Timeliness and other factors in news selection

(The original version of this entry was written by Gilbert Ndikubwayezu)

When journalists look for potential stories to cover, they go through a sturdy selection process, either formally or informally, to answer the underlying question of how one occurrence is more “newsworthy” than the other according to criteria known in the media world as “news values.”

Also referred to as news factors or news criteria, these have been defined as practices that allow journalists to assess events qualitatively for their worthiness of space in the mainstream media (Social Science Research Council, NY). Adam (2006) defined them as "a subjective set of criteria that journalists use to assess the newsworthiness of events or topics." As the span of media coverage widens day after day as new forms of the journalism craft emerge, so does the initial list of these news values. In fact, “there is no end to lists of news criteria” (Ryan 1991). The exact number notwithstanding though, these news values play a significant role in determining what readers, listeners or viewers are exposed to in the communities around the globe.

This examination of news assessment as an element of responsible journalism will summarize the most commonly listed factors in news selection, and explore one of these which seems especially crucial: timeliness.

News Values (factors in news selection)
Various scholars and media experts have presented varying arguments about what should be classified as news values. While these news factors are, according to Adam, temporally, spatially and culturally specific, the classic gatekeeping role of editors in Western newsrooms and much of the rest of the world relies on sets of news values that are often presented as fairly consistent.

One of the earliest proposals on the factors in newsworthiness was presented in a 1965 study of coverage of foreign news crises in four Norwegian newspapers by Galtung and Ruge. With a list of more than a dozen contributing factors that they believed could lead to news construction, they argued that “the more an event accessed these criteria the more likely it was to be reported on in a newspaper.” The conditions for news, the authors wrote, are: frequency, negativity, unexpectedness, unambiguity, personalization, meaningfulness, reference to elite nations, reference to elite persons, conflict, consonance, continuity, composition, competition, co-optation, prefabrication, predictability, time constraints and logistics.
Benedetti, Currie and Kierans (2010) presented a list of seven values, which "include but are not limited to": proximity, impact, timeliness, human interest, conflict and prominence. Curtis (2011) of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, offers an only slightly dissimilar list of seven factors: impact, timeliness, prominence, proximity, bizarreness, conflict and currency. McKercher, Thompson and Cumming (2011) list six: proximity or local interest value of news, prominence of people involved, impact of a story on people, the conflict or controversy a story raises, how unexpected or bizzare a story is, and how timely it is. For these three Carleton University scholars, news values are "conventions rather than rules," and every journalist independently has the right of choosing which list suits him or her while pursuing a story.

If one follows the Curtis list, the factors may be briefly described this way:
Impact. Newsworthiness reflects an evaluation of how many people's lives will be influenced in a good or bad way. In other words, the more people a story might affect, the more newsworthy it is.
Timeliness. As Curtis puts it, “recent events have higher news value than past happenings.” Sometimes journalists can do pre-emptive stories and present them in the media even before they actually happen, either for competition purposes or to warn the audience about an imminent situation. Usually this is for events that happen consistently and repeatedly. For instance, we are likely to read stories about Halloween celebrations in the weeks leading to October 30. But also, stories that happened way in the past can, all of a sudden, come back into the spotlight. This can be the case for people in the race for political power, as we will discuss later in this essay.
Prominence. Essentially similar occurrences can attract the public eye differently because of people involved. People in high-ranking positions are more likely to get coverage than ordinary citizens.
Proximity. The closer an event is to the audience, the more important it becomes. People like to read what is related to them and their day to day life, rather than what is far away from them.
Bizarreness. Something very unusual generally gets people’s attention more than does an ordinary happening. As the saying goes, "man bites dog" is news; the reverse is not.
Conflict. Also referred to as tension or controversy, this is a classic emphasis in news selection. Stories get more interesting when crafted from strife.
Currency. People are normally interested in things that are in the spotlight by the time they are reported about. Depending on the nature of the stories, there are those which happen, get reported on and get forgotten. There are also others that are remembered from time to time as anniversaries.

These classic sets of news values have been expanded with a growing emphasis on video journalism to the list of news values. Newly added factors include visualness, emotion and “celebrification” of a journalist or presenter. The list will undoubtedly keep growing as media practices take new shapes on various platforms.

Timeliness as a factor in news selection: Rob Ford's case against the Toronto Star
On almost all the lists of news values, timeliness is an ever-present factor. Apart from its relatively obvious meaning (as in an example of "breaking news" label especially in TV), timeliness can also present a prospect of the future or bring back the past in news presentation or publication. This exercise of measuring the news in an accurate timeframe is what helps journalists "keep the news comprehensive and proportional," to borrow the phrase of Kovach and Rosenstiel.

There is no specific expiry date on news stories, but common sense applies in most (if not all) newsrooms around the world. This doesn’t mean we don’t read stories, editorials, columns or commentaries about things that happened way in the past – the 2004 tsunami, for instance, or the Holocaust. But the idea of timeliness insists on relating past events to the present time. This may depend on the significance of the people involved in the story and what they represent as of the current situation, which situation may have been different in the past.

Let us examine this scenario: A high school football team coach has a verbal altercation with one of the players. The row creates some rage from both sides and the matter is sent to the school board members for them to take a decision. Eventually, a tough decision is taken and the coach is sent packing, told he is “no longer welcome to coach” at that school anymore. Nine years later, that former coach is back in the news, this time seeking public office. Somewhere during the campaign, a renowned investigative journalist gets a tip about the old football incident, and works sources on all sides of the story. The story runs. The candidate serves the paper with a notice of intended lawsuit. The paper, instead of running any correction or retraction, runs a story covering the imminent lawsuit.

That plaintiff, Rob Ford, was elected mayor of Toronto in 2010 Toronto mayoral race. (In 2001, Ford was a football coach at Newtownbrook Secondary School.) When the Toronto Star ran the old story, Ford's camp took it as an attempt to tarnish his name and a real threat to his dream of becoming the mayor of Toronto. His libel notice indicates the plaintiff's view that the stories suggest, either by ordinary meaning of the words or by innuendo, that “Ford lost control, went berserk, and physically assaulted one of his players and thus committed an act of criminal assault,” for which crime Ford escaped liability. He accuses the Star's journalists of malice, since the paper “does not support Mr. Ford’s campaign for Mayor of Toronto and has been on its own campaign to impugn Mr. Ford’s reputation.”

For a story like this to hit the spotlight after nine years of silence, there has to be something very special and unusual about it. In this case, it was Ford’s quest for mayoral office. Despite the risk of litigation, the paper chose to pursue and publish these stories when readers were faced with a decision about their city's leadership. Even if statements in these stories were to turn out to be inaccurate, the journalists will likely take refuge in the "responsible communication" defence, arguing that they sought to verify the information and that this was the right time to bring forward an important piece of information about a mayoral candidate.

This is just an example, but it goes to show that the news value of timeliness is a flexible tool. But the classic ideas of timeliness remain primary. In November 1994, the African Council for Communication and Education published the findings of a study entitled "Coverage of Africa by the African–American Press: Perceptions of African–American Newspaper Editors." The research had been conducted mainly with the goal of answering two important questions: how do African–American newspaper editors decide which African news to publish, and what influences their decisions about the quantity and quality of coverage? After going through the process of gathering information and compiling the findings, the “study reveals that gatekeeping practices of African–American newspaper editors were basically similar to those of other western editors.”

Timeliness was ranked number two among the many factors that influence newsroom decisions when it comes to what gets covered and published. The number one factor, for these African–American newspaper editors, was the loss of lives and property that is brought about by an incident.

Works cited
G. Stuart Adam (2006): " Notes towards a definition of journalism" in G. Stuart Adam and Roy Peter Clark: Journalism, the democratic craft. (Oxford University Press, New York.)
Paul Benedetti, Tim Currie and Kim Kierans (2010): The New Journalist. Roles, Skills, and Critical Thinking, EMP (Edmond Montgomery Publications), Toronto.
Anthony R. Curtis (2011): "What Are The Seven News Values? [Resources for courses]" http://www.uncp.edu/home/acurtis/Courses/ResourcesForCourses/NewsValues.html
J. Galtung & M. Holmboe Ruge (1965): "The Structure of Foreign News. The Presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus Crises in Four Norwegian Newspapers." Journal of Peace Research, vol. 2, pp. 64-91.
Catherine McKercher, Allan Thompson and Carman Cumming (2011): The Canadian Reporter: News Writing and Reporting (Nelson Education Ltd, Third Edition).
Notice of Intended Action (Rob Ford against the Toronto Star), 2010.
Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (2007): The Elements of Journalism (Three Rivers Press, New York).
Onyedike, Emmanuel U. (1994) "Coverage of Africa by the African – American Press: Perceptions of African – American Newspaper Editors," Africa Media Review, Vol. 8 No. 2._
C. Ryan (1991): Prime Time Activism: Media Strategies for Grassroots Organizing Boston (South End Press), p. 31.