I received several very interesting and thoughtful responses to my post “Is the Yendi Story “News?” and wanted to share them with you and continue the conversation about what makes a story newsworthy. It’s a question which members of the public often ask, baffled about the content of a newscast or stories on the main pages of a newspaper.
Journalism professor Tony Rogers in an article on About.com outlined the basic criteria as follows:
Impact or Consequences
Loss of Life/Property Destruction
In relating those factors to the Yendi story, communications lecturer and broadcaster Hume Johnson made a similar list on my blog:
5. Human Interest.
“The Yendi story satisfies #4. She is, for all intents and purposes a celebrity – prominent individual in our Jamaican community. So it is news. Yet the particular story is only ‘soft’ news. Should we give attention to soft news? I would say depends on where in the paper you put it. Front page – that would be absolutely scandalous; yet those whose aim is to sell newspapers will trump a political story for a soft news story because the ‘business model’ of the media industry and the revenue agenda would be chief determinant in this scenario.”
The problem, of course, is that these criteria are applied subjectively by editors.
Hillary Profita, formerly of CBS (the home of 60 Minutes) pointed this out in a 2006 article on the company’s websitein the context of a discussion about the role that race and class play in leading US news outlets to cover stories like the disappearance of Natalee Holloway (white, middle-class, teenager), while ignoring that of Marion Fye, (36 years old, a single mother of five children, unemployed and African American).
She suggested that an indicator of the public’s rejection of the criteria applied by editors could be
“…the fact that more are veering toward the Internet to get news, where to a greater degree the news judgement is one’s own.”
She also echoes the sentiment I expressed about how editors and newsroom people decide what is newsworthy in noting that:
“…editors claim to know (what is newsworthy) when they see it. Unfortunately, in my view, that decision seems to boil down to what those of us in newsrooms, and not readers, care about.
And there’s the problem. What draws the interest of people in the news business (what they like to read and write about) often bears little relationship to what people who live in communities like Marion Fye’s care about. In that sense, what newspapers deem “newsworthy” is not actually information that is most relevant in terms of its potential effect on readers’ and viewers’ lives, but what is most out of the ordinary.”
It was in that vein that I had disagreed with Hume’s analysis by stating that:
“The story satisfies no. 1 – proximity – she is a celebrity, but she is ours, she is Jamaican, we all watched her become runner-up in Miss Universe and many people have been following her career. People feel close to her.
It also satisfies no. 5 – human interest. It is also unusual, no. 7 – of course, not in the sense of a woman becoming pregnant for a man, but the surrounding circumstances, the announcement on FB, the reactions and huge response, combined to make the way this story unfolded unusual – that fueled the story still more.
Relevance – no. 3 – I don’t know who determines what is relevant – if people are interested in someone or something, news about that person or thing will always be relevant.
…timeliness – again, she broke the news, the reactions started then she fueled it with the interview, and all this was being reported as it happened.”
Keriann took the discussion further by placing the story squarely within the framework of the social media age.
“It most certainly satisfied news value no.6 as well – conflict. The responses illustrated a conflict of values in the society. The country was clearly divided among those who thought the circumstances were no big deal and those who disapproved, and each side was vociferous about its position. That conflict matters, because each society (especially developing ones) must determine the value systems that will inform policies, laws, etc.
Unusual is also being defined too narrowly as a news value. It does not only address the sensational (man bites dog). It describes that which is unexpected. And the reactions have made it clear that Yendi was not expected to make the choices she did. If she was, there would not have been any heavy interest in her announcement or the aforementioned conflict.
Your argument about timeliness and the age of her pregnancy is also flawed. The stories of the intense reaction were carried within hours of the intense reaction. And it’s the reactions which made the story big. Also, if we’re discussing the pregnancy itself as a story (which it was for entertainment segments), then the age of the pregnancy doesn’t matter. It’s when the public discovers it, that it matters. The birth of former US presidential candidate John Edwards’ love child did not become news until well after the child was born.Should American media have ignored the story because they didn’t know about it as soon as his lover was pregnant? In cases when pregnancies are news, they do not become news when the parents become aware. They become news when the public does.
All journalism students will be familiar with your list of news values because it was developed to provide a means of helping media practitioners determine which stories will be of public interest. The closer an editor or journalist followed those principles, the more s/he was guaranteed public interest, which is the ultimate aim. It’s a shortcut to the right decision because naturally, editors cannot pick up the phone and call every potential news consumer everyday or conduct a focus group before choosing stories. So s/he unconsciously applies the news value test to stories everyday, hoping s/he made the right call. o The level of interest in her story will tell her whether s/he applied the principles well. Overtime, if a news source keeps making the wrong decisions, it will be penalised with low ratings in the market.
But here’s the clincher: in the age of social media when a story immediately goes viral, the public interest is already apparent! When there is already public interest, your system for determining public interest doesn’t need to be dissected because the end result (which the system was set up to determine) has already been achieved. It’s like working an equation backwards. You must get the same result or your inputs were wrong.”
Thanks to all who have commented and Hume and Keriann in particular for their thoughtful and considered respones. I’d love your comments as well. Is the migration to social media an indicator that traditional media are ignoring the interests of the public? Do newsrooms need to rethink how they apply the criteria of what constitutes a newsworthy story? And as Keriann suggests, if a story goes viral on social media, does that make the list redundant?