News Literacy in the Digital Age: Essay #2

One’s version of the top news depends on where he or she got it. Every outlet pushes different stories to the audience’s landing dock. While the New York Times emphasized the State of the Union because of the story’s classical news values, ABC World News discussed the winter storm because of the appealing visuals and BBC News included a cultural look into British shows on their home page because of its distraction capabilities. Traditional papers emphasize the core news values while newer media take into account visual appeal and entertainment when emphasizing certain stories, perhaps because of business-minded editorial decisions.

The State of the Union (SOTU) speech is a quintessential news story with traditional news values, a factor in the New York Times decision to feature it on the front page. The piece alerts people about an upcoming event, making it timely. The president, a prominent person, will speak about national issues that will invariably impact all citizens. This address is rich with contextual controversy regarding arguably the president’s worst year in office. Also, the once-hopeful Obama now acknowledges his limits, contributing to the singularity of the event. Lastly, there is great currency in this story: it’s an opportune time to discuss Obama’s track record. Because of these news values, its front-page placement is justified. Beyond the traditional news values, this story provides truthful context to the SOTU so that the audience will hear the speech with the extra knowledge. That context functions as a “checking force,” as Everette E. Dennis in “Media Debates” puts it. He adds: “The press is one of the very few social forces that can challenge the [government]” (26). The story is so significant to the public that its newsworthiness increases its quality and attractiveness.

 

While the weather news did not even make the front page of the New York Times, the visual variety of the national winter storm added enough newsworthiness to a televised version of the story to push it to the top of the news hour on ABC’s evening news. The story did contain many news values: the storm is hitting the nation tomorrow (timely); it will reach a majority of the states (impact); we have not had a winter like this in a very long time (singular); and the storm is a talking point (currency). Beyond the news values, the story alerts the audience about this storm, preparing them for the “polar plunge.” But the reporters and editors gave this story special placement because of the attention-grabbing visuals of the storm across America., portraying how television producers and editors are motivated by ratings and revenue. Because visual appeal makes segments more interesting for viewers, the importance of the story matters less in the television world.

 

As the visual aspect greatly impacts the newsworthiness of television pieces, diverting features of the BBC’s “From Downton to Sherlock: US TV’s British Invasion” enhanced its newsworthiness. The story about British television does have some timeliness given the season premiere of Downton Abbey, some prominence given the popularity of British television shows and quite a bit of currency as many people discuss television shows. On the other hand, compared to the two previous stories, this piece does not have high levels of conflict, impact, proximity or singularity. At first glance, it seems strange then that the BBC editors would give this story a sidebar, home page placement. However, this story caters to an online audience looking for news that diverts them from the hard-hitting news of papers and televisions, justifying the prime real estate. That diversion caters to what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel call the “awareness instinct” — “people’s craving for news beyond their experience” (Elements, 15). People want to know the answers to unanswered questions, and, in this case, this story answers the question, “Why do Americans love watching British television series?” While classic news values do play a role in online media, they are accompanied and sometimes overshadowed by values that attract the eyeballs of a distracted Internet user: quirkiness and entertainment. Website editors, like television producers, are more focused on the clicks on a page and the resulting advertising revenue. Although Downton Abbey is not important to the public, it is interesting and, thus, more valuable to a website. This article probably would not have the same prime real estate in the morning paper or on an evening news show.

 

A look at three different news stories in three different news outlets’ prime real estate showcases how platforms emphasize different news values. While traditional newspapers such as the New York Times will push stories that have traditional news values, television outlets will sometimes prioritize visual elements while online outlets will emphasize the fresh and distracting pieces. These varying preferences and priorities point to varying audience desires. They also highlight the television and Internet industry’s emphasis on interesting stories that raise ratings and increase revenue.