Basics of Journalism
Whether you are composing thoughts for a blog or creating serious copy for news and information websites, writing and publishing for online sources has become all the rage these days. While many people write for fun and profit, “spreading the word” is actually serious business; readers want accurate reporting and “the whole story.” Journalism, in one of its simplest forms, is the dissemination of information to a wide range of audiences.
Reporting on events and products, investigating governments and organizations, providing insight on public affairs, entertainment, sports, and religions—these are only some of the elements that make up the definition of journalism. The Internet is a major source of information; people depend on it for nearly everything. Although (some) amateur writers may not consider themselves to be held to that high level of professionalism, they are (mostly) perceived that way. Writers, whether amateur or professional, must create authoritative informational content.
Blogging has become an acceptable source of journalism. Unless a blog is notably written as an opinion piece, authors should maintain a level of fairness, accuracy, and excellence in their presentations. A good journalist is someone who states facts as facts — and allows the reader to make up his own mind about the interpretation of the article.
Who Is a Journalist?
A journalist is someone who writes, edits and otherwise produces news and information that is published in newspapers, magazines, on the Internet, television, and radio. Journalists can be writers, reporters, photographers, videographers, broadcasters, editors, producers and publishers. Information is disseminated everywhere! (And with so many electronic media devices available to the public, you can get it anywhere). Social media is now considered a source for information. Whether you are a professional or an amateur, if you relay information, you are participating in journalism.
What is news? There is no definitive answer, but basically, it is an account of an event, fact or opinion that could be of interest to a (large or small) group of people. The reporting of this situation might be “spot” news — meaning that it is happening “right now” — or it may otherwise focus on an event that has previously occurred or is about to take place.
Reporting the News
Today’s news reporters work “in-house” and “out-of-house.” They can perform their jobs with telephones and computers. They can hit the streets and cover news events live and in person. Some reporters have their “specialties” — best suited to cover particular events — and some may be columnists whose human interest stories infuse news with humor. News operation staff members may include:
- “Beat” reporters — they cover specific locations (such as the court system, police department or city hall/mayor’s office). Beat reporters who are in daily contact with government workers, for example, generally develop credible sources and get juicy “scoops” by being in the right place at the right time.
- Special Assignment reporters — they may be sent to cover particular high-profile events, such as a presidential visit or a ribbon cutting ceremony for a building.
- General Reporters report on … everything. Most often, especially in small news operations, Special Assignment and Beat reporters are generalized, too.
News is disseminated locally by “home-town” reporters and wire services (such as the Associated Press, for example). National and International news is available from many networks; ABC, CNN, PBS, BBC, National Public Radio (NPR) and Fox News, just to name a few.
The Internet provides news resources from online newspapers, broadcast facilities and information services. Always check for credibility when reviewing Internet sources; although many articles are provided by actual, credible news outlets (such as the Wall Street Journal, for example), many websites provide articles written by people who may not recount situations in a fair, balanced and accurate manner.
Blogs? Check those for credibility too (because some people write blogs with little or no concern for factual accuracy). While many blogs are written by bona-fide journalists, many are written by people whose money-driven goal is to drive traffic to their web pages and thus, they may or may not be credible sources of information. Use your best judgment when reviewing unknown sites.
It is always best to do your own reporting: make telephone calls, send emails and show up on someone’s doorstep to ask the questions. Do not garner information from unverified sources and call it “fact” unless you absolutely know it to be true. If you say it … back it up.
The most credible source you can ever have is “the horse’s mouth.” Want to know what really happened in the fight between two neighbors? Eyewitnesses are good but don’t just count on neighborhood gossip, check out the police report (if there is one) and ask the officers who were at the scene. Want to know how the mayor plans to fund his new program ideas? Ask him. Of course, the direct “horse’s mouth” is not always available. More likely, you’ll deal with a public relations or communications specialist, depending on the story you’re trying to get and from whom you’re trying to get it … and that’s OK. Credible sources are (generally) the people in charge of a situation, event, program and the like. It may take some digging through the chain of command to find the right person to talk to, but credibility is very important; it can make or break your article or news report.
News (Press) Releases
Governments, law enforcement agencies, businesses, political campaigns and other organizations often send out informative releases (by digital and regular mail) to newspapers, magazines, radio stations and television outlets. Press releases are helpful but they do not necessarily contain all the information a reporter would want to include in his/her story. Attend the events in person or make a few telephone calls — talk to your “newsmakers” directly.
Reporters get news by asking questions.
Good interviews will (usually) produce good stories.
The best results from an interview are the questions you ask that are in direct response from an answer. So, while it is good to write out a list of your questions, you must be careful to LISTEN to the respondent’s answers; he may say something that can lead you to asking a follow-up question. Follow-up questions can lead to various angles of the story or generate ideas for future stories. A good interview is a form of art! It takes knowledge of how to read your subject. And it takes practice. There are many sources available to help you learn how to hone your interviewing skills.
Always take notes the “old fashioned way” — with a pen and paper (or with your electronic tablet). When writing an article for a newspaper, magazine or the Internet, you can also use a small digital recorder to help keep track of the conversation. Be sure to let your subject know that he or she is being recorded.
If you are garnering audio for use in your story, listen for the “sound bite” — the quote or comment you know will fit right in. Be careful not to interject too many of your own (unwanted) vocal sounds into your recorder; avoid the “uh-huhs” that often come from reporters’ mouths (it can be a challenge to edit the audio). Acknowledge your interview subject by nodding your head and making eye contact.
From Ideas to Words; From Words to News Copy
The success of your whole article may depend on the first sentence.
A lead sentence introduces the story; it must be strong enough to entice the reader but should be brief and concise (whenever possible). The first sentence and paragraph is where you want to showcase your best work. Write it, rewrite it, reread it and write it again…. Make it the best you can do.
There are a lot of ways to handle the lead sentences of stories; the process depends on the tone of the article. A lead may be “hard” — a serious look at what the article will cover, or “soft” — introducing the topic in a more casual manner. There are “good” ways to lead and “bad” ways to lead into a story; training and practice will help you develop a feel and flair for writing leads.
The Five W's (and H)
What? Where? Who? When? Why? And How? Writing a news story — no matter how long or short it is — should (most often) include these basic elements;
- What is the story about
- Where is it happening
- Who is involved
- When will it or did it happen
- Why is it happening
- How did it all come about or how will it occur
The following is a very basic example:
Teri and the SilverTones will perform at the City Park Theater on Saturday, July 16th. The show, sponsored by KidsUnited, will raise money for needy children’s school supplies. Tickets cost $10 in advance and $15 at the door.
- What: The concert
- Where: City Park Theater
- Who: Teri and the SilverTones (and KidsUnited)
- When: Saturday, July 16th
- Why: To raise money for children’s school supplies
- How (will the money be raised): $10 in advance, $15 at the door
Occasionally, there is no exact “why” or “where” (articles can vary that way) and sometimes, there is a “how.” (How much do tickets cost?) Sometimes the past-tense wording of a sentence can indicate that the time has passed, but fairly recently, so you don’t need an exact “when.”“The mayor has announced” instead of “the mayor announced “yesterday.”
When writing an article, it is best to quote sources exactly — if possible. But, if the length of the quote overpowers the story, you can paraphrase — as long as you say what they’ve said, only better (and with fewer words). Use as much of the original text as possible if you write an article about a speech (for example, the president’s State of the Union address). All in all, using quotes in an article depends on the tone and length of the piece.
**** In broadcast radio/TV news writing (a news article is also called “copy” in print and broadcast), it is best to use active verbs and tenses as much as possible. In many cases, news writing for the Internet is the same way; “active” verbs portray the actions as they are happening “now.” The information is current and in-your-face. It sets the mood for the stories.
When you read a printed newspaper, the actions have already taken place or will take place but they are not (necessarily) happening “right now.”
- Newspaper: Yesterday’s tornado destroyed dozens of homes. We know the outcome because the event already took place. The printing of the newspaper occurred after the event.
- Online: The tornado is damaging many homes. Online is something that updates constantly, so the event may be occurring as we speak (or type). The reporters may rewrite this copy several times (to publish on the Internet) before the story is “over.”
- Broadcast: If the news is being broadcast as it happens, i.e., “live,” then everything is in the present tense.
All quotes must be attributed to someone — even if that “someone” is an unnamed source. Sometimes your source will need or want to be anonymous and that’s OK — depending on the seriousness of the article. But in order to keep from sounding like a gossip tabloid, avoid the according to unnamed sources or friends say attributions.
Now, let’s talk about the word “said.” Do you need to use that particular word all of the time? No! There are a number of synonyms for the word said; use what fits the tone of the article. Knowing the “feel” of the story will help you determine what words are most appropriate. “Yes, it does take some practice but writers who are comfortable with their use of the language become better writers over time,” Teri said. “Check out a thesaurus for some other words to use,” she added.
A Good Journalist:
- Is fair and unbiased. Does not show favoritism on either side of the issue
- Understands the basics of the issues being reported on
- Does not interject his opinion into a piece (unless it is an editorial or opinion-driven article)
- Strives to get both sides of the story for a balanced presentation
- Checks and re-checks facts for accuracy
- Uses credible sources
- Understands what “Libel” is and implements safeguards against “news reporting malpractice”
- Learns and practices interviewing techniques
- Reports on both ends of a political issue without taking sides — no matter how difficult that can be!
- Can write, spell and punctuate (reasonably) well
- Explains “jargon” in simple terms — the KISS method: Keep it simple, stupid
Consistently follows writing styles (Associated Press Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style or other acceptable forms in the industry) and loves a dictionary and thesaurus!
- Follows up on ongoing stories
- Understands and practices ethical behavior while digging for a story. For instance, the reporter must indicate clearly when something is “on the record,” as opposed to chatting with a usual source on an informal basis. (When it is on the record, the garnered information may be used for a news item. It is unethical to publish something that is off the record).
Can make people feel comfortable in order to develop reliable sources
- Has a thick skin and can handle constructive criticism
Is always flexible and can report on anything!
Is always flexible and can adjust to new methods of presentation, for example; printed-paper newspaper to Internet! Social Media! Satellite and Internet radio! Video presentations on YouTube! Today’s new folly or tomorrow’s next fad.
Editorial: I admit to being an “old school” journalist; I have found it somewhat disturbing to see the Internet’s initial impact on the integrity of information. But it is getting better — former “content mill” sites are fine-tuning themselves by producing more accurate and credible articles. Search engines are improving their ranking methods. More people are taking the presentation of information seriously. And yes, (gasp!), blogging is hovering on the edge of real journalism; but only, in my opinion, when authors recognize the seriousness of their tasks and bring both the writing and the presentation to a professional level.
One day, a young lady in one of my writers’ forums asked this question:
“I want to write; there are opportunities to write for online sources. But should I take a journalism class?”
Here is my answer:
“I have a bachelor of arts; major in Journalism with a minor in literature. I spent years in broadcast news as a reporter, editor, anchor and producer. Following (and in addition to) that I spent years as a public relations specialist. I write and publish online articles for a handful of Internet sites and I produce promotional and web copy for small businesses.
Here is why I vote for learning journalism at its finest point:
Being a reporter, you know how to research, interview and present. You know what libel is. You know what fact-checking and source-checking are. As a journalist, you learn a lot more about presenting ideas and letting the reader decide what to believe. You learn how to present these ideas without bias. You learn how to present an opinion but not confuse it with presenting facts. Opinions belong in editorials or in sports and entertainment articles and the like. Opinions are not fact and should never be presented that way.
Learning technical things, no matter what they are, is good. Learn computers so you can write about them. Learn math so you can write about it, whatever your passion is ... learn about it. But also learn journalism.
Writers who present ideas as facts must learn how to do it. Journalism is taking a huge hit from the web, which is full of inaccuracy and opinions that are pawned off as facts. Whatever you write about, you are responsible for telling all sides of the story, presenting facts, stating when an opinion is just an opinion, citing sources, researching, relaying information as accurately and unbiased as possible and not inserting yourself into the story (unless it is something written from your first-person experience).
A true journalist, in today’s Internet world, will practice the “old school” methods as described above, while adapting them to today’s Social Media practices of presenting news to audiences.
I don’t advocate any particular journalism school or course; you’re the reporter, find the one that’s best for you — there is a lot of information available online. But yes, go to school. Take classes on journalism to learn … not necessarily (only) how to write but how to present ideas as factual and unbiased. Journalistic integrity and credibility are counting on you!
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Teri Silver