The general definitions of "news" are not always helpful to the reporter in determining whether a specific story has news value.
Instead, considering the following characteristics should help you decide whether a story should be broadcast.
Most news stories contain a central conflict or disagreement that contributes to its news value. The stress point may be found among people or in opposing social forces. The tension might be the old way versus the new way, good versus evil, or right versus wrong.
Decisions on news value and relevance are always debatable. Therefore, reporters must understand that relevance is an important characteristic of news and evaluate whether a story connects to the lives of viewers in a meaningful way.
Some people call the tension between humans and nature a conflict. One example of a human versus nature conflict is still memorable from many years ago. When scientists said the volcano at Mount St. Helens, Wash., was ready to erupt, people within several miles were evacuated. But a man named Harry Truman refused to leave. The suspenseful story became news around the world because no one knew exactly when the deadly eruption would occur, and the man refused to leave. To this day, people remember the story of Harry Truman, who shared his name with a former president, and who died as lava and debris swept down the mountainside and over his tiny cabin.
Stories about conflict between the old and the new are always interesting and can have important news value. A new generation of activists works toward legal marriage between people of the same sex. Those who object try to stop this dramatic change, and the issue becomes news in courtrooms and on the streets. The struggle of immigrant families in modern America can present a picture of colliding cultures. How does a family adjust to a new country with different customs and values? How do middle-class suburbanites who have always been surrounded by people like themselves adjust when the new neighbors don't speak English? These tensions between generations, cultures or neighbors provide the basis for news stories that go beyond simple conflict to represent some of the major social shifts of our times.
Conflict makes stories easy for the viewer to grasp, because we can all relate to struggle. But reporters should understand that presenting one kind of conflict doesn't necessarily give the complete picture. The story of Harry Truman, killed by the volcano, also had a timeless, universal theme. It involved an individual against the system, and life versus death. The old man sacrificed his life believing his right to stay was greater than someone else's right to force him to leave.
Presenting conflict should be one of the tools reporters use to illustrate the points of a story. If the conflict is important, it must be put in perspective. Although conflict almost always guarantees interest, seldom does the conflict alone reveal the full scope of the situation. For example, broad social issues often involve the struggle between political parties, one seen as conservative and the other liberal. The conflict is not as simple as conservative versus liberal, and reporters should also be careful to avoid seeing political fights as an issue of good versus evil. Each side is convinced that its ideas and policies will work for the good of the community. The seemingly simple conflict represents complex ideas and reasoning.
Whether the case is two opposing political candidates or two viewpoints about school vouchers, the story should go much deeper than the conflict. Good reporters will find the reasons each side believes as it does. Why does one person think vouchers will destroy public schools? Why does someone else think vouchers will improve public schools? Does either side have any evidence for its beliefs? When the reasoning and the evidence behind the conflict are presented, the public can make an informed decision about which side has the best argument. Informed voting follows—and perhaps improved education. The story is not just who is for and who is against. How will the whole community be affected by the outcome?
A man working at a construction site bumps into a nail gun and winds up with a three-inch nail thrust into his brain—an accident that could easily result in death. However, the man remains conscious and walks and talks until surgeons remove the nail. To the astonishment of the medical community, the construction worker reports only one consequence—he can no longer do math. The unique nature of the story makes it newsworthy.
A community of Amish people in Pennsylvania has long fascinated neighbors and tourists because of its simple lifestyle. Wearing mostly black clothing with no buttons or zippers, the Amish operate successful farms and eat from bountiful gardens, but they don't use municipal electricity, and they travel by horse and buggy instead of cars. They don't own televisions and don't go to movies. The children attend Amish schools or are home-schooled and generally isolated from the modem world. When an Amish teenager was arrested for selling cocaine, the story stunned the nation. How has such a modern-day problem penetrated the Amish community? The unusual nature of the story makes it newsworthy.
Reporters learn to recognize that most news stories are unique or unusual in some way. Unusual stories often have important hard news value, such as the significance of a teenager firing a gun at classmates or a city council member stepping down to attend to a sick child. Sometimes the unique story is important simply in providing perspective on the varied and colorful world in which we live, such as the story of the doctor who composes symphonies or the 10-year-old chess champion. The unique and the unusual provide important news and important information about our world.
The more unusual the story, the more newsworthy and interesting it is. In fact, stories about crime are considered newsworthy because they are unusual. In today's society, people may have a hard time believing that crime is unusual. Watching the news and reading the newspaper can make it seem that crime is quite common—almost normal. However, remember that most people go through each day in a fairly routine manner: to work, to the grocery store, maybe to a movie or out to dinner. When someone hurts someone else in a violent way, it is indeed unusual, so crime is news.
Even though crime is statistically unusual, reports about crime are included in virtually every newscast. The daily parade of crime stories can lead to anxiety and fear among the public, and this anxiety may eventually result in a change in the way news is presented. More often, viewers complain that watching the news is gruesome and depressing. Some critics accuse news media of focusing on the salacious and sensational topics of rape, murder and robbery rather than reporting other important news.
Some news organizations reserve coverage of robberies and shootings for stories where the suspect is still at large and the public may need to know, or when the crime represents some unresolved social problem that the media can examine through the specific crime. For example, two persons drink heavily on a Saturday night, they get angry, and a fight escalates until one shoots or stabs the other. In many television markets, the story is not newsworthy, but a reporter might compile statistics on the number of people killed in domestic settings that involve drinking and present an important, informative story. When the police arrest a drunk driver or answer a call to a home where the wife is afraid her husband is going to kill her, these stories do not normally make the newscast. Individual conflicts, however, may combine to provide an important insight into our society. Crime reporting is based on the understanding that crime is not a normal part of the day. Whether individual crimes are over-reported is open to discussion.
The degree to which a news department emphasizes crime reporting is beyond the reporter's control, but even beginning reporters can evaluate the importance and relevance of the crimes they cover. Can the crime be put into some context? If the story is about a murder, how many similar murders happen each year? What do authorities say about the significance of the particular crime? Does it illustrate a trend, or is it extremely unusual? What does the particular crime indicate about general public safety? Is there an important reason to inform the public about the crime?
Crime is reported because it is unusual, and many other varieties of stories also become newsworthy because they are unusual or unique. For example, even with the use of fertility drugs, multiple births are unusual, and because most people are acquainted with the difficulty of caring for one infant, they want to know all the details of how it's possible to care for many babies at the same time. People are attracted to the uniqueness of the story.
For most of us, when we stub a toe or catch a cold, our misery carries no great significance, because we do not live lives of prominence. On the other hand, details about prominent individuals can easily become a headline in the news. If the President of the United States catches a cold, the condition could easily become national news, especially if symptoms of the cold are evident in a major appearance. In such a circumstance, news reporters would be finding out when the Chief Executive contracted the cold, what treatment is being administered and how long the effects of the virus are expected to last.
In a city, hundreds of people get traffic tickets each week with no media attention, but if police give the mayor a traffic ticket, the violation may become a local news story. In local communities, elected officials, community volunteers and persons who are active in community issues are usually considered newsworthy because of their high profiles. Events in the lives of these people become important news, because routine patterns and procedures often change in their absence. Clearly, prominent people are those who are known by name and need no other title or identifier: The general public easily recognizes the names of actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Even those who don't keep up with sports recognize the name Tiger Woods, and every American citizen should know Barack Obama, George Bush and Hillary Clinton. In some cases, a single name may give enough identification: Madonna or Beyonce.
The prominence may be a place or thing rather than a person. Vandals spray-paint buildings every day, but vandalism at the Vietnam Memorial would be news. The Mona Lisa is such a well-known painting that moving it from one museum to another might become news. Electrical problems that shut down the elevators at the Empire State Building for several days might get news attention.
Reporters should easily recognize prominent people, places and things and will understand that prominence is news. Our culture is partly defined by the people and places that are known to everyone. When these icons change in some way, the result is interesting to us all.
People are naturally interested in information that affects them in a personal way. For this reason, events that have an impact on a large number of people become important news. When taxes go up or developers propose a new shopping mall in a community, the story is newsworthy to that community. If a company announces a layoff, the information is vital not only to those employees and their families but also to people whose businesses are supported by those paychecks. A large layoff or a factory shutdown could have a far-reaching impact: The tax base could be reduced, and that reduction could affect plans for improving a city park. Enrollment could decrease in the school system if a lot of people leave the area, and teachers could lose their jobs. A shutdown could mean that the elderly couple who have operated the convenience store across the street from the factory for 30 years lose their business.
Anything that affects daily routines, health or finances is important and interesting to an audience. Examples of information important to our daily routines include new public services, crime, changes in education and employment issues. Individual finances are affected by changes in interest rates, price hikes in food and gas and changes in expenses related to travel. Disasters that affect insurance rates or food prices are important; a drought in Florida affects the grocery bill of a family in Tennessee. An individual's health determines quality of life, so health news can be extremely important. New drugs for allergy control and breakthroughs in cancer treatment or eye surgery can change lives. Problems with health maintenance organizations (HMOs) may become important business, social and political issues. The latest information about the effects of caffeine, sugar, fat and tobacco affects everyone. Food safety is an important health issue since contaminated food can cause serious illness and even death. Whether the problem is domestic or occurs in food imported from other countries that have processing standards less stringent than those in the United States, stories about food handling and import regulations are interesting and important to all consumers.
News about issues that affect daily routines, finances and health has a major impact on people's lives; thus, stories on these issues can become important news stories. Reporters must learn to recognize as news those events that have an impact on large numbers of people.
Information that is relevant or that connects to people in some way is newsworthy. Some stories may be interesting and give insight into the lives of other people but may be irrelevant to the lives of viewers. For example, if oil prices go up, the information is relevant to anyone who buys gasoline. The fact that Lindsay Lohan has checked into a drug rehab center may be interesting but is actually irrelevant to most lives. The more information connects to the lives of the audience, the stronger its news value.
Tabloid or "infotainment" stories are designed more to entertain the audience than to give information that is relevant to their lives. Even in mainstream TV news, decision makers often are tempted to use stories that include dramatic pictures simply because the video is mesmerizing. TV news departments may use visually powerful stories for competitive reasons, with the idea that viewers will stop surfing the channels to look at dramatic pictures. Despite today's competitive pressures, news judgment should be based on impact and relevance rather than drama. For example, if a train hits a truck three states away and a videographer captures the resulting fire on tape, the drama of the footage does not mean that the story is important to viewers hundreds of miles away. The accident may have an impact on people where it happened, with backed-up traffic and a delayed train schedule, but the relevance diminishes with distance. If a news photographer captures video of a man shooting a woman, the drama of the video does not mean the story has any importance to viewers in another state. Often, such footage is made available to local stations all over the country, but quality news departments avoid using dramatic pictures that have no local connection and are purely intended to shock.
In the short term, an audience may find entertainment value in a story that is not pertinent to their lives, but in the long term the audience will seek news sources that consistently provide relevant information.
The location of a story can determine whether it has news value or not. A widespread 24-hour power failure in a town 100 miles away would not be very important or interesting unless the cause was unique or unless it affected people in an unusual way. The story meets the criteria of being unusual (the power doesn't usually go off for long periods of time) and affecting a lot of people, but the impact is minimal. On the other hand, a local power failure would be newsworthy if it lasted more than a few hours. People would want to know what caused it, when they will have their own power restored and whether it will happen again.
When a large manufacturing company issues Christmas bonuses, the story might be very important in the surrounding towns, although it might be met with yawns an hour's drive away. When an employer of 15,000 people gives bonuses that average 20 percent of their annual salary, the economic impact will be immediate and impressive. Nearby furniture stores, computer stores and car dealers may run promotions and special sales to try to capture a share of the nonbudgeted money people will be eager to spend. Location can determine the impact and the news value of a story.
Localizing a story
Because close proximity contributes to news value, reporters can often find an important local story by looking for connections to major stories outside the immediate area. Finding the local angle to a regional or national story is called localizing a story. Journalists learn to examine national issues from a local perspective and to determine who is affected by the story.
National employment figures may not sound important locally until you consider the many ways the news may affect your viewers. One story could compare the national statistics to the local data. Is the local rate of people looking for jobs lower or higher than the national figures? Why? Another story might show how national economic events influence a local company. If national defense cuts are announced, the trickle-down from the cuts will affect most localities. Reporters can look for local companies or businesses that have ties with defense contractors. Similarly, a drop in national automobile sales may affect car dealers in the community, but local banks will also feel the effects, along with nearby companies that make auto parts or the materials that go into auto parts. The national story can lead to interesting local news.
Consider a network news story about a group of people getting sick from tainted fruit at a national convention banquet. Local reporters might investigate the fruit that is available in local grocery stores. Where does it come from? Who decides where to buy it? What safety procedures are in place to prevent a local situation similar to the national story?
National statistics may indicate that tourism is down. The national story may provide some explanations about why fewer people are traveling, but the story may or may not hold true locally. If the national picture applies locally, a reporter might discover that a local tourist attraction is losing money for the first time in several years. Perhaps fewer college students are finding jobs at hotels and restaurants. If the trend continues, the city or county may lose hotel and restaurant tax revenue, which could cause budgeting problems. Localizing a national story can provide important information for the audience.
Because information that connects to the lives of the audience and has an impact in some way is high in news value, stories that occur nearby rather than far away tend to be the most important. Reporters can learn to examine national stories or regional stories and look for the local connection as a way to develop important news reports.
Human Interest and Emotional Impact
Much of the reality of our daily lives exists in our thoughts and feelings. Many of us carry out similar actions and routines each day, but our individual reactions to people and events can be very similar to—or very different from—those of others. As we go through life, we discover and define ourselves in part by this comparison to others. Stories about other people are interesting and important to us. For this reason, stories that stir emotions become news, but in a different way from the stories that lead the newscast. Stories that focus on emotional elements and do not generally affect people's lives in other ways are known as human interest stories.
A reporter did a story years ago about a dog that died. The story is memorable today because it invoked strong human interest. It was a chronicle of a daily routine that ended with death but began with a man's long-time working routine and the faithful companionship of a canine. For years, this dog was cared for by its owner, who left each day on a morning train and returned home each afternoon. The dog accompanied the man to the train station, left, and returned each evening to meet the train from which the owner emerged. One day, the pet owner died from a heart attack and did not get off the train at the regular time. From that day on, the dog returned to the train station each afternoon at the same time and waited until the regular train arrived. After all the passengers were unloaded and the train departed, the dog sadly went away. The process continued for years. People in the town had taken over the care and feeding of the dog, but the animal's life became a constant vigil for the return of a master who no longer lived. The end of the dog's life and the end of the routine became the basis for a news item. The story evokes powerful emotions: sorrow for the dog who did not understand why it was no longer cared for by its master, concern for creatures that depend on us for their care, fear of abandoning someone who needs us or fear of being abandoned. Psychologists could probably write books on why the story is so memorable, but the basic reason is the emotion the story evokes.
Interestingly enough, many human interest stories relate to animals: the dog that miraculously finds its way home, the poodle mothering a baby squirrel, a pony that rides in a boat. We are also fascinated by the struggles and conquests of other human beings: the teenager's survival of a suicide jump from a high bridge, the 90-year-old woman who walked across the continent to promote campaign-finance reform, the maintenance worker who saved his meager earnings and gave away a million dollars.
Reporters learn to recognize and develop stories that appeal to the audience and have news value because of an emotional element. Finding these stories presents a special challenge, because they often occur in people's private lives. The owner of the poodle that is mothering the squirrel may be so shocked that she will think to call a reporter, but in many cases reporters need to put forth special effort to find human interest stories. While covering more conventional news, reporters may ask people to tell them about the most phenomenal person they know or to think about the most unusual event they've seen. A reminder to news sources to call if they hear of something interesting may lead to these occasional, but very special, stories that tug at the heartstrings.