Natural Disasters and News Values

Natural disasters hit several news values including negativity, threshold, picture values and unambiguity.

There was a high magnitude earthquake in Turkey this week, killing, at time of writing (Monday 6th Feb 2023) 1900, and there is little doubt that the death toll will rise significantly.

When I heard this unfortunate news on Radio Four at 7.00 a.m. I knew straight away that this would probably be filling up the Live news on pretty much every news site in Europe for the next day or two, possibly the rest of the week.

And when I checked out the BBC News site at around 14.00 this is what I saw on their home page (screenshot below). There is nothing but the Earthquake related stories on the main page, and it is very rare to have so much dominance.

This should be of no surprise to any student of media studies who has learned about how News Values shape the content of the news.

News Values are criteria which journalists believe make stories news worthy and include such things as how impactful event is in terms of number of people affected, how unusual it is, and how visual it is.

The more characteristics and event fulfils, and the more extremely it does so, the more likely it is to get more news coverage, and a major Earthquake hits just about every news value there is…

News Values and Earthquakes.

  • Negativity – maybe most importantly where the news is concern is that an earthquake is negative, it destroys infrastructure and peoples lives, literally the later in the case of this large magnitude earthquake.
  • Threshold – 1900 recorded dead after just half a day makes this already one of the largest natural disasters in recent history.
  • Unambiguity – It’s a natural disaster, no politics involved (well, maybe with the response), but this is very easy to understand: earthquake happens, buildings collapse, people get died and injured, the community responds.
  • Picture values – it’s got it all: drone footage of the wreckage, shell shocked survivors, toddlers being pulled out of collapsed buildings by rescue workers…
  • Unpredictability – While seismologists can predict earthquakes to an extent, the sheer scale of this Earthquake made it unusual.
  • Continuity – unfortunately this fits with a well established narrative of other earthquakes and the planet becoming increasingly unstable, and in Syria it fits in the the narrative of tragedy following the recent war.

Natural Disasters and News Values: Final Thoughts

For sure there are more factors which determine the content of the news, but when it comes to natural disasters it is almost as if journalists go into ‘easy mode’.

There’s a format for reporting such events that fits in so easily with News Values journalists pretty much have a day off as they’ve done this all before!

It’s another layer of tragedy on an event that’s already tragic, the way the media kind of treats it as business as usual.

Signposting and relevance to A-level sociology

This material is a useful contemporary example for students taking the Media option in their second year A-level sociology.

Another concept that may be relevant to this is that of hyperreality. When it comes to Natural Disasters, the media reporting is so removed from the reality on the ground that you have to ask yourself whether this isn’t just a fiction by the time it gets to the media!

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