News Values


News values, or ‘news criteria,’ determine how much prominence a news story is given by a media outlet, and the attention it garners from its audience. These values are not universal and can vary widely between different cultures. In Western practice, decisions on the selection and prioritization of news are ostensibly made by editors on the basis of their experience and intuition.

However, a seminal analysis by Norwegian sociologists Johan Galtung and Mari Ruge in the ‘Journal of Peace Research’ in 1965 showed that several factors are common, such as familiarity (stories that ‘hit close to home’), negativity (‘if it bleeds, it leads’), and Unexpectedness (‘don’t report on fire in a furnace’). Basing his judgement on many years as a newspaper journalist Tim Hetherington has said that ‘anything which threatens people’s peace, prosperity, and well being is news and likely to make headlines.’

Galtung and Ruge put forward a system of twelve factors describing events that together are used as a definition of ‘newsworthiness.’ Their theory argues that the more an event accessed these criteria the more likely it was to be reported on in a newspaper. Additionally, they presented three hypotheses: Additivity (the more factors an event satisfies, the higher the probability that it becomes news), Complementarity (factors will tend to exclude each other), and Exclusion (events that satisfy none or very few factors will not become news).

Major factors include: Frequency (events that occur suddenly and fit well with the news organization’s schedule are more likely to be reported than those that occur gradually or at inconvenient times of day or night, and long-term trends are not likely to receive much coverage), Familiarity (local issues), Negativity (bad news is more newsworthy than good news), Unexpectedness (events out of the ordinary will have a greater effect than everyday occurrences), Unambiguity (events whose implications are clear make for better copy than those that are open to interpretation, or which require extensive context to understand), Personalization (events that can be portrayed as the actions of individuals will be more attractive than one in which there is no such ‘human interest’), and Meaningfulness (the sense of identification the audience has with the topic),

Secondary factors include: Reference to elite nations and persons (superpowers and superstars are covered more often than lesser known countries and people), Conflict (opposition of people or forces), Consonance (stories that fit with the media’s expectations receive more coverage than those that defy them), Continuity (a story that is already in the news gathers inertia because the media organizations are already in place to report on it, and previous reportage may have made the story more accessible to the public), and Composition (stories must compete with one another for space in the media; editors seek to provide a balance of different types of coverage, so that if there is an excess of foreign news for instance, the least important foreign story may have to make way for an item concerned with the domestic news).

Tertiary factors include: Competition (professional competition between media may lead journalists to endorse the news value given to a story by a rival), Co-optation (a story that is only marginally newsworthy in its own right may be covered if it is related to a major running story), Prefabrication (a story that is marginal in news terms but written and available may be selected ahead of a much more newsworthy story that must be researched and written from the ground up), Predictability (an event is more likely to be covered if it has been pre-scheduled), Time constraints (traditional news media such as radio, television and daily newspapers have strict deadlines and a short production cycle, which selects for items that can be researched and covered quickly), and Logistics (although eased by the availability of modern telecommunications, the ability to deploy and control production and reporting staff, and functionality of technical resources can determine whether a story is covered).

A variety of external and internal pressures influence journalists’ decisions on which stories are covered, how issues are interpreted and the emphasis given to them. These pressures can sometimes lead to bias or unethical reporting. Achieving relevance by giving audiences the news they want and find interesting, is an increasingly important goal for media outlets seeking to maintain market share in a rapidly evolving market. This has made news organizations more open to audience input and feedback, and forced them to adopt and apply news values that attract and keep audiences. The growth of interactive media and citizen journalism is fast altering the traditional distinction between news producer and passive audience and may in future lead to a deep-ploughing redefinition of what ‘news’ means and the role of the news industry.

Potentially, news media is exploiting evolutionary instincts to make their messages more salient. Recent studies suggest that audiences can interpret news as a risk signal. Psychologists and primatologists have shown that apes and humans constantly monitor the environment for information that may signal the possibility of physical danger or threat to the individual’s social position. This receptiveness to risk signals is a powerful and virtually universal survival mechanism. A ‘risk signal’ is characterized by two factors, an element of change (or uncertainty) and the relevance of that change to the security of the individual. The same two conditions are observed to be characteristic of news. The news value of a story, if defined in terms of the interest it carries for an audience, is determined by the degree of change it contains and the relevance that change has for the individual or group.

Analysis shows that journalists and publicists manipulate both the element of change and relevance (‘security concern’) to maximize, or some cases play down, the strength of a story. Security concern is proportional to the relevance of the story for the individual, his or her family, social group and societal group, in declining order. At some point there is a ‘Boundary of Relevance,’ beyond which the change is no longer perceived to be relevant, or newsworthy. This boundary may be manipulated by journalists, power elites, and communicators seeking to encourage audiences to exclude, or embrace, certain groups: for instance, to distance a home audience from the enemy in time of war, or conversely, to highlight the plight of a distant culture so as to encourage support for aid programs.

An evolutionary psychology explanation for why negative news have a higher news value than positive news starts with the empirical observation that the human perceptive system and lower level brain functions have difficulty distinguishing between media stimuli and real stimuli. These lower level brain mechanisms which function on a subconscious level make basic evaluations of perceptive stimuli, focus attention on important stimuli, and start basic emotional reactions. Research has also found that the brain differentiates between negative and positive stimuli and reacts quicker and more automatically to negative stimuli which are also better remembered. This likely has evolutionary explanations with it often being important to quickly focus attention on, evaluate, and quickly respond to threats. While the reaction to a strong negative stimulus is to avoid, a moderately negative stimulus instead causes curiosity and further examination. Negative media news is argued to fall into the latter category which explains their popularity. Lifelike audiovisual media are argued to have a particularly strong effects compared to reading.

Women have on average stronger avoidance reactions to moderately negative stimuli. They point to negative news as the main reason for avoiding international news. The stronger avoidance reaction to moderately negative stimuli can be explained evolutionary as it being the role of men to investigate and potentially respond aggressively to the threat while women and children withdraw. Men and women also differ on average on how they enjoy, evaluate, remember, comprehend, and identify with the people in negative news depending on if the news are negatively or positively framed. One explanation may that the negative news are framed according to male preferences by the often male journalists who cover such news and that a more positive framing may attract a larger female audience.

One Comment to “News Values”

  1. Very interesting take on new media

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