News values should tell us what captures audience eyeballs, not what scratches editors’ itches. (Original elements from pixabay.com)
In my journalism classes, I’ve ditched the standard lists of “news values” limited to a handful of items and used to vaguely suggest why certain stories are published and others aren’t. I explained my reasons in two previous posts (News values reconsidered and News judgment with the audience in control).
I replaced them with a much longer list designed to help student journalists figure out how to turn news (anything the audience doesn’t already know) into a newsworthy story (something the audience will want to read, watch or listen to). The list has two categories. The core values, explained below, are so strong that the presence of even one in a story can get the audience at least mildly interested. The other category, multiplying values, will be covered in a future post.
Call the core values the LeBron factors. When I was online editor for The Plain Dealer, we joked about adding LeBron James’ name to every headline, since anything that mentioned him got heavy traffic. “Airliner crashes in Pakistan, LeBron James not onboard,” for example.
Not every celebrity had such a hold on our audience, nor are any of the core values yes-or-no factors. In addition to explaining how each core values works, I explain what can affect the strength of its pull.
Affinity and affiliation
If you’re in a sorority, you will probably be interested in stories that involve Greek life, even if they don’t take place on your campus. If you’re a college student, you’ll probably notice a story about a successful business more if it’s run by someone your age than by a 40-year-old.
This category also covers the interest you have in stories about individuals or groups that you’re a big fan of. In Cleveland, for example, news media can count on big audiences for any story about the Browns.
STRENGTH: The strongest values in this category occur when the grouping is a large percentage of your total audience, but not all of it.
Consider: If you’re writing for a college paper in Ohio, you’re aiming at an audience of that school’s students. That’s your “total audience.” A story about the Seattle Seahawks playing the New Orleans Saints will have affinity value for students who are fans of those teams, but they’re probably a tiny minority of all students on an Ohio campus — so the value is very low.
On the other hand, a story about college students in general will have affinity value for all students on any given campus, but because the group “all college students” is even larger than “all students on this campus,” the pull of such a broad story won’t be as strong as it would if the group mentioned were smaller.
To put it another way: Any story involving people could be said to have affinity value for any potential audience, because we’re all a part of the group “human beings.” But that value is infinitesimal, because it’s diluted by being applicable to so many potential stories.
Abraham Maslow created a pyramid of human motivations called a “hierarchy of needs.” Basically, he said that we have to be satisfied that we can meet needs on one level of the pyramid before we start to worry about those on the next highest level. His pyramid started with basic biological needs such as food and health, then moved on to safety and shelter before ascending to more psychologically based needs such as love and self-esteem.
Stories that deal with the needs at the base of the pyramid speak to the audience’s deepest fears.
STRENGTH: The strength of this value can vary along three axes: level of need, level of threat and impact on individual member of the audience.
At the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid are the most direct threats to life: starvation and disease. Those topics will attract far more attention than discussions of self-esteem or self-fulfillment.
Students sometimes try to claim this value for stories about a restaurant opening in town or a new snack trend. While those ideas do involve food, they don’t have anything to do with whether someone will go hungry.
Finally, we care most about the needs of ourselves. A story about people going without health care in general will not pull in as many readers (all other things being equal) as one about a threat to the audience’s own health.
News media often get criticized for “horse race coverage” of political campaigns, meaning an emphasis on who’s ahead in the polls rather than a discussion of issues. There’s a reason media focus on who’s ahead and who’s behind, though: Audiences are attracted to stories about two sides battling for victory.
Note that this value isn’t just about two sides disagreeing. Indeed, they may be in complete agreement; sports teams agree to follow the same rules. The keys are a) both sides are trying to win the same thing, and b) the winner will be decided either by an agreed-upon standard (who gets the most votes, who gets the most points) or an objective judge (someone not a part of either side).
STRENGTH: Two things make a difference in judging this value. The first is what’s at stake; the second is how close the competition is.
Doug Lesmerises, a sports writer for cleveland.com, instinctively applied this idea when he talked about covering a bowl game between Ohio State and Notre Dame in January 2016. It was a blowout for the Buckeyes, who won 44-28. And it wasn’t for the national championship; Lesmerises said it amounted to an exhibition game.
What was Lesmerises’ main story afterward? Not the game, he said. It wasn’t close (i.e., not really competitive), so it wasn’t as interesting. Instead, he tracked down a highly touted freshman player who hadn’t gotten to play a down all season, and talked to him. That story — which had solid news values — was extremely popular online.
Maybe this has happened to you: You get a car, and suddenly it seems as if half the cars on the road are the same make or model? There’s a term for that: the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (or, less colorfully, the frequency illusion). When something we haven’t known about is brought to our attention, we suddenly notice it everywhere.
Our interest in follow-up stories is a mirror image of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. Instead of suddenly noticing something that’s always been there, we actively look for something that just popped up. If there’s a shooting in a high school, for example, there will be an uptick in interest for stories about guns, school safety and whatever the shooter’s apparent motivation was.
STRENGTH: Ask two questions: How much was the audience interested in the original story, and how long ago was it? Follow-up stories are most popular when the original story got a lot of interest and the follow-ups come out within at most a few days of the original.
We’re naturally curious. If you can engage the audience’s desire to know how or why, who or what, you’ve got strong interest. This is why so many stories online these days end with “and you’ll never believe what happened next.”
STRENGTH: Students sometimes claim this value just because they don’t know the answer to a question yet: Why did the university replace two restaurants in the student center? That’s not good enough.
The strength of this value depends on how mysterious the mystery is. If it’s something that could be discovered with a simple question, or by searching on Google, it’s no mystery. The best mysteries are those for which the audience cannot imagine what the solution could be, or for which the writer can suggest that the answer is not what most people would expect.
“[O]ur overwhelming tendency to look for what confirms our beliefs and ignore what contradicts our beliefs is well documented,” Samuel McNerney wrote in Scientific American. This can have damaging effects, especially now that the internet makes it very easy to find stories confirming our beliefs and ignore those contradicting them. I don’t recommend using this news value, therefore. But I have to acknowledge that it exists.
STRENGTH: The deeper the split in opinion about a topic and the more defensive one side is about its opinions, the greater the attraction of stories that agree with the beleaguered side’s view.
Personal profit or loss
Wealth isn’t a basic need, even though we may need it to satisfy the ones that are. Still, many people care about their finances. This value accounts for the interest in many kinds of stories: tuition increases, tax cuts, job opportunities and more.
STRENGTH: Note the word “personal” in the label. To get the most out of this value, a story must make clear the direct effect on each individual member of the audience. That’s why good reporters know that when they write about a tax increase, they shouldn’t just mention the percentage. They break it down something like this: “The 1.5 percent tax hike will cost the average resident about $320 more a year.”
A quirk of human curiosity is that the more aware we are of someone, the more we want to know about them.
The easiest example of this value to recognize is individual celebrity. If I make a pronouncement about politics, no journalist would think it worth reporting. But if George Clooney makes a statement, reporters know many people will want to hear it.
Applying this value gets fuzzier when you move beyond individuals. Even on a typical mid-sized college campus, for example, few individual players on the school’s football team have much celebrity recognition. Their names won’t add value to a story. But the football team as a whole may have prominence, so mentioning that someone is a player — a part of that prominent team — may help.
STRENGTH: Prominence is one of the more difficult values to assess. These are some factors to consider
- Prominence is always relative to your audience. People of one generation have a different set than those older or younger. Someone such as a university president may be quite prominent on campus, but wouldn’t draw much interest in a national publication.
- Prominence can be a negative value. Nickelback is well known to a certain audience, but many of those people may hate the band and refuse to read anything about it. Prominence can also interact with “confirmation bias,” so that people read stories that confirm their opinion of someone but avoid those that contradict it.
- It’s not enough just to mention a celebrity’s name. This value works because of our desire to know more about famous people. Your story has to tell me something about a celebrity that I don’t already know. The more you tell me, the greater this value for a given story.
Storytellers — novelists, playwrights, movie directors — can get into arguments about how many basic plots there are. A computer analysis by researchers at the University of Vermont declared that there are only six: rags to riches (a rise from failure to success), tragedy (a fall from success to failure), man in a hole (a fall followed by a rise), Icarus (a rise followed by a fall), Cinderella (rise-fall-rise) and Oedipus (fall-rise-fall). Christopher Booker boiled his list down to seven, with categories such as “overcoming the monster,” a struggle against some obstacle, and “voyage and return” (think Homer’s “Odyssey”). Other lists have as few as three entries or at least as many as 20.
I use “quest” to refer to these basic storytelling plots, with special emphasis on the ones that involve a deeply meaningful search or a struggle against some opponent or obstacle. You won’t find this value in many news stories. It requires a hero.
(Note to public relations majors: When discussing crisis communications, you will hear about a standard structure for viewing a crisis, involving a victim, a villain and a vindicator. That structure is one example of the “quest” value.)
STRENGTH: What’s at stake? How arduous is the hero’s struggle? Are you writing about the struggle, or is it only implied or referred to in passing?
Sorrow, anger and the warm fuzzies
We’re emotion junkies. We seek things that will stir strong emotions. In particular, we are attracted to stories that bring forth tears, get us upset or provide a glow of good feeling. Among the emotions not on the list: disappointment.
Important to remember: This value is about the likely reaction of the audience, not whether such emotions are mentioned in the story.
STRENGTH: How strong an emotional hit will the audience get? How central to the story is the element that will provide it?
Weird or funny
This value also has an emotional component. It covers stories that make the audience laugh, whether in amusement or bewilderment.
As with “sorrow,” remember that this is about the audience’s likely reaction, not the mention of laughter in the story. One student proposed a story announcing that a talent contest would occur in a few weeks, and claimed this value because some of the acts would probably do weird things. That’s like trying to get a laugh from your friends by telling them that you’ve got a great joke you plan to tell them tomorrow.
STRENGTH: How funny or weird is the element, and how prominent will it be in the story?
(All icons in this post are from Icons8.)