In college, I took Journalism 101 (actually 110; Augie’s numbering scheme is weird), which I just loved. I maintain it was the best class I took in college, and the one that has provided me more practical value than anything else I took.
In it, I learned about the gatekeeper effect, which is the idea that the media – newspapers, TV, radio, etc. – are the gatekeepers to the collective news consciousness. They have a huge impact on a population just by deciding what to publish and what not to publish.
To form an opinion about something, we have to be exposed to it, and the mainstream media (to use a pejorative term) largely controls this. I’m not going to find out about the police shooting someone in Ferguson, Missouri unless the media tells me about it. If the media deems it non-newsworthy, then an entire movement might never start.
I just finished Doris Graber’s classic “Processing the News”, in which she conducted an experiment in 1976 to determine how people process the news. She determined many things, not the least of which was the fact that someone’s access and exposure to the news was one of the largest influences on how they feel about it. And the gatekeeper effect bears heavily on your access.
This all boils down to what we consider to be “newsworthy.” How does the media decide whether or not to “reveal” something to the general population by covering it?
To this end, I enjoyed this article which listed all the things a media outlet might consider when decided whether or not to run a story. Things like:
- Insufficient or unsubstantiated information regarding a story
- How much coverage is the story currently getting from competitors or is it an exclusive
- Competing stories
- Fast and slow news days
- Budget and time constraints
- Instinct that a story will not be well received or is incomplete
- Influence from a publisher or advertiser (e.g. – the conservative bent of Fox News, the claimed liberal bent of dozens of outlets)
- Future impact
- The underdog (“Who doesn’t like the little guys coming from behind and winning?”)
(Note: no mention of Missing White Woman Syndrome.)
The number of different variables and combinations is enormous. In summary:
Newsworthiness is not as straight forward as when, where, what, why, who, how. Ultimately, journalism holds itself to a well-tested criterion of news values to determine a story’s newsworthiness.