What is News? Not Paris Hilton

If you teach journalism, newspaper or broadcast journalism – then you have a job to do, teach the news.  OK, this sounds like a no-brainer, but really when reporters at MSNBC have a tongue in cheek debate about one reporter’s refusal to lead the newscast with another Paris Hilton story, then you know that news judgment is not cut and dry.

You can find this info on several web sites, but I thought that this one (from the government no less) had a pretty concise list of the elements of news.

Timeliness, Impact, Proximity, Controversy, Prominence, Currency, Oddity

They are missing a few like Emotion or Human Interest and Consequence.  Here’s another list from the Center for Fair Testing (smile).

But there are problems with many of the traditional lists of news elements.  In today’s 24/7 CNN vs. the Internet world, the chances of your organization being  first on any story are slim to mathematically nearly zero.  So, I think that we need to deemphasize timeliness or currency.  Yes, the news needs to be recent – but don’t put it first.  Too many reporters try too hard to be first, that they get the story wrong.

So, here’s my list in order of importance:

Impact, Proximity, Emotion, Prominence, Conflict, Timeliness, Interest

Impact – Who cares!?  This is the most important news judgment.  If your audience doesn’t care – then it is not important, because they will not read or watch it.  How many people in your audience are affected by it?

Proximity – I live in Houston, Texas.  If a gasoline refinery blows up in Louisiana, then I will pay some slight attention to how much gas prices might go up.  If it blows up in Texas City, I might pay more attention since it will be in my local paper and on TV live.  If it blows up on the Houston ship channel, then I will wonder how close is it to my house/school?  Now, you’ve got my attention!  All news is relative to how close it is to you.

Emotion – Tell a good story.  Good stories focus on characters and emotion.  If you can get emotion into the story, then you have a much better chance of keeping the reader/viewer’s attention.

Prominence – Sometimes I think we overdo this one.  We do stories about people because they are famous or once were.  I think we can reduce the amount of junk news by cutting back on the stories about people who are not important, but are merely famous.  If American Idol comes to your town, it is important – sort of.  But if the governor of your state comes to your town to announce a new education bill, that is really important.

Conflict – This is another overused news element, but it does have it’s place.  Sometimes I think people start controversy just to get their name/face in the news.  But sometimes the controversy is the news.  Immigration debate in Congress – conflict!   Don Imus fired for saying something stupid – conflict!  Which one deserves more coverage?  Yes, they both deserve coverage, but only one of these topics needs to get more than one or two days in the news.

Timeliness – Yes, it is important because old news is not news.  But when I say old – I mean more than 10 days old.  We have weekly and monthly news magazines that sell very well by giving in depth stories.  We can do that in broadcast, web and newspapers too.  Sometimes it means sitting on a story until we have all the facts.  Yes, you could get scooped, but you won’t have to apologize for publishing/broadcasting falsehoods either. Too many news organizations have had their reputations for credible journalism ruined by a rush to print/air.

Interest – Are people interested in Paris Hilton – yes.  Does that mean we need to put her in the news – no.  There are infotainment shows and magazines.  Let them do their job.  News organizations need to cover celebrities only when they fall under the more important news characteristics.

Too often we let celebrity and prurient  interest do our job for us.  We allow the public to decide what we print/air.   We must remember that we only have a limited number of pages or a certain amount of air time.  Every page or minute we devote to “soft” news about celebrity, fashion, etc. takes away from reporting on real news that impacts people.  Sometimes we have to spend more time telling people what they NEED to know and less time telling people what they WANT to know.

Mr. C

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