What Makes Certain Events More Newsworthy Than Others?

Factors Journalists Use to Gauge How Big a Story Is

Politician talking into reporters' microphones
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Do 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? Or maybe you've nailed down your first reporting job at a major metropolitan daily paper. 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 just how newsworthy something is. Generally, the more factors below that can be applied to the event, the more newsworthy it is.

Impact or Consequences

The greater the impact a story has, the more newsworthy it is. Events that have an 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.

Conflict

If you look closely at the stories that make news, many of them 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 example, war, conflict is almost always newsworthy.

Conflict is newsworthy because as human beings we’re naturally interested in it.

Think of any book you’ve ever read or movie you’ve ever watched – they all had some type of conflict that increased the dramatic volume. 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 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 the disagreement 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. 

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 shooting to a terrorist attack -- is newsworthy. Likewise, nearly any story that involves property destruction on a large scale – a house fire is a good example -- is also newsworthy.

Many stories have both loss of life and property destruction – think of a 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

Proximity has to do with how close an event is to your readers; this is the basis of newsworthiness for local events.

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.

Prominence

Are the people involved in your story famous or prominent? If so, the story becomes more newsworthy. If an average person is injured in a car crash, that might not even make the local news. But if the president of the United States is hurt in a car crash, it makes headlines worldwide.

Prominence can apply to 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. But he or she is prominent locally, which means any story involving him or her will be more newsworthy.

This is an example of two news values -- prominence and proximity.

Timeliness

In the news business, journalists tend to focus on what’s happening today. So events happening now are often more newsworthy than those that happened, say, a week ago. This is where the term "old news" comes from, meaning worthless.

Another factor that relates to timeliness is currency. This involves stories that might not have just happened but instead have an ongoing interest to your audience. For example, the rise and fall in gas prices have been happening for years, but it’s still relevant to your readers, so it has currency.

Novelty

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 is that any deviation from the normal course of events is novel and thus newsworthy.