“You will have the easiest time becoming front page news when you least want to”. So goes a quote about the dance between media source and journalist and there is something to this. Conflict is considered one of the news criteria – one of the qualities of a potential story that may land it above the fold on the front page or in an all-caps, alert-yellow textbox on a digital media platform.
According to media researchers such as Oestlyngen and Ovrebro (1998), the likelihood that a story will make the news in a prominent way increases as more boxes are ticked on the news values list. Opinions differ on how long this list is since it is rather unofficial; these eight aspects are some of the most often cited.
Impact: The more people are affected, the higher the news value. A small impact on many (a national tax hike) or severe impact on a few (a bad car crash).
Relevance: The story must have relevance for the audience as well as for the media outlet itself. Many media are dedicated to a certain geography or industry which help define what makes the news.
Proximity: We want to know what is happening in our local community and in our own circles and industry.
Prominence: A stolen dog is not usually world news. If it belongs to Lady Gaga and is abducted at gun point from its dog walker on a public sidewalk, it will make the news across the world. So will Bill Gates’ divorce. Getting an exclusive interview from an elusive source will secure its priority (nice score, Oprah).
Identification: It is central that the audience can relate to the story. Media exist to serve a specific audience and picks its stories according to their preferences and spheres of interest. To tick this box, both the journalist as well as the reader must understand and feel connected to the topic.
Sensation: News are not the mundane – we want to know about the more unusual happenings. Drama and tension adds to the news value of a storyline – it must draw attention. The bizarre can make a headline even if it happened in a far-away place. “Dog bites man” rarely makes the news –
“Man bites dog” may.
Timeliness: We want to know about things that are happening right now, not those that happened yesterday (unless something relevant and sensational has been uncovered about the past). Being first is a prized journalistic value which sometimes gives prominence to lesser stories. Today’s digital news cycle means there is always a “breaking news” item on most news platforms.
Conflict: War makes the news, not peace. We are interested in grievances of all shapes and sizes, whether interpersonal, between companies and individuals, the state and its citizens. The conflict itself is sometimes more newsworthy than the reason people quarrel.
How do you use the news criteria when putting together your pitch?
The easy answer could be: Do something illegal or immoral in a very public manner while flashing your company logo. The hard answer is: You need to take a good look at your story idea and ask yourself: What attributes does my story have that can help tick these boxes? Can I add some conflict in a relevant way without picking a fight – perhaps all it takes is positioning yourself as a challenger to the status quo. Most importantly, pick the right media outlet for your story.
There is a reason press coverage is often referred to as ‘earned’ media – and of course, every day, companies and experts are covered favorably or at least neutrally on stories that are not dramatic or bursting with conflict. But to get there, you must take the time to learn how you earn the attention of a journalist for something you DO want to be known for. More on that in upcoming modules.