Annual Report 2001 : What Is News?
WHAT IS NEWS?
Newspapers exist because they help satisfy an enduring human craving to know what's going on. Information is their stock in trade. First in the field were the hand-written Acta Diurna (Daily Events), posted in prominent places in Rome as early as 59BC and thought to have been the brainchild of Julius Caesar. Although effectively government news-sheets, the Acta Diurna supplemented official information with news of forthcoming events, gladiatorial contests, important marriages, reports from battlefronts, appointments to public office, births and deaths, even horoscopes.
There is no simple, universal answer to the question "What is News?" In ancient times, and in the modern world, the changing norms of society have shaped diverse answers. Nothing could be further from the minds of editors of newspapers in modern democracies than that the authorities should decide what qualifies as news. Yet in many countries, editors have little or no freedom of choice in the matter.
News may be what an editor may determine, out of the vast and ever-changing flux of happenings, confrontations, incidents, accidents and events that make up the life of the planet. Yet the editor's own values are inevitably shaped by society itself, the evolving preferences and fashions of the day, politics, the state of the nation. Editors are bound to be mindful of whatever elusive factor it is that sells newspapers.
The famous line above the masthead of The New York Times - All The News That's Fit To Print - avoids any definition of news. News is a given: it is assumed that it is what the readers want. In the late 19th century, however, The New York Times was engaged in a fierce struggle to hold its position against the encroachments of the new tabloid journalism. A commitment to publish news that is fitting became the hallmark of the quality newspaper. At a single, brilliant stroke, the Times set itself apart from its less discriminating competitors. News would be determined by considerations of accuracy, delicacy, taste, political correctness (yet to be the inhibiting influence it has become), national security, etc. Editorial preference would be weighted in favour of responsibility and balance. News would have to be newsworthy, have news value. Mere news mongering was not enough.
Successful reporters are said to have a nose for the news. Good stories do not simply present themselves. The news has to be sniffed out, investigated and assessed for novelty, quirkiness, evidence of human frailty, or relevance to other issues and to the interests of the newspaper's own readership.
The influential 19th and 20th century US newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst, defined news as "what someone wants you to stop printing; all the rest is ads." Hearst's buccaneering style of "muck-raking" journalism did much to expose rampant corruption and fraud. Like Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe) in England, he pioneered mass circulation journalism with its attendant sensationalism and imaginative gloss on the facts. Hearst is famous for demanding that the artist Frederick Remington provide drawings of atrocities to bolster his personal campaign to incite war with Spain over Cuba in 1898. "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war," he said.
As Watergate and numerous other recent campaigns against perfidy in high office demonstrate, journalistic initiative is as important as ever. The foibles of society and clashes of values within the community still provide plenty of newsworthy material for an alert media. The highest calling of a newspaper in a democracy remains that of watchdog - to uncover, unearth, expose, lay bare or, as necessary, to embarrass those who would abuse their power.
Another mainspring of influence is the provision of reliable, factual information. Hard news will always be meat and drink to newspapers. Like the Acta Diurna, a responsible newspaper will strive to inform, to be a journal of record, the place to go for accurate reports about public events, the outcomes of contests - political or sporting or developments in ongoing news stories.
This is not all. Beyond these relatively clear-cut and obvious categories lies the broad and tricky ground of gossip, scandal, rumour or innuendo on which the public thrives and which newspapers can hardly ignore. Newspapers also entertain, by distilling information, amusement and insights.
Shakespeare in The Merchant Of Venice has Shylock ask, as an aside to the main theme of the play, "What news on the Rialto?" He is inquiring about the tittle-tattle, the gossip from the main gathering places of the idle strollers around the city.
In the same way, newspapers, through gossip columns, "diaries", jokey pieces or so-called intelligence reports, gather the chatter from about the town or district. Any good editor will have his or her sources for such material. It is a delicate area, with important considerations of accuracy, privacy and, very often, the legal rights of individuals, at stake. Most editors, however, are keen to rise to the challenge because they know two things: those in authority or positions of privilege, fame or wealth do not like to be embarrassed and second, that it is part of the newspaper's role to hold them to account.
Newspapers naturally identify with their community or region. Local news and local interest items will always, and properly, catch the attention of editors. In Georgia, in the US, the Atlanta Journal to this day boasts that it "Covers Dixie like the dew".
"A dog-fight on Lambton Quay," a Wellington newspaperman is said to have once remarked, "is of more interest than the fall of a government in Paris."
In the scale of history, this may be absurd. But in terms of the life of the community that the newspaper services it rings true. Even the greatest and most cosmopolitan of newspapers are biased towards the local. The famous and probably apocryphal billboard for a London newspaper makes the point: "Fog in the Channel, Continent Isolated."
In a world awash with information, ideas about what constitutes news are themselves changing. Thoughtful observers find this process not always to their liking. Properly examined, these shifts are a huge study that cannot be embarked upon here, but some trends stand out. In the hands of public relations experts and spin-doctors, with agendas remote from traditional, disinterested reporting, news has become plastic and malleable. There is a presumption abroad that news must be shaped and focussed so that it has a message, to be absorbed by the reader. Consciously or unconsciously, his or her judgment is subverted. The dangers are obvious: manipulators of the news, unscrupulous politicians or others with pressing agendas of their own could come to usurp the public conversation, which is the proper function of a free Press.
News is gradually showing a distinct bias towards entertainment. A focus on "celebrity" news is an obvious theme. Celebrity status often conferred with little regard for the substance of the contribution to society of the person concerned carries with it a new and seemingly automatic newsworthiness. In television it seems the look and style of the weather presenter is more important than reliable weather information. In an age of sensationalism and with an instinct for the superficial, there is a danger of the news being "dumbed down". The wise editor is alert to such pressures.
Mark Twain, who began his writing career in newspapers and later lost a fortune investing in a newly invented newspaper printing press, wrote in his autobiography: "News is history".
The role of the journalism is to catch meaning from the passing parade of human affairs and turn it into a story. Experience, a certain scepticism and an ability not to be unduly impressed are necessary attributes in knowing what it is that makes for "a good story".
News does not stand on its own. The story, the report and/or the interpretation of the news are what count. As the Watergate saga demonstrated, a great story can blossom from news of small and, on the face of it, inconsequential incidents. The development of the Watergate story in turn raised serious issues for the owners and editor of The Washington Post. Not setting out to challenge the US President, the newspaper found itself doing so as the news story unfolded.
Headline news is not what the political leadership or the guardians of special interests determine. It is what experienced newspaper people assess as most likely to impact on the widest number of readers. Effective stories spring from news that has topicality, relevance, human interest and an effect on people with whom readers can relate.
News is what you make of it.