The Five Factors That Drive News Decisions

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 9, 2012 – 6:23 AM

Journalists receive dozens of unsolicited phone calls and hundreds of unwanted emails each day. Their Twitter networks churn out an endless stream of updates, links, and photos. Their RSS (really simple syndication) feeds offer innumerable stories from their favorite blogs and websites.

With all of that information constantly coming in, it’s not hard for reporters to find potential news stories. But finding news stories they can actually report on? Now that’s the hard part. That’s because every news organization has constraints on which stories their reporters can cover and how they can cover them.

This post will describe the five factors that drive news decisions in virtually every newsroom around the world – time, speed, space, profit, and bias.

1. Time: Journalists have never before faced more bruising deadlines. Newspaper reporters who once had to write one story per day now have to update the story for their paper’s website continually. Their broadcast counterparts now have to produce separate web-only versions of their radio and television segments throughout the day and promote them via social media. Plus, many reporters are doing the jobs of two or three people, since odds are that their news organizations have laid off several of their colleagues. That means if your story requires reporters to do extensive research, they may not cover it at all.

2. Speed: Competition from the faster-moving new media has largely forced the traditional media to abandon rigorous fact checking. In order to keep up, they now rush deadlines and release stories sooner than they might like, especially during breaking news events. If you can’t explain your story quickly (and easily), it’s more likely that reporters will get it wrong.

3. Space: Journalists regularly have to edit complicated stories down to 500 words or two minutes. It’s not that they’re superficial – it’s that their magazine only has so many pages or their newscast so many minutes. That means your story will be incomplete, lacking in nuance.

4. Profit: Most news outlets are designed as profit-making entities. As a result, they have to tell stories that attract the widest-possible audience, allowing them to raise advertising rates and increase revenue. That helps explain why so many news organizations cover the most sensationalistic stories; as much as the public claims to hate them, they also tend to tune in for them. Since conflict sells, reporters may tell your story by pitting two sides against one another.

5. Bias: Some media outlets have a clear ideological bias. A conservative outlet is unlikely to run a glowing piece about a Democratic candidate, and vice versa. But the predominant bias in media today is the bias toward cheap, easy, and visual. The less expensive a news story, the closer the story is to the news outlet’s headquarters, and the more compelling the visuals, the more likely it is to receive coverage. As one client told me, his local television stations (thankfully) opted against covering a fire at his plant since cameras couldn’t spot flames shooting up through the roof! Without the compelling visuals, it just wasn’t interesting to them.

What have I missed? What other factors drive news decisions? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Comments (6)

  1. By Lorell LaBoube:

    Great post. I’ve found over the years that many news decisions are made based upon what’s happening to individual reporters in the newsroom.

    So if a reporter’s daughter has the flu, it’s time to do a story on the flu. If a reporter’s son is being bullied at school, it’s time to do a story on that.

    That’s not necessarily shallow … we all tend to pay attention to news relating to what’s going on in our daily lives.

    Keep up the great work.

    Lorell LaBoube
    Director of Communications
    Center for Practical Bioethics

  2. By Brad Phillips:

    Lorell —

    Terrific point. Thank you for adding it to the blog!

    I’ll add one more “bias.” I read one political reporter’s post this morning, in which he admitted that political reporters were rooting for anyone but Romney to break through as a credible challenger. But it wasn’t based on political bias or favoritism — it was based on which story would be more fun to cover over the next several months. A hotly contested primary season is fun to cover; a coronation is not.

    Thanks for reading,

  3. By William Runge:

    Location and convenience.

    It has been my experience that talking with the Assignment Desk and pointing out the covenience or closeness of an event helps a great deal. It is hard enough to get a crew to a ribbon cutting, but place the event out of their way and it makes it doubly hard.

    Recently I was tasked with getting the media to a ribbon cutting for a new addition a local non-profit was building. YAWN! To make it worse we were up against the huge story of a local manufacturing plant’s opening day ceremonies and the 500 jobs they had created for the area.

    We made sure our event started first and pointed out the convenience of our event to the “big story”. We also promised a very quick ceremony. I spoke with reporters and desk editors and basically said “since you are going to be over this way…”.

    The result? 3 television stations, 1 radio station and 1 newspaper attended. The organizers were more than thrilled.

  4. By Brad Phillips:

    William – Great addition to the list – you’re exactly right. Thank you for leaving your experience on the blog.

    Best wishes,

  5. By Rebecca:

    Thanks for giving us a more realistic insight into a newsroom. I think it’s important for everyone to be aware of the stresses and challenges journalists face, and how we can help make life a bit easier for them.

  6. By Michael:

    Thanks for bringing this topic up. I’ve always thought of becoming a journalist but the job seemed to be very demanding. The journalists I know are always in a hurry. They don’t own their time and I’m amazed at how easily they come up with news stories.

    Thanks for sharing these tips! Helps me.

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