NEWS VALUES: Do News Values Apply to Feature Stories?

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OMGDo news values apply to feature stories? Mostly. It is important to understand that news and features are not different worlds but different approaches to the same world. The eight most commonly identified news values—impact, relevance, proximity, prominence, timeliness, conflict, currency and the unusual—are just that, values. News does not consist of immutable laws. Many find that confusing, but there is by no means universal agreement within newsrooms about the definition of news either. People wonder why a newspaper can devote a dozen pages to an AFL footballer's extra-marital affair as the Herald Sun did with Wayne Carey early in 2002. They wonder why Australian newspapers carried detailed coverage of the remarkable rescue of nine miners trapped underground in the United States but virtually ignored the death of eighteen miners in China on the same day. News values apply most strongly to those features tied to the news of the day and least to those features that are not. Some news values apply to features, but not as rigidly as for news, and some features are published without any connection at all to the daily news agenda.

1. IMPACT

News that has a big impact is rare. As Graham Perkin, former editor of The Age, once said, an important story has its roots in the past and a stake in the future. News of this scale prompts numerous features because it bursts the bounds of the daily news story. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's 1997 report on the Stolen Generations of Aborigines, ‘Bringing them Home', is an example. It was impossible to evaluate the report without understanding the history of black–white relations in Australia; it was important the report be absorbed before shaping new policies.

2. RELEVANCE

Two tasks of feature stories are to explain the news and to personalise abstract issues, so the relevance news value applies to many features. Background pieces are explicitly written to ensure the reader understands the relevance of an issue, whether as a citizen or as a consumer. A backgrounder on the importance of the vote for independence in East Timor in 1999 is an example of the former; ‘The GST: how it will affect you' is an example of the latter. The raison d'être of lifestyle features is their relevance to the reader's life.

3. PROXIMITY

Feature stories can erase the importance of proximity as a news value because they use a palette of colours (emotion, context, atmosphere, analysis) rather than the black and white of information. Each day people die on the nation's roads; most are given modest space in newspapers. Yet a journalist who tells the full human story of just one car crash and its impact on family and friends can leap over standard news boundaries.

4. PROMINENCE

Prominence pays heed to the public's fascination with the rich and powerful, and the notorious, as shown by the public resurrection of convicted criminal Mark ‘Chopper' Read into bestselling author. Many features, whether interview pieces or profiles, are about famous people, and many media commentators wonder whether prominence has become disproportionately important, a point made in the American satirical newspaper, The Onion, with the headline: ‘The rich and famous: do we know enough about their lifestyles?'

5. TIMELINESS

The urgency of printing news as soon as it comes to hand applies only partly to features. It does apply to news features where journalists sometimes need to turn around a piece inside a day but more commonly within three or four days in readiness for the weekend newspaper. Timeliness also applies to interview pieces linked to the interview subject's new movie/book/CD/show, even though it need not apply so strictly. Interview pieces are published just before or just as the new movie/book/CD/show is released, meaning readers cannot have experienced it. Readers may well be interested in a new Hollywood blockbuster before its release; they will be more interested to know all about the film and its making after they have seen it, but by that time the interview piece with, say, Keanu Reeves will be in the recycling bin. More precisely, readers will be interested to know more if the movie is any good.

And that is the point: for interview pieces, timeliness is not so much a news value as a public relations value.

Feature stories may be published that do not relate to the daily news agenda, though journalists and editors usually find a news peg on which to hang the feature, such as Anzac Day or Christmas or an Ashes cricket series. Lifestyle features about, say, the quest for the perfect chocolate mudcake, are written with no thought for the news agenda. It is possible to write a general feature story that pays no heed to timeliness but it needs something else if it is to win a place in a newspaper or magazine. Australian novelist Helen Garner has written pieces about her visits to the morgue and the crematorium that have no news value whatsoever but are compelling reading because the topic—death—is of universal interest and, more importantly, because they are superbly written.

6. CONFLICT

Conflict, antagonism and tension are the stuff of human drama, and human drama is the stuff of news. It is also the stuff of feature stories, and it is given fuller rein in features. Conflict referred to cryptically in basic news stories can be mined in depth in a feature, as was exemplified in the bitter ructions within the Labor Party over Simon Crean's leadership in 2003. Sometimes conflict is presented in a two-dimensional way, as in a piece about the visiting American psychic/medium John Edward in The Daily Telegraph. The piece was broken into two sections, one written by a supporter, Kylie ‘The truth is out there' Keogh, the other by a detractor, Naomi ‘I want to believe' Toy. Conflict can also be set in context and analysed from a range of perspectives, as in two lengthy news features published in The Weekend Australian about the dispute between historians over whether there was a policy of genocide against Tasmanian Aborigines. The dispute was sparked by publication of Keith Windschuttle's The Fabrication of Aboriginal History.

7. CURRENCY

Feature stories come into their own with the news value currency. When, for whatever reason, a news event or issue gains currency, readers become more interested. They want to know the background to an event, they want to know who is this person suddenly catapulted onto the national stage. They want to know if this particular news event is a one-off or part of a pattern. All these elements offer scope for the feature writer. This phenomenon is easily seen at work in major news events, such as the massacre of 35 people at Port Arthur by Martin Bryant in 1996, but it applies to less dramatic news too. A feature about how to read companies' annual reports is scarcely edge of the seat material, but soon after the scandal surrounding the collapse of American energy giant Enron and its auditors, Arthur Andersen, in 2001, just such a feature appeared in the business pages of one daily paper. If you were ever going to read such a piece, that was the time.

8. THE UNUSUAL

It was John B. Bogart of The New York Sun who in the 19th century coined the pithy definition of news: ‘It's not news if a dog bites a man, but if a man bites a dog, then it's news.'. News is about what is new and different; it is also about the quirky, the odd. This news value applies mostly to human interest features. A daily paper recently ran on its front page a touching story about the public's response to the death of a homeless man who lived and slept at a bus shelter outside St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney. Bouquets and cards were left at the shelter, mourning the loss of a man who would help passengers find the right bus and would tell St Vincent's staff about other homeless people who might have got into difficulty.

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