The same is true of news. “What is news?” Is relatively easy to answer. To most journalists news is about controversy, or what people talk about in the pub, or something someone wants kept secret. Media analysts define news in terms of journalists’ perceptions of world events, as regulated and modified by operational and structural factors, socio-political influences and the structure and semantics of language.
“Why are people interested in news?” is an altogether deeper issue. An answer is important to a full understanding of the news process as a whole, yet it’s an area that has largely been ignored.
On the face of it this is not surprising. Trying to define what the public thinks is news seems a hopeless task. After all, the audience is a heterogonous amalgam of thousands, even millions, of different individuals with as many opinions, aspirations and interests. All we can really say is that the only thing people all have in common is that they are human, which doesn’t appear to be much help.
Yet this simple observation is in fact an important starting point if we are to attempt to define the fundamental factors that decide how and why people respond to news.
Of mice and men
Because we are human we share a range of basic animal instincts and drives – hunger, thirst, the need to procreate, and - the most universal impulse of all - the survival instinct.
To survive we need to constantly monitor the world around us for potential threats - changes in our surroundings that may affect us. Once a threat is spotted we need to work out how to deal with it. We must make a decision whether to stand and fight, negotiate, or run away. This is just as true for the executive facing a boardroom coup as for an ape confronted by a lion.
To keep abreast of what’s happening in the world around us we need information. Without information we won’t know a threat exists until it is too late. But just being offered information is not enough. We also need to be willing to take that information on board while there is still time to avoid the threat. The executive who ignores hints that his downfall is being plotted may as well start clearing his desk – if an ape ignores a telltale roar in the bushes it is likely to end up as lunch.
So to survive we need to know what’s going on around us, and we need to be prepared to use that information to steer clear of danger. The fact that most of us succeed in avoiding disaster most of the time implies that the urge to gather information about our surrounds and evaluate it for possible threats is a deep-seated and instinctive one.
In its most basic form we can therefore try defining ‘news’ for the audience as: information about change that may be relevant to physical security. From this perspective an ape’s alarm call, warning of approaching danger, is no different in function to the newspaper headline warning of potential job cuts in a local factory.
But here we run into a problem. Why should that newspaper headline be news if we don’t work at the factory, or know anyone else who does?
Most events featured in the news do not directly threaten our physical security, and most involve people we will never meet. To suggest that we are motivated to show interest in change that is peripheral to our own lives requires the hypothesis that we are as primitively committed to our social security as we are to our physical well being.
Interestingly, just such a hypothesis exists. It was developed by anthropologists to explain the development of human intelligence. It also turns out to be crucial to an understanding of what motivates audience interest in news.
The Machiavellian Intelligence hypothesis
A number of anthropologists have argued that human intelligence didn’t develop to help man’s transition from foraging ape to tool-wielding hunter, as was previously thought. Instead, they suggest intelligence arose to help individuals cope with the social environment in which those skills were learned – in other words, that we have inherited a social intelligence much older than technical intelligence.
In a close-knit group of primates there is a need to co-operate and also compete over mates, food resources, grooming partners and position in the hierarchy. In order to keep its place in the pecking order the individual needs to keep abreast of ‘who’s doing what to whom’, and to think through the possible end result of social moves before the move is made.
In fact, there is clear evidence that apes are indeed capable of planning and calculating the consequences of very complex social exchanges. Chimpanzees in particular have been shown to use a high degree of deceit and manipulation of others to achieve their own ends. Close parallels have been drawn between chimp politics and the observations of Niccolo Machiavelli, the 16th century commentator who dispassionately exposed the realities of power politics in human society.
If the Machiavellian hypothesis is right we can extend our basic definition of news and suggest that people are interested in change that may affect not only their physical security, but also their social position. We are programmed by evolution to look out for change in both our physical and our social environment, and to evaluate the implications of that change for the individual and the group.
Controversy is a key element in news. It generates uncertainty and implies potential change that needs to be assessed by the individual for its potential threat.
Without change, information cannot be interpreted as news – unless a lack of change is itself a deviation from the status quo. Those caught up in the constant change and dangerous uncertainties of war would no doubt regard a cessation of hostilities as very welcome.
The level of concern generated by change is in direct proportion to the degree to which the status quo will be altered, and also to the rate of change. People can adjust to slow change. Sudden change has more impact because it demands quicker evaluation for possible implications.
Change can be seen to carry a threat not only to our physical, social or environmental security, but also institutions, landmarks and even familiar patterns of thought or behaviour. They are ‘icons of constancy’ that we adopt as psychological bulwarks against the uncertainties of change itself. We feel exposed if they are threatened.
Change has to be topical. It has to be happening now, or threatened for the future, to carry a security threat. If an event happened in the past it is not news but history. Having said that, history may still make news if it is reinterpreted to throw new light on our present circumstances. Traditions accumulate their own ‘iconic’ momentum and, like physical or social landmarks, become vulnerable to the intrinsic iconoclasm of change.
That change is critical to a working definition of news can be seen from the willingness of journalists to massage and even engineer the element of change in a story. New life can be injected into an old tale by highlighting an artificially imposed change – for instance, an anniversary. Another favoured technique is to give undue emphasis to an element of uncertainty in order to embellish a story’s newsworthiness. The bonus is that once that particular angle is exhausted, further change can be introduced by dropping the story back to its original state.
Bad news is ‘good news’ (for the journalist) because potentially unwelcome and threatening change requires preparation if it is to be avoided. Bad news is more likely to trigger audience interest because positive news doesn’t require a threat response.
The strength of this drive to monitor for change involves not only the degree and rate of change, but also its relevance to the audience. This in turn depends on whom the change is most likely to affect.
Our first priority is for our own security. Secondly, we are concerned for our immediate family - genetic survival. Thirdly we are concerned for friends and relations. Fourth, there is a concern for our community. Beyond that we, quite literally, don’t care.
Just where the limits of this community lie depends on where the audience draws its boundary of relevance. Some cultures are insular and limit their boundary of relevance to include only the family or close social group. A newspaper editor I knew felt he was always regarded as an outsider in the remote Cambridgeshire fenland community where he grew up, even though he was only two years old when his family moved there. At the other extreme, some cultures will have national or even pan-global affiliations.
Where a society decides to set its boundary is determined by a perceived commonality of behaviour, appearance, religious belief, gender, genetic ties or a history of social interaction. Inevitably, events that feature places or people we don’t know, and therefore cannot easily relate to, are of intrinsically less interest. As media analyst Allan Bell observes, in British newsrooms “news is [seen as] what happens to one Englishman, ten Germans or a thousand Indians.”
Boundaries of relevance are normally static or slow to change if left to those who set them, but others may manipulate them to their own ends. Boundaries may be extended to include a group that had been excluded, or conversely, they may be artificially shrunk to exclude a previously affiliated community.
In order to persuade people to dig into their pockets to help disaster victims, charities and relief organisations will go out of their way to highlight points of similarity between the victims and potential donors, so encouraging an audience to extend its boundary of relevance to include the target community. Aid agencies regularly use pictures of children and old people looking helpless and appealing, along with copy which reinforces the message of common humanity. An explanation for the anomaly that people will help an adopted community while ignoring similar problems nearer home may be that we are unconsciously wary of giving advantage to possible competitors for resources or social position in our immediate community.
There are occasions when an audience will be manipulated to exclude a previously affiliated community, either temporarily or permanently. In time of conflict, for example, the establishment will exclude a group by artificially shrinking the audience’s boundary of relevance. The ‘enemy’ is dehumanised, and the identity of the community as a whole subsumed into a caricature of itself or its leaders: the French become ‘Frogs’, the Iraqis, ‘Saddam Hussein’. The target group may be associated with traditional hate images or socially unacceptable behaviour. For Arab audiences America becomes “the Great Satan”; in the First World War a rumour that Germans ate babies was encouraged.
In his book Distant Voices, journalist John Pilger observed that during the Gulf War the military went to great lengths to desensitise combatants and home audiences to the realities of the campaign against Iraq. He noted: “The pilots who dropped the bombs, politicians, journalists and the public, all of us, were kept at a distance.”[my italics]
Implications and interpretations
A model of news based on the Machiavellian Intelligence hypothesis allows us to suggest possible explanations for audience interest in several types of story: the activities of famous people, disasters and animals – the “creature feature”
You need only pick up a copy of Hello magazine or the Sun to see the perennial fascination of important people and their activities. A monkey would explain this quite simply. We are interested in the activities of powerful people because firstly they are in a position to affect our own security, and secondly, because monitoring ‘who does what to whom’, and ‘who’s in and who’s out’ may put us in a better position to re-negotiate our own social position.
The appeal of stories involving non-power elites like pop stars, sports idols and even the Royal Family is not so obvious. After all, what they get up to is unlikely to affect us socially or physically. Perhaps our interest lies in their role as ’icons of constancy’ and also as successful role models. But in Machiavellian terms, there is also the possibility that our own ingrained reading of social indicators is fooling us. We expect people with power and influence to attract adulation and a disproportionate allocation of wealth or resources. When these indicators attach to a non-power elite we automatically confer a false power-elite status on them.
Public fascination with disaster can be simply interpreted as a desire to learn lessons that may enhance our own future physical security. The public’s reaction to the Paddington rail crash no doubt involved a lot of genuine sympathy for the victims, but not far behind was the concern that unless rail safety was improved we too could be victims of a repeat disaster. From a Machiavellian perspective, this ‘voyeurism’ may also arise from a vestigial and unconscious urge to monitor the misfortune of others for the enhanced social possibilities this might offer the uninvolved observer.
Animal stories are guaranteed an audience in those cultures in which animals have social relevance and are not just regarded as prey. James Serpell, director of the Companion Animal Research Group at the University of Cambridge suggests three areas of public interest that fit the Machiavellian model. Large animals, especially predators, inspire immediate physical security concern. Some animals have physical features that trigger a protective response in humans because of their similarity to human babies: big eyes, disproportionately large head for body size, and non-threatening behaviour. This so-called ‘paedomorphism’ could explain why pandas and koalas make ‘good copy - a strong instinctive urge to protect our own young back-fires, causing us to bring inside our boundary of relevance animals which are, in reality, anti-social and unempathic. Pet stories often make the ‘and finally’ item in a broadcast bulletin or the NIB column in newspapers. It is interesting to speculate that in Machiavellian terms, companion animals may appeal because they offer unquestioning devotion and ego re-enforcement to their owners, providing a reliable and sympathetic social bond that requires no social negotiation.
Just as Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth were guided by “the pricking of the thumbs” to warn them that “something wicked this way comes”, we too rely on primitive instinct to help us avoid potential danger. We are perennially receptive to information that may help us maintain our position on the slippery pole of existence.
The way the news operation works, social and political pressures which influence the journalist and even the structure of language itself can and do affect the way stories are selected, written and presented, but the primary news value of an event, for the audience, depends on the degree and rate of change from the status quo carried in the story, and the audience’s perception of the implications for its physical, environmental, psychological and social security.
If Machiavelli was wielding his pen today he might be moved to observe that journalism is perhaps the purest of professions. While doctors make a living from our fear of disease, priests earn a crust from our inability to accept the idea of personal oblivion and dentists play on our terror of toothache, the journalist’s prime negotiating tool is fear itself.
Sources and further reading
The Language of News Media Bell Blackwell 1991
Machiavellian Intelligence Byrne/Whiten Clarendon 1988
How Monkeys see the World Cheney/Seyfarth Chicago University 1990
“Structuring and selecting news” GaltungRuge, in The Manufacture of News: Deviance, Social Problems and the Mass Media Cohen and Young Constable 1973
Chaos: making a new science Gleick Abacus 1993
Understanding News Hartley Routledge 1982
News, Newspapers and Television Hetherington Macmillan 1985
Distant Voices Pilger Vintage 1992
Putting ‘Reality’ Together Schlesinger Methuen 1987
In the Company of Animals Serpell Blackwell 1986
Machiavelli Skinner Oxford University 1981
About the author: John Venables is a former BBC science correspondent and journalism instructor, and is currently a features writer at BBC Online. The original research for this article was carried out with the help of a BP Press Fellowship at Wolfson College, Cambridge.