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3.3: News Values

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    News values are the benchmarks of newsworthiness against which journalists measure potential stories.

    News is not a 'natural' thing that just 'exists.' In the context of journalism, news is something that is constructed by editorial actors (e.g., journalists) and even by some technological actants (e.g., newswriting algorithms). The use of the term "constructed" here is not intended to imply that news is arbitrarily invented or that it is "fake" information. Instead, it simply recognizes that news is the product of human and technological interventions, and it is shaped by the contexts within which it is identified, gathered, verified, structured, and presented as a product that is recognizable as "news" by audiences.

    After all, only a tiny fraction of the developments and events happening in the world at any given moment ever get covered as news by editorial actors and actants. First, journalists are unlikely to be aware of most of those developments. Second, only a small portion of the things they are aware of are deemed to be worthy of being constructed as news stories. To help them decide which developments are worthy of their time and their audiences' attention, editorial actors apply the set of criteria we can call news values.

    News Values

    According to media scholars Tony Harcup and Deirdre O’Neill, most published news stories tend to include at least one of the following 15 elements:

    • Exclusivity: The development is available first (or only) to a particular news organization (e.g., an exclusive interview with Mark Zuckerberg).
    • Power elite: The development involves powerful individuals and organizations (e.g., the president of the United States).
    • Magnitude: The development potentially impacts a large number of people, or impacts a few people significantly (e.g., a court ruling affecting thousands of immigrants' citizenship rights).
    • Relevance: The development involves issues or groups that are perceived to be relevant to the organization’s audience (e.g., a major local employer relocating to another state).
    • Surprise: The development deviates from the norm or shows stark contrasts (e.g., a man who bites dogs).
    • Conflict: The development involves controversies, arguments, fights, or insurrections (e.g., a politician breaking away from their party).
    • Drama: The development concerns an unfolding drama, such as battles or court cases (e.g., a major criminal trial).
    • Bad news: The development has especially negative overtones, such as a death or tragedy (e.g., a plane crash).
    • Good news: The development has especially positive overtones, including rescues or cures (e.g., development of a new vaccine).
    • Entertainment: The development highlights human interest, unfolding drama, opportunities for humor (e.g., how to spend 36 hours in Bucharest).
    • Celebrity: The development concerns people who are already famous (e.g., Ryan Gosling).
    • Audio-visuals: The development has compelling photographs, video, audio, or can be illustrated with data visualizations (e.g., large protests).
    • Shareability: The development is likely to generate sharing and comments on social media, e-mail, and messaging apps (e.g., content that is likely to 'go viral').
    • Follow-up: The development advances a story already being covered by that journalistic outlet or other news organization (e.g., the result of a vote on legislation previously covered).
    • Journalistic outlet’s agenda: The development fits the organization’s agenda and/or journalistic identity (e.g., it focuses on a particular issue, like foreign policy).

    In addition to these values, timeliness is a crucial factor. After all, news is typically presumed to be new, and journalists are thus sensitive to how recent the information is. However, news may also be evergreen, or not connected to breaking developments but part of an ongoing issue or event. For example, a timely story about homelessness may be produced when the city council approves additional funding for homeless shelters. However, a general story about homelessness can also be evergreen because homelessness is a persistent issue in many places. In practice, evergreen stories are also useful because they provide content for slower news days.

    The more news values a potential story contains, the more likely it is to be seen as newsworthy and therefore receive coverage. News can therefore be understood as a highly selective version of events (and, arguably, nonevents) that have been chosen and packaged to match a news organization’s objectives, its output requirements, and the information needs or entertainment wants that its target audiences are believed to have. This, in turn, highlights that the material attributes of a development or event — that is, what actually happened — only has some bearing on whether it is covered, how it gets covered, what information is emphasized, and who receives a voice in that coverage. For example, an online rant about immigrants may be seen as newsworthy solely because it was tweeted by a sitting U.S. president, and the coverage may focus on the controversy around that rant (rather than the substance of its claims) because opposing party leaders subsequently traded barbs over it.

    These news values also help us to appreciate why certain developments do not receive coverage. For example, an evening TV news broadcast may decide not to cover an event simply because it is unlikely to produce good visuals (e.g., a corruption investigation) or if the organization does not have access to those visuals (e.g., a governmental detention camp in a remote area of a foreign country). Instead, it may allot the limited time in its broadcast to an arguably less-important event that can produce more visually captivating images (e.g., an accidental house fire).

    News Values as Ideology

    News values are a reflection of the dominant ideologies within a journalistic culture. However, they have also been critiqued as examples of journalistic media straying from their stated missions. For example, in their influential Propaganda Model of news media, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky argue that mainstream journalism tends to support the status quo in large part because, they argue, the selection of topics for news coverage ultimately privileges the perspectives of the most powerful while marginalizing the voices of less powerful sections of the population.

    Crucially, Herman and Chomsky are not arguing that mainstream journalists do this intentionally or as part of a deliberate conspiracy to manipulate audiences. Instead, they argue that there are structural filters that impact what is selected as newsworthy, which in turn creates distortions that favor existing power brokers and marginalizes points of view regarded as being outside the mainstream. This is an example of critical theory, which seeks to interrogate power structures in media industries.

    It is important to note that news values are relative. The aforementioned values identified by Harcup and O’Neill are most reflective of journalistic cultures in democratic Western societies in the Global North, since those are the cultures that scholars have most studied. News values in autocratic regimes are likely to be different, as there may be less emphasis on values like conflict or exclusivity. We still have much to learn about news values in other parts of the world.

    Key Takeaways

    • News values are the benchmarks of newsworthiness against which journalists measure potential stories.
    • The more news values that a potential story is deemed to fulfill, the higher the likelihood that it will be seen as newsworthy and receive coverage by journalistic media. Conversely, stories are sometimes ignored precisely because they do not clearly adhere to these values.
    • News values are, and serve as reflections of, ideologies within a journalistic culture.
    • News values are relative. The values identified by Harcup and O’Neill are most representative of Western journalistic cultures in the Global North.

    This page titled 3.3: News Values is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Rodrigo Zamith via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.