The story before the headline


Which comes first, the story or the news?

This seemingly enigmatic rubric is meant to convey a particularly problematic aspect of contemporary reporting.

Underlying factors always precipitate an event. These conditions always exist before the event becomes ‘newsworthy’ enough to draw the attention of the mass media.
News stories reported without this vital background information lose their context. They become somewhat ‘meaningless’, or else their meaning is read between the lines by the media consumer.

Reported without a clear presentation of background conditions, news event can be either taken out of context or misunderstood. In a globalised news market, news content can be rapidly disseminated, its echoes multiplying as other media outlets take up a story. Without an explanation as to why an event has occurred, it becomes open to interpretation. Those interpretations may or may not reflect true underlying conditions. The end result can be that the public do not understand the processes that drive events that make the news.

There are a number of potential reasons why this particular situation may arise.

Perhaps this is a reflection of the increasing pressures placed on a decreasing number of journalists who are subjected to tighter deadlines. This could imply that no time exists to check work thoroughly in a production line style of news production, where there is a continuous flow of news (with little or no reflection).

Another reason is the increasing involvement of PR firms (and those who commission them) in determining news worthy events (see for instance the website It is easy to imply that the PR firm does not necessarily want the public to be in command of all of the ‘facts’ as this may derail their objectives.

Yet another situation which could leave the public uninformed could be the expectation that some journalists cover many different types of news stories. To use the expression, they are a jack of all trades and a master of none. A scenario such as this suggests that knowledge needed to pursue the story further may not exist. A number of academic colleagues of mine, in Russia and Sweden, have complained to me about the lack of general knowledge among journalism students. They say that this is partially due to a much narrower (in terms of subjects studied) education programme.

A final, but by no means last, point to consider is the nature of the questions being asked about an event. The focus is normally upon a spectacular event and little attention is given to matters that do not focus on the moment in question.

Examples of these situations in the ‘real’ world?

The New York Times wrote a piece in April, 2008, about the stress of 24/7 news production, with regard to bloggers. It lists a number of repercussions of such a stressful and debilitating work environment.

Public relations as news can also affect the way events are received and perceived. The August, 2008, war between Georgia and Russia illustrates this point very well. Sometimes the imageeducation system, especially in fields such as journalism, is a reflection of a country’s past. These fields may be considered to be of lesser importance than other more in demand fields (such as business for example) and may be frozen by a form of stagnation. A well-written article from 2002 about the situations faced by journalism students and journalists in Montenegro brings up a number of points and hardships that are faced.

The final point that I made in the above paragraph related to the types of questions being asked. For instance, the majority of people accept that the terrorist attacks of 9 September, 2001, occurred. The focus of the news was on the terrible images of that fateful day. However, there is relatively less attention given to tough, but necessary, questions to explore the matter deeper. These can be very painful to ask. There is a chance that there may be some unpleasant and uncomfortable truths uncovered in the process. Questions like, “Why did 9/11 occur?” and “What drove these men with such hatred to attack civilian targets in the United States?”

Instead there seems to be a general dismissal of the attackers (by labelling them as terrorists – implying someone that is irrational and can’t be reasoned with) and this masks the nature of things.

Introducing background information that gives context to a news event is essential in order to give a story both context and meaning. Without contextualisation, a spectacular and newsworthy story may misinterpreted and even manipulated.

The events covered in the mass media are often remote from the lives of those reading, watching and listening. Ultimately, a decision is only as good as the information on which it is based.

Flickr images from users nickwheeleroz and Sister72