What is ‘newsworthiness’, and where does it come from?

Research conducted into the meaning of ‘Newsworthiness’ as a term for establishing the importance of information as ‘news’, submitted as coursework for a module on media law and ethics at City University London.


What is ‘newsworthiness’, and where does it come from?

“The term ‘newsworthiness’ is fascinating and mysterious in equal parts” says McGregor (2002). The word has been defined as “interesting enough to the general public to warrant reporting” (Merriam Webster, 2015), however its values are, as Harcup and O’Neil argue (2001: 261) “not written down or codified by news organisations, but exist in daily practice and in knowledge gained on the job”. Arguably the most widely accepted definition of newsworthiness comes from Galtung and Ruge’s 1965 study asking “How do ‘events’ become ‘news’?”.

This essay will examine the content of the 1965 study, its alternatives and their criticisms, in an international news context. It will argue that newsworthiness can not be entirely defined as a single list of factors, but instead remains a theory into how news is selected.

Galtung and Ruge studied how overseas events did or did not become foreign news in the Norwegian press. The study remains the “most influential explanation” of news values according to McQuail, (cited in Harcup and O’Neil, 2001: 264) and “has long been regarded as a landmark study of news values and news selection” (Watson, cited in Harcup and O’Neil, 2001: 262). As part of their findings, the pair listed twelve ‘news factors’ which could determine whether an event was considered newsworthy – they were: frequency, threshold, unambiguity, meaningfulness, consonance, unexpectedness, continuity, composition, reference to elite nations, reference to elite people, reference to persons and reference to something negative. Given its time, before televised news became part of the mainstream, these twelve factors could theoretically predict when an event would become ‘news’. Or, as long as the event ‘assumes a certain definable shape’, something which can be “fixed, objectified, measured and named”, (Lippmann, cited in Allen, 2010: 63) it can be considered newsworthy.

However McGregor (2002: 1-3) argues that while Galtung and Ruge’s theory is not ‘modern’, it “has not been critically challenge since it was written. And while journalists do not adhere to formal codes of newsworthiness that can be identifies and promulgated and therefore ‘learnt’ by the public”. McGregor states that “news values need to reflect the dramatic, profound changes to the mediascape…with four new news values: visualness, emotion, conflict and the ‘celebrification’ of journalists”.

On the celebrification of journalists, McGregor (2002: 5) notes that “news is relying on journalists not just to bring us the news, but to be the news, to be the source of news and its presenter, even though there may be a news programme host who is separate from the journalist”. The change is inevitable, with hindsight, following the 1965 study – as Brighton and Foy (2007: 2) pointed out, broadcast news was “still in the first flush of youth, newspapers were essentially serious publications and the internet did not exist”. In light of the newer medium, McGregor (2002: 5) thinks that “the piece to camera, can be partially credited for this new news value. It relies on virtual direct address to the viewer and involves reporters in reasserting the significance of their own contribution…and gives a new twist to Galtung and Ruge’s notion of personalisation.”

Changes to the way news is presented to its audience has also led to an increase in the celebrification of journalists – as Harcup (2015: 30-40) refers to “Twitter streams, news tickers, 24-hour rolling news channels on TV and constantly updated news websites…journalists have a lot more time and space to fill with news than ever before. And fill is exactly what they often have to do.” This need for “fill” is a likely cause of the celebrification – but arguably, so does a lack of exciting visuals, as Gyimah (2008) suggests: “it brands you, says you were there and can often be used as a bridge when there’s a dearth of video to fill, as in court reports.” Taylor (1993) made an accurate reference to the celebrification of journalists using the term “standup syndrome”, seeing journalists becoming part of the news story: “A lot of pieces, especially from Washington, are done over not particularly compelling pictures, because they’re relating issues, not events…with the standup, the correspondent looking into the camera, people listen up to that” (Cochran, cited in Taylor, 1993).

However with visuals giving essence to how newsworthy a story is is explained further by McGregor (2002: 3): “the presence or absence of visualness, and the ability of journalists to ‘get pictures’ determine whether an event is selected as news. The hypothesis is as simple as suggesting that an earthquake killing 1000 people in remote Siberia will not be covered as well as an earthquake killing ten people in London, unless by some chance the Siberian disaster was captured on film or a survivor had access to a television studio.” The earthquake example also has close ties to another of Galtung and Ruge’s 12 factors: reference to elite nations. Gans (1979: 31) states that “three types of countries dominate foreign news: America’s closest or most powerful political allies, especially in Europe; the Communist countries and their major allies; the rest of the world, which is reported only sporadically.” Gans (1979: 37) adds that foreign news, in America, “deals either with stories thought relevant to Americans or American interests…because American news media devote less air time or print space to foreign news than to domestic news, they often limit themselves only to the most dramatic overseas events.” So generally speaking, if a story has an “impact on the nation and the national interest – what affects the nation, its interests and its well-being” (1979: 148), then it will be considered as news.

Marks offered an explanation into why this is in the context of the Boko Horam Baga massacre which was overshadowed by media coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. On American news network CNN, Marks explained that ‘while the United States has the capability to root out Boko Haram, it is not a priority. Black West Arfrica is not a priority but if Boko Haram were in some other region of the world perhaps in “White Africa” (North Africa) or in the Middle East, it would “cause more alarm,”’ (Cited in PigMine 6, 2015). Hay notes that media coverage of the two events deeply contrasted: “While both attacks are unmitigated atrocities, worthy of condemnation and commemoration, the seemingly inverted disparity in coverage has not gone unnoticed” (2015). Hay goes as far as suggest that ‘situations like these are also worth examining as media phenomena…the debacle clearly points towards serious failures in editorial judgment and a systematic problem with the way we choose which stories to prioritise as writers and as readers alike.” But without the factors outlined by Galtung and Ruge (1965) and McGregor (2002), and many other opinions of what newsworthiness is, it is proven that news events that don’t affect a nation, or the people within, in which a news outlet operates, will not be covered as thoroughly as other events which seem to fulfil the criteria.

But what journalists believe is an important event that needs covering, and what journalists believe is an event covered with importance, are two separate ideas, argues Strömbäck, Karlsson and Hopmann (Cited in Franklin, 2013: 60-66). Under a study identifying what journalists believe are ‘actual and normative importance of different event properties’, a clear indication is that “event properties related to perceived audience interest, production routines and economic considerations are to be more important for the actual news selection than they should be.” More shockingly, events which “increases people’s awareness of problems in society” or “has consequences for people’s daily life” are considered the most important events to cover, yet actually the results of the study suggest that an event which is ‘sensational and unexpected, dramatic and thrilling or an exclusive for the news organisation’ is covered with more priority.

The results of Strömbäck, Karlsson and Hopmann’s study (Cited in Franklin, 2013: 61) also pick up on the trend in events that ‘is of interest to many people’, for example: In January 2015, New York Daily News published an article titled “Twitter users proclaim ‘Je suis Charlie’ after terror attack kills 12 at Charlie Hebdo.” In this case, arguably, the fact that the US Embassy in Paris changed its Twitter avatar in support of the satire magazine, would not have been newsworthy as defined by Galtung and Ruge. However the social trend that was so many individuals in America showing similar support, and the news peg from the US Embassy, is news on the basis of being: a reference to elite nations, reference to persons, meaningfulness, consonance, continuity and reference to something negative (Galtung and Ruge: 1965). And arguably, since trending topics is a relatively new phenomena, it can be seen as being unusual; the third suggested factor of newsworthiness according to Haussman (1998: 14).

And often, something unexpected is something negative: Haussman (1998: 14) states that “airplane crashes assume importance because it is still highly unusual for a vehicle to drop from the sky” – an airplane crash is a very much a negative occurrence, nor is it a predetermined event (or ‘on-diary’ event – rather than the knowledge of such event taking place). Wilkins and Patterson (Cited in Shoemaker and Cohen, 1987) state that “the best news story is someone else’s disaster” – or, as Halberstam explains, “good news will be rarer than bad news” (Cited in Cohen, 1992: 11-13). “Good things…don’t just happen but develop; a deep romantic relationship doesn’t suddenly arise though it can suddenly end, as when one partner dies. This is not to deny the existence of single fortune events; the signing of a peace treaty, a righteous poverty-stricken individual winning the lottery, or… the coronation of a king are felicitous happenings and genuine news items” – they just “occur far less frequency than unpleasant events”. And the surprise element, that occurs when something negative happens, is unexpected. The two factors of unexpectedness and reference to something negative prove, as Haussman and Halberstam suggest, as definitive factors in what is considered newsworthy.

But unusual is an ambiguous term to define in news: Ingram and Henshall (2008: ch1) use the widely quoted aphorism “man bites dog” when referring to unusual events making the news. And Stephens also makes reference to ‘man bites dog’ noting that “in 16th- and 17th-century printed news publications, it sometimes seemed as if a person not only had to bite a dog but cook and serve it as well to be considered worthy of a newsbook or a ballad.” But contrary to many attempts to define newsworthiness, Ingram and Henshall explicitly note that “if it is not new or unusual, if it is not interesting or significant, and if it will not affect your readers’ or listeners’ lives, then it is not news” – a strong and misleading approach to defining newsworthiness and presenting it to the public that McGregor, who stated that ‘newsworthiness could not be learned by the public’ (2002: 1-3), opposes. And the criticisms and proposed amendments set out by McGregor prove that the term newsworthiness can not be defined as a sole list of factors which determine news selection. It highlights that the changing media landscape demands different ideas and concepts in which news is chosen.

In conclusion, it seems that the term ‘newsworthiness’ will be defined, in attempt and repeatedly, by academics, journalists and students of journalism alike for decades to come, but its true meaning is subjective to an individual’s perceptions of what news is and the process a story goes through before being published. The word is useful when distinguishing factors and the process in which a story is chosen and reported, but its definition will change as the journalism and news industry develops. And one key part of this development is the financial side: how news organisations are funded because at the end of the day, “news is a way of making money just as selling bread is a way of making money” (Wilson: 1996: 29) and news organisations around the world are constantly having to decide what news is important enough to publish or broadcast and balancing it with what their reader, listener or viewer is interested in knowing about in order to maintain a business model. Perhaps arguably in this case, what newsworthy is, is what keeps the business model of a news organisation afloat.

As the decision as to whether an event makes a newscast, newspaper, magazine or book lies in the hands of a news executive, Haussman (1998) notes that “the first step in deciding what’s news is to asses whether it has any immediate effect on readers, viewers or listeners”. But now it is quite possibly to also assess whether it has any long-term impact on the news outlet’s business model.

Similarly to Galtung and Ruge, Haussman lists six criteria for news that are “not definitive or all-inclusive’” (1998: 13), but do provide some basis for judging whether the particular event is, indeed, a news story. Gans (1979) also attempts to list news values – but all of these attempts to define newsworthiness are based somewhat around Galtung and Ruge’s initial study, albeit with amendments to modernise it. As Baudains (2014) writes, “perhaps it is this very mythical nature which explains why the discussion will never end, because it is both intangible and subjective, consigned to myth”. Halberstam asks whether “there is a philosophical question” to defining newsworthiness, one which I have to agree given the difficulty in pinpointing exactly what the term means. But as Halberstam thinks, “news is whatever news people say it is,” and maybe that’s right.

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