What makes the news the news?

Obviously there’s a lot more going on in the world than can fit in an hour-long news show or on the front page of a website, so how do certain events become considered newsworthy and others not? There seems to be two common answers to this question: the mainstream view that stuff that makes the news does so because it is more important than stuff that doesn’t, and the leftie perspective that the stuff that makes the news represents the interests of powerful businessmen and politicians. I think both these arguments have merit in certain situations, but there’s other factors at play  that don’t often get considered.

Firstly, the two commonly presented reasons for the nature of news coverage. Some events have a much larger impact on people’s lives and global politics than others, and these generally make the news over things that have a lesser impact. For instance an event like the Eurozone crisis receives much more global coverage than a constitutional crisis in Papua New Guinea because it can affect almost everyone on the planet through disruption of financial markets, lost jobs, currency fluctuations etc, whereas as interesting as the PNG crisis was it really only affects people who live there or have interests there. Fair enough then I guess. However, the statement that the news represents the interests of an elite is also broadly true – especially in how certain events are portrayed. The lack of coverage given at the time to such monumental events as the biggest conflict since WWII can only reflect the fact that there was no business or financial interests for the West to protect in this case and thus it wasn’t deemed important. But surely an event does not have to be influential on the people reading its lives for it to be considered newsworthy, or else why does Syria dominate the news? As horrible as the situation there is it doesn’t directly affect the lives of the vast majority of news consumers in the same way that the Eurozone crisis does. The 10,000 or so dead there sounds like a lot, but more people than that are estimated to have died on the island of Bougainville during the war there and I doubt many people have even heard of the place outside of the South Pacific. This will probably change when a movie about it starring Hugh Laurie comes out.

So importance to the audience generally and the interests of the “news-selectors” (to perhaps coin a phrase) are both factors in what makes the news, but they are not the sole determinants. One blindingly obvious factor is that there is always going to be a finite amount of reporting available even in our information-saturated internet age and so certain events will always be excluded. Similarly, it is easier to report from certain environments for logistical reasons and thus this influences the level of reportage. Ultimately though I think the biggest factor that people don’t realise is a version of the network effect.  Once a news story starts to get attention other people hear about it and read about it, and then it begins to be perceived as important and gets more attention over time. If one website or news agency reports on an event its competitors will too because they will worry about missing a story and thus losing credibility.  Some events will gain enough interest when they first occur to reach a critical mass and continue to be reported on, while others won’t get enough attention and will fall off the radar. At least in the internet age if you are really interested in a story you can look it up yourself, but the idea that the web would destroy traditional news providers seems to have been disproved. Most people are happy to be told what the news is, and won’t question why one thing is news and another is not.



15 responses to “What makes the news the news?

  • briangottesman

    There is also the “Man Bites Dog” effect. This states that when something unusual happens it is more likely to be reported on.
    To expand on your theory interest in a subject is very important as to whether it makes it to the news. For example the reason Syria is being reported on so heavily is mostly due to the increased interest of the public in the Middle East due to the Arab Spring, the Iraq, and Afghanistan War, Iran’s nuclear program, 9/11, and the renewed interest in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
    By the Way, I love the word “news-selectors.”

    • fromthefourthcorner

      Sweet, maybe news-selectors will catch on!
      In terms of interest in stories there’s a weird relationship between people being interested because the story is everywhere, and the story being everywhere because people are interested, but I definitely think that the rise of the net as a medium for news has meant that the stories represent people’s interests more than they perhaps did in the past

  • Daniel Keenan

    Love that tautlogical thinking Dylan, that’s the backbone of the advertising/marketing industries – repetition and saturation influence behaviour. The news is this same process in effect, bums on seats/advertising revenue outweigh everything

    • fromthefourthcorner

      Yeah it can be easy to forget that the news is a profit industry as well – especially commercial newswires. To be honest I’m not sure about the level of commercial revenue in operations like the BBC or RT…

  • Cam

    Does the ability of a given story to entertain and captivate its audience also have some play when it comes to a given story being selected? If people actually like watching the news, surely they’re more likely to watch again and generate ratings? Conversely, you might say hyper-depressing stories (like the war in Congo) could be percieved by the news-selectors as turning people off. I mean, most people have probably heard people say “I don’t like watching the news, it’s too depressing…”

    • fromthefourthcorner

      Yes and no I think. While some people don’t watch the news because its depressing, there is some sort of way in which many people are drawn to watching images of suffering. Positive news-stories are generally uninteresting for most people, except for occasional human interest stories about a duck adopting puppies or something, but even then most one hour news-shows will only have one of those stories

  • E. Puha

    Large stories such as the war in the Congo aren’t reported on precisely because there are elite interests involved. What’s the story going to be “hey you know that big mine we have somewhere. Well it’s devastating the environment and destabilizing the local polities but we don’t care because we only pay 1c per tonne of copper and are making out like bandits.”? Syria is a straight up propaganda campaign.

  • fromthefourthcorner

    interesting article about how certain tweets go viral on twitter: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21702-going-viral-on-twitter-is-a-random-act.html
    I wonder how similar the interest levels in certain news stories are in terms of behaviour?

  • fouryawkeyway

    To go with the Syria point, hundreds have died in about a week’s worth of fighting in Yemen: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/13/us-yemen-violence-idUSBRE83C0W020120413 You have to really dig to find coverage of that conflict even though the country, like Syria, has been affected by the Arab Spring. Suspect it’s because Syria’s conflict has a larger chance of drawing in outside actors, and from the start journalists have warned of it becoming another yugoslavia.

    • fromthefourthcorner

      Yeah, I think Yemen is also one of those countries which has been written off as a lost cause by the West so it doesn’t get much attention at all – Somalia is the same, both only get reported on when they impact on Western interests, usually through pirates!

  • jisantuc

    You might like the book “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” One view that comes out of it is that technology invented the news. In evidence, the “news of the day” in the cosmopolitan sense in which we think of it now didn’t exist until long-range communication was possible. That’s at least an answer to the question of what “makes” (produces, results in the product of) the news.

    • fromthefourthcorner

      That sounds like it could be related to a sort of Marshall McLuhan-esque explanation based on the medium being more important than the message it contains. The rise of newspapers coincided with the rise in global communications technology and the idea of “news” was born. Then television made the ability to get good footage of an event vital in order for it get news coverage, and now I think the internet and the rise of smartphones with cameras in them might be once again changing how news is manufactured and percieved. It might still be too early to say how exactly that will pan out though.

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