness accounts.  These enable viewers to witness the scene of the story themselves. Good pictures are fundamental to the TV news.

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

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.

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.

Later, the introduction of the ‘’news flash’, which interrupted or replaced television programme schedules, made it possible to reduce further the time gap between the news broadcast and the event itself.

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 (now BBC News Channel) 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.

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’’.

With a growing number of channels competing for similar audiences, immediacy becomes crucial in today’s television news production.

If you have been asked to take part in an interview, I have put together a page of essential advice for handing radio and television interviews in studio or on location.

Information Technology (IT)

Technological advances in newsgathering during the 21st century 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 news 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 view the 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 under pressure 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. Citizen journalists are now free to bypass the “gatekeeping”  process employed by traditional media and are free to decide for themselves what is news and what is not.

Social Media

Social media are two-way streets. They give access to information highways with two-way traffic. The ordinary citizen can now garner information from a variety of sources with ease and broadcast news directly to the wider public – thus bypassing the big news organisations.

The arrival of social media means everyone has the opportunity to communicate both ways – not only to listen, read and learn from the news media, but also to answer back and to publish one’s own contribution.

Social media enable members of the public both to access and to give an account of evidence crucial to the reporting of a story that is missed by the official media.  No longer is our access restricted to information selected by a journalistic elite employed by one of the big institutions. Now we were reaching out to connect with other people to hear what they have to say on a subject.

The growth of interactive media is fast altering the traditional distinction between the news producer and the passive audience.  In future this may lead to a radical re-understanding of the the role of the news industry and what ‘news’ means.

Ordinary people can now talk to each other, they can publish, broadcast and reach big audiences directly. Thus they also can directly determine what makes a newsworthy story. For instance, news editors will take notice of a story that goes viral on Twitter.

However, the fact that a story has caught the interest of the wider public is not necessarily a sufficient reason for a news editor to consider it newsworthy, or indeed to assume it is indeed genuine news.  A journalist must always check out the veracity of a story thoroughly before publishing.

The recent increase in the manipulation of social media and the growth of “fake news” means journalists must be alert and quick to spot fabricated stories. Authors of fake news usually sensationalise and succeed in whetting the public appetite for a “good” story.


Citizen Journalism

Citizen journalists are members of the public who contribute to the process of collecting, analysing, and disseminating news and information – especially by means of the Internet and social media. They usually function outside mainstream journalism and are non-professionals.

The  work of the citizen journalist can provide evidence of an event and present another side to a story.  However, they may be driven by different aims and ideals, and rely on alternative sources of validity and authority other than those adopted by mainstream journalists.

When the official media regard a story as insignificant, or they cannot report the facts because of censorship, citizen journalism may be the only source of information on what is occurring behind the media blackout.

The proliferation of electronic gadgets, such as mobile phones, tablets, and other portable devices, has increased the popularity of citizen journalism.

The arrival of social media apps such as Facebook, Twitter, and the like, have made the dissemination of news across the online community much easier and faster.

Videos and stills from citizen journalists can augment professionally shot footage to give a more rounded picture. More and more people are sending TV companies their news stories accompanied by pictures, for instance shots of  road accidents, natural disasters or local sporting events.

Citizen journalists can be of considerable help to the mainstream media when reporting in places where news is heavily censored. For instance, during the worst of the Syrian civil  war thousands of clips were uploaded on various social network sites. They included “trophy videos” from Syrian military torturers, and footage from local families and citizens caught up in the conflict.

Some citizen journalists have gained so much popularity for their reporting and commentary that they can reach a far wider audience than traditional news outlets.

How a mobile phone helped to expose an unlawful killing

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 early instance of this is the well documented case in 2009 of an English newspaper vendor, Ian Tomlinson, who collapsed and died during a protest rally in London.

Shortly before his death that afternoon he had been struck by a police officer. But no one from the official media had witnessed this event.

The initial postmortem examination, conducted two days after his death, concluded that he had died of natural causes following a heart attack.

However, a  New York banker had taken video footage of Tomlinson being hit by the police officer, wielding a baton and pushing him to the ground. When he realised the significance of the footage he had shot just minutes before Tomlinson’s death, he passed it on to The Guardian newspaper, who published it on their website.

Other witnesses responded and the footage was later used as evidence. A further post mortem revealed that Tomlinson had died of internal bleeding in the abdomen. A criminal inquiry followed.  In May 2011 an inquest jury found that Tomlinson had, in fact, been unlawfully killed.

Citizen journalism as a source of disinformation

There is a wealth of material available on the internet, but can it all be trusted? The news media and the information revolution have made it easier for the general public to access a broad range of information.  However, the internet, particularly social media, has in recent years fuelled the spread of disinformation.

In today’s brave new world, anyone who has a computer can be a publisher with access to the whole worldwide web.  The citizen journalist can range from a well-respected correspondent working from a war zone to an individual compiling a news story based on information from their personal computer.

Whilst professional journalists adhere to the principles of responsible news reporting, there is no guarantee that a citizen journalist will adopt the same standards or news values. For instance, professionals are trained to look at both sides of a story before they write up their report. Because of a lack of training, citizen journalists may unwittingly publish a biased account.

Many citizen journalists lack the proper legal training. They may be weak on libel law, accuse the wrong suspects of a crime and disrupt a police investigation.  They may overlook copyright issues and violate the rights of their sources by using their photos or videos.

In recent years, there has been an alarming increase in the number of websites that specialise in broadcasting news and information that has been deliberately made up. That is fake news.

Fake news can distort politics and has become an insidious trend that is fast becoming a global issue.  Such is the scale of the problem that the World Economic Forum has defined misinformation as one of the world’s most urgent concerns.


News values as ethical standards

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.


Your feedback on this page  is always welcome as I update this article regularly. I am always interested to learn if it answered your questions about news values and you found it easy to understand.  If you are a writer, I have some useful tips on how to mind your language and communicate a story clearly.

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