So you want to start covering stories as a reporter, maybe as a student working on a school paper or as a citizen journalist writing for a website or blog. But how do you decide what is newsworthy? What is worth covering, and what isn’t?
Over the years editors, reporters and journalism professors have come up with a list of factors or criteria that help journalists decide whether something is newsworthy or not. They can also help you decide HOW newsworthy something is. Generally, the more of the factors below that can be applied to your event or story, the more newsworthy it’s bound to be.
Impact or Consequences
Generally, the greater the impact a story has, the more newsworthy it is. Events that have on impact on your readers, that have real consequences for their lives, are bound to be newsworthy.
An obvious example would be the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In how many ways have all of our lives been affected by the events of that day? The greater the impact, the bigger the story.
If you look closely at the stories that make news in any given day, chances are most of them will have some element of conflict. Whether it’s a dispute over banning books at a local school board meeting, bickering over budget legislation in Congress, or the ultimate conflict – war – conflict is almost always newsworthy.
Conflict is newsworthy because as human beings we’re naturally interested in conflict. Think of any book you’ve ever read or movie you’ve ever watched – they all had some type of conflict. Without conflict, there would be no literature or drama. Conflict is what propels the human drama.
Imagine two city council meetings. At the first, the council passes its annual budget unanimously with little or no argument. In the second, there is violent disagreement. Some council members want the budget to provide more city services, while others want a bare-bones budget with tax cuts. The two sides are entrenched in their positions and in the city council chambers the conflict erupts into a full-scale shouting match,
Which story is more interesting? The second, of course. Why? Conflict. Conflict is so interesting to us as humans that it can even make an otherwise dull-sounding story – the passage of a city budget – into something utterly gripping. And the ultimate conflict – war – is always a huge story.
Loss of Life/Property Destruction
There’s an old saying in the news business: If it bleeds, it leads. What that means is that any story involving loss of human life – from a fire to a shooting to a terrorist attack - is bound to be newsworthy. Likewise, nearly any story that involves property destruction on a large enough scale – a house fire is a good example - is also bound to be news.
Many stories have both loss of life and property destruction – think of the house fire in which several people perish. Obviously loss of human life is more important than property destruction, so write the story that way.
Proximity has to do with how close an event is geographically is to your readers or viewers. A house fire with several people injured might be big news in your hometown newspaper, but chances are no one will care in the next town over. Likewise, wildfires in California usually make the national news, but clearly they’re a much bigger story for those directly affected.
Are the people involved in your story famous or prominent? If so, the story becomes more newsworthy. For example, if an average person is injured in a car crash, chances are that won’t even make the local news. But if the president of the United States is hurt in a car crash, it makes headlines around the world.
Prominence can apply to politicians, movie stars, star athletes, CEOs – anyone who’s in the public eye. But it doesn’t have to mean someone who’s famous worldwide. The mayor of your town probably isn’t famous, even locally. But he or she is prominent in your town, which means any story involving him or her is likely to be more newsworthy. Prominence can apply on a local, national or international level.
In the news business we tend to focus on what’s happening this day, this hour, this minute. So events that are happening now are often more newsworthy than those that happened, say, a week ago.
Another factor that relates to timeliness is currency. This involves stories that may not have just happened but instead have an ongoing interest to your audience. For example, the rise and fall in gas prices is something that’s been happening for several years, but it’s a story that’s still relevant to your readers, so it has currency.
Another old saying in the news business goes, “When a dog bites a man, no one cares. When the man bites back – now that’s a news story.” The idea, of course, is that any deviation from the normal, expected course of events is something novel, and thus newsworthy.