What makes an incident or event newsworthy?
What makes an incident or event newsworthy?
Events don't get into the news simply by happening, no matter how frantically. They must fit in with what is already there. Events need to be known and recognized, coming from a known and trusted, and preferably a 'representative', source. To win inclusion in any particular news, they must fulfil a certain number of criteria; in short, they must be seen as newsworthy. Finally, newsworthy events themselves must jostle for inclusion in the limited number of slots available.
In order to pick out newsworthy events from the jostling crowd of clowns on the sidelines of their game, journalists use an informal paradigm of news values. In a famous study, Galtang and Ruge (1973) isolated a series of conditions which have to be fulfilled before an event is selected for attention. Some of these are general conditions, applicable not just to news, but to the perception of events at large. They apply to news-selection the world over. The others are more 'culture-bound'; these are the news values underlying selection in news media in the 'north-western corner of the world'.
General News Values
- Frequency: The time-span taken by an event. Murders take very little time and their meaning is quickly arrived at. Hence their frequency fits that of daily newspapers and programmes. On the other hand, economic, social or cultural trends take very much longer to unfold and to be made meaningful: they are outside the frequency of daily papers. Thus they have to be 'marked' (if they are reported at all) by means of devices like the release of reports or statistics on a particular day.
- Threshold: The size of an event. There is a threshold below which an event will not be reported at all (varying in intensity between, for instance, local and national news). And once reported, there is a further threshold of drama: the bigger the story, the more added drama is needed to keep it going. War reporting is an example of this. Already very big news, its coverage is unlikely to increase unless an especially cataclysmic event happens. But of course the added drama does not have to originate in the event. After the death of Michael Jackson, for example, events which in themselves would normally not reach the threshold of newsworthiness were made into dramatic stories in order to keep the pot boiling. News reports such as heart-broken Michael Jackson fans in America getting a helping hand with 'grief therapy'. Special 'Grief' hotlines set up to aid those who cannot cope with his death.
- Unambiguity: The clarity of an event. Events don't have to be simple, necessarily (though that helps), but the range of possible meanings must be limited. In this way news-discourse differs radically from literary discourse. In news, the intrinsic polysemic (ambiguous - capable of generating many meanings) nature of both events and accounts of them is reduced as much as possible; in literature it is celebrated and exploited.
- Meaningfulness: (a) Cultural proximity: events that accord with the cultural background of the news-gatherers will be seen as more meaningful than others, and so more liable to be selected. This works in two ways. First, Islamic, third-world and oriental events may not be seen as self-evidently meaningful to Western reporters unlike European, American or even Russian events. Second, within 'our' culture, events connected with underprivileged or ethnic groups, with regions remote from the centralized bases of news organizations, or with specifically working-class culture, will be seen as less intrinsically meaningful than those associated with central, official, literate culture. (b) Relevance: events in far-off cultures, classes or regions will nevertheless become newsworthy if they impinge on the news-gatherer's 'home' culture. Usually in the form of a threat; as with OPEC and the (mostly Arab) countries with oil — their lifestyles, customs and beliefs are suddenly fascinating for Western journalists.
- Consonance: The predictability of, or desire for, an event. If the media expect something to happen, then it will. The classic case-study of this phenomenon is by Halloran et al. (1970) (summarized in Murdock 1973), where it was found that the news coverage of the anti-Vietnam war demonstration in Grosvenor Square, London, in 1968, concentrated almost exclusively on what was expected — namely Violence. Very little occurred, but it was massively reported, whereas the issues at stake in the demonstration were ignored.
- Unexpectedness: The unpredictability, or rarity, of an event. Of course it is within the meaningful (4) and the consonant (5) that the unexpected is to be found. Hence the 'newness' of unexpected events usually gets discovered in thoroughly familiar, expected contexts.
- Continuity: The 'running story'. If an event is covered, it will continue to be covered for some time.
- Composition: The mixture of different kinds of event. If a newspaper or TV bulletin is packed with major foreign stories, a relatively insignificant domestic story will be included to balance the mixture. Alternatively, if a major story is running, other similar events may be selected for inclusion in a 'round-up' of stories on that subject. In addition to these eight general news values, Galtang and Ruge propose a further four which are of prime importance in western media.
- Reference to elite nations: Stories about wars, elections and disasters are good examples of this tendency. Wars involving the USA, USSR, or forces explicitly allied to one or the other, will be reported, whereas others go virtually unnoticed — like the Indonesia/East Timor conflict, the Chad civil war and the Nicaraguan revolution. Elections in France, Germany and Italy will receive more coverage than those in Latin America, Africa, etc. And of course there is the famous head-count equation for disasters: disasters in Bangladesh, for example, need thousands or hundreds killed to reach the newsworthiness threshold, whereas those in 'elite' countries will be newsworthy with progressively lower body-counts.
- Reference to elite persons: Firstly because it is assumed their actions are more consequential than the daily activities of ordinary people — they 'affect our lives'. Secondly, the social activities of elite people can serve as representative actions — their weddings, opinions, nights out and domestic habits are taken to be of interest to us all, since we too engage in these things. But who cares how I wipe my nose, if we can watch Angelina Jolie doing it?
- Personalization: Events are seen as the actions of people as individuals. Individual people are easier to identify — and to identify with — than structures, forces or institutions: hence 'the government' was often personalized as 'Mr Bush', etc.
- Negativity: Bad news is good news. It is generally unexpected (6), unambiguous (3), it happens quickly (1), it is consonant (5) with general expectations about the state of the world, and hence its threshold (2) is lower than that for positive news.
These basic news values give a good idea of the kind of event that will survive the selection process. The list also provides clues as to the priority different stories will be given — the more of these conditions a given story fulfils, the bigger it will be. Take the murder of John Lennon. Its frequency was right (although it happened after the British dailies had 'gone to bed', so it was already a running story by the time they caught up on the following day); its threshold was no problem (although I heard one complaint on the radio that news editors are older than the generation for whom Lennon was significant, resulting in coverage which was deemed inadequate); it was certainly unambiguous and meaningful (everyone has heard of the Beatles); it was consonant in several ways — rock stars die young, New York is a violent city (much of the coverage centred on the twin themes of mugging and gun control), and modern society is characterized by the assassination of elite people by fame-seeking nutters; it was unexpected; it concerned two elite nations (Britain and the US); John Lennon is a prime elite person, whose place in the cult of personality (the 'star system') was of the first order; and it was negative. Hence its continuity was assured, and other killings were composed with it to form part of the same story. It had the lot.
However, there are certain stories which at first sight seem to achieve wide coverage without fulfilling any of these news values in an obvious way. An interesting recent example is one that concerns the theoretical perspective I've relied on in this book, that is, structuralism and semiotics. On the face of it an unlikely topic for full-page articles in the news pages of the national and Sunday papers, but suddenly in January-February 1981 they blossomed with bluffers' guides to structuralism. It was an attempt to clarify a dispute in the University of Cambridge, where a lecturer associated with structuralist writings, Colin MacCabe, was refused a permanent post. The way the dispute was reported did exploit a number of our news values (like personalization, negativity, reference to elite persons and institutions), but the news values themselves give little clue as to why the story was deemed newsworthy in the first place.
In fact the 'MacCabe Affair' provides us with a useful reminder. News values can actually disguise the more important ideological determinants of a story. It might seem implausible to link the Cambridge dispute with a recently shown television drama series (The History Man), and to link both of these with the twin themes of government economic policy and public sector spending cuts. But it is noteworthy that this unusual conjuncture of fact, fiction and political economy did not go unnoticed at the time. Colin Mac-Cabe was explicitly compared with Howard Kirk, the fictional character of The History Man (Sunday Times, 25 January 1981, p. 13) and within weeks the papers were giving prominent coverage to various plans for savings among universities and polytechnics, plans which included letting some go bankrupt. It may be that the 'newsworthiness' of the MacCabe Affair consisted in making the link between fiction and fact — by the time Cambridge itself has been tarred with The History Man's brush, the credibility of any opposition to the cuts is seriously undermined. As Terence Hawkes reported in Time Out;
Significantly it was The Listener which overtly imprinted the model onto the real world by roguishly placing a still from The History Man's credits on the cover of the issue in which Noel Annan was recently advocating health-giving university cuts. The political implications of those cuts were thus easily masked and objections to them stifled. (Time Out, 20 March 1981, p. 54).
Of course news values are neither natural nor neutral. They form a code which sees the world in a very particular (even peculiar) way. News values are, in fact, an ideological code — as we shall soon see. Meanwhile, one of their ideological implications can be stated here, interestingly in the words of a working journalist who uses them every day. Writing in the New Statesman, the journalist Anna Coote outlines what news values are, and how they are ranked. She goes on to suggest they are fundamentally sexist:
We concur in decisions about what is a 'good story' and what is not, what is central and what is peripheral, what is 'hard' news and what is 'soft'. . . . These [news values] have been developed, of course, by white, middle-class men, generation upon generation of them, forming opinions, imposing them, learning them and passing them on as Holy Writ. We have inherited a. hierarchy of news values. What are the major stories of the day? The economy, industry, politics (of Whitehall and Westminster), foreign affairs, and so on, down the scale. A 'hard' story is generally deemed to be one based on facts, on something precise which has happened, in a particular sphere already labelled 'Important'. A story based on description, individual experience, nuance — a 'human interest' story, perhaps, or something which has happened in a sphere not labelled 'Important' — may be considered 'good', but is nevertheless 'soft' or 'offbeat'. Why? Where did these ideas come from? Are they objective, universal, or simply man-made? (New Statesman, 2 January 1981, p. 11)
Clearly news values are man-made, in both the generic and the gender sense of 'man'. But it seems an individual journalist, whether male or female, is unable to escape their institutionalized force (presented as the right way of doing journalism), even when s/he contests their ideology.
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