What makes a new story NEWS? News Values and the death of Princess Diana

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Of the millions of events which occur daily in the world, only a tiny proportion ever become visible as potential news stories, and of this proportion, only a small fraction are actually produced as the day’s news in the news media (Hall, 1973, p.181). But what takes an event from being new to becoming news? This is a question over which both practicing journalists and seminal academics have deliberated for many years, and such contestation will most likely continue for many decades to come.         

News values are the “somewhat mythical set of criteria employed by journalists to measure and therefore judge the ‘newsworthiness’ of events” (Franklin et al, 2005, p.173). Perhaps it is this very mythical nature which explains why the discussion will never end, because it is both intangible and subjective, consigned to myth. Indeed, it is arguably impossible to settle on a universal set of news values due to the various influential contexts of time period, differences in platform and sectors of the market, individual news publication preferences and the journalist’s own instincts. Moreover, the set of news values applied by different media – local, regional, national and international, print, television, radio, internet or bulletin board – “are all as varied as the media themselves” (Brighton and Foy, 2007, p.1).

Consequently, anyone entering into a discussion on news values must recognise that they do not occur in a vacuum and are not immune from external and internal bias. Nevertheless, many theorists and journalists have attempted to rationalise the criteria for ‘newsworthiness’. The various studies, starting with Galtung and Ruge in 1965, have continued with MacShane (1979), Hartley (1982), Tiffen (1989), Harcup and O’Neill (2001), McGregor (2002) and Harrison (2006), all endeavouring to explain how and sometimes why particular events become news and others remain unknown.

I will trace the genealogy of news values back to Galtung and Ruge (1965), before focusing specifically on how particular elements from Harcup and O’Neill (2001) and McGregor’s (2002) news values are reflective of the news coverage on the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

Firstly, what are news values? “News values, and the notion of newsworthiness that they are derived from, are meant to be the crystalized reflection of, or ‘ground rules’ for deciding, what an identified audience is interested in reading or watching” (Franklin et al, 2005, p.173). As Brighton and Foy note, it is news values that give journalists and editors “a set of rules – often intangible, informal, almost unconscious elements – by which to work, for which to plan and execute the content of a publication or broadcast” (2007, p.1).

Moreover, as Harcup and O’Neill point out, these “ground rules may not be written down or codified by news organizations, but they exist in daily practice and in knowledge gained on the job, albeit mediated by subjectivity on the part of the individual journalists” (2001, p.261). Clearly every journalist or media organisation has a set of values by which they or their staff work accordingly – regardless of whether they are ‘set in stone’.

However, it was not until 1965 that an academic review of news values was undertaken.Indeed, no discussion of news values can begin without locating its origins with the Norwegian academics Johan Galtung and Mari Ruge, who developed and eventually published, what has been regarded as, the study of news values. They based their influential taxonomy of news values on the reporting of the crises in the Congo (1960), Cuba (1960) and Cyprus (1964) (Galtung and Ruge, 1965, p.65-71).

Their twelve factors sought to identify and “define the conditions that had to be present to heighten the probability that a given event would become news” (McGregor, 2002, p.1) and their paper is “widely anthologised, widely cited and widely taken as the starting point for further elaborations on the topic, though it has been subject to serious criticism” (Meikle, 2009, p.25). It is undoubtedly the core text on news values and as Brighton and Foy argue, “everything that has followed has been built on those initial findings” (2007, p.2).

Galtung and Ruge focused closely on the cultural conditioning of news values. For example, a key premise of Galtung and Ruge’s argument is that for events “to mean anything they need to have some form of cultural connection” (Brighton and Foy, 2007, p.6).

Their twelve values were: frequency (the timespan for an event to unfold and gain meaning), threshold (an event has to be of a certain size), unambiguity (clarity of an event makes it easier to report), meaningfulness, (or cultural proximity/relevance to the audience), consonance (predictability), unexpectedness, continuity, (a story that can continue to run), composition (a balance of stories to hold and audience), elite nations (the more an event concerns an elite nation, the stronger the interest), elite people (all those in the public eye), personal (if an event has individuals attached to it) and something negative (Galtung and Ruge, 1965, p.65-71). They predicted that the more an event satisfied these criteria, the more likely it was to become news. As previously stated, this catalogue went on to become the “foundation study of news values” (Bell, 1991, p.155). Tunstall predicted the paper would become “a classic social science answer to the question ‘what is news’” (1970, p.20) and he was right.

However, as Hetherington notices, “each newspaper believes itself to be distinct from other papers, with its own character and values” (1985, p.7), and though Galtung and Ruge became the foundation for a study of news values, many have retested their theory. Harcup and O’Neill challenged the Galtung and Ruge conditions in 2001 by studying three British national daily newspapers, and found the initial criteria insufficient and inappropriate in the modern world of news and media. They, like Tunstall (1971), argued that “by focusing on coverage of three major international crises, Galtung and Ruge ignored day-to-day coverage of lesser, domestic and bread-and-butter news” (Harcup and O’Neill, 2001, p.276).

They claim some of Galtung and Ruge’s news values are not a product of the selection of events, but of “the way in which events have been written about, or constructed, by journalists” (Franklin et al, 2005, p.174). While Harcup and O’Neill still see some of the values as relevant in 2001, and regard Galtung and Ruge’s study as still the most influential study of news values, they claim the wording of their values needs to be altered in order to maintain relevance in a modern media landscape (2001, p.277). For example, “is the ambiguity in the subject or in the journalist’s interpretation”(Harcup and O’Neill, 2001, p. 268), regarding elite people, “how useful is a category that does not distinguish between the Spice girls and the President of the USA,” (ibid) and in terms of meaningfulness, “this is a slippery concept that changes over time and relies on subjective interpretation” (ibid).

As Harcup and O’Neill point out, an obvious difficulty with Galtung and Ruge’s study, is that they looked only at content that was explicitly concerned with the selected crisis (Congo, Cuba, Cyprus); and their list of factors made no reference to the effects of visual elements on news (2001, p.265). However, one must remember the context in which they were writing. In 1965, broadcast news was “still in the first flush of youth, newspapers were essentially serious publications and the internet did not exist” (Brighton and Foy, 2007, p.2).

The now predominantly visual world of news was unimaginable when the two Norwegian academics examined the structure of foreign newspapers in 1965. In that era, the news was predominantly written, with photos and video footage being greatly valuable but not a priority. In fact, “television in 1962 was sufficiently underdeveloped that American Defence Secretary Robert McNamara did not turn on a television set during the two weeks of the (Cuban missile) crisis” (Hoge, 1994, p.137).            

Consequently, Harcup and O’Neill and McGregor put forward their own lists of news values, relevant to the time. For Harcup and O’Neill, something is newsworthy if it entails the power elite (individuals, organisations and nations), celebrity, entertainment (e.g. sex, human interest or drama), surprise, good news, bad news, magnitude, relevance (cultural proximity), follow up stories and media agenda. However as Franklin argues, this updated list, though better summarises the content of contemporary news, “still doesn’t deal with the ideological reasons behind their use” (2005, p174.) and doesn’t place the ‘visual’ as high priority which I find problematic due to the emphasis placed on visual media, even in 2001.       

 McGregor sees journalism as in crisis and believes news values “need to reflect the dramatic, profound changes to the media landscape” (2002, p.1). Alterations to this landscape include: a loss of faith in the trustworthiness of news journalism, the omnipresence or “ubiquity of television” (McGregor, 2002, p.2) which can now be said of social media, the conglomeration of news organisations and the great technological changes of satellite and mobile phones, which is now even more advanced. Like Harcup and O’Neill, Mcgregor still believes some of the original Galtung and Ruge news values are relevant while others are not, and she too presents a new list, namely: visualness, emotion, conflict and celebrifiction of the journalist.

 A combination of various news values from Harcup and O’Neill and McGregor’s are useful in understanding the reporting of the death of Princess Diana on 30th August 1997. There can be no doubt that “the media reaction to the Princess of Wales’s death was unprecedented in its intensity and scale” (Thomas, 2008, p.363). In fact, one of the reasons why the event became such a media frenzy was precisely because it embodied so many of the modern news values put forward in these papers.

The media coverage was unprecedented, because there had never been an event which ‘satisfied’ so many modern news criteria as put forward by Harcup and O’Neill and McGregor for example. Indeed, though the story did not fulfil all their values, it did involve the power elite, celebrity, surprise, bad news, magnitude, and relevance, (Harcup and O’Neill, 2001, p.279) as well as visualness, emotion and conflict (McGreggor, 2002, p.3).

In terms of the values put forward by Harcup and O’Neill, the death of Princess Diana was obviously a surprise and a piece of bad news, but the magnitude of the story was due to the princess embodying both the power elite and celebrity (2001, p.279). Though Harcup and O’Neill separate the Galtung and Ruge elite people category into power elite and celebrity, Diana was perhaps the first person in the public eye to fully embody the two criteria simultaneously, and to powerful effect.

She was “one of the few women in the 20th Century whose popularity penetrated every continent in the expanded global marketplace of international fame, making her an important source of social influence” (Brown et el, 2003, p.588). Indeed, an article in The People on the day of her death supports such a claim. Tony Blair was quoted in the piece as saying “Diana was a wonderful, warm and compassionate person who people, not just in Britain, but throughout the world, loved” (TP, 1997, p.6) and former prime minister John Major said, “she was one of the icons of our age and she will leave an imperishable memory in the minds of millions” (ibid).

Moreover, Diana “seemed perfectly to capture the ambiguity often seen as key to the popular appeal of both celebritiesin general, and the particular subset that royalty today represents” (Thomas, 2008, p.366). She was both envied – by embodying the archetype of the princess myth – and adored, eventually becoming known as the ‘people’s princess’ (Brown et el, 2003, p.588). Indeed, many people felt they were able to relate to Diana, she was “both like us and not like us, not too royal nor too ordinary” (Thomas, 2008, p.366).

One explanation, familiar in the scholarship on celebrity culture, is that the mass media have shrunk the world to a global village, producing a new form of social ‘relationship’ where people achieve ‘intimacy at a distance’ with famous people (Thomas, 2008, p.369). Thus her death was exceptionally relevant (Harcup and O’Neill, 2001, p.279) due to its global, cultural proximity. It was a story that would affect a variety of audiences and cultures across the world.

Not only did Diana possess social power and standing as a member of the royal family, she became a cultural, fashion and female icon in her own right. As Western Daily Press journalist Helen Reid said, “Her face became probably the most familiar image on the planet” (1997, p.21). Her every move, her every word, her clothes, her hairstyle, her famously modern lifestyle, all became public property and people somehow felt like they knew her” (Reid, 1997, p.21).

However, even more interesting was the choice by news outlets to choose other celebrities to offer social commentary on the event. The Mirror ran an entire article based around Madonna’s feelings of “outrage” and helplessness on hearing of Diana’s death (Wallace, 1997, p.2) and the Daily Record ran an article the day after the accident about how Tom Cruise was similarly chased by paparazzi photographers in the same Paris tunnel. He was quoted as saying, “they put price tags on people’s heads. It’s got so disgusting… My wife and I met Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed. It was devastating for us to hear about this tragedy” (DR, 1997, p.19).

In an article in The Herald, Pavarotti is quoted alongside Mandela and Bill Clinton, as saying “Lady Diana was the most beautiful symbol of humanity and love for all the world” (Brogan, 1997, p.6). In terms of Thomas’s ‘global village’, celebrities are often the leaders up to who society looks, if only to comment on another celebrity’s death. In a bizarre twist, celebrities (which now includes the power elite i.e. President Obama) have become the voice of a modern generation.

An article in The Guardian a few days after her death reiterated the power of Diana as a globally renowned celebrity. It stated how USA Today ran a special eight page colour supplement on September 2nd 1997, calling Diana “the princess of the MTV generation” (Walker, 1997, p.4), how it was rumoured “three Hollywood films and television specials are now being planned” (ibid) and included a quote from USA Today’s Washington editor, who said, “Diana was bigger than the royal family… she remained throughout the very symbol of celebrity and glamour” (ibid). Indeed, the film Diana, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, was eventually made in 2013.

“Ours is a visual age, where images count more than words or deeds, and the image of Diana became our icon” (Reid, 1997, p.21). As McGregor argues in her paper, visualness, is perhaps the most dominant news value of the modern news era (2002, p.3). The fact that paparazzi photographers were present at the time of the crash meant photos quickly arrived on news desks, making the story an extremely visual one. The general public were able to see the mangled car and there was even a photo of Diana lying injured in the vehicle, although the latter was never published in the UK. Indeed, “the crash wasn’t reported to police for ten minutes, giving the photographers time to take ghoulish pictures of the victims in the wreckage” (Caven and Little, 1997, p.1). However, even before her death, pictures of Diana appeared on a weekly if not daily basis in the media, meaning she was extremely visually present in the public eye at all times.

The British tabloids had been competing for the most ‘exclusive stories’ and pictures of her and Dodi Fayed, printing pictures ranging from readers’ snapshots to those taken with long-focus lenses by professional photographers (Macmillan and Edwards, 1999, p. 155). That people followed her life so closely and felt they personally knew her was an important factor in why many were so emotional when she died and why news reports echoed such sentiments. Also, whether or not people followed Diana’s life closely, “it was hard not to be aware of her or her presence in the media” (Turnock, 2000, p.47). Furthermore, “on the day that the princess died, non-stop live news dominated television screens… while outside links brought pictures of the initial crowds starting to congregate around London palaces” (Turnock, 2000, p.1). Not only was the coverage extensive, it was also dramatic and exceedingly emotive due to the visual images that had preceded and covered her death.

In fact, the public emotionalresponse to Diana’s death marked the largest outpouring of public grief since the death Elvis Presley or the Kennedy assassinations. More than one million mourners lined the 3-mile funeral route in London to pay their respects to the former princess and people who had never met her travelled to England just to place flowers at Buckingham or Kensington Palace. An estimated 2.5 billion people watched the worldwide satellite transmission of the funeral to 200 countries in 44 languages, making it the most watched event in history (Payne, 2000, p.x). Such figures reiterate the emotional magnitude of such a news event, something McGregor sees as a key news value.

Conflict, another McGregor news value, was central to the story. It arose quickly and within hours, the ‘paparazzi’ and the media as a whole came under fire for the crash and the culture of celebrity coverage that led to it. The driver and the royal family were also heavily criticised and blamed. With a lack of hard evidence and the demands of live television, “there was a need to find some explanation as to why it happened” (Turnock, 2000, p.16) and the search for explanation, cause or a culprit continued to constitute a major news narrative in the days following the princess’s death. Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, was widely quoted on 31st August as saying, “I always believed the press would kill her in the end. But not even I could imagine that they would take such a direct hand in her death as seems to be the case” (News at Ten, 31st August 1997). Speculation over blame would continue for years to come.

 News values are shaped by the wider social context, the publication and the ideology or culture that goes along with that publication, not to mention the specific writer or editor’s own instincts. Moreover, different news platforms have contrasting priorities. However, the death of Princess Diana encapsulated so many different news values and was an event of such magnitude, that it became newsworthy across the globe. It was extremely visual and emotional (McGregor), it involved a celebrity and a member of the power elite (Harcup and O’Neill) and possessed a cultural proximity or relevance which crossed borders of language, geography and class.

The search continues to find common news values between all journalists, and future analysis will surely place an even greater emphasis on the visual as social media and citizen journalism continue to spiral in influence. Still, there are those events, such as the death of Princess Diana, where a story fully embodies the mythical nature of news values (Franklin et al, 2005, p.173), whereby it seems to simultaneously adhere to and question what constitutes newsworthiness. Similar to the news values that academics and journalists have been attempting to identify since 1965, Diana’s life, and indeed the conflict surrounding her death, will perhaps never be fully understood or the facts completely tied down.












Works Cited

Academic Readings (secondary sources)

Bell, A. (1991). The Language of News Media. Oxford: Blackwell. [Print].

Brighton, P. and Foy, D. (2007). News Values. London: Sage Publications. [Print].

Brown, W., Basil, M. and Bocarnea M. (2003). ‘Social Influence of an International celebrity: responses to the death of Princess Diana’, Journal of Communication, 53(4). Pp. 587- 605. Wiley Online Library [Online]. Available at:    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1460-2466.2003.tb02912.x/abstract.    (Accessed: 28/03/14).

Franklin, B., Hamer, M., Hanna, M., Kinsey, M. and Richardson J. (2005). Key Concepts in Journalism. London: Sage Publications. [Print].

Galtung, J. and Ruge, M. (1965). ‘The Structure of Foreign News: The Presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus Crises in Four Norwegian Newspapers’, Journal of Peace  Research, 2(1). Oslo: Sage Publications. P.p 64-91. JSTOR [Online]. Available at:      http://www.jstor.org/stable/423011 (Accessed: 21/03.14).

Hall, S. (1973). ‘The Determination of News Photographs’, in Cohen, S., and Young, J. (eds). The Manufacture of News: Deviance, Social Problems and the Mass Media. London: Constable. Pp. 176-191. [Print].

Harcup, T. and O’Neil, D. ‘What Is News? Galtung and Ruge revisisted’, Journalism Studies, 2(2). London: Routledge. Pp. 261-280. Taylor and Francis [Online]. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14616700118449 (Accessed: 19/03/14).

Harrison, J. (2006). News. Abingdon: Routledge. [Print]

Hartley, John. (1982). Understanding News. New York: Routledge. [Print].

Hetherington, A. (1985). News, Newspapers and Television. Essex: The Macmillan Press Ltd. [Print].

Hoge, J. ‘Media Pervasiveness’. Foreign Affairs. 73(4). Council of Foreign Relations. Pp. 136-144. JSTOR [Online]. Available at: http://www.jstor.org.v- ezproxy.brunel.ac.uk:2048/stable/20046749. (Accessed: 29/03/14).

Macmillan, K and Edwards D. (1999).‘Who Killed the Princess? Description and Blame in the British Press’. Discourse Studies. 1(151). Pp. 151-174. Sage Publications   [Online]. Available at http://dis.sagepub.com/content/1/2/151 (Accessed: 27/03.14).

MacShane, D. (1979). Using the Media. London: Pluto Press. [Print]

McGregor, J. (2002). ‘Restating New Values: Contemporary Criteria for Selecting the News’. In ANZCA 2002 Conference, Coolangatta. Communication: Reconstructed for the 21st Century. Pp. 1-7. ANZCA.net. [Online]. Available at:    http://www.anzca.net/component/docman/cat_view/27-anzca-02/28-refereed-        proceedings.html. (Accessed: 25/03/14).

Meikle, G. (2009). Interpreting News. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. [Print].

Payne, J. (2000). Preface. An Era of Celebrity and Spectacle: The Global rhetorical Phenomenon of the Death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Pp. 171-182. Boston: Centre for Ethics in Political and Health Communication. [Print].

Tunstall, J. (1971).Journalists at Work: Specialist Correspondents: Their News Organizations, News Sources, and Competitor-Colleagues. London: Constable. [Print].

Turnock, R.(2000). Interpreting Diana. London: British Film Institute. [Print].

Thomas, J. (2008). ‘From People Power to Mass Hysteria: Media and Popular Reactions to the Death of Princess Diana’. International Journal of Cultural Studies.11(362).   Pp.362-376. Sage Publications. [Online]. Available at: http://ics.sagepub.com/. (Accessed: 25/03/13).

Non-Academic Readings (secondary sources)

Brogan, P. ‘America Mourns a Star’. The Herald (Glasgow), 01/09/97. Nexis. [Online].  Available at http://www.lexisnexis.com.v-ezproxy.brunel.ac.uk:2048/uk/nexis/docview/getDocForCuiReq?lni=3S4Y-D6F0-            0018-532C&csi=139186&oc=00240&perma=true. (Accessed: 25/03/14).

Caven B and Little T. ‘Diana’s Driver was Drunk’. Daily Record, 02/09/97. Nexis. [Online. Available at: http://www.lexisnexis.com.v-ezproxy.brunel.ac.uk:2048/uk/nexis/docview/getDocForCuiReq?lni=3SJF-S310- 007C-718T&csi=139186&oc=00240&perma=true. (Accessed: 25/03/14).

DR (1997) ‘Star’s Death Tunnel Terror’. Daily Record, 01/09/97. Nexis. [Online]. Available  at: http://www.lexisnexis.com.v-ezproxy.brunel.ac.uk:2048/uk/nexis/docview/getDocForCuiReq?lni=3SJF-S350-007C-71G5&csi=139186&oc=00240&perma=true (Acessed: 25/03/14).

News at Ten (1997). ITV, 31st August. YouTube. [Online]. Available at:      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4w4s39ll6Ds. (Accessed: 25/03/14).

Reid, H. ‘The Life of a Princess: A Fairytale that Ended in Greek Tragedy’. Western Daily Press, 01/09/97. Nexis. [Online]. Available at http://www.lexisnexis.com.v-ezproxy.brunel.ac.uk:2048/uk/nexis/docview/getDocForCuiReq?lni=3TX5-S7W0-00J4-            91D4&csi=139186&oc=00240&perma=true. (Accessed: 25/03/14).

Walker, M. ‘The Death of Diana: Bigger than OJ, Jackie or Nixon’. The Guardian, 03/09/97 Nexis. [Online]. Available at http://www.lexisnexis.com.v-     ezproxy.brunel.ac.uk:2048/uk/nexis/docview/getDocForCuiReq?lni=3TBC-YGY0-       002D-60YS&csi=139186&oc=00240&perma=true. (Accessed: 25/03/14).

TP (1997). ‘Shock and Grief as World Mourns Icon of Our Age’. The People, 31/08/97.    Nexis. [Online]. Available at http://www.lexisnexis.com.v-         ezproxy.brunel.ac.uk:2048/uk/nexis/docview/getDocForCuiReq?lni=3S4Y-CWS0-            0017-F1BK&csi=139186&oc=00240&perma=true. (Accessed: 25/03/14).






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