What Makes the News? Two Sets of News Values Compared

It is common knowledge that for a story to be picked up by the news media it needs to contain a sufficient amount of “news value.” But what is news value really? Two compensatory lists of news values outlined by communications scholars Dennis L. Wilcox on the one hand and Johan Galtung and Marie Homboe Ruge on the other offer help in that they can both serve as a checklist for PR professionals trying to gauge the news value of an event they consider communicating about and as a tool with which those same practitioners can educate their clients on how the media work.

News value in journalism: Wilcox’s list

Let us take a look at the list from Dennis L. Wilcox first. In it, we find eight news values. The more of these boxes your story can tick, the more news value it has, the higher the odds are that it will be picked up by the media.

  • Timeliness (Does it speak to a current concern?)
  • Proximity (It is happening close to home?)
  • Impact (Is it impactful?)
  • Prominence (Is at the source of the news a powerful person or organization?)
  • Conflict (Are there different parties clashing?)
  • Human interest (Is it a personal story?)
  • Unusualness (Is the event out of the ordinary?)
  • Newness (Did the event happen for the first time?)

If you have a story to pitch to a journalist that cannot tick any of these boxes, you have a problem. One of the news values that will often be exploited by publicists is timeliness. In B2B PR, for example, publicists will (or should) always make an inventory of “hot topics” in the sector. Someone who is pitching a story for a logistics company will, for example, check whether there is anything he or she can offer that relates to IoT, Blockchain, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, or anything else that is trending in that sector.

News value in journalism: Galtung and Ruge’s list

Another list of news values is offered by Johan Galtung and Marie Holmboe Ruge. They identify three categories of news values.

The impact-cluster discerns threshold, frequency, negativity, unexpectedness, and unambiguity as news values. Mind the partial similarities with Wilcox’s list. Threshold concerns the impact of an event, and frequency has to do with one-time events that occur during the day being more readily reported on than events that occur gradually or during the night (when journalists are sleeping). Negativity is all about bad news trumping good news. And unambiguity has to do with anything that needs a lot of contextualization not being picked up as readily as stories that need no explanation.

The second cluster of news values includes personalization, meaningfulness, reference to elite nations and reference to elite persons. Personalization is similar to the human interest news value from Wilcox. Meaningfulness relates to the degree to which people identify with a topic. And then, finally, stories stand a higher chance of being withheld if they relate to influential nations (when is the last time you read something on unemployment in Nigeria?) and important people. The latter comes very close to the prominence news value from Wilcox of course.

The pragmatics of media coverage makes out the third and final cluster. This is actually my favorite part of the model because it adds a layer of understanding of how media work that Wilcox does not provide for. Consonance is about stories fitting in with the media’s expectations. The better the fit, the higher the odds of it being picked up. Continuity is what you have when a story is constantly in the news and thus becomes a “running story.” Anything that fits the running story will easily be reported on (hello, Boeing, are you reading this?) Composition, finally, relates to competing with other stories and how your own story’s chances of being reported on might depend on the degree to which other stories have already taken up limited space in the media.

Mind that the insights on news value offered above are not only useful for communications professionals trying to get their story out but also for PR staff trying to conceive a defensive strategy against stories they would rather not see published. None of the two mentioned lists make for perfect predictions of news coverage, but both enhance our understanding of how the media work and help professionals convey in simple terms that knowledge to their clients.


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