What makes an event newsworthy? In this article, we will look at why some events make the news while other events are ignored.
A news organization broadcast or magazine or newspaper has a lot of limitations:
- The number of pages to fill in a newspaper or magazine
- The number of minutes in a broadcast program
- The number of staff members available
- The amount of time available to put together a story for publication or broadcast.
News broadcast producers and newspaper editors, consequently, need to decide what stories to report on, what stories to put on the front page or lead off the broadcast, what stories to briefly mention and what stories to ignore completely. In other words, they need to decide which events and information are ‘newsworthy’.
Pre-reading Question: What are some of the things that make a story newsworthy?
It is important to note that the idea of ‘newsworthiness’ presented in this article is from the point of view of news producers, editors and reporters. You may think an event is very important or inspiring, and you may be right, but if that event doesn’t align with what producers or editors consider to be ‘newsworthy’, that important event may never appear in the news.
A. The 15 Factors
This list includes more than 15 factors in total, but related factors have been grouped together.
This factor includes things like the consequences of an event, the number of people involved and the relative importance of the story.
1.1 Consequences: How important is the story to the audience? What are the consequences? Will these consequences affect the lives or readers listeners and viewers? Will the story affect their decisions and beliefs? Is the story related to the public good?
1. 2 Number of people: How many people are involved or affected? For events like protests, accidents, arrests, disease outbreaks and even things like concerts, the more people involved, the more newsworthy a story is normally perceived to be.
1.3 Relative importance: What else has been happening that day? If it is a slow news day, a relatively unimportant story has a greater chance of getting published.
1.4 Everyday life & niche interests: Is the story related to everyday things like home decoration, dieting, cooking, exercise and handling stress? Although none of these topics may be important to the audience as a whole, each of the topics is of interest to some people.
Is there conflict, scandal and/or controversy? Did a lot of people get killed or injured at the same time? News organizations thrive on negative news; there is even a saying: ‘If it bleeds, it leads’.
A news story with a negative angle (Immigrants are causing increases in unemployment!) is normally considered more newsworthy than a similar story with a positive angle (Immigrants are causing increases in job creation!).
Research has shown that:
- News organizations tend to focus more on negative news (e.g., Why Is News So Negative These Days?)
- People tend to prefer reading bad news even if they state otherwise (e.g., Why is all the news bad?)
- Negative news stories tend to provoke more powerful immediate psychological responses than negative news stories (e.g., Cross-national evidence of a negativity bias in psychophysiological reactions to news)
With the rise of social media, a common strategy used by the traditional media is to provide one-sided ‘hot takes’ on a controversial issue in order to drum up views and shares. Supporters of one side will post links to the article on social media to support their views (“See, I’m right!) while outraged supporters of the other side will also share the same article to show their discontent (“Can you believe someone published this garbage?”).
This factor involves recency and duration.
3.1 Recency: How recent is the event? If an event happened within the past 24 hours it has a greater chance of being reported, especially when it comes to newspaper reporting. This is because newspapers typically operate on a 24-day cycle (Timing Is Everything in a News Cycle).
Even the time of day can have an effect. You may notice that when a government department has bad news, it may hold a press conference at an inconvenient time like Friday evening. A press conference at that time means that it is too late for the story to be included in the evening and late news television broadcasts that day, and it would be a mad rush for editors to try to include the story in the Saturday edition of a newspaper. By the time the next day rolls around, the story has already become less ‘timely’ and it may be pushed off the front page or even pushed out of the news altogether. Online news and 24-hour news networks limit this news-killing strategy somewhat, but it is still quite effective.
3.2 Duration: How does the event unfold? Is it a single event (like a terrorist attack) or does it take place during a long period of time (like automobile deaths during an entire year)? If something is spread out over a long period of time, that can make it seem less newsworthy although its actual impact may be far greater than the effects of a one-off event.
Is what happened close (geographically) to the audience? A massive automobile accident in your city might get reported in the local news, but is unlikely to make the national news.
5. Perceived Importance
These factors are related to how prominent the people, places and/or events are perceived to be? This can involve things like celebrity, fame, cultural proximity, race and class. A key word here is ‘perceived’. Is a celebrity’s private struggles really more important than some random person’s? No. but they are PERCEIVED to be more important.
5.1 Fame: Are the people involved celebrities? Is the place famous? For example, the fire at the Notre-Dame de Paris in 2019 (the photo below is by Adam Nossiter and Aurelien Breeden) attracted a lot of attention because the cathedral is a world-famous monument in a world-famous city. If something happens in a well-known city like New York, it is more likely to catch the international media’s attention than if it happens in a smaller city—like Albany or Rochester—in the same state.
5.2 Cultural proximity: Most news organizations in developed countries like the US tend to do very little reporting on news from the Global South (e.g., Africa, South America, Central America, South Asia and Southeast Asia). To many Americans, this huge region is considered not only distant In terms of geography, but also less similar culturally and as being less important. Therefore, a bomb attack in Paris will likely get a lot more coverage in the American media than a similar bomb attack in Nairobi.
5.3 Class, race & social status: Related to the above is the issue of class and race. For example, if a wealthy, white doctor in an American city goes missing, that is much more likely to make the local news than if a homeless black person suffers the same fate. In the Hong Kong news media, something that happens in America or England is much more likely to be reported than a similar event in countries such as the Philippines or Indonesia even though Hong Kong is close geographically to those Southeast Asian countries AND is home to hundreds of thousands of foreign workers from those countries.
How easy is it to get the information and create the news article or segment? Can the reporter just slightly adapt a report from a press agency like the Associated Press? Is there a press conference that makes it easy to get soundbites? Is there a press release package that has an article basically ready for printing with just a few minor changes? Is there an ‘expert’ on hand to provide information? Has someone provided an eye-witness or do the reporters have to track down potential witnesses?
‘Convenience’ is often left out of lists of factors affecting newsworthiness because it is unrelated to the actual story. However, the ease with which an article or broadcast news segment can be produced can greatly affect whether or not a story gets covered.
7. Human interest
Does the story appeal to our emotions?
7.1 Heartwarming: Is it heartwarming, touching, cute or amusing?
7.2 Pathos: Does the story make the audience feel sad? Is it particularly heart-wrenching?
7.3. That time of year: Is the story related to an upcoming holidays like Independence Day, Christmas or New Year’s Day?
7.4 The extreme: Is the event especially horrifying, unique, mysterious or odd?
7.5 Visual interest: Are there eye-catching photos or video footage of the event?
How uncommon is the story? Is the thing featured in the story the biggest, smallest, most dangerous, newest or the first its kind? Something unusual (like a total solar eclipse) or the first of its kind is often considered newsworthy. For example, when Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon, that was a massive news story. Subsequent lunar landings, however, seemed less newsworthy and received less and less media attention as the years went by.
Is the story related to something—like the MeToo movement or the Extinction Rebellion—that is receiving widespread media coverage or is creating a buzz on social media?
The effect of trendiness on newsworthiness pre-dates social media. For example, during the early 1980s, there was a period in which stories about supposed Satanic rituals were popular in the American media.
If all the competitors are running with a story, can a news organization afford NOT to report on a story and run the risk of looking out-of-touch?
Will reporting the story keep a news organization ahead of its competitors? If a reporter can provide a ‘scoop’ (i.e., being the first to publish a story), that is a strong incentive to publish the story as quickly as possible. It can help make a news organization seem to be more authoritative—it sets the trends rather than just follows them.
10. Support for the community: Can the story help the news organization connect with the community, charities and the local arts scene? It is good for business if the media organization is perceived as an integral part of the community. Most local newspapers will support the local arts scene by publishing reviews of movies, concerts, plays and art shows. In some cases, the articles help readers make choices about how they will spend their time, but sometimes (e.g., a review for a one-off performance of a play or concert), the review just lets people know about what is going on in their city and provides support for local culture.
Does the story follow-up on something that was just published? Is the story one that gets reported from time to time? Can anything be recycled from previous reports? Is the story about something the audience is familiar with?
Familiarity is generally a good thing when it comes to newsworthiness, but if something happens again and again, it can lead to over-familiarity and it will start to get ignored. For example in the US, there are a few hundred mass shootings (in which four or more people are killed) each year. The vast majority of these will not make the national news. Similarly, during the American occupation of Iraq, there were a few hundred terrorist attacks every year in that country. Only the most extreme of these would ever be reported by international media.
Recurring stories are similar stories that get printed or broadcast periodically. For example, every couple of years Hong Kong newspapers will run stories on things like cage homes and teen suicide. The teen suicide rate has been relatively constant for many years (Intuitive guide to alleviating depression and suicides in Hong Kong). Of course, some years it is a little lower and some years a little higher. If it is a year in which the rate is higher, you will likely see a ‘teen suicides are increasing’ story. Similarly cage homes—small apartments in which the rooms are subdivided into tiny cubicles— have been around for many years. They get reported on from time to time, but nothing ever really changes.
Is the story very clear or can it be made to look very clear? The protests in Hong Kong in 2019 were very complex (The Hong Kong Protests of 2019-2020), but were usually presented in a simple way (i.e., youth fighting for freedom). In contrast, the much larger farmers’ protests in India (which may have been the largest protests in history) were largely ignored by the mass media in Western countries at least partly because it was difficult to briefly and clearly explain what the farmers were fighting for. You can try reading this Wikipedia article and see if you can fully understand the farmers complaints: 2020–2021 Indian farmers’ protest. The story of the farmers’ protests also had the added hurdles of taking place in the Global South (Factor 5.2: Cultural Proximity), having strong ties to socialism and communism (Factor 13: Consonance) and being against the government of an American ally (Factor 14: Adversaries and allies).
Does the narrative of the story match the beliefs that are predominant in that society? Examples for the American mass media would include beliefs like:
- Anyone can get rich if they work hard enough (e.g., the rags-to-riches story, the American dream)
- An underdog can prevail with enough grit and perseverance
- The higher you climb, the further you fall (e.g., the downfall of a celebrity)
- Communism is bad and capitalism is good
- Our country and its culture and political systems are exceptional and deserve to be emulated (i.e., American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny)
The opposite of consonance is dissonance. If a story is dissonant—that is, it is going against a society’s commonly held beliefs—it may be less likely to make the news.
14. Adversaries & allies
Does the story make political adversaries, an enemy state or a competitor look bad? If so, that can make the story more ‘newsworthy.’ During the 1980s, the American media had a lot of negative coverage about Japan (a rising economic competitor) and the Soviet Union (a military and geopolitical rival). In the 2000s, that negative focus switched to Islamic countries. For the past few years, the focus has been on China.
If the story makes an ally look bad, that can lead to the story going unreported.
Similarly, if a news story makes an adversary look good; news organizations may just kill the story or try to find a way to put a negative spin on it. For example, the American public broadcasting network PBS produced a documentary on poverty alleviation in China (entitled China’s War on Poverty), but it was quickly pulled from the network. The stated reason for removing the documentary was that there were concerns about editorial independence, but the American producer of the film stated that he had total independence. The more likely reason is that the film presented a geo-political adversary in an overly favorable light.
15. Bias & influence
Does the news organization have an editorial bias? Does the story fit with the personal biases of the writers, editors and/or owners? Do the advertisers or sponsors have any influence? Is there a danger of getting sued if the story is published? Are the reporters or editors working with members of the intelligence community? This issue of influence is discussed on greater detail in my article The Roles of the News Media.
Which of the above factors are most important when it comes to newsworthiness? The following two kinds of stories would definitely be considered newsworthy: (1) a single incident involving a lot of deaths that very recently occurred in a famous place that is not part of the Global South and (2) the election/selection or death of a head of state of a very influential country. What other events would you consider to be ‘must-print’ stories?
Unfortunately, many of the 15 factors mentioned above can have negative effects such as:
- important stories going unreported,
- unethical reporting
- long terms negative effects on the audience
B. The Ignored Stories
A lot of important events can get unfairly buried in the news because they are not considered newsworthy. In Canada, for example, there is a stretch of highway between Prince George and Prince Rupert in the province of British Columbia that is now known as the Highway of Tears (www.highwayoftears.org). Since 1970, it is estimated that over 80 women have been killed or have gone missing there.
Three serial killers have been convicted as well as a few solo murderers. That has all the makings of a newsworthy story: mass murder! multiple serial killers! However, it wasn’t until 2002, three decades after the first known murders, that the cases made the news in major urban newspapers in western Canada. That was when a young woman named Nicole Hoar was murdered. Why weren’t the other murders and disappearances newsworthy? The following factors were likely at play:
- Factor 5.3 (Race, class & social status): More than half of the victims were indigenous women and many were quite poor, which is why many of them were hitchhiking or walking along the highway when they disappeared.
- Factor 3 (Timeliness): In many of the cases, the murders were discovered only after human remains were found. Also, it wasn’t a single event; the cases were spread out over decades.
- Factor 6 (Convenience): It was not easy to get information and police were not actively seeking media coverage.
- Factor 11 (Unambiguity): A missing person’s case has many loose ends.
At the moment, a similar kind of case is playing out in Canada. There are now many news reports of mass graves of hundred of indigenous children being found at Canada’s notorious residential schools (all of which had finally closed by 1997). It is not like parents hadn’t noticed that their, children who had been taken away from them, never returned home. It is not like there were no ‘graduates’ of the school who had witnessed systematic abuse. The media at the time simply wasn’t interested.
Entire continents are also largely ignored. In the US, for example, there is very little in the news about the Global South (e.g., Africa, South America, South Asia and Southeast Asia). And the stories that do get published tend to be to reconfirm existing beliefs (e.g., Western Media use of the Third World Construct: A Framing Analysis of its Validity). For example, Africa is often presented as being all warlords and famines:
- The Media and Africa: The Portrayal of Africa in the New York Times
- “Shithole” Countries? The Media’s Portrayal of Africa Reconsidered)
- Hiding the Real Africa
Similarly, India is presented as a filthy slum; China is presented as being full of impoverished, brainwashed and oppressed people; and South America is presented as being awash in drugs and corruption.
Another thing that often gets ignored is what happens to people after the news media has moved on from the main story. Large mass shootings and natural disasters are frequently reported, but in most instances, after a few days, the news media will have moved on and the stories of the victims and survivors are ignored. Here is an amazing and heartwarming video about a woman who survived the Fukushima tsunami. Such new stories are quite rare in the mainstream media.
C. Unethical Reporting
The factors affecting newsworthiness can also lead to unethical reporting if editors and reporters put ‘newsworthiness’ ahead of accuracy.
One obvious example of this is the case in which journalist Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for her article on an eight-year-old heroine addict; and it was later discovered that the story was completely made-up.
Another case of unethical reporting occurred in Hong Kong in 1998 and involved how the Apple Daily newspaper covered a murder-suicide case in which a woman had thrown her two young children from an apartment building before committing suicide. Apparently not satisfied with the ‘drama’ level of the story, the newspaper paid the widower of the woman, Chan Kin-hong, to pose for pictures with two prostitutes and then ran a front page story about how unremorseful he was. In essence, they simply fabricated a story in order to make the tragedy more sensational and dramatic.
These are just two cases. There are many others:
- List of scandals in British journalism
- Famous Cases of Journalistic Fraud: A Reading List
- Journalistic scandals (a list)
- Yellow Journalism: The “Fake News” of the 19th Century (unethical reporting isn’t something new)
D. Negative Effects of Negative News
As mentioned earlier, news organizations tend to focus on conflict, scandal and death. How does this focus affect consumers of the news? Research has shown that long-term effects or reading large amounts of bad news can lead to anxiety, depression and an overall pessimistic review of the world (e.g., You Asked: Is It Bad for You to Read the News Constantly?) and can lead people to developer negative attitudes towards groups that are often stereotyped in the news (e.g., Effects of Long-Term Exposure to News Stereotypes on Implicit and Explicit Attitudes and Impact of the Media).
E. My Personal Experiences
In this section, I will briefly describe three news stories that involved me and explain what made them newsworthy.
1. Child & Santa
Here is my first appearance in the news. What are the factors that made this photo and caption newsworthy?
This photo was likely in the news because:
- Factor 7.3 (That time of year): It is just before Christmas, so a ‘kid-with-Santa’ photo is newsworthy
- Factor 6 (Convenience): I was visiting my grandmother, who lived near the main offices of the newspaper. It is likely that an editor just told a photographer to ‘go out and get a kid-with-Santa photo’ and that particular Santa was the closest one to the newspaper offices.
- Factor 8: (Rarity): The surname ‘Noel‘ literally means ‘Christmas’; think of the Christmas carol The First Noel. What an amazing coincidence—a Christmas photo of a kid named Noel! However, that is not my surname. I don’t know if the reporter or editor simply made it up or whether my grandmother did (she was whimsical). In any case, I learned from a very early age (one-and-a-half, not two), that newspapers were careless with facts.
My second appearance in the news, was on a national television broadcast in Canada. The news story featured footage of me participating in a protest in London, England in 1984. The protest was against plans to have the American military station nuclear missiles on the British Isles. I was filmed carrying a Canadian flag along with another person. That protest—and shot of me—made the news in Canada because
- Factor 1.2 (Number of people): It was a very large protest.
- Factor 5.1 (Fame): It was in a famous city.
- Factor 5.2 (Cultural proximity): England has close ties to Canada.
- Factor 1.1 (Consequences): The video footage of the Canadian flag was helpful in creating the feeling that the story was important to the Canadian audience.
3, A Student Project
In 2003, When I was teaching at City University of Hong Kong, one of my duties was to supervise groups of students working on their Final Year Project in an English for Professional Communication Program (Higher Diploma). For their projects, students would work with companies or non-governmental organizations to conduct fundraising or public relations campaigns. One of my student groups ran a highly successful PR campaign for the Chiropractic Doctors’ Association of Hong Kong. The students conducted research on two things that might affect the health of young children: carrying heavy school bags and having poor posture when using the computer.
After completing the research, the students organized a press conference at the university to announce the findings. Their research was reported in the evening new and late news broadcast of all of Hong Kong’s television stations at the time (TVB Pearl, TVB Jade, ATV World, ATV Home), was the lead story on the TVB broadcasts, was featured in more than a dozen newspapers and even was reported by a radio station in Singapore.
Why did that news story—which was a student research project—get so much attention in the media?
- Factor 1.3 (Relative Importance): It was a slow news day, and the students deliberately chose to schedule the press conference on Monday, a day of the week when governments and businesses in Hong Kong tend NOT to have press conferences.
- Factor 3 (Timeliness): It was newly released research, so it was timely.
- Factor 6 (Convenience): The students made it very convenient for reporters. First, there was a press conference at which chiropractic doctors were on hand to explain the data and answer questions. Second, the students included a press release (hard and soft copies) including the original report, a summary that could form the basis of an article and relevant graphics. Third, the time of the press conference was convenient for reporters. The press conference was in the middle of the morning, so members of the press had enough time for to get ready before attending and lots of time afterward to prepare a story for the evening news or the next day’s paper.
- Factor 1 (Impact): It was of some concern to many readers—especially those with young children
- Factor 2 (Drama): The story was negative in tone, The research findings suggested that around a third of children were at risk of developing spine problems.
- Factor 13 (Consonance): The story supported a larger narrative—that children in Hong Kong are overworked and stressed out.
- Factor 11 (Continuity): It was a recurring story—every few years in Hong Kong the issue of young children struggling with heavy school bags gets reported in the media.
- Factor 12 (Unambiguity): It had an unambiguous message, sort of—children need to carry lighter loads and parents should also consider buying backpacks that are designed to distribute weight more evenly. On the surface, the message was unambiguous, but in fact the story did have a lot of ambiguity. The research was a student project, so there were of course questions about the reliability of the data. However, this was not mentioned in any of the news reports. Instead, the reporters all went with phrases like “Researchers at City University today reported that….” Also not mentioned was the fact that the research was sponsored by a manufacturer of ‘spine-friendly’ backpacks, so there was a potential conflict of interest. There was ambiguity, but it could be easily swept under the rug.
If any one of the above factors were missing, I doubt the story would have received as much media exposure as it did.
On the one hand, I was proud of the hardworking students (they had also developed a teaching program that was introduced to tens of thousands of primary school students). On the other hand, I was disturbed at how the news organizations presented the report as being written by ‘university researchers’.
By now, you should have a good understanding of the many reasons that can lead to a news story getting (or not getting) media exposure and how these factors can distort the news and can even distort our perceptions of the world around us.
The subjective nature of ‘newsworthiness’ means that it is important for us, as consumers of the news, to
- Question the news that is being presented to us and
- Seek out a wide range of different sources of news (from large news companies to local publishers to independent news organizations to social media).
G. Research Questions
Newsworthiness lends itself to quantitative research. If you interested in this topic, you can create a checklist of factors affecting newsworthiness and try to determine which factors occur most frequently in news publications or broadcasts. You can:
- Look at one publication or broadcast news program news and examine all the stories published or broadcast within a specific time frame
- Compare two different news organizations (e.g., CNN and Fox News)
- Compare the newsworthiness factors of a publication in a Western liberal democracy to the newsworthiness factors of a publication (e.g., Pravda, The People’s Daily) in a country where the media is more controlled (see my article: The Roles of the News Media)
- Compare the print media to broadcast media
Unfortunately, this kind of approach wouldn’t be able to answer the questions ‘Which stories tend to go unreported and why?’ For that, you would probably need to do qualitative research—interviewing staff members of news organizations and asking them which stories they chose to drop and why.
~ by longzijun
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