A New Approach to News Values

December 30, 2013 • Ethics and Quality • by

Helen Caple, a social semiotician at the University of New South Wales, and Monika Bednarek, a linguist at the University of Sydney Australia, discuss a novel approach to the study of news values across both words and images, one that they hope will not only benefit the research community, but will also be of interest to journalism scholars.

We think of ‘values’ as having to do with some kind of standard, as defining a culture, or as an objective to attain. They are often seen in a very positive light, as being important for our society and something that is open for negotiation.

In the context of journalism research, values are a very interesting subject of study and there are a number of questions we can ask around ‘values’. What kinds of standards can we discover? How do values define journalism as a culture? How do news institutions try to attain value? What kinds of values are important for journalism? And, which values are emphasized at different times?

For some, these values are reflected in the ethical standards and codes of practice that guide editorial policy making at a news organisation. For others value is created through sound economic management that positions the media as trusted advisor or preferred provider across platforms for example. Another perspective sees value as an integral part of the production of news, and concepts like ‘news values’ have been coined to represent their central role in the decision making process as to what will or will not be selected as news. This third perspective of ‘news value’ has been widely researched in journalism studies, and is where our interest in values also lies.

Reviewing the literature across both journalism studies and linguistics, we have found that the concept of “news values” has been applied to a whole range journalistic practices and commercial conditions. These include not only the newsworthy aspects of happenings or news actors, but also external aspects that impact on journalism practice, such as the corrupting influence of proprietors or advertisers, meeting deadlines, or competition among news providers to get exclusive stories.

There are also widely differing perspectives on the nature or status of news values. For some, news values exist in the actual events and people who are reported on in the news. Others conceive news values as existing in the minds of journalists. And news values are also constructed in the discourses involved in the production of news, including the published news stories that audiences engage with. We have labelled these three perspectives as material, cognitive and discursive. While both the material and cognitive approaches have been widely studied, the discursive perspective has been neglected in the research on news values, and is the perspective we are interested in.

In taking a discursive approach, we focus on the newsworthy aspects of actors, happenings and issues as existing in and constructed through discourse. And by discourse we mean language, images, typography, layout, colour etc., used to construct the texts involved in the news production process. This is a novel approach, since until now the role of these other semiotic resources in the production and meaning of news have been largely ignored.

A discursive approach to news values also opens up the opportunity for new avenues of research that have until now remained untapped. We can ask, for example, whether there are key conventionalized linguistic/semiotic devices that are used in journalistic discourse to construct newsworthiness. If so, have these changed over time? Have new media and the crisis of journalism caused a shift in the discourse? Can we detect a global discourse of newsworthiness or are there cultural differences?

Researchers could also focus on particular happenings, topics, issues or news actors and see how they are constructed as newsworthy, for example by emphasizing particular new values. Or they could focus on particular news outlets or news programmes and investigate whether they favour any particular news values. Are the popular press different from the quality press in their discursive constructions of news values? And most importantly, one could look at the role that the different discursive components play. So questions like ‘do language and visuals reinforce, complement or contradict each other?’ could also be addressed through a discursive approach to news values analysis.

Journalism education could also make use of a discursive perspective on news values in both the deconstruction and construction of news texts. By analysing the resources journalists use to construct newsworthy stories, students can become aware of the ways in which audiences are positioned by the texts they read and watch. And this may ultimately equip them with the tools to unpack at least one aspect of the value of news discourse and how newsworthiness is created through the combination of language, image and other semiotic resources.

For more information on the discursive approach to news values see: News Values – A Discursive Approach

Photo credit: bayasaa / Flickr Cc

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