What Is News?

Billions around the world read newspapers, listen to radio, watch television, and surf the Internet to find out the latest news, but few ever ask themselves exactly what it takes for it fit into such a category. After all, if it is there, it must be “news.” Since it is seldom of a pleasant nature, then that must be one of its aspects. Or is it? Consider the following scenarios.

A nine-year-old girl fell from a tree at 33 Ward Lane, located in a small Pennsylvania town, yesterday, sustaining a fractured arm. Alarmed, her family members and friends immediately rushed to her side or called to learn of her condition. This may not have caused as much as a pause in the frenetic pace of New York’s stock exchange, but it was news.

When Air France and British Airways respectively inaugurated supersonic Concorde service to Washington and New York on November 22, 1977, completing their flights in little more than three hours, it was considered an aviation milestone and piqued the interest of people as far away as Australia. This was also news.

Because there is little similarity between these two events, a precise definition of the concept is not necessarily easy to determine, but, according to Thomas Elliot Berry in his book, Journalism in America (Hastings House, Publishers, 1976, p. 26), it can vary in three ways: “From one paper to another; from one time to another; and from one locality to another.”

This first concept can be illustrated by comparing a tabloid with a full-size daily newspaper. The former, again according to Berry (p. 26), would most likely feature stories “such as accounts of family squabbles, gossip about semi-famous personalities, or maudlin descriptions of obscure people and their personal troubles,” whereas full-size papers would offer features about finance, the stock exchange, economics, and scientific developments.

“The concept of news (also) varies among (types of) media,” wrote John Hohenberg in his book, The Professional Journalist (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1978, p. 87). “To morning newspapers, it is what happened yesterday. To afternoon newspapers, it is what happened today. To news magazines, it is what happened last week. To wire services, radio, and television, it is what happened a moment ago.”

News can thus vary according to media type and frequency of its publication or broadcast.

It also varies according to time-that is say, what can be considered “newsworthy” depends upon what has occurred as a whole and therefore the amount of space remaining to use for lesser developments. A traffic accident during August, when a large percentage of workers are on vacation, for example, may be considered important, but there was precious little space remaining for this type of occurrence the day following the Boston marathon bombing. Even an apartment fire near the event that was not directly caused by it would not even have been considered for print.

News therefore depends upon what else transpired on a given day.

It also hinges upon perspective, which itself varies according to the locality of its occurrence. A story about the loss of a small town’s only Laundromat, for instance, would most likely be considered important to its citizens, but if the same event took place in a city the size of Chicago, it would probably be no more important than the nine-year-old who fell from the tree. How would those in Moscow, 10,000 miles away, view this event, even if the story were translated into Russian?

News, according to Julian Harriss, Kelley Leiter, and Stanley Johnson in their book, The Complete Reporter, (MacMillan Publishing Company, 1977, p. 22), can be considered “that which has the greatest interest for the greatest number of people.”

Although its definition, based upon these divergent parameters, can vary widely, it nevertheless consists of five common denominators that serve as the guidelines editors employ when they consider an item for publication.

The first of these is that it must interest readers by either directly concerning them or otherwise providing an element of interest.

“The most common stories that concern readers directly are accounts of government actions, advances in science, and economic analyses,” wrote Berry in Journalism in America (p. 27). “Interesting stories run a wide gamut, from county fairs and changes in clothing fashions to freak auto accidents, or anything the editor believes newsworthy.”

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