TOPICS: The basics (who, what, when, why, where, and how), punctuation, grammar, spelling. Accuracy and verification. Shape and purpose of the story: “What’s the point?” Using Quotes. Striving for objectivity. Definitions: media, mass media, news media, broadcast media, journalism, online journalism.
The Basics – who, what, when, why, where (and how)
News stories can break quickly. Consequently, reporters often have little time to plan a list of questions. Most reporters approach a story using these six basic questions (called the 5W’s for short). It’s a quick and easy way to cover all the important and basic information that readers want from a story.
For example, you may want to write a story about a community group meeting in your neighborhood to discuss the possibility of starting a local recycling program. Here is the essential information you’d need to gather to begin your article:
Who: Names of the primary organizers of the effort.
What: A recycling program using local volunteers to pick up recyclables on a weekly basis.
Where: Location of the community.
When: Date and time of the meeting. Days of the week the group may decide to offer the services.
Why: There is currently no citywide recycling service, and the organizers believe that if they start at the grassroots level, they may encourage others neighborhoods to participate, or start a movement for citywide recycling.
How: Details of the proposed recycling program (schedule of pick-ups, costs, who will pay and how much, etc.).
Notice how each question adds an essential piece of information to the story? Using the “5W’s” method of gathering information also helps the reporter grasp the central point of the story, or prioritize and structure the shape of the story, which we will discuss below.
Accuracy and verification
As we noted in Chapter 1, readers today are skeptical. They don’t trust what they read because they feel that news reports are driven by political or corporate agendas, or that reporters themselves create stories that are not well-grounded in the facts. Therefore, reporters must shoot for absolute accuracy in every story they write, and verify each fact and figure to a certainty.
Nothing can more quickly turn a reader against a story than a misspelled name, a misplaced date, or a misidentified location. So always check and re-check name spellings (ask the person if it’s “John” or “Jon”), verify dates (always use an authority), check the names of state capitols, for example, in an atlas or on a trusted web site, double-check addresses, numbers and figures. Verify, verify, verify—or you may find out that no one believes a word you say. Other good resources for verifying information include:
- State and Local Government on the Net
- Center for Urban Policy Research
- USGS National Map
- Biographical Dictionary
You can find other great online resources at the Special Libraries Association News Division’s: Top Internet Sites for Journalists
Punctuation, grammar, spelling
There’s more to accuracy than dates, names and figures. A reporter’s primary craft is writing. Proper punctuation, grammar and spelling are at the root of all good writing. Too often, an otherwise well-written article can cause readers to question the credibility of a reporter because of just one misplaced comma or a shift in verb tense. Typically, readers will forgive these mistakes more quickly than errors of factual accuracy, but they still tend to erode the faith a reader places in the writer. If a reporter doesn’t know the difference between “there” and “their”, or “rain” and “rein,” what else may missing?
If you need to brush up on basic grammar rules, then William Strunk’s Elements of Style is a good starting point. For punctuation and use of commas there is also a great site at The Owl At Purdue. Ken Blake’s site, Media Writing Tips at MTSU is another great resource, and Newsroom101 is full of good exercises to brush up on grammar, usage and Associated Press style (common writing rules for reporters). For spelling, ALWAYS use the spellchecker in your word processor, but NEVER depend on it. It will not help, for instance, in the two examples we noted above. Instead, look words up in a dictionary. Nothing beats a good collegiate dictionary for finding the proper word to use in a story (online dictionaries, like Webster’s or Oxford’s work fine for a quick reference). And if you’re looking for alternate words to add variety to the style or tone of a story, a good thesaurus also comes in handy. But again, make sure to look the word up before you use it. Synonyms (words that “signify” the same thing) have shades of meaning, and you don’t want to use the word “mistaken” for the word “wrong” if you really mean “criminal.”
Shape and purpose of the story: Inverted Pyramid Structure
The inverted pyramid is a standard organizational structure in news writing. It’s been around for over a hundred years, and is still a mainstay of the industry today. Unlike a story told in chronological order, as in many narrative stories, the inverted pyramid places all the most important information at the top, or beginning of the story. This accomplishes two things. First, it quickly gives readers the information they most want to know. Remember, your audience is in a hurry. They don’t want to wait for the news. Their time is valuable and there are a hundred other distractions pulling them away from your story. You need to capture their interest quickly, and hold it. Second, it allows you to quickly prioritize and organize the main elements of the story. We’ll cover writing online news articles more in-depth in Chapter 4, but for now let’s take a brief look at the process of putting the story together.
“What’s the point?”
So you’ve covered the story and gathered all the important information using the 5W’s. You’ve verified this information through interviews, phone calls, and research. Now, it’s time to write the article. But you’ll need to develop the direction and tone of the story. This is where you need to ask yourself: “So what? What’s the point?” These two questions will help you determine not only the main idea, or “nut” of the story, but will also guide the overall form and shape of the article.
Let’s take another example. You’ve just spent time at a town hall meeting covering a speech by a local state senator. You’ve recorded the time, date, place, names of the speakers, approximated the number of attendees at the event, recorded the speech and took some great notes outlining the important points made by the senator and participants. You also noted there were several protesters in the crowd carrying plaques and chanting slogans. And several times during his speech, the senator was interrupted by folks who disagreed with his points. Both the senator and several members of the crowd, at various points in the dialogue, yelled at one another. After the meeting, you also interviewed several members of the audience and captured some good quotes describing the outcome of the town hall meeting.
As you sit at your computer and try to decide what direction to take, write a brief summary next to each of the 5W’s (and “H”). It may look something like this:
- Who: Senator K
- What: Town hall meeting
- Why: Discussion of new water resource management proposal
- When: Friday, 7 pm
- Where: South High School Auditorium
- How: Recent water shortages cause state to call for both a diversion of local water resources and a new water rationing program
Now, list each in order of priority. As you look down the list, it’s fairly obvious that the “who,” “what,” “when” and “where” questions are not the most important issues. So you’re left with the “why” and the “how.” Now ask yourself, “So what? What’s the point?” In other words, what element is the most interesting, surprising, or informative in the story? Is it the discussion (why), or the diversion of water resources because of shortages and water rationing (how)? Although the discussion (why) is important, it’s not as surprising or informative as the diversion of water and rationing (how)Here the “how” easily rises to the top of the list.
But as you scan back through your notes, you realize that the audience reaction might also be important to the story. A senator yelling at a constituent can make pretty good news. So you go back to your list and revise. You realize that the “what” of the story needs to include the heated exchanges between the audience and the senator. The “what” can now be summarized as: Audience reaction to town hall meeting.
Finally, ask yourself if the newly revised “what” is more important than the “how” in the story. It is not. The diversion of local water resources and a new water rationing program will still affect the most citizens and is also the biggest news. But the audience reaction is still important. So you’ve now determined the two main thrusts of your story: recent water shortages cause state to call for diversion of local water resources and water rationing program and audience reaction to Town Hall meeting. You’re ready to write the lead (the first paragraph) of the story.
The lead in a news story and should be limited to one, sometimes two sentences. Try to keep every sentence around 25 words or less for readability. We want to include each of the important news elements from the list above, remembering that the “how” is the most important.
A “straight” news lead (one that contains all the elements) may look something like:
Senator K discussed the state’s plans to divert water and institute a rationing plan to address the recent water shortage crises on Thursday.
Here you’ve covered who (Senator K), why (discussion of new water resource management proposal), and how (divert water and institute a rationing plan). But you still haven’t mentioned the what (audience reaction at town hall meeting), or where (South High School Auditorium). Let’s add that as a second sentence to the lead:
Senator K discussed the state’s plans to divert water and institute a rationing plan to address the recent water shortage crises on Thursday. Heated exchanges between the senator and members of the audience characterized the tone of the town hall meeting held at South High School Auditorium.
You’ve now written a solid lead that gives your readers all the important information quickly and simply.
If you want to keep the lead to one sentence, it would be fine to use the second sentence as your second paragraph since the most important information is contained in the first. The rest of the story can now be structured by discussing first the details of the new water diversion and rationing plan, then the audience reaction to the plan and the senator’s response. Fill in other details along the way, such as the time of the meeting, estimate of audience size, quotes from audience and from the senator’s response.
For a more in-depth look at writing the online news article, see Chapter 4, “The Story”.
Striving for objectivity