|By Daniel Keeney||
|November 17, 2015 12:38 PM EST|
Impact Gives Way to Conflict and Shock Value When Determining What’s Newsworthy
News is constantly changing and the factors that determine newsworthiness constantly evolve as well. The changes in what is defined as news and how that information is presented are primarily driven by shifts in the habits and interests of the community, and by advances in technology.
Below, I’ve detailed the biggest factors that contribute to an editor’s view of whether a story is worthy of attention on the evening news, the pages of your local or regional paper, or in the app that presents up-to-the-minute news to your mobile device.
In addition to simply presenting these, I’ve attempted to rank them in order of importance. Understand that no editor or news decision maker consults a checklist. These decisions are gut reactions based on experience and on insights into how to attract an audience.
Conflict is the most important factor when determining newsworthiness. Without conflict, a story lacks energy and probably would not be pursued. Journalists and other storytellers are trained to examine information through the prism of conflict. The big corporation vs. the little upstart company. The lumbering bureaucracy vs. the innovative entrepreneur. The polluting industrial site vs. the group of neighbors worried about the health of their kids.
Conflict is the fuel that propels the story and attracts attention. If your organization avoids conflict and is intent on staying safe, you probably will have difficulty attracting media attention.
2. Human Interest
People are attracted to stories about people. This is the biggest change that has occurred in news presentation in the 30 years since I first became a news director of a local radio station. At the time, we devoted most of our resources to covering government – the city, county, local schools and state legislature. Today, some of those same stories are presented, but the emphasis is no longer on government process. The emphasis instead is on the stories of the people involved.
Human interest stories appeal to emotion. They can make us happy or sad. They can be heartening or assuring, and they can be heartbreaking and troubling. If you have a cause for which you want to attract attention, it is essential that you have individuals lined up who can effectively tell their stories to illustrate your cause. Always think, “people over process,” when discussing how to present your information.
3. Shock Value
Another big change that has occurred, in the past two decades especially, is the taboid-ization of all news content. There was a time not that long ago when purely shocking information was not necessarily considered news unless it involved important people (the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinski affair) or had a significant impact on the community (cabbies strike after a cab driver is attacked). Now, simply having accompanying video of whatever shocking thing occurred is enough to elevate a story to national prominence.
Recently, an Uber driver’s camera captured video of an inebriated passenger attacking the driver. It was shocking, but was it newsworthy? Nobody prominent was involved. The impact on the community was negligible. It would not have made the cut a few years ago, but today it was played on the network morning and evening newscasts.
For organizations that hope to attract media attention, the key takeaway is that the video and images often drive the determination of newsworthiness.
The first three letters in “news” spell “NEW!” As a news director, I often encouraged my team to consider what was happening at that moment. For instance, if authorities arrested a person last night for murder, it was already dated. What was happening NOW. The family is grieving and preparing for a funeral. The suspect is awaiting arraignment before a judge. Police are wrapping up their investigation. Friends of the victim are hearing details for the first time.
Something is always new with any story. If your organization released the latest, greatest gadget last week or last month, don’t expect coverage today – unless you add a timely news hook. That might be releasing the number of units sold so far or examples of how the gadget is being used to enhance people’s lives or solve problems.
If you are presenting information to a newsroom about something that occurred last night or last week or last month, it is all the same: old. It’s not called olds, it is news. Make sure you are presenting what is happening now – or better yet, what will happen soon.
The number of people affected by the story can be important. That’s why weather and traffic get so much play on the local news – the vast majority of the community is interested in whether their day will be messed up or if everything will go smoothly.
Organizations seeking media interest will want to consider the impact of their news on the community. When we worked with Subway restaurants, we launched the six-under-six (six sandwiches under six grams of fat) menu as a solution to the community’s growing obesity epidemic.
Often, as a story ages, reporters will look to extend its life by examining community impact. For instance, if the US Department of Agriculture released new nutrition guidelines yesterday, a reporter might go to a local school cafeteria to see how the new guidelines will effect lunches for students.
If someone notable is involved, it is a huge plus in attracting media attention. Today, we see stories about the personal lives of celebrities – Justin Bieber throwing eggs at neighboring homes, or Paris Hilton emerging from 45 days in jail for a probation violation – as if these are huge events. They have no real impact, but news decision makers know they draw an audience.
If you are considering ways to get your story covered, run down the list of conceivable celebrities who can be engaged. If you are working with a nonprofit organization, ask if they have anyone notable involved. If your community has professional sports teams, think about which of the players might be a good fit. Can we get the mayor or other dignitary involved? You might be surprised!
However, do not force a celebrity partnership where it doesn’t make sense. The best celebrity endorsements are authentic – choose someone who really does like and respect your organization and/or the product being promoted.
The closer the story is, the more newsworthy it is. Even though the terrorist attacks on Paris were hugely important and could shape international affairs for the foreseeable future, they were a long way away from North America. That’s why the story quickly shifted to how vulnerable the United States is to similar attacks. In many local markets, journalists took it another step and examined vulnerabilities and sentiments in the local community.
This type of localizing is a tried and true approach to presenting important information, and it can present an opportunity for organizations seeking media interest. If a major earthquake happens in Japan, the effort to collect and ship relief supplies locally is something that will attract media attention. Likewise, if your company is involved in outfitting new construction with earthquake resistant materials for structures being built here, a reporter might jump on it. Be careful, though. There is a fine line between coming across as sympathetic and being seen as a callous ambulance chaser.
This is a twist on several other factors presented above. If your story lacks impact, lacks prominence, isn’t particularly shocking or even all that interesting, it may be time to think of something novel to spice it up. Here are a few examples of things we’ve been involved with over the years:
- Stage a contest to find the biggest belt buckle.
- Set up 20 scales on the steps of City Hall for a city-wide weigh-in.
- Hold an ebay auction to sell naming rights to brewery equipment.
- Outfit middle schoolers with cameras to take pictures of how they see tobacco products.
- Create the world’s biggest cookie in the shape of Texas.
The more of these factors you have working in your favor, the greater the likelihood that a news organization will be interested in your story. An underlying assumption is that you understand that news is a business. News organizations are in the business of attracting a community of readers, viewers and listeners to whom advertising will be served. The news content is simply bait. That may seem cynical, and I am certain that many working journalists believe their role as storytellers goes far beyond that, but an objective view of how news information is presented will support this point of view.
Photo by Michael Mandiberg.
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