The composition of news in the mass media is shaped by a broad variety of causes – by the number and type of topical events, by the type of the media and the interests of their audiences, by professional routines and individual preferences of journalists, and by technical constraints and economic conditions (Shoemaker & Reese 1996). Among these causes are the news values of news factors. They are the basis of the theory of news values. This theory explains the selection of news for publication, and the prominence of news stories in newspapers and news programs, by professional criteria of news factors in news stories (aspects of events) and the news values of the news factors (selection criteria). In the theory of news values, nonprofessional influences like individual preferences of journalists, political leaning of news organizations, and pressures from their owners, advertisers, or other social forces are neglected. Therefore, it deals only with a small part of the whole process of news-making. The term “news factors” denotes characteristics of news reports, with respect to the events covered. The term “news values” denotes the relative impact of news factors on the processing of news stories by journalists. The term “newsworthiness” denotes the chances of news stories getting published and the prominence of their presentation.
Approaches To News Values And Newsworthiness
The term “news value” was introduced by Walter Lippmann in 1922 (1961) to explain the newsworthiness of events. The theory of news values was developed by Östgaard (1965) and Galtung and Ruge (1965). Major theoretical and methodological contributions were made by Rosengren (1970, 1977), Schulz (1976), Staab (1990), and Shoemaker (1996). The range of news value theory has been extended by Donsbach (1991) and Eilders (1997) to explain also the selection of news by newspaper readers, and by Eilders and Wirth (1999) to examine the retention of news. Kepplinger has proposed and tested a two-component theory (Kepplinger & Ehmig 2006). Based on it, the newsworthiness of news stories can be calculated, and the predictions compared with empirical findings. Different authors have based their theory of news values on partly different assumptions. Some authors (such as Östgaard, Galtung & Ruge, and Schulz) derive their theories from assumptions about the complexity of reality and the necessity of gaining attention for parts of it. Shoemaker’s theory is derived from biological and cultural conditions for the survival of societies, while Rosengren’s theory is derived from – among other reasons – the economic relevance of the source of information on foreign countries to its receivers. Most authors do not explain the selection of news by (among other reasons) the reality covered (e.g., Östgaard, Galtung & Ruge, Schulz, Shoemaker, Eilders); some insist that sufficient explanations require some information about reality (e.g., Rosengren and Staab). While most authors neglect the question of whether the mass media present an adequate (“objective”) picture of reality, Galtung and Ruge explicitly want to explain the (according to the authors) biased coverage of western media about developing countries. Some authors especially deal with foreign news (e.g., Östgaard, Galtung & Ruge, and Rosengren); others include foreign and domestic news (e.g., Schulz, Staab, Donsbach, Shoemaker, and Eilders).
The publications of Galtung and Ruge, Rosengren, and Schulz initiated an intensive discussion about the theoretical and methodological role of real-world indicators, in which two related questions were mixed: “How can we explain the selection and presentation of news?” and “Do the mass media present an objective picture of reality?” In this discourse, two meanings of the term “objectivity” have been used – objectivity in the epistemological sense of knowledge without preconditions, and objectivity in the methodological sense of reliability of information. The discourse is closely related to the impact of media coverage on the perception of reality and related behavior.
Two-Component Theory Of News Selection
All nonrandom decisions to select objects are based upon at least two conditions: characteristics of objects to be selected and selection criteria (two-component theory). If decision-makers do not employ any selection criteria or if there are no characteristics that distinguish the objects selected, only random selection is possible. Some news factors might be more relevant for some media outlets than for others. For example, the news factors “physical damage” and “prominence” may have higher news values for tabloids than for quality papers. For quality papers, the news factors “relevance” and “status” may have higher news values than for tabloids. Therefore, the same news factor can have different news values for journalists working for different media outlets. News factors given in a news story can be identified by experts or by quantitative content analysis, and this has often been done by numerous researchers. News values of news factors – that is, the relative influence of a news factor on the newsworthiness for certain media outlets – could be identified in representative surveys of news people responsible for decision-making in newsrooms, but this has never been done. News values of news factors have been identified in an experiment with journalism students, however (Kepplinger & Ehmig 2006).
Measuring The Influence Of News Factors On The Newsworthiness Of News
To test the influence of news factors on the newsworthiness of news, five research designs have been applied. First, content analyses of media output were conducted (Galtung & Ruge 1965; Schulz 1976; Staab 1990; Shoemaker & Cohen 2006). Significant correlations between the prominence of news (space, time, and placement) and either single news factors in the articles or complex indices representing them are interpreted as evidence for the influence of news factors on news decisions. In this case, it cannot be excluded that news stories not published have more news factors than news stories published. It is also possible, for unknown reasons, that long articles necessarily include more news factors. Therefore, the number of news factors might not be a cause but a consequence of the long articles. In addition, some news factors in a news story might be the consequence of enhancing a news story to improve its newsworthiness.
Second, comparisons of real-world indicators with news about indicated events were undertaken. Using this design, one can control the influence of real-world factors on correlations between the prominence of news and news factors. For example, a high proportion of news about politics in developing countries dealing with top leaders might not indicate a strong influence of the news factor “elite people,” but reflect a typical pattern of policy-making in these countries. Therefore, Rosengren (1970, 1977) has proposed the use of extra-media data, specified the conditions which these data must fulfill, and applied his approach to empirical research. Intra-and extra-media data are especially useful when the stability or change of news values over a longer period of time is to be researched (Best 2000). But because of the lack of sufficient data, they can be applied only to some topics.
Third, with experimental studies and surveys, tests are done with news stories in which news factors are systematically varied. Subjects rank the news stories according to their newsworthiness. The relevance of individual news factors in comparison to combinations of news factors can be calculated (Buckalew 1969/1970). Results allow a valid test of the news value theory. Because of the small number of subjects and the artificial nature of the news stories tested, the results of these studies cannot be generalized.
Fourth, input–output studies were conducted. Based on the input available in newsrooms, the comparison of news factors in news discarded from the pool with those accepted for inclusion in the news coverage indicates the relevance of news factors for decisions made (Buckalew 1969/1970; Kolmer 2000). The design offers valid tests of the news value theory, but does not allow precise identification of the relative impact of single news factors, because the type and combination of news factors cannot be manipulated.
Fifth, predicted and measured newsworthiness were compared. Using regression analysis, the newsworthiness of news stories can be predicted on the basis of information on news factors included in news stories and the news values of news factors measured in advance. Predicted newsworthiness of news reports as indicated by their prominence (length, placement) can be compared with their empirically measured newsworthiness (Kepplinger & Ehmig 2006). The design has similar advantages and disadvantages to the one mentioned above.
After several decades of research in news value theory, several basic questions are still open. First, do news factors have different news values for different types of media outlets, for example street sold papers and national quality papers; commercial TV stations and public broadcast stations, etc.? This can be answered by determining correlations between news factors and prominence of news calculated for different types of media. Because of the limited evidence of this design, a definite answer cannot be given.
Second, do news factors have different news values in different countries or – as Galtung and Ruge (1965) have speculated – in different cultures? There are hints on similarities as well as on differences (Shoemaker & Cohen 2006), but for the reasons mentioned above there is no clear evidence.
Third, are news values of news factors constant or do they change in the course of time? Quantitative studies in the news coverage over several decades (Westerstahl & Johansson 1994) and several centuries (Wilke 1984) indicate that the relevance of at least some news factors has changed. For example, in foreign news of the Swedish press from 1912 to 1972, in some periods the news factor “negativism” explains more than twice as much variance as in others. In addition, news on spectacular events increases the news value of news factors. Therefore, after so-called “key events,” similar but relatively unimportant events become very newsworthy (Kepplinger & Habermeier 1995).
Fourth, are news values of news factors independent of the available input of news stories? So far, news factors have been counted and their intensity added, assuming that the news values of news factors do not depend on the competition between news stories. This assumption most likely does not hold. Instead, there is strong evidence from experimental studies that the news value of a news factor given in a news report decreases if the same news factor is given in a competing news story with higher intensity (e.g., more victims in an accident). To put it differently: the news values of news factors (and the newsworthiness of news reports) depend on the competition between the available inputs.
Fifth, are news values of news factors independent of the events or topics covered? Most authors who apply content analysis to research the relevance of news factors code the topics or the type of events covered (accidents, crime, unemployment etc.), rather than just the news factors of news stories. But when the relevance of news factors is analyzed, the topics of the news are rarely controlled. Nevertheless, there is clear experimental evidence of correlations between the news values of some news factors and some types of events. For example, in news reports on train accidents, the news factor “damage” has a high news value, even if only little damage has been reported (Kepplinger & Ehmig 2006).
Sixth, can news values of news factors always be regarded as causes of the newsworthiness of news reports? Nearly all authors apply causal theory to the interpretation of correlations between news factors and newsworthiness. As Staab (1990) has demonstrated, this interpretation is questionable, because newsmakers might intentionally add news factors to their news stories to make them more newsworthy. For example, when they cover an accident they might mention an uninvolved, distant, but prominent relative of a victim. In this case, the news factor “prominence” would not be a cause of the newsworthiness of the news report but a means to make the story newsworthy. To put it differently, the news factor would be a functional prerequisite of the report’s newsworthiness and we would have to add to the causal a functional theory. If this is true, a paradox exists: the use of news factors as means by journalists requires a functional explanation. But their attempts to increase the newsworthiness by the inclusion of additional news factors is only successful when the causal theory is correct; that is, when the included news factor actually has the impact on newsworthiness which it is supposed to have.
Seventh, what is the relationship between the events covered, news stories about events, and news factors included in these news stories? Here, several important questions come into play: How do mere occurrences become events and how does an event become a news story (Fishman 1980)? Which parts of occurrences belong to an event? Does a statement by a top official (news factor “elite people”) belong to an air crash or are these two events? What influence does the definition of an event have on the inclusion or exclusion of news factors? Obviously, the inclusion of the statement (news factor “elite person”), that is, a broad definition of the event “air crash,” increases the number of news factors and thus the newsworthiness of the news report. If this is correct, the news factor “elite person” is not an independent but an intervening variable (Staab 1990). From this, one can conclude that news value theory only provides a comprehensive explanation of the selection and presentation of news if information on reality is covered or the activities in the newsroom are taken into consideration. Therefore, it is not an alternative but a supplement to other theories of news selection.
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