Newsworthiness skewed as popular interest shifts
Published: Friday, October 19, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 19, 2012 17:10
Which story is more newsworthy? An orphan baby walrus finding a home or the Taliban shooting a 14-year-old Pakistani girl in the head?
The third most e-mailed article in The New York Times Oct. 10 was titled “A Fat, Mustachioed Orphan Finds a Home.” Four articles down the list you would find “Taliban Gun Down Girl Who Spoke Up for Rights.”
It is not that people are reading one article over the other. The young girl shot by the Taliban was on the front page of The New York Times and was listed as the second most viewed article. The walrus story was the third but it clearly had more shares than the young girl.
These results bring up a couple of questions: do people actually care more about animals than humans, and if people are sharing more animal stories than stories about humans, which would be more newsworthy?
Michael Holmes, an Australian news anchor and correspondent for CNN International, addressed the first question in a story for CNN titled, “Do we care more about animals than humans?”
In his piece, Holmes described that through his personal experience working in Iraq and Afghanistan and reporting on human suffering, he noticed a pattern- the stories about humans got the usual responses of empathy for victims, but whenever there was a story involving animals, he would get far more responses and inquiries.
“Of all the stories I have covered during my frequent trips to Iraq, most of the viewer feedback I received asked about the animal victims of war rather than the human ones,” he wrote. “I make no judgment on that – it is just an observation.”
The concept of “newsworthiness” may seem abstract because of the subjectivity; a general audience has different preferences in the news they find interesting. So how do we define what is news worthy?
Take any introductory course in journalism at DePaul and you will learn the list of six basic criteria points that make for a good story: how timely is the story, how many people does it affect, what is the prominence, what is the proximity, is the story unique and does it generate human interest? The more hits your story gets, the more newsworthy it is considered.
Sheila Clancy, journalism professor at DePaul University, explained that the newsroom is an industry, just like any other, and that it ultimately “needs to sell” to its audience.
In the scope of strict “news” stories, journalists have a certain type of responsibility to the public. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) has a code of ethics, and according to the code, journalists must “tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.”
Aside from the point it makes, there should be an unbiased openness in reporting- it brings up the topic of popular beliefs and what should be reported.
Since when did journalists start writing stories based on popularity?
Stated in the SPJ preamble, members believe that “public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy” and that “the duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.”
One can only reflect on a time when writing stories about animals was considered taboo, but is this what the public wants? Although journalists ultimately need to “sell” their stories to maintain the industry, there is obviously a clear responsibility they have to the public in reporting and spreading news that is not easily accessible.