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How do journalists decide what’s news?
How do journalists decide what stories or events are going to become news? If you ask this question to several journalists, each of them may give you a different answer. One might say that a story is news as it covers current events; another will mention its relevance to the audience or will say that it is based on unpublished sources. Reasonably enough, someone might also say, ‘I just know’, relying on their ‘nose for news’.
Journalism scholars have studied the news-making process for decades to understand how journalists select news and have formulated several theories. Naomi Smith, a PhD student at Birkbeck University, is among those currently investigating the factors influencing the news cycle. During a recent public lecture held at the Stratford public library, she went through some of her own research and the most relevant news selection theories. The event was organised by the Access and Engagement Department of Birkbeck University (@BBKOutreach) as part of the series Big Ideas.
Below are some of the concepts presented during Naomi’s lecture.
The gatekeeping theory implies that a story or idea has to pass through a series of ‘gates’ or decision-makers to become a news story. Thus, information is filtered and selected before arriving to the audience. The journalist is a gatekeeper for a news piece; when a journalist finds a story, it’s their job to decide if it’s worth their time and effort and has the potential to become news. Then, the story needs to be approved by an editor; they are a second gatekeeper, deciding whether the journalist should spend time investigating and producing the story, and also making space for the story in the organisation’s news agenda.
A story can be stopped from becoming a news story at any point during the production process, for a variety of reasons including its content, to more practical matters like lack of time or funds. Also, there could be other gatekeepers within a news organisation, the publisher or, in some cases, even external actors, preventing some stories from being published. Therefore, the news presented in the broadcast or read in a newspaper or magazine is only a selection of all the stories that could have become news.
News organisations’ selection
American sociologist Herbert J. Gans researched news selection in the 1970s by observing journalists at work in their natural environment: newsrooms. Although much has changed in journalism since then, what he found is still relevant for today’s news companies.
The scholar noticed that organisational and workplace cultures influenced journalists’ decisions. For example, a journalist would tend to select stories that could reflect their magazine’s typical topic coverage – maybe to improve their chances of publication. Looking at seniority in a newsroom, senior reporters tended to have access to more relevant sources than trainees, which could have affected topic choices. Also, the political and ideological inclinations of the news organisation, as well as the type of readership, shaped the stories and the angles pursued by journalists.
On top of this, news organisations are typically revenue-based companies, so news selection is also affected by business decisions. As mentioned, time, funding and employees’ allocations ultimately determine what stories will become news. We’ve looked at how news organisations’ hierarchical structure and culture shape journalists’ work. Let’s now focus on news stories that have passed the selection for publication.
What news has made it to publication internationally? In 1965, Norwegian researchers Johan Galtung and Mari Holmboe Ruge analysed news to identify ‘factors influencing the flow of news’. They found twelve features, or ‘values’, shared by Norwegian news pieces: among them negativity, closeness to home, recency, uniqueness, simplicity, personality, exclusivity, and size of impact.
Although many of these values remain relevant for today’s news stories, they are probably a consequence of the concept of news back then and of the system in which news was created. In the 1960s, most journalism scholars based their research on North American and European newsrooms. Those organisations had (and still have, to some extent) a biased gaze through society, looking at it from the perspective of white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, upper-class individuals. This must have impacted news production, from topic choice and sources consulted, to which news pieces made it to publication and their features. As society is subject to change with time, so will news values, as they are embedded into culture, time, and location. Similarly, the concept of what is news and deserves to be published is subject to change. Is it even worth considering such news values when we know that they are relative from the beginning?
This brought Naomi Smith to suggest that identities also play a big part in shaping the news. In her work, she references scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectional theory, according to which individuals are made of several identities (for example, a person can identify as a woman and a black person) and so are the systems we live in. Families, groups, organisations, and territories are all systems with their own identities, including racism and misogyny, and they all influence and are shaped by the individuals’ identities. By applying an intersectional framework to news selection, Naomi brings attention to the identities.
The researcher implies that journalists are therefore affected by their identities in their work: when choosing what stories to chase, when contacting sources, and when writing up an article. So are editors when they approve or don’t approve a story, and so is a source talking during an interview. At the same time, news organisations, with their own identities, influence the journalist’s and editor’s daily work, including the selection of news.
Making news involves making decisions and is deeply tied to organisational culture and structures, as well as individual characteristics. Looking at news production from an intersectional perspective allows scholars to challenge the existing literature around news selection and also inspire organisations and professionals to use diversity and inclusion to work towards new definitions of news and news-making practices.
Get Started: Big Ideas is a series of free public lectures from emerging researchers in BirkBeck, University of London on a wide range of subject areas. The series is run by Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department and usually takes place in community venues across London.
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