Monday, July 23, 2012

News value factors

When I went to highschool (Gymnasium in Germany) and through the first couple of semesters at the university I was planning to become a journalist. Writing for a living seemed to be a good idea even at that time. Things went another way, but that is a different story.

Back at school when I was old enough for a driver's licence and had my first car I wanted to spread my wings and get some first
writing pratice. I started with a weekend job at the local newspaper. That sounds much more exciting than it was, but I learned a lot about how to breed carrier pigeons (YIKES) and bunnies.
Thankfully I had a great senior editor who was after 20+ years in the job still motivated enough to teach me the basics of journalism. As part of this he told me about news value factors - something I heard later again in my lectures when I studied communication science.

Here is a pretty good list of the most important
news value factors:
  • Impact: The significance, importance, or consequence of an event or trend; the greater the consequence, and the larger the number of people for whom an event is important the greater the newsworthiness.
  • Timeliness: The more recent, the more newsworthy. In some cases, timeliness is relative. An event may have occurred in the past but only have been learned about recently.
  • Prominence: Occurrences featuring well-know individuals or institutions are newsworthy. Well-knownness may spring either from the power the person or institution possess – the president, the Speaker of the House of Representatives – or from celebrity – the late Princess Diana or fashion designer Gianni Versace.
  • Proximity: Closeness of the occurrence to the audience may be gauged either geographically – close by events, all other things being equal, are more important than distant ones – or in terms of the assumed values, interest and expectations of the news audience.
  • The Bizarre: The unusual, unorthodox, or unexpected attracts attention. Boxer Mike Tyson’s disqualification for biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear moves the story from the sports pages and the end of a newscast tot he front pages and the top of the newscast.
  • Conflict: Controversy and open clashes are newsworthy, inviting attention on their own, almost regardless of what the conflict is over. Conflict reveals underlying causes of disagreement between individuals and institutions in a society.
  • Currency: Occasionally something becomes an idea whose time has come. The matter assumes a life of its own, and for a time assumes momentum in news reportage.
  • Human Interest: Those stories that have more of an entertainment factor versus any of the above - not that some of the other news values cannot have an entertainment value.
If you think about the shooting at "The Dark Knight Rises" premiere in Aurora, Colorado, a few days ago most of the above factors apply, which is why it is such a big deal all over the planet.

Tonight I would like to focus on only one of those factors -
proximity. It is listed here somewhat in the middle, but I think it should be rated higher.  It is the reason why the local weather and traffic forecast makes the news more prominently than exploding nuclear power plants in a Japanese earthquake and tsunami disaster of apocalyptic dimension. 

I was and still am quite shaken by the event in Aurora, because the
proximity factor is particulary strong for me for a couple of reasons.
  • I love going to the movies and I have a guilty pleasure crush on well produced super hero movies. Just in the last couple of weeks I enjoyed "The Avengers" and "The Amazing Spiderman" a lot. And of course I am huge fan of Christopher Nolan's Batman. Especially "The Dark Knight" is a masterpiece and I could not be more excited for "The Dark Knight Rises". I have tickets for the first official night the movie is out here in Germany and it makes me incredibly sad that the innocent joy of watching a magnificet movie is overshadowed by the death and injury of people, who just wanted to do the same - escaping the reality to the world of fantasy for 3 hours.
  • Pittsburgh is Gotham - many important scenes in this movie were filmed in Pittsburgh. Alone the trailer with tiny parts of the mindblowing (I am sure they are) 5th Avenue and Heinz Field scenes give me goosebumps big time. Everybody who is in any way related to the city is excited and proud and in serious Batman fever. It's beautiful and so much fun ... or better - it was. It is not gone, because we all clench our teeth together and do not want to give this single guy, who is obviously out of his mind, the power to ruin it,  but of course - people died and got hurt. It's not the same anymore and it can't be. That makes me sad and very, very, very ANGRY.
  • The victims - lots of the victims were my age or younger. People who at least partially liked the same things like I do and in some aspects lived similar lifes. Like Jennifer - one of those who lost their lifes.
    She loved Twitter like I do, but we were not connected although that could have been easily the case. She not only worked on her career as a journalist like I did when I was her age, but was a glowing hockey fan. She loved the sport, worked for a hockey website and was on her way up the ladder because she combined profound knowledge with talent and passion. The NHL fan family lost a great hockey girl and speaking of proximity that is a pretty close by heeling-in ground.
Jennifer also made the news because she escaped only weeks ago another shooting in a mall in Toronto - as random and senseless as the one in Aurora - and wrote a very intense blog post about it. How likely is it to be in two shootings in two totally different places like a mall in Toronto and a cinema in Colorado only weeks apart from each other? The likeliness is obviously not zero. But it shows that when our time has come nothing can change it and nobody can promise that the end is not waiting around the next corner. It is a survival strategy of the human race to ignore this fact most of the time and there is nothing bad about it. But it's also worth to stop from time to time to remember how fragile our existence in this dimension is and to make sure that we do not let our dreams get out of sight and do not forget to tell the people we love that we do so. 

Of course the Aurora rampage brought also back the wearisome discussion if movies, games, music and books (yes, books as well) can be dangerous and cause acts of senseless violence like this - especially since the murderer here claims to be "The Joker" (I am kind of glad that the late Heath Ledger does not have to witness this).
I will say it now and I will say it again in the sad case that something similar happens again:
Not the movies, the games, the music or the books make somebody a killer. A sick soul, un- or wrongly treated mental illness, delusions, the inability to seperate reality from fiction
the disturbing loss of human values make a spree killer. This is no excuse. It can't be. It is just the awareness of the rootcauses because this is our only chance to try to prevent events like this a little bit better. 

George Takei found the right words to comment the tragedy and I would like to quote him to close this post:

"Many victims of today's tragedy were fans of science fiction / fantasy. They stood in line to be the first to see, to be inspired and to escape. As a community of dreamers, we mourn this terrible tragedy and the senseless taking of innocent life." 

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