What is news? That's a question that journalism practitioners, educators, and students ask and answer routinely. Sometimes the question and answers are explicit, as in instruction and discussion. Other times they are implicit, as in news selection and processing. The same question is asked and answered by a documentary used to introduce visitors to The Freedom Forum's Newseum and its traveling component, the NewsCapade.
Although the documentary provides no revolutionary insight into the notion of news, it does trigger further reflections. If for no other reason, it raises and answers the question anew - and in a way that straddles journalists' intuitive and situational approach and educators' attempt to conceptualize and standardize news judgment. Though the documentary does not make this point, it has led this instructor to conclude that introductory reporting textbooks should do more to emphasize the contingency and personal nature of news selection.
As a background for those who are not familiar with the Newseum, it was opened in Arlington, Va., in April 1997 as an interactive museum that educates the public about the news media and their central role in chronicling contemporary history. Its traveling component, the NewsCapade, began touring the country in March 1999 with the goal of making at least one stop in each of the 50 states by the end of the year 2000.
Before exploring the exhibits at the Newseum and the NewsCapade, visitors are shown the documentary titled "What's News?" Given that the Newseum was created as a public relations undertaking on behalf of the press, the documentary may be said to be the news media's collective reflection on itself.
In explaining the purpose of the Newseum, Allen H. Neuharth, its founder and Freedom Forum executive, said: "We wanted to make the public more aware of news and how it is gathered. One of the reasons [newspaper] popularity is in the pits is that people don't understand a lot of what we do" (Editor & Publisher, August 1999, p. 40). As such, the introductory documentary provides an important insight into journalists' conception of news, or at least their preferred public conception of it.
The definition of news in the Newseum/NewsCapade documentary is essentially event-oriented, much like journalistic practice, but it also reflects a level of abstraction that nonetheless makes the viewer see news in personal terms. The documentary begins with the takeoff of a U.S. spaceship, as the narrator, Charles Osgood of CBS News, asked the title-question, "What's News?" As the theater vibrates in simulation of an actual lunch site, Osgood begins to list a series of events that constitute news. They are: Firsts, War, Peace, Breakthroughs, Life, Death, Love, Hate, Sacrifice, and Freedom. The announcement of each element of news is accompanied by an illustrative visual component. "Firsts," for instance, are illustrated with the launch of the U.S. spaceship and "Life" is illustrated with a warmly lit image of a newborn.
As Ted Friedman wrote in a 1998 issue of Critical Studies in Mass Communication, such framing of news invites "the viewer to regard news within a context of natural circles." Moreover, the framing personalizes news and suggests that it be about the routine life of ordinary people. The reality, of course, is that ordinary people's routines are rarely news, except for the occasional features. The birth, life, and death of ordinary people, for instance, rarely make news, nor do their firsts, their loves, their hates and their sacrifices.
The elements of news listed in reporting textbooks suggest the importance of context in determining when life experiences are newsworthy. For instance, births are not newsworthy by themselves, unless they involve prominent people or entail something unusual. Similarly, "Firsts" are only newsworthy when they are of consequence, or, again, involve prominent people.
Still, despite the definitional deficiencies in "What's News? …