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News values, and why they’re important to writers

You’re a writer, and therefore you must continually make decisions about what topics to address. This chapter explains how some writers—specifically journalists—decide what stories they’re going to cover. For anyone who writes non-fiction, this process will help you decide on topics your readers, viewers, or listeners most want to know about.

Imagine that you’re a decision maker in a TV newsroom, and consider this scenario:

It’s Feb. 24, 2021, and these events are occurring in the United States:

     Covid-19 is raging across the country, killing about 2,000 people a day
     The FDA announced today that Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine is safe and effective
     An investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. capitol building is expanding
     The U.S. stock market closed at a record high today
     A professional golfer had been in a serious car crash the day before

Which story should lead your news broadcast? That is, which is the most important story of the day?

You’ll probably choose one of the first four. Any of those grab attention and affect many people.

But a well-known TV news show would have disagreed with you. They led their broadcast with the pro golfer’s crash.

Did the station demonstrate poor news judgment? That is, did they err about what story they thought was the most important of the day? (The decision on what to lead with was probably made by a combination of station management, producers, and the news anchor. These people are called gatekeepers; they’re the ones who decide what events get covered.) I believe they got it wrong with their choice of what to lead with; any of the other stories would have been better choices. The news station apparently didn’t understand the concept of news values.

As an aside, the journalists may have never even heard of news values. Once, while working in TV news, I mentioned the term to a colleague. She was a good reporter, but gave me a blank look and asked, “What are news values?”

So, here’s the definition: News values help us decide what events, out of the innumerable ones that take place every day, are worthy of news coverage.

For example, you’ll probably eat lunch today. That’s an event. But eating your lunch won’t be on the news tonight. But say that after you’re done, you run to the grocery store. On the way you see a car swerve off the road and crash into an electric pole. You see a fire under the vehicle, so you stop, jump out, and run to the scene. You pull a young mother and her child from the vehicle just before it explodes.

Will that event make the news? Sure. But why? Why is your saving two people from a horrible fate more newsworthy than you eating lunch? That’s what news values explain.

What are the news values?

If you ask 10 news people what their news values are (assuming they’ve even heard of the term) you’re probably going to get 11 different answers. Furthermore, some will say there are five news values, others eight, and still others 12. I have my own list of six, and I’ve created a handy acronym to make them easy to remember. It’s “THE ICU,” as in “He had a heart attack and he’s in THE ICU.” Here they are, along with their definitions:

     Timeliness--This is obvious. Current events are more newsworthy than older ones

     Human interest--This may cover anything from the heart-warming “firefighters rescue ducklings that fell down the storm drain” to a heart-wrenching tragedy. Conflict is often of interest, e.g., a fight between two men in a convenience store escalates to a shooting

     Effect (or the verbal form, affect)--The more people an event affects the most newsworthy it’s likely to be

     Important people--If I fall down the stairs today and break my leg, it’s not newsworthy. If the president does, it’s a big story

     Closeness--This refers to physical proximity. In the scenario above where you saved two people your local news outlets will find the event newsworthy. Not so much so for news outlets on the other side of the country

     Unusualness--Again, this concept is obvious. The more unusual an event is the more likely it is to be newsworthy. For example, each day about 30,000 commercial airplane flights take place in the U.S. They all routinely take off, reach their destination, and land safely. No news outlet covers those flights. But if one crashes, it’s unusual and therefore newsworthy

This is not to say that news people consciously run through all six news values when considering a story idea. The process becomes second nature. They automatically use news values as filters to decide what events make the news.

What if the TV station had used news values to sift through the Feb. 24, 2021 events? Regarding the golfer, they might have thought:

     Timeliness--The story isn’t timely because the crash happened yesterday. We reported the incident then

     Human interest--There’s certainly some human interest. A lot of people like the golfer. But a lot of people don’t, so there’s some conflict

     Effect or affect--The story only significantly affects one person

     Important people--The golfer is important in his sport, but not in the grand scheme of life

     Closeness--For most viewers, the story wasn’t local

     Unusualness--Yes, the incident was unusual

But in contrast, consider the Covid-19 story:

     Timeliness--It’s obviously timely

     Human interest--There’s a ton of interest; most everyone knows someone who had/has Covid. Many even know someone who has died, or they are afraid of getting the disease themselves. And then there’s the “there is no such thing as Covid” crowd, and that’s conflict

     Effect or affect--The story affects virtually everyone

     Important people--It has an impact on everyone, whether they’re “important” or not

     Closeness--It’s happening near everyone

     Unusualness--It’s unusual; no one alive today in the United States has lived through a pandemic like this one

Would applying the news values have changed the station’s mind about what to lead with?

Now that you know about news values, let’s return to our lead scenario: it’s Feb. 24, 2021. Which of these stories would you lead your broadcast with?

     Covid-19 is raging across the country
     The FDA announced today that Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine is safe and effective
     An investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. capitol building is expanding
     The U.S. stock market closed at a record high today

Running the story ideas through the filter of news values will help you make your decision. And now you can use news values to help decide what topics most interest your potential readers.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Joe Wisinski