News values reconsidered, or, why ‘man bites dog’ matters

News values should tell us what captures audience eyeballs, not what scratches editors' itches. (Original elements from pixabay.com)

News values should tell us what captures audience eyeballs, not what scratches editors’ itches. (Original elements from pixabay.com)

How do journalists decide if a story is worth reporting? They consult the list of possible news values — easy-peasy, since everyone agrees there are just 10or 12or a different 12or eightor nine-ishor fiveor seven

I confronted that confusion when I started teaching news writing and reporting. The problem was exacerbated because many students hadn’t learned traditional news values by osmosis; they didn’t look at newspaper front pages or TV newscasts.

The classic study of news values is just over 50 years old. Johan Galtung and Mari Holmboe Ruge assembled one of those lists of 12, divided into three categories:

Impact: threshold (lots of people, lots of money); frequency (sudden, discrete events vs. gradual development); negativity; unexpectedness (i.e., dog bites man is not news, man bites dog is; man bites horse poop is … just icky); unambiguity (simple rather than complex).

Audience identification: personalization (human interest); meaningfulness (about people like you); elite nations; elite persons.

Pragmatics: consonance (story meets reporter’s expectations); continuity (following a running story); composition (editorial desire for particular mix of story types).

Galtung and Ruge explicitly listed values that determined whether a story was selected for publication. That acknowledgement is lacking in other lists, and that’s bad. If “news values” means “which stories an editor is likely to pick,” then teaching those values perpetuates a biased, undemocratic, financially irresponsible tradition.

Biased, because these news values were established when minorities and minority viewpoints were unwelcome in newsrooms. Citing a lack of “unexpectedness,” editors could ignore crime in poor neighborhoods. Saying people wanted to read about those who were already well known, they could justify talking only to white, male leaders. Herbert Gans looked at major news organizations and identified unwritten “enduring values” such as ethnocentrism and defense of capitalism that helped determine what got printed or aired. The lists of news values, while less specific, come from the same place. If they are passed on unexamined, we risk passing biases along with them.

Undemocratic, because they focus on the judgment of a small corps of gatekeepers and presume members of the audience passively accept what’s good for them. Some would even argue for a news value of “importance.” What that really means is “what’s important to me and what has been important to editors before me.” From this come stories that force their way into print despite flaws, because of codewords such as “KEI” (keen editor interest).

Financially irresponsible, because they reach back to the decades when print and broadcast news outlets competed, if at all, only with others sharing the same values. They ignore what online statistics have taught about what people really pay attention to. They assume news is a utility like water or electricity, mostly immune to consumer whim — an assumption that knocked the industry on its assets.

The lists have other problems. In particular, they mix factors directly making people interested in a story with others that only increase or decrease that interest.

For example, one common item on lists of news values is something like “proximity.” It informs the bulls-eye model of news judgment: It takes 10,000 deaths on the other side of the world to be as interesting as 100 deaths in a country closer and more culturally similar to mine, or as 10 deaths in another state, or as one death in my neighborhood. But no one reads or watches a story just because it’s about something nearby. Is there a chair near you? Would you read a story headlined “Nondescript wooden chair is several feet away”?

On the other hand, a quirky video of someone using a similar chair to roll down a twisting road will grab eyes, whether it’s from the closest mountain or halfway around the world. So quirkiness, or call it what you will, is a different kind of news value than proximity.

Journalism needs an approach that takes such differences into account. It needs a set of news values that focuses on what makes the audience engage, not what makes an editor choose. It needs to separate the science of what an audience likes from the philosophy of what journalists want to accomplish.

Whether you want to save the world or just make a buck, you’re up against the same human behaviors. If you write “important” stories that go unread, you’re not doing any more to save the world than the huckster rehashing the latest sniping in the Kanye-Taylor spat.

Individual parts of this have been around. Smart editors and reporters know they have to find the right “angle” on a story. Increasingly, statistics about digital audiences are a part of newsroom decisions. But have journalism educators caught up? I’m trying, anyway. Over the last few years I have built and revised a framework of news values — very much still a work in progress — based on what I learned from running an online news team and talking to smart editors. That’s my next post.

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  1. By Peter

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