The Basics of Journalism: News Values

On every journalism course there is a module, often exclusively one of the first you learn, that covers the very essence of news – the bread and butter of every editorial decision – News Values. A set of criteria that at the start of your career you’ll be continually referring to, but that pretty soon will become so ingrained in you psyche that they will become second nature to you. You will have developed a sixth sense, if you will, that will have you sniffing out a news story within 10 miles of your newsroom. Certain Newsroom Editors will argue, as they have received less formal training (degrees etc.) covering journalism, that this sense if something that cannot be taught – but through experience I disagree. I will admit that without the basic urge to become a journalist the skills can never be put into practice correctly, but the skills in themselves are easy to learn.

A quick note, news values, or criteria, vary between cultures, so this blog will deal exclusively with Western ideas surrounding them.

So let’s start at the beginning…

News Values as we know them in the UK were first written through the analysis of Galtung and Ruge who decided that the ‘newsworthiness’ of a story could be determined using 12 criteria.  Additons were made over the years by other scholars but the list is by no means exhaustive. Especially since the rise of citizen journalism and social media, the role of a news editor is getting less and less defined. Also having to contend with the blurring of what is news i.e. the prominence of celebrity news and the need for hyper local material. But these things will be covered in future blogs.

Think of News Values as a checklist for every story you come across – with them you can decide which stories to chase and which to ignore and also create your running order.

  • 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. Long-term trends are not likely to receive much coverage.
  • Negativity: Bad news is more newsworthy than good news.
  • Unexpectedness: If an event is out of the ordinary it will have a greater effect than something that is an everyday occurrence.
  • Unambiguity: Events whose implications are clear make for better copy than those that are open to more than one interpretation, or where any understanding of the implications depends on first understanding the complex background in which the events take place.
  • 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.”
  • Meaningfulness: This relates to the sense of identification the audience has with the topic. “Cultural proximity” is a factor here — stories concerned with people who speak the same language, look the same, and share the preoccupations as the audience receive more coverage than those concerned with people who speak different languages, look different and have different preoccupations.
  • Reference to elite nations: Stories concerned with global powers receive more attention than those concerned with less influential nations.
  • Reference to elite persons: Stories concerned with the rich, powerful, famous and infamous get more coverage.
  • Conflict: Opposition of people or forces resulting in a dramatic effect. Stories with conflict are often quite newsworthy.
  • Consonance: Stories that fit with the media’s expectations receive more coverage than those that defy them (and for which they are thus unprepared). Note this appears to conflict with unexpectedness above. However, consonance really refers to the media’s readiness to report an item.
  • Continuity: A story that is already in the news gathers a kind of inertia. This is partly because the media organizations are already in place to report the story, and partly because previous reportage may have made the story more accessible to the public (making it less ambiguous).

Composition: Stories must compete with one another for space in the media. For instance, editors may 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. In this way the prominence given to a story depends not only on its own news values but also on those of competing stories. (Galtung and Ruge, 1965)

And if that isn’t enough to get you thinking how about these add ons from Bell (1991) and Schelsinger (1987):

  • Competition: Commercial or 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. (Bell, 1991)
  • 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.
  • Logistics: Although eased by the availability of global communications even from remote regions, the ability to deploy and control production and reporting staff, and functionality of technical resources can determine whether a story is covered. (Schlesinger, 1987)

For those of you just starting out in journalism a great way to practice is to look at a newspaper or watch/listen to a news bulletin and try to identify the criteria above. Check to see if you agree with the running order or if you would have chosen differently. Despite having a list to follow news editors still have personal feelings and you should always go with your gut on a story, once you’ve been through the list of course!

If you would like any more information about News Values or have any other questions about journalism please get in touch and I’ll cover it in a future blog post.

Next time: Objectivity in News

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