What is the ‘value’ of news?

Richard Elk is a freelance writer and retired Chico State journalism professor

After looking over various news media picks for the top stories of 2003, I think a little perspective is in order on a basic point: What’s the real news “value” of a story?

Of most interest to me was the pick by the Associated Press, the world’s premier news service, of the Kobe Bryant rape case as the top sports story. Even people who don’t follow sports have heard of this case because they can’t escape the coverage. After all, it involves a bigger-than-life basketball superstar who in 2002 was also the third-best product endorser, behind Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. No longer. In brief, a 19-year-old female Colorado resort employee went with Bryant to his room last summer, only to be raped, she charged. Bryant said the sex was consensual. The case will be tried this year.

I disagree with AP’s news judgment, which in turn is the judgment of the working newspaper and broadcast members who comprise this cooperative newsgathering enterprise. I think cyclist Lance Armstrong deserved top spot. He was the second-place pick who won his record-tying fifth straight Tour de France.

My reasoning goes back many years to when United Press International, the now defunct other major news service, tried hard to make credible picks. Late each autumn UPI mailed a ballot to a wide range of media-connected people, including journalism educators, with a list of major stories in the center of the page. A column of left margin boxes, one next to each story, was labeled “headline value.” Similar right margin boxes were labeled “societal importance.” Thus voters ranked each story two ways. UPI tallied and published the results each January.

The Bryant story is not even a sports story. It’s a shocking scandal generated far from the basketball court that has no larger importance other than to feed the insatiable public appetite for courtroom drama. By contrast, Armstrong’s feat made headlines everywhere, especially during the last days of the race when he appeared vulnerable. It carried importance not only because cycling is popular worldwide, but also because Lance showed by example the value of personal determination—"heart,” if you will—in the face of relentless challenge.

My favorite news value example involves Lady Diana, the sparkling princess of Wales, who died in 1997 with her playboy fiancà in a high-speed car crash when her chauffeur tried to elude celebrity photographers. Just a few days later Mother Teresa, the saintly Albanian nun and Nobel Peace Prize winner famous worldwide for her lifelong, selfless work with the sick and the poor, died in India. Mother Teresa’s passing never received the coverage it deserved because of the continuing blizzard of Lady Di headlines and stories held center stage.