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Understanding “What is News?” Concept

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

The deceptively simple question “What is news?” remains pertinent even as we ponder the future of journalism in the digital age. This article examines news values within mainstream journalism and considers the extent to which news values may be changing since earlier landmark studies were undertaken. Its starting point is Harcup and O'Neill's widely cited 2001 updating of Galtung and Ruge's influential 1965 taxonomy of news values.

Just as that study put Galtung and Ruge's criteria to the test with an empirical content analysis of published news, this new study explores the extent to which Harcup and O'Neill's revised list of news values remains relevant given the challenges (and opportunities) faced by journalism today, including the emergence of social media. A review of recent literature contextualises the findings of a fresh content analysis of news values within a range of UK media 15 years on from the last study. The article concludes by suggesting a revised and updated set of contemporary news values, whilst acknowledging that no taxonomy can ever explain everything.


Asked how they define news, journalists sometimes reply: “I know it when I see it.” Pressed on why something has been deemed newsworthy, a typical response is: “Because it just is!” (Brighton and Foy 2007, 147). Definitions relying on such “gut feeling” (Schultz 2007) arguably obscure as much as they reveal about news selection, prompting academics to offer their own explanations, which can involve devising taxonomies of news values. One of the most influential and frequently cited of these is a paper by Johan Galtung and Mari Ruge (1965), “The Structure of Foreign News”, published more than 50 years ago.

Identifying and recording the news values found within published pieces of journalism cannot provide a complete explanation of the journalistic process but that does not mean such study is without value. News values are worth studying because they inform the mediated world that is presented to news audiences, providing a shared shorthand operational understanding of what working journalists are required to produce to deadlines. It is the way news values work in practice that results in them being articulated and conveyed to new journalism trainees and journalism students, and they are also used by public relations professionals and others aiming to obtain maximum news coverage of events (or pseudo-events).

It was to test the continuing relevance of Galtung and Ruge's landmark piece of scholarship that we conducted our own study of the news values that can be identified within published outputs, “What is news? Galtung and Ruge revisited” (Harcup and O'Neill 2001). As with its more illustrious forerunner, this struck something of a chord, becoming one of the most widely read and cited articles in the history of the journal Journalism Studies. Our study concluded, “although there are exceptions to every rule, we have found that news stories must generally satisfy one or more of the following requirements” if they are to be selected:

1. The power elite: Stories concerning powerful individuals, organisations or institutions.

2. Celebrity: Stories concerning people who are already famous.

3. Entertainment: Stories concerning sex, showbusiness, human interest, animals, an unfolding drama, or offering opportunities for humorous treatment, entertaining photographs or witty headlines.

4. Surprise: Stories that have an element of surprise and/or contrast.

5. Bad news: Stories with particularly negative overtones, such as conflict or tragedy.

6. Good news: Stories with particularly positive overtones, such as rescues and cures.

7. Magnitude: Stories that are perceived as sufficiently significant either in the numbers of people involved or in potential impact.

8. Relevance: Stories about issues, groups and nations perceived to be relevant to the audience.

9. Follow-up: Stories about subjects already in the news.

10. Newspaper agenda: Stories that set or fit the news organisation's own agenda (Harcup and O'Neill 2001, 278–279).

This was offered, not as the last word on news values, merely as a contribution towards “rendering news selection a more transparent and better-understood process” (Harcup and O'Neill 2001, 279).

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