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Thursday, March 2, 2006

Why Should I Care? The Values of News

You may not know they're there, but they guide every piece of news you read, watch or listen to. The people who prepare the news probably don't think about them either.

What does it take for a story to make the news? Not every event that happens makes the news. In fact, you may sometimes wonder why certain events get more prominence than others. The answer lies in some research published by two Swedish sociologists, Galtung and Ruge. Galtung and Ruge came up with a list of factors that need to apply for events to make the news. They called these factors news values.

How does this help me?

As a freelance writer, if you want to sell a news story to a paper or magazine, the first eight news values could help you to craft it correctly. The same applies if you are writing a press release. Have you ever asked yourself these questions? (Applicable news values are in brackets.)

  • Am I submitting at the right time to get published? (frequency, composition, consonance)
  • Have I told the story clearly? (unambiguity)
  • Is the story important to my audience? (threshold, meaningfulness, continuity, unexpectedness)

If you have, then you're already using news values. And you didn't even have to think about them.

What are news values?

Here's the list:

1. Frequency. This refers to the time taken by an event. An event is more likely to be reported if it happens at a time that fits in with publication deadlines. Worrying, but true.

2. Threshold. How big is the event and how many people have been affected? If only a few are affected, we may never hear about the event at all.

3. Unambiguity. How clear is the event? Can the reporter tell it easily without confusing the reader, viewer or listener? Is it a complex event or a simple one?

4. Meaningfulness. This is divided into cultural proximity (are the people in the news 'people like us'?) and relevance (does what's happening affect us?)

  • Example: If you live in the US and a disaster happens in the US, it's news. If you live in the US and a disaster happens in India, it may be news if US citizens are involved or if thousands are dead.

5. Consonance. If we already think it's newsworthy (such as a royal wedding or presidential funeral) then it probably is.

6. Unexpectedness. An unexpected or rare event will make the news.

7. Continuity. This relates to a running story. Once something is on news agenda it will stay there for a while. Examples are court cases or issues such as road safety.

8. Composition. This relates to mixing different events for balance. You would have a mixture of domestic and international news; or a mixture of political and human interest news, for example. If you've ever wondered why newscasts often end with fluffy kitten stories, that's the reason.

More news values

Galtung and Ruge didn't stop there. They found a few more news values applied mainly in the West (though I think they are more common everywhere). These are:

9. Reference to elite nations. Countries in the 'developed' world usually make the news at the expense of those in 'developing' countries. So wars, elections and disasters in economic and cultural superpowers make the news wherever you are.

10. Reference to elite persons. This is to do with the cult of celebrity. Stars, major politicians, royalty make the news by virtue of their status, whether they've done anything newsworthy or not.

11 Personalization. This refers to a tendency to emphasize people rather than faceless structures. In the UK, news tends to mention Tony Blair rather than the Labour party he heads.

12. Negativity. We always hear that bad news is good news and this is what Galtung and Ruge found. Nothing sells a paper or grabs viewers like a disaster.

These news values give a guide to the events and people that make the news. The more of these criteria an event matches, the more likely it is to survive the selection process. The news values also affect the priority a story is given. The more news values apply to a story, the more prominent it will be.

If you examine the news that is published and broadcast, you'll find that Galtung and Ruge got it right. Not bad for research that's 33 years old.

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