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Story Selection

Given that news outlets need to select what is included in publications (they cannot cover everything), then certain characteristics make some stories far more likely to be considered newsworthy than others. Galtung and Ruge (1973) found that stories with certain criteria dominated news publications. Based on these criteria, the BP story was an obvious candidate for being reported, being of significant size and intensity, unexpected, unambiguously catastrophic and involving elite nations. The larger point is that what is considered news is not naturally predetermined, but selected and prioritised according to journalistic codes. These codes are culture-specific, and reflect the ideologies of politics, power and social agreement that are at play within large institutions like media organisations. While story-selection procedures are broadly shared by the media (a story such as the BP events would be likely to appear in most national news publications) they also vary by publication—tabloids and quality newspapers regularly choose different lead stories, or select different aspects of the stories they report on (Bignell, 2002).

Apart from the topic of the stories selected, certain individuals and organisations have a strong influence over which stories are prioritised. Fowler (1991) and others give accounts of the many stakeholders involved in producing news articles, from the news outlet proprietors, editors, journalists and other staff, to those routinely consulted about affairs in the public eye (politicians, business representatives, non-commercial organisations, community representatives, the police and so on) and those only consulted expediently (e.g. eyewitnesses and victims of crime). Of these, some will have greater and more regular access to representation than others, and it follows that these will have a greater influence on which stories are chosen and how they are eventually presented for public consumption. Van Dijk (1996: 86) summarises:

Most obvious and consequential are the patterns of access to the mass media: who has preferential access to journalists, who will be interviewed, quoted and described in news reports, and whose opinions will thus be able to influence the public? That is, through access to the mass media, dominant groups also may have access to, and hence partial control over, the public at large. (Emphasis in original)

Accounts of influence outside and inside publications focus on money or political interest or both. Proprietors and editors of newspapers may have an overt political stance that is made more or less clear to their reading public, and is relevant to story selection and emphasis. Also less obvious is the influence of advertisers, usually a major source of income for mass-media publications. Advertisers buy space in publications whose readership and stated values already fit their own, but researchers have argued that there is evidence that their money buys a degree of influence over content (Roberts & McCombs, 1994), and it is certainly the case that the perceived behaviour of publications affects advertising spend, as the demise of the News of the World in the UK after phone-hacking scandals shows. Touching on economic factors and the priority given to advertising, Cotter (2010: 193) writes of the “news hole”—namely, “what is open to editorial content—news stories—after the advertising has been positioned”. Other influence on content and language use has been shown to come from pressure groups, PR agencies and corporate communications departments, all of whom have close relationships with the media as part of their function (e.g. Burt, 2012). Examining another dimension of influence, Scollon (1998) contends that journalists largely orient their writing towards other journalists. In recent years the public has gained a voice in story selection, as “what’s trending” on the Internet becomes an early indicator of likely stories of interest, and Twitter provides reaction and feedback to stories from known and unknown voices, shaping the future direction of representation.

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