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When news isn’t news: The case of national holidays

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Most research studies of news assume a bias toward the extreme, the unusual, and the new. However, much of the content of newspapers consists of the routine and the predictable. Using a collection of articles from the New York Times sampled from 1852 to the present, this paper examines news about one subject, national holidays, with a view to explaining the pragmatic functions of such formally unnewsworthy articles. In the national holiday news cycle, the newspaper first announces or forecasts the observances, and after they have taken place the public response is evaluated for enthusiasm and decorum. The standard of behaviour is reinforced through small human interest stories that contain inferential gaps encouraging readers to draw on their knowledge of human conduct. The basic principle being inferred is politeness toward the nation, in the sense of respecting its positive face by anticipating and following its wishes, and respecting its negative face by avoiding challenges and focusing on citizen responsibilities rather than citizen rights. The result is news stories that violate some of the most important “hard” news values previously identified by researchers, by being predictable, ambiguous, static, and generally “good news”. The analysis also shows how news which is apparently free of conflict can prepare readers for future consumption of conflict-oriented news.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Helsinki

Publication date: 2003-01-01

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