What Is News and Why Doesn’t It Like My Story?
We have heard the question “What is news?” for years. There are other forms of this question and they include, in no particular order, “What makes news?”, “What does the media consider to be news?” and my favourite “Why does the media just want bad news?”
These questions come from people who don’t understand what traditional media is looking for when it decides whether a story is going to receive coverage, or be thrown into the reject pile. It’s especially frustrating to organizations that want their story covered. It could be a news conference, project, event, new program or any other development that they feel is newsworthy and deserves coverage.
As a radio News Director and Assignment Editor in Edmonton, AB for close to ten years and somebody who has been involved with the news business one way or another for over three decades, I have a pretty good idea of what makes news and what doesn’t. I also wrote about this is my book The Honest Spin Doctor.
So here without further ado, is my rundown of the three things a story needs to make it on the news. It does not need all three, although some do. Just one solid reason will place it in the newsrun for traditional media outlets, regardless of whether they’re print or electronic.
I know this isn’t as important as answering that other extremely important question of “What is life?” but it’s pretty close.
#1 The Story Needs to Be Important
Stories that are considered important are the meat and potatoes of daily content for traditional media. Stories in this category include natural disasters, terrorist attacks and threats, elections, political scandals, major government announcements, celebrity deaths and so on.
As a former journalist, when an important story came across my desk I recognized it right away. The initial reaction was “Whoa this is good stuff” and it immediately went to the top of the next newscast. Normally I had a pretty good idea of what immediately made for an important story that would have “legs” and last for several days, as different angles and opinions were sought. I made the odd mistake, but generally speaking, any journalist knows instinctively what is an important story that could last for several days.
#2 The Story Needs to Have Impact on People
Many of these stories are local in nature because local stories affect people more than national and international stories, even if they’re considered important. Impactful stories can include local taxation issues, roadways and mass transit changes that affect commuters, government announcements that affect the pocketbooks of taxpayers, etc.
In some cases, these stories can include local reaction to national or international stories. As an example, if the Supreme Court announces a decision affecting the rights of doctors in the country, the media will seek reaction from the leader of a local doctor’s group to see how the decision will affect doctors and patients at a local level. Once again they key words are “impact” and “local”. If you don’t believe me check local 6pm television newscasts and you will find that over 90% of the time they’re leading with local or regional items.
#3 The Story Needs To Be Interesting
There’s no question that important and impactful stories can certainly be interesting, but there are stories that make it into mainstream media that are neither important, nor impactful, but they certainly are interesting. We used to call them “kickers”, stories that would end newscasts on a colourful or upbeat note.
A great example of a recent story I noticed in the business section of the newspaper was about a woman who started a franchise in Victoria, BC of Rent the Chicken, a business that started in the US and rents chickens, coops and other accessories to people who want the joy of eating farm fresh eggs and I guess for having chickens in their backyard too, for whatever reason. I found the story interesting. Having chickens in my backyard isn’t anything I’ll be doing, but to me the story was interesting from human and business angles. I’m always fascinated how people can find a business angle to almost anything. Maybe that fits the bill for an interesting story.
Interesting stories can include everything from interesting business stories like the chicken one, to celebrity news, to those with a slightly harder edge such as medical stories, or positive stories about overcoming challenges. They have been called “lifestyle stories” in the past and generally are skewed towards a female audience.
The Media Just Wants Bad News
It amazes me that we still hear this from people, along with the classic “They’re just trying to sell more papers with bad news.” There may have been a day when bad news on the front page of newspapers sold a few more copies, but those days are long gone. In fact, I don’t think bad news has sold more papers in my lifetime. This may have happened in the 1930’s and 40’s when there were piles of newspapers on corner newsstands and there were few other ways to get the news, but is there anyone today who actually buys a newspaper because it contains bad news? Seriously.
There is something to bad news providing more important and impactful stories. Let’s face it, terrorist attacks, natural disasters and the like are stories that people want more of. That’s because that’s what news really is. Newscasts are filled with stories that are unexpected – things that weren’t supposed to happen. If something happened that was totally expected, then why is it in a newscast?
When I speak or do media training sessions in locations outside Edmonton I use a plane crash as an example. I say, my flight landed yesterday right on time, it was a good flight and I got my bag right away. There’s no news there because that’s exactly what was supposed to happen. However if the plane would have crashed and people died, then yes it would have been a big news story because that wasn’t expected to happen. You can call it bad news, but that’s because that’s what news is – things that were not expected or supposed to happen.
Why Doesn’t the Media Like My Story?
We finally get around to one to the title for this blog. I’ve heard it from many different people over the years who aren’t happy that the media didn’t cover their story. They had an announcement to make, or were organizing an event and they got little or no coverage form the media, despite sending a news release or two.
I understand the disappointment, but people need to ask if their story is important, impactful or interesting. I know the story is important and impactful and interesting to the people who want the story covered, but does it mean the same things to the average news consumer – the people who read newspapers or watch the news on TV? Would they find the story interesting, or would it be one that impacts their lives? You see when people take a step back and look at the coverage from a different prospective, they might be a little more hesitant to state that the media is only interested in bad news because it sells more newspapers.
Let’s face it, if it did daily newspapers would be a lot healthier than they are today.