The concept of news values – the basic principles journalists use to guide their decisions about what constitutes “news” – has been a staple of media sociology since Galtung and Ruge’s (1965) taxonomy (classification) identified the various basic requirements “stories must generally satisfy” if they were to qualify as news.
As you might expect, this initial categorisation has been reviewed and refined over the years by different researchers – one of the most-interesting and sociologically-useful being Harcup and O’Neill’s (2001) attempt to test the validity of the original classification.
The outcome was a reduction to 10 categories (from the original 12) to take account of changing economic, political and cultural circumstances – the most-noticeable of which, particularly in a UK-context, is arguably the inclusion of an “Agenda” category, missing from the original, that highlights the significance of “owner views” – individual or organisational – on how the journalists they employ select and report “news” (I’ve left the “Examples” column blank so you can add your own. Either that or I couldn’t be bothered to think of any. I’ll leave you to decide which is the more plausible).
While both of these classifications (and many others, such as Chibnall (1977) or Lanson and Stephens, 2003) are, in their slightly different ways, relevant to any understanding of the historical concept of news values, contemporary media developments such as the growth of the Internet and, more-specifically, the rise of social media such as Facebook (2006) and Twitter (2006), add a different dimension to our understanding of news values. This involves, as Harcup and O’Neill (2017) suggest, the need to:
“Examine the extent to which any taxonomy of news values devised in the age before Twitter, Facebook and other interactive platforms, can be taken as read today”.
The main (sociological) reason for this relates to the relationship between news producers and consumers:
In the context of old or traditional media, such as newspapers and television, this relationship is broadly direct or unmediated. That is, journalists define and produce “news” on the basis of the kinds of organisational values outlined above and this is consumed directly by readers and viewers. There is nothing that sits between, or mediates, this relationship.
In the context of the newer forms of media epitomised by Facebook, however, this relationship is increasingly mediated. In other words, while journalists still produce “news” this increasingly reaches consumers via the indirect route of social media – what is, and most importantly what is not, featured and shared through social media (and since it is currently the largest and most powerful form of social media by far in the Western world, this inevitably means Facebook)
Where people are much more likely to consume news “indirectly” through Facebook than directly (by buying a newspaper, watching TV or visiting a web site) this not only gives Facebook a powerful mediating role in terms of what counts as news (news values) it also, as Bell (2015) argues, means “The key question for news organisations, tied to the goal of big traffic, is ‘what works best on Facebook?’”.
This follows because news organisations on the web predominantly use advertising to fund their operation in the absence of being able to charge a “cover price” (as they can for something like a newspaper) – and the more visitors they attract the more advertising they can potentially sell. As the largest source of visitors, this makes Facebook uniquely powerful and influential.
While it’s important to also note that some media outlets, such as The Times in Britain and the New York Times in America, have developed subscription models whereby consumers pay to access content, this too is influenced by the ability to attract large numbers of potential subscribers through social media.
In this respect, the rise of new (social) media has arguably created a more reflexive relationship between conventional news producers and consumers, one where “audience selection processes” increasingly invert their traditional relationship. Phillips (2012), for example, argues that media outlets – both old and new – “create loyalty by giving readers what they already know that they want” – and they increasingly “know what readers want” by using their access to Facebook analytics to see which stories are being shared and then rewriting and republishing them in a way that ensures they are further shared through different old and new media outlets.
In considering, for example, the “Top 10 stories from UK outlets in 2014”, Albeanu (2015) noted the top story, with around 600,000 Facebook interaction, “featuring a picture of icicles” featured in the Mail Online, while in 10th place was a “Mirror article about giant spiders, with 300,000 Facebook shares, likes and comments”.
By way of a slight digression, therefore, this suggests the distinction between “old” and “new” media is one that’s increasingly more observed in the breech. Rather than being “different and separate” the relationship now appears much more symbiotic. That is, a form of mutually-beneficial relationship in which Facebook gains access to all the world’s media and media organisations, in return, get access to Facebook’s vast user numbers.
While old and new media have clearly differentiated platforms and distribution methods (with old media coalescing around physical, real-world, distribution media like newsprint, magazines and television and new media coalescing around virtual, on-line distribution media like web sites, blogs, and video sharing) the relationship between “the old and the new” is increasingly:
Blurred: major publishing platforms now tend to have both physical and virtual publishing, with a clear movement towards the latter.
Symbiotic: old media platforms, in both their on and off-line manifestations, rely on new (social) media platforms such as Facebook for visitors / customers (monetised through advertising), while a platform like Facebook builds traffic by repacking “old media news” for sharing (and also monetises this through advertising).
Both types of media, therefore, are dependent on two things: the advertisers who spend money on their platform and the readers / viewers drawn in sufficient numbers to see and buy the products and services advertised.
Towards a Contemporary Set of News Values
While there are clear and obvious similarities between old and new media, which suggests they will probably share a range of familiar news values – an “exciting story”, for example, is an exciting story whether it’s published via old or new media – there are sufficient differences between the two platforms to suggest a need for a new “news values classification” that reflects potentially different types of media, ownership and objectives of old and news media.
In this respect Harcup and O’Neill (2017) have suggested “an updated set of contemporary news values” to reflect the new importance of the relationship between old and new media (again, I’ve left the “Examples?” column open in case you want to add your own).
As should be evident, there are clear continuities and differences between this set of “contemporary news values” and the previous sets we’ve noted – and it might be a useful and interesting exercise for students to both identify these and devise explanations for them in the light of any discussion about the nature of old and new media…
Johan Galtung and Mari Ruge (1965), “The Structure of Foreign News”
Tony Harcup and Deidre O’Neill (2001) “What Is News? Galtung and Ruge revisited”
Tony Harcup and Deirdre O’Neill (2017) “What is News?”
Catalina Albeanu (2015) “Facebook: Top 10 Stories from UK Outlets in 2014”
Steve Chibnell (1977) “Law-and-order News”
Gerald Lanson and Mitchell Stephens (2003) “Writing and Reporting the News”
Emily Bell (2015) “What Works Best on Facebook is the Key”.
Angela Phillips (2012) “Sociability, Speed and Quality in the Changing News Environment.”