News values, sometimes called news criteria, determine how much prominence a news story is given by a media outlet, and the attention it is given by the audience. They explain how editors and other journalists decide that one piece of information is news while another is not.
A. Boyd states that: "News journalism has a broadly agreed set of values, often referred to as 'newsworthiness'..." News values are not universal and can vary widely between different cultures. In Western practice, decisions on the selection and prioritization of news are made by editors on the basis of their experience and intuition, although analysis by J. Galtung and M. Ruge showed that several factors are consistently applied across a range of news organizations. Some of these factors are listed below, together with others put forward by Schlesinger and Bell. According to Ryan, "there is no end to lists of news criteria". Among the many lists of news values that have been drawn up by scholars and journalists, some, like Galtung and Ruge's, attempt to describe news practices across cultures, while others have become remarkably specific to the press of certain (often Western) nations. These lists show the considerable overlap in the conceptualization of news values, while at the same time point to the vastly different aspects of news production that news values may refer to (see further discussion of this point in the section ‘Conditions of news’ below).
Galtung and Ruge, in their seminal study in the area put forward a system of twelve factors describing events that together are used as a definition of 'newsworthiness'. Focusing on newspapers and broadcast news, Galtung and Ruge devised a list describing what they believed were significant contributing factors as to how the news is constructed. Their theory argues that the more an event accessed these criteria the more likely it was to be reported on in a newspaper. Furthermore, three basic hypotheses are presented by Galtung and Ruge: the additivity hypothesis that the more factors an event satisfies, the higher the probability that it becomes news; the complementarity hypothesis that the factors will tend to exclude each other; and the exclusion hypothesis that events that satisfy none or very few factors will not become news.
In 2001, this 1965 study was updated by Tony Harcup and Deirdre O'Neill, in a study of the British press. The findings of a content analysis of three major national newspapers in the UK were used to evaluate critically Galtung and Ruge's original criteria and to propose a contemporary set of news values. Forty years on, they found some notable differences, including the rise of celebrity news values and that good news (as well as bad news) was a significant news value, as well as the newspaper's own agenda.
A variety of external and internal pressures influence journalists' decisions on which stories are covered, how issues are interpreted and the emphasis given to them. These pressures can sometimes lead to bias or unethical reporting. Achieving relevance, giving audiences the news they want and find interesting, is an increasingly important goal for media outlets seeking to maintain market share in a rapidly evolving market. This has made news organizations more open to audience input and feedback, and forced them to adopt and apply news values that attract and keep audiences. Given these changes and the rapid rise of digital technology in recent years, Harcup and O’Neill updated their own study in 2016. The growth of interactive media and citizen journalism is fast altering the traditional distinction between news producer and passive audience and may in future lead to a deep-ploughing redefinition of what 'news' means and the role of the news industry. 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.
Conditions for News
- Frequency: Events that occur suddenly and fit well with the news organization's schedule are more likely to be reported than those that occur gradually or at inconvenient times of day or night. Long-term trends are not likely to receive much coverage.
- Familiarity: To do with people or places close to home.
- Negativity: Bad news is more newsworthy than good news.
- Unexpectedness: If an event is out of the ordinary it will have a greater effect than something that is an everyday occurrence.
- Unambiguity: Events whose implications are clear make for better copy than those that are open to more than one interpretation, or where any understanding of the implications depends on first understanding the complex background in which the events take place.
- Personalization: Events that can be portrayed as the actions of individuals will be more attractive than one in which there is no such "human interest."
- Meaningfulness: This relates to the sense of identification the audience has with the topic. "Cultural proximity" is a factor here—stories concerned with people who speak the same language, look the same, and share the same preoccupations as the audience receive more coverage than those concerned with people who speak different languages, look different and have different preoccupations.
- Reference to elite nations: Stories concerned with global powers receive more attention than those concerned with less influential nations.
- Reference to elite persons: Stories concerned with the rich, powerful, famous and infamous get more coverage.
- Conflict: Opposition of people or forces resulting in a dramatic effect. Stories with conflict are often quite newsworthy.
- Consonance: Stories that fit with the media's expectations receive more coverage than those that defy them (and for which they are thus unprepared). Note this appears to conflict with unexpectedness above. However, consonance really refers to the media's readiness to report an item.
- Continuity: A story that is already in the news gathers a kind of inertia. This is partly because the media organizations are already in place to report the story, and partly because previous reportage may have made the story more accessible to the public (making it less ambiguous).
- 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, so that if there is an excess of foreign news for instance, the least important foreign story may have to make way for an item concerned with the domestic news. In this way the prominence given to a story depends not only on its own news values but also on those of competing stories. (Galtung and Ruge, 1965)
- Competition: Commercial or professional competition between media may lead journalists to endorse the news value given to a story by a rival.
- Co-optation: A story that is only marginally newsworthy in its own right may be covered if it is related to a major running story.
- Prefabrication: A story that is marginal in news terms but written and available may be selected ahead of a much more newsworthy story that must be researched and written from the ground up.
- Predictability: An event is more likely to be covered if it has been pre-scheduled. (Bell, 1991)
- Time constraints: Traditional news media such as radio, television and daily newspapers have strict deadlines and a short production cycle, which selects for items that can be researched and covered quickly.
- Logistics: Although eased by the availability of global communications even from remote regions, the ability to deploy and control production and reporting staff, and functionality of technical resources can determine whether a story is covered. (Schlesinger, 1987)
- Data: Media need to back up all of their stories with data in order to remain relevant and reliable. Reporters prefer to look at raw data in order to be able to take an unbiased perspective.
What should be clear from this list of conditions for news is that many different factors have the potential to influence whether an event is first noticed by a news organisation, second whether a story will be written about that event, and third whether this story will end up being published as news. To give a few examples:
Some researchers (e.g. Galtung & Ruge 1965, p. 67; Bell 1991, p. 159; Gans 2004, pp. 78–9; and Brighton & Foy 2007, p. 26) suggest that Composition and Co-option are news values that concern how news stories fit with the other stories around them. The aim here is to ensure a balanced spread of stories with minimal duplication across a news program or edition (Brighton & Foy 2007, p. 26).
Other conditions/criteria relate to the news agenda. Here some researchers propose the news values of Frequency, Continuity, The News Barrier, Predictability, Follow-up and News Agenda among others (Galtung & Ruge 1965, p. 66-7; Østgaard 1965, p. 51; Schulz 1982, p. 151; Bell 1991, pp. 15, 151; Harcup & O’Neill 2001, p. 279). Bell (1991, p. 15) sums up the rationale for considering these as news values by stating quite simply that ‘once something is in the news, it tends to stay there’. This means that when an issue is on the news agenda, other events concerning the same issue are more likely to be reported as news because they fit the news agenda.
Other criteria listed above relate quite specifically to the news actors or events that have the potential to be reported as news. Personalization, for example, concerns the actions of individuals and whether an event can be contextualised in more personal terms (affecting specific people, not the generalised masses).
Some researchers try to tease apart the different aspects of the news production process that these conditions apply to as well as the many different perspectives from which news values can be viewed and analysed. For example, recent research by Bednarek & Caple (2017) adopts a discursive perspective on news values analysis, and examines only those news values that relate specifically to news actors and the events they are involved in. Their approach to the systematic analysis of news values in both verbal and visual news reporting is called discursive news values analysis, or DNVA.
Audience perceptions of news
Conventional models concentrate on what the journalist perceives as news. But the news process is a two-way transaction, involving both news producer (the journalist) and the news receiver (the audience), although boundary between the two is rapidly blurring with the growth of citizen journalism and interactive media.
Little has been done to define equivalent factors that determine audience perception of news. This is largely because it would appear impossible to define a common factor, or factors, that generate interest in a mass audience.
Basing his judgement on many years as a newspaper journalist Hetherington (1985) states that: “…anything which threatens people’s peace, prosperity and well being is news and likely to make headlines”.
Whyte-Venables (2012) suggests audiences may interpret news as a risk signal. Psychologists and primatologists have shown that apes and humans constantly monitor the environment for information that may signal the possibility of physical danger or threat to the individual’s social position. This receptiveness to risk signals is a powerful and virtually universal survival mechanism.
A 'risk signal' is characterized by two factors, an element of change (or uncertainty) and the relevance of that change to the security of the individual.
The same two conditions are observed to be characteristic of news. The news value of a story, if defined in terms of the interest it carries for an audience, is determined by the degree of change it contains and the relevance that change has for the individual or group. Analysis shows that journalists and publicists manipulate both the element of change and relevance (‘security concern’) to maximize, or some cases play down, the strength of a story.
Security concern is proportional to the relevance of the story for the individual, his or her family, social group and societal group, in declining order. At some point there is a Boundary of Relevance, beyond which the change is no longer perceived to be relevant, or newsworthy. This boundary may be manipulated by journalists, power elites and communicators seeking to encourage audiences to exclude, or embrace, certain groups: for instance, to distance a home audience from the enemy in time of war, or conversely, to highlight the plight of a distant culture so as to encourage support for aid programs.
An evolutionary psychology explanation for why negative news have a higher news value than positive news starts with the empirical observation that the human perceptive system and lower level brain functions have difficulty distinguishing between media stimuli and real stimuli. These lower level brain mechanisms which function on a subconscious level make basic evaluations of perceptive stimuli, focus attention on important stimuli, and start basic emotional reactions. Research has also found that the brain differentiates between negative and positive stimuli and reacts quicker and more automatically to negative stimuli which are also better remembered. This likely has evolutionary explanations with it often being important to quickly focus attention on, evaluate, and quickly respond to threats. While the reaction to a strong negative stimulus is to avoid, a moderately negative stimulus instead causes curiosity and further examination. Negative media news is argued to fall into the latter category which explains their popularity. Lifelike audiovisual media are argued to have particularly strong effects compared to reading.
Women have on average stronger avoidance reactions to moderately negative stimuli. They point to negative news as the main reason for avoiding international news. The stronger avoidance reaction to moderately negative stimuli can be explained evolutionary as it being the role of men to investigate and potentially respond aggressively to the threat while women and children withdraw. Men and women also differ on average on how they enjoy, evaluate, remember, comprehend, and identify with the people in negative news depending on if the news are negatively or positively framed. One explanation may be that the negative news are framed according to male preferences by the often male journalists who cover such news and that a more positive framing may attract a larger female audience.
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