News refers to novel information about recent affairs.
News has been a part of human societies for as long as we’ve been able to communicate complex ideas. Going back to our early times, you can think of travelers, priests, and soldiers as individuals who would learn something about a recent affair — such as the outcome of a battle or the emergence of a plague nearby — and would share that news with others. Perhaps you have even heard about the ‘town criers’ who would learn some news — perhaps an official decree from the king — and share it with a public audience.
News is the lifeblood of journalism. And, in the context of journalism, news usually entails novel information about recent affairs that is in the public interest. This emphasis on ‘public interest’ is influenced by Enlightenment principles, which emphasize objectivity and rationality in order to engage with social problems in a fruitful way. Moreover, this view considers newsgathering to be an important activity within a democratic society. That activity involves having individuals (news gatherers) systematically collect novel information about recent affairs and convey that information in a way that allows citizens to engage productively in debates about matters that impact the public.
That interpretation of newsgathering is similar to what we tend to call reporting today. However, if we were to require news gatherers to be hired and dedicated reporters — basically, limit them to people who get paid to report the news — then we would find that there was fairly little newsgathering until the 1800s, and only in a few places around the world. Put another way, our current imagining of newsgathering (or reporting) as a distinct, semi-professionalized activity is a historically recent development.
While we can define “news” in these more-academic terms, it’s important to keep in mind that it also has a colloquial meaning, and also to distinguish between “news” and “the news.” It is not uncommon to hear “news” be used colloquially in reference to a particular way of conveying novel information about recent affairs, and “the news” as some monolithic aggregation of it. For example, the phrase, “What’s ‘the news’ today?” implies that there is one relatively small group of news stories, drawn from a much-larger pool of possible news stories, that a large group of people would accept as being particularly important at that moment in time.
It is thus important to recognize that “news” and “the news” are modern cultural constructs that reflect particular understandings of what is news and what is newsworthy. Those understandings, in turn, are shaped by the histories and cultures of particular places and peoples. Put another way, “news” and “the news” are not natural things but rather things a group of people collectively agree to accept as “news” and “the news.”
For example, a news story is rarely understood to mean a simple chronological listing of observations. You wouldn’t expect the lead news story in The New York Times to read that Dr. Zamith woke up, went to his office, ate lunch, stubbed his toe, and found the cure for dementia. Instead, most people expect “news” to resemble a particular format. In the United States, you would likely expect a journalistic account of that news to start with the fact that Dr. Zamith found the cure to dementia — and probably not even mention the fact that he ate lunch that day. Moreover, given the prevalence of dementia in the United States and the significance of the discovery, such a story would likely be considered a part of “the news” for that day.
What is understood as “the news” varies considerably across and within places because it reflects not only different ways of thinking about what “news” should look or sound like but also who has the authority to define what “news” is, as well as what is newsworthy. Some stories tend to have more universal appeal — for example, dementia is a serious concern in much of the world, and not just the U.S. — but other stories (e.g., stories about violence against transgender people) may be treated as more newsworthy in some societies.
Returning to that earlier question, “What’s the news today?” we must therefore recognize that there is a finite space for “news” — because, after all, we only have so much time to consume news and newsgatherers can only follow up on so many stories — and that “the news” consequently requires someone (or, more accurately, some group of people) to define what matters, both in terms of what news is important as well as what is important about that news.
While “news” can be understood as simply being novel information about recent affairs, it can therefore also be understood more broadly as a form of knowledge about the world we live in. Consequently, those who are recognized as the primary definers of “the news” — be they journalists, some other group of people, or a mix thereof — are granted power in shaping how we understand the societies we live in as well as those we’ve never seen ourselves.
Within the context of journalism, the term “news” usually refers to novel information about recent affairs that is in the public interest.
While news has long been traded by different people, the notion of newsgathering as a distinct professional activity is a historically recent development.
“News” is an evolving cultural object. It is rarely just a chronological listing of observations. Instead, it reflects local ways of thinking about things like presentation formats and ways of organizing information.
There is also the notion of “the news,” which suggests that there is a collection of particularly important news. Those who are recognized as the primary definers of “the news” have power in shaping societal priorities and what is particularly important about emerging developments.
News can be understood as more than just a collection of information. It is also a form of knowledge.