Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Understanding the news values

Your lead should emphasize the most "newsworthy" information in the story you are trying to tell. But how do you figure out what information is most newsworthy? There are no pat answers. The information you consider most newsworthy depends in part on your own values, experiences and knowledge. But some general guidelines exist. Below are several characteristics that can make information newsworthy. The more of these characteristics a piece of information has, the more newsworthy the information is.

Impact: information has impact if it affects a lot of people.

• A proposed income tax increase, for instance, has impact, because an income tax increase would affect a lot of people.
• The accidental killing of a little girl during a shootout between rival drug gangs has impact, too. Even though only one person -- the little girl -- was directly affected, many people will feel a strong emotional response to the story.

Timeliness: information has timeliness if it happened recently.

• "Recently" is defined by the publication cycle of the news medium in which the information will appear.
o For "Newsweek," events that happened during the previous week are timely.
o For a daily newspaper, however, events that happened during the 24 hours since the last edition of the paper are timely.
o For CNN Headline News, events that happened during the past half hour are timely.

Prominence: information has prominence if it involves a well-known person or organization.

• If you or I trip and fall, no one will be all that interested, because you and I aren't well known.
• But if the president of the United States trips and falls, everyone will be interested because the president is well known.

Proximity: information has proximity if it involves something happened somewhere nearby.

• If a bus wreck in India kills 25 people, the Nashville Tennessean will devote maybe three or four graphs to the story.
But if a bus wreck in downtown Nashville kills 25 people, the Tennessean will devote a sizable chunk of its front page to the story.

Conflict: information has conflict if it involves some kind of disagreement between two or more people.

• Remember how, when you were a kid, everyone would run to watch a fight if one erupted on the playground?
• Fights have drama -- who will win? -- and invite those watching to choose sides and root for one or more of the combatants.
• Good democracy involves more civil -- we hope -- conflicts over the nature of public policy. That's why the media carry so much political news. Journalists see themselves as playing an important role in the public debate that forms the basis for democracy.

Weirdness: information has weirdness if it involves something unusual or strange.

• Charles A. Dana, a famous editor, once said, "If a dog bites a man, that's not news. But if a man bites a dog, that's news!"
• Dana was saying that people are interested in out-of-the-ordinary things, like a man biting a dog.

Currency: information has currency if it is related to some general topic a lot of people are already talking about.

• A mugging in downtown Murfreesboro generally won't attract much attention from reporters at the Daily News Journal.
• But if the mugging occurred a day after a report by the FBI had named Murfreesboro the city with the state's fastest-growing crime rate, the mugging would be big news.
• People would respond to news of the mugging by saying, "See, here's an example of just the kind of thing that FBI report was talking about. We've got to do something about the crime rate!"

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