The (Only) Ten Basic News Stories

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Lots of people consider the news industry cynical and committed to pandering to the lowest common intellectual denominator. But few have noticed the curious irony that lies at the very core of the news paradigm. This irony may offer a better explanation of why the news is the way it is than any speculations about the ethics and motives of the news producers.

The curious irony is that, in this so-called Third-Wave age of information, as futurist Alvin Toffler named it, the commercial news process is actually imprisoned in a Second-Wave model, i.e. an industrial model of news production.

Any subject expert who is regularly called upon to appear in news cameos (such as I am, as a business consultant) soon discerns the unmistakable factory-like hum of the news operation. The process by which video editors interweave the live performances of news readers, the cutaways to remote units at the crime scene or the lawn of the White House, the obligatory establishing shot of the professor walking across campus to the laboratory, and the stock footage (the Rodney King beating, the Clinton-Lewinsky hug, or the lab technician testing the DNA samples) pays little homage to Toffler’s Third Wave concept. Instead, it’s straight out of the Industrial Age. Probably the closest product analogy to the news is a fast-food operation, something like making hamburgers or baking pastries.

Each little piece of news rolls down the line like a tidy, production-controlled PopTart (with due respect to Kellogg’s popular product): flavored, sweetened, glazed, and baked to perfection. Whatever the sacrifice in depth or insight, the fast-food news model is undeniably efficient and remarkably cost-effective.

What makes any industrial production process efficient and cost-effective is the use of standard products. In the news industry this translates into a few well-proven, reliable story structures. A basic inventory of about ten standard news stories makes the process of baking the news easy to manage.

One can switch on virtually any news show, from CNN’s breaking news, to financial news, to the local stations, and see a mix of these ten basic PopTarts rolling by in a varied sequence. This standard-product paradigm probably does more to explain the universal sameness of news programming, virtually around the world, than any supposed ideology or motivational premise.

Perhaps those who criticize news producers as being cynical, exploitive, and shallow are right, but for the wrong reasons. They may be less the conscious purveyors of intellectual pabulum than they are helpless prisoners locked in their own PopTart factories. It’s hard to give up such a comfortable way of doing business, and it’s easy to rationalize: “People like our PopTarts.”

What are the ten basic PopTarts – er, sorry, new stories? Just about anybody can tick them off, with a bit of thought. Here they are, for the record.

1. Shock and Horror. As they say in the news biz, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Murders, especially multiples, acts of unusual violence, brutality, or sadism, shark attacks, and the carnage left by explosions are sure fire grabbers for the attention of a nation of gawkers.

2. Tragedy. Preferably enhanced by the horror factor, as in a suicide bombing, the Tragedy category includes natural disasters, airplane crashes, and hotel fires. The more lives that are wrecked, the better the material for the mike-in-the-face victim vignettes and the human interest stories about how the brave victims are “trying to put the pieces of their lives back together.”

3. Hot Sex. This is a plentiful product line, virtually addictive for news producers. It ranges from the intimate lives of celebrities to “socially responsible” stories about teen-agers having oral sex. It also includes derivative pornography, such as stories about the exotic dancers at the local club who are fighting to unionize. The story wouldn’t be complete without the drop-in shots of pole dancers and interviews with busty entertainers.

4. Scandal. Best teamed up with the Hot Sex story, for double effect, the misdeeds of government officials or corporate bigwigs allow us all to cluck our tongues and enjoy seeing the sinners embarrassed and properly chastised.

5. The Fall of the Mighty. Watching powerful people get knocked off their high horses has a special appeal, and could almost qualify as a national pastime. Combine a Fall of the Mighty story with good Scandal, add a great Hot Sex story, and you have a grand slam. A head of state gets thrown out for having sex with the wrong person and trying to cover it up: it don’t get no better’n ‘at.

6. Conflict. Just as people will always stop and gawk at a fist-fight, whether in the schoolyard or in Taiwan’s Parliament chamber, conflict and the imminence of physical violence will always arrest attention. War is probably the most reliable news product of all; it always has been. In a polite society, violence is replaced by conflict between political parties, or among advocacy groups pursuing various social agendas. Newsbakers will nearly always introduce an element of conflict into a story if they can figure out how. It’s kind of a basic ingredient, like sugar or salt.

7. Worry. Journalists seem to suffer from a constitutional aversion to being perceived as naive or overly optimistic. As a result, they seem compelled to find the dark side of just about any issue; the cynical motive, the reasons why it’s too good to be true, and the looming possibility that something could go seriously wrong. Some economists have contended that more recessions are caused by journalists warning about recessions than by the business cycle. It is their sworn duty to help us worry about things like the possibility that the earth might collide with an asteroid within the next 1,000 years.

8. Voyeurism. The bizarre, the perverted, the weird, the sick and twisted, and the deviant, all make good entertainment for gawkers. The suicide jumper, the hostage standoff, the execution, and the demented old lady living with the 300 cats, all provide an element of curiosity or excitement which many people apparently need in their lives. In some cases, as with TV shows in the “bubba” genre, many people seem to enjoy peering at other people whose lives are clearly more screwed up than their own.

9. Dilemmas. Newsbakers love stories about conflicts that can’t be solved. The abortion issue, cloning, capital punishment, euthanasia, and the right to die, all arouse strong feelings and polarize opinion. The conflict ingredient comes naturally, and “balanced coverage” is easy to claim. The frequent use of two-sided moral Dilemma stories helps perpetuate the myth of “objective journalism.”

10. Gee-Whiz Stories. And finally, we need a change-of-pace product, so we won’t get the idea they’re constantly pandering to our darker natures. This can take many forms, but usually has to be a novelty segment, a curiosity piece, or a heart-warmer. The local spelling bee, the dog that rescues the baby, astronauts in space, the Olympic athlete’s mom crying tears of joy, and the President’s hemorrhoids all help to round out the product offering and let us know that news people are actually regular folks like the rest of us.

So, before we get too pious about the quality of journalism, let’s remember that all products have to find receptor sites on the neurons of their intended customers, or they won’t survive in the market place. Just as fast food products find a strong and reliable response, fast news products arrest the attention of enough people long enough to sell them the fast food. Those of us who perceive the news as a mediocre type of information product aren’t really the intended customers – for the news or the fast food.


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