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Galtung and Ruge’s shortcomings



​Galtung and Ruge were at the core of a group of intellectuals who established the Peace Research Institute (PRIO) in Oslo.  Founded in 1959, PRIO’s aim was to promote research on the conditions for peaceful relations between states, groups and people.

Johan Galtung

At the First Nordic Conference on Peace Research, Johan Galtung and Mari Holmboe Ruge presented their study on News Values. This event was held in Oslo in January 1963.  They were later to publish their work in 1965.

Gultung and Ruge’s study

“The structure of foreign news: The presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus crises in four Norwegian newspapers.”

This study was specifically concerned with how overseas events did, or did not, become foreign news in the Norwegian press.  They focused their research on newspaper reports of the Congo, Cyprus and Cuba crises.

By analysing reports in the Norwegian press, they spotted which values placed an event at the top of the news agenda. Altogether, they looked at 1,262 press cuttings – including news items, features, editorials and readers’ letters.

Mari Holmboe Ruge
Mari Holmboe Ruge

Subsequently, extracts have been printed in many edited collections of media studies. Their work has had a major impact on today’s understanding of what information is newsworthy and which news stories generate most attention.  Journalists and editors still continue to draw heavily on Galtung and Ruge’s research into  what the public expect in news.

But, Galtung and Ruge explicitly said that their work was not the final word on News Values. (“No claim is made for completeness in the list of news values”).   Predictably, subsequent scholars and news organisations have identified shortcomings and continue to refine and clarify their work.

Shortcomings of Galtung and Ruge

Despite the continuing relevance of Galtung and Ruge’s groundbreaking news values, some shortcomings have come to light over the years.

Galtung and Ruge’s work was limited to the reporting of foreign news.  It was primarily concerned with the reporting in the Norwegian press of international crises.  Jeremy Tunstall pointed out that their study ignored the day to day coverage of lesser events.  They looked only at content that was explicitly concerned with the crisis.  Also, their list of factors failed to explain how film and dramatic photographs can affect the content of written material.  Jeremy Tunstall (1971) Journalists At Work.

Jean Seaton points out that Galtung and Ruge’s focus on events only tells us part of the story.  Many news items are not events at all.  For instance, occurrences in the real world, which take place independently in the media.  (CURRAN, J and SEATON, J (1997) Power Without Responsibility. London: Routledge)

Peter Vasterman (VASTERMAN, P (1995) Media Hypes) explored the nature of media-hypes like the “flesh-eating virus” stories, which swept the UK in 1994.  He examines criteria, such as those discussed by Galtang and Ruge, and finds they are flawed.  News is not out there.  Journalists do not report news???, they produce news.  They construct it.  The construct statements. And they construct a context in which these facts make sense.  In other words, they reconstruct a reality.

In 1970, Tunstall noted that “Many of the factors which G&R find as pre-disposing foreign events to become news — elite persons, negative events, unexpectedness-within-predictability, cultural proximity — are also to be found in Shakespeare’s plays.  (TUNSTALL, J (ed) (1970) Media Sociology. London: Constable)

The factors G&R identify may suggest which events will and will not be reported, and may inform us how stories may be treated.  If they fail to provide a complete explanation of their stories, they may miss many of the irregularities of news composition, including the influence of political and economic factors.

Since G&R’s work in 1965, there have been a number of alternative but essential similar lists of news values.  In his study of US news media, Gans (1980) argues that domestic news stories become important by satisfying one or more of the following criteria.

  • rank in government and other hierarchies
  • impact on the nation and the national interest
  • impact on large numbers of people
  • significance for the past and future

Similarly, stories are deemed interesting if they conform to one or more types, which he lists:

  • people stories
  • Role reversals
  • human interest
  • expose anecdotes
  • heroes
  • “gee-whizz” stories

Relying on his own experience, former Guardian editor, Alastair Hetherington, noted that the instinctual news value of most journalists is simply “does it interest me?”   During a study of the UK media, he drew up his own list of news values:

  • significance
  • drama
  • surprise
  • personalities
  • sex, scandal and crime
  • numbers
  • proximity

In 2000, Herbert produced a similar list:

  • prominence
  • proximity
  • timeliness
  • action
  • novelty
  • human interest
  • sex
  • humour

Allan Bell (BELL, A (1991) The Language Of News Media. Oxford: Blackwell) rather than draw up an alternative list, notes that G&R’s news values have been found both valid and enlightening in a number of different countries.  However, he augments their dozen criteria with four more, all of which are, (like continuity and composition) concerned with news gathering and news processing – rather than with the events and actors featured in the news:

  • competition – the desire for a scoop
  • co-option – a loosely related story presented in terms of a high profile continuing story
  • predictability – events which can be pre-scheduled (diary stories) for journalists are more likely to be covered than events which turn up unheralded
  • prefabrication – ready-made texts such as press releases, cuttings, agency copy, all of which journalists can process rapidly – greatly increases the likely appearing in the news


(This may actually be better in the article on news values)

2023 60 years old.

[Why were G&R so successful?  Because their news values were abstract and inclusive.  For instance, sex and scandal is much more specific.  But surely such stories fall comfortably into G&R’s notion of “unexpected” and “human interest”.

Today, most news organisations have evolved their own approach for setting a news agenda. Yet, almost all recent lists of news values refer to many of the criteria Galtung and Ruge originally identified.



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