News Writing Basics



The criteria for news are:

  • Is it new?
  • Is it unusual?
  • Is it interesting or significant?
  • Is it about people?

Is it new?

  • If it is not new, it cannot be news. The assassination of John F. Kennedy is unusual, interesting, significant and about people, but it cannot be reported online today, broadcast tonight or put in tomorrow’s papers as news, because it is not new.
  • If some facts about that assassination became known for the first time, however, that would be news. The assassination would not be new, but the information would be.
  • Events which happened days or even weeks earlier can still be news, as long as they have not been reported before. If you are telling a story for the first time, it is new to your readers or listeners and therefore it can be news.
  • News of the death of Mao Tse-tung, for instance, was not released to the world by the Chinese government for several days; when they did release it, however, it was still very definitely news because it was new.

Is it unusual?

  • Things are happening all the time, but not all of them are news, even when they are new. A man wakes up, eats breakfast and goes to work on a bus; it just happened, but nobody wants to read about it because it is not unusual. Ordinary and everyday things are not news.
  • Of course, if that same man was 99 years old and was still catching the bus to work every day, it would be unusual – and, likely, news.
  • The classic definition of news is this: “Dog bites man” is not news; “Man bites dog” is news. This definition, though, is not universal. If dogs are eaten in your society (at feasts, for instance) then it will not be news when a man bites a dog – so long as it has been cooked.
  • What is usual in one society may be unusual in another. Again, we will expect the content of the news to vary from society to society. In every society, though, whatever is unusual is likely to be news.

Is it interesting?

  • Events which are new and unusual may still not be of general interest. Scientists may report that an insect has just been found living in an area which it did not previously inhabit. The discovery is new, and the event is unusual, but it is unlikely to interest anybody other than a specialist or enthusiast.
  • In the specialty publication Entomology, this could be big news. But in a general news broadcast or newspaper it would merit, at most, a few words – if any mention at all.

Is it significant?

  • However, if that same insect was a destructive termite found to be threatening homes in your region of the country for the first time, then the story becomes news, because it is significant.
  • People may not be interested in bugs, but they are interested in their homes. If this insect is now threatening to damage their homes, it becomes a matter of concern to them. It is news because it is significant.
  • Similarly, if a sales person for AT&T says that the Roman Catholic Church should ordain women priests, that is not news. If an archbishop says it, it is news, because what he says on the subject is significant. It is the views of people such as the archbishop which help to form the policy of the church.
  • Once again, what is interesting or significant in one society may not be interesting or significant in another. The content of the news may be different, therefore, in different societies, but the way it is identified will be the same.

Is it about people?

  • Most news is automatically about people, because what people do that changes the world makes news.
  • However, news can also be made by non-human sources, such as a tornado, a brush fire or a drought. It is when reporting these stories that it is important to make sure that the story is centered on people.
  • The tornado would not matter if it blew itself out in the middle of a farm field, away from any homes or towns. A brush fire could burn for as long as it likes where nobody lives. Death Valley has a near-permanent drought, but in most of it nobody is there who relies on rains.
  • All these natural disasters only become news when they affect people’s lives. Every story can be told in terms of people. Always start by asking yourself the question: “How does this affect the lives of my readers, listeners or viewers?”
  • TIP: Whenever you have a story which tells how something has happened which affects both people and property, always put the people first.