News is information that is interesting and important to a significant audience of news consumers. One of the jobs of the journalist – and journalism in general – is to select those events and topics that should be reported on. One of the factors that journalists consider in this select is whether or not the event or the topic will make a difference in people’s lives.
News should do at least one of three things: inform, entertain and persuade. It may do all three.
The most important function of news is to inform. Journalists do not often concern themselves with what individuals may do with the information the journalists report. News consumers may use it for good or ill. The important thing for the journalist is that society be informed about what is going on within its ranks. One of the basic tenets of modern society is that people have information on which to make decisions about their lives. Journalists feel that one of their main jobs is to contribute to that pool of information.
Much that is in the news media, however, does not make a significant difference in our lives. The comings and goings of celebrities, for instance, or the scores from Saturday’s football games do little to influence the decisions about how we live our lives. This illustrates the second function of news: to entertain. The entertainment function is not a trivial one. It enriches our lives by feeding our interests and interactions.
A third function of news is to persuade. This concept has a larger meaning that simply convincing us to go out and buy a tube of toothpaste or a new car. The word we should be using is acculturation. By telling us what happens in our society, news helps individuals find their place in that society. It informs us about a common set of attitudes and values that many of the individuals in society share. It also shows us how that attitudes and values play out in our lives.
This is not to say that everyone in society thinks in the same way or share a common set of political or religious believes. We certainly do not. In fact, one of the common characteristics about all modern society is its diversity – the fact that a society can function with many individuals believing very different things and coming from backgrounds that are wide-ranging. Yet, we all share a basic respect for the sovereignty of the individual, the political and legal system, and the importance of honest and civil behavior. News helps to reinforce and strengthen that respect.
News helps keep society dynamic and interesting. Variety, as the old saying goes, is the spice of life. Actually, variety in our lives is more than spice. It is a necessary ingredient to a modern and creative society. By adding to that variety with current information, news helps us identify problems and possibilities that need to be solved or exploited. News shows how other people are acting and thinking – people with whom we may have no contact otherwise. News expands our horizons and helps us to see beyond our immediate and local situations.
Journalism and what it produces – news – is thus an important part of the life of the society as well as the life of the individual. In the previous section (1.1 Definitions) we discussed the “public service” aspect of journalism, something you may want to review. The fact that news contributes to the proper functioning of society is the underlying reason why many people – and possibly you – feel the call to the profession of journalism.
Journalists use the following criteria, commonly referred to as “news values,” to determine whether or not an event or topic is worthy of attention by the news media:
Impact. How many people does the event affect? How widespread and long-lasting is this affect?
Timeliness. How recently did the even occur?
Prominence. Important and well-known people make news, sometimes even when they are doing normal, everyday things. If the president takes his kids to an ice cream parlor, that’s likely to catch the attention of journalists.
Proximity. The closer to home an event is, the most likely it is to become news. A care accident would not be news if it occurred 50 miles away, but if it occurred in the downtown of your home town, it would be more likely to get coverage.
Conflict. Opposing ideas or people are likely to create conflict, and journalists believe that conflict is one of the things that people are most interested in. Conflict can be violence in the street or in more civil settings such as legislative debates or courtrooms.
Currency. Events and topics about current ideas and things already in the news are likely to receive news coverage.
Unusualness. When something truly out of the ordinary occurs – say, an 80-year-old great-grandmother gets her college degree – it is more like to become news.
Kovach, Bill and Tom Rosenstiel. The Elements of Journalism. New York: Crown Publishers, 2001.
Stovall, James Glen. The Complete Editor. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2005.
Stovall, James Glen. Journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2006.
Advanced reading material
Cappella, Joseph N. and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Spiral of Cynicism: The Press and the Public Good. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Fuller, Jack. News Values. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
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