When Man Bites Dog: Hard to Define News
Somebody once tried to tell me that the word NEWS originated from the fact that it informed people about what was going on in the North, East, West and South.
But wherever the word came from, at least we know what news is, right?
Actually, it turns out that successfully defining the stuff can be tricky, and it changes with the times. I covered some of this ground back in January while attempting to address questions about why The Pilot (of which I was still editor at that point) had given so much play to a missing monkey named Toby.
But let me take another crack at the subject, this time from more of a sidelines position.
No one that I know of has ever come up with a pat, one-size-fits-all definition of just what constitutes news, though those who labor in the journalism vineyard - such as John Nagy, who now ably mans the editor's desk here - tend to know it when they see it. Some people have given up and said that news is whatever editors and other deciders say it is.
Fortunately, some helpful academics have attempted to take a more scientific approach to this question. They include Jan Yopp, Katherine McAdams and Ryan Thornburg, authors of "Reaching Audiences," the text I have used in my six (so far) semesters of teaching newswriting at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Those three have broken the question down into eight "news values" that take some of the guesswork out of the matter and subject it to more objective analysis. The list goes like this:
Prominence. Anytime a situation involves someone relatively famous or powerful, the news value takes a big jump. In Moore County, like it or not, John Edwards is always going to be news. If a state senator from Oklahoma came to town and shot baskets in the fitness center at FirstHealth, ho hum. But when Barack Obama does it, as he did in the 2008 campaign, stop the presses.
Timeliness. They don't call it news for nothing. It has to be new. Or the reporter has to come up with a new angle.
Proximity. For a community paper like The Pilot, especially, it has to be local. Or a way must be found to "localize" it. As the old newsroom saying used to go, a dogfight on Main Street is more important than a war in Afghanistan. (They started saying that back before there was a war in Afghanistan.)
Impact. Usually that means personal impact on the reader. A vote taken at a local town council meeting takes on a whole new significance if it means you and your family have to start keeping your dog on a leash or hauling your trash out to the curb.
Magnitude. Two inches of snow is not a big deal. Two feet, like Moore County got in the blizzard of 2000, is.
Emotional impact. Journalists get a little cynical sometimes about tearjerker stories. In the bad old days, some newspaper photographers supposedly kept a variety of children's shoes in the trunks of their cars so they could plant one in the foreground at the scene of a bicycle fatality to give their shot more emotional impact. I hope that's not true, but you get the idea.
Conflict. If supporters and opponents of a major new housing and retail development yell at each other during a public hearing, or if two gangs get into a fistfight during recess at school, that's news. Some people, indeed, go so far as to say simply, "Conflict is news."
Oddity. Others have another compact definition: "News is the unusual." As I noted in the earlier column: If 80,000 Moore County residents get up in the morning and go to work and return home that night without robbing a bank, that's not news. But the one guy who does rob a bank is.
So is the man who bites the proverbial dog. Or the missing monkey who comes back home.
Steve Bouser is opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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