The Five Factors That Drive News Decisions

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.