MC 102 Lecture 4: News and newswriting

News is one of the things that holds society together. It is something we all use and share. News is what we have in common.

Up to this point in the course, we have tried to emphasize and apply some of the basic tenants of good writing and to discuss what it means to write in a professional environment. This week, we begin to learn the various forms of writing for the mass media.

We teach newswriting for print for the following reasons:

  • It is a basic form, the form from which many other types of writing are derived.
  • Much of media writing is newswriting; that includes public relations and advertising copy writing as well as broadcasting and print.
  • We assume that if you can learn to write news in the inverted pyramid form, you can learn to write in any other form that we teach.

Newswriting is an important function for society. The newswriter has the job of telling society about itself. Even if you work for the in-house newsletter of a company or organization, it is important that the employees, customers or constituents know about the company and have the latest information to deal with.

For instance, if the University changed registration procedures or raised tuition rates, you would want to know about it. A news writer would have to tell you.

News values

One of thefirst things you should understand about news is news values. These are the concepts used to determine whether or not an event is news. They include

  • conflict
  • currency
  • impact
  • prominence
  • proximity
  • timeliness
  • human interest

An event is judged as newsworthy or not newsworthy depending on whether or not it exhibits any of these values. An event does not have to have all of these things — although sometimes that happens. And almost everything that is news has to have the news value of timeliness.

Make sure you understand these values thoroughly. Read pages 116-118 in Writing for the Mass Media carefully.

Beyond news values

As an MC102 student, you are probably not going to be asked to judge whether or not an event is news as much as you will be asked to evaluate the information you have for writing a news story. In other words, we will assume that the information in your writing assignments is news. The question then becomes, how do we evaluate that information.

The inverted pyramid form of writing — which we will discuss more below — demands that you make judgments about the information you are given and put it in an order of importance.

How do you do that?

Here is a set of criteria or questions that you should ask about the information you have:

Were people killed or injured in the event? Death and injury are usually the most important parts of an event. When you read or hear stories about the big storm that hit the eastern United States this week (January 2000), notice that many lead off with how many people were killed because of the storm.

Was property damaged? Like death and injury, property is a major consideration, and damage to property should be near the top in importance.

How many people were involved? This is the news value of impact in action. The larger the number of people involved, the more important the information. For instance, a storm may blow through Tuscaloosa, and if your neighborhood (and only your neighborhood) loses its electric power, that’s one thing. If power is lost for 50,000 or 60,000 people, that’s another.
Here’s another example. A city council might take a number of actions, including rezoning a piece of property. That rezoning could affect a number of people who live around the property. If, however, the council voted to raise the sales tax in the city, that would affect just about everyone, and it would be the sales tax — not the rezoning — that would be in the lead paragraph.

How much money is involved in a news event — and whose money is it? A woman might get her purse snatched and lose $20. A bank might get robbed and lose $20,000. The amount of money involved in a story is an important and interesting fact that readers will want to know soon after starting the story.

Are there differing points of view or disagreements in this story? Here we have the news value of conflict. Conflict is often what makes an event news, particularly if it is something like a trial. Look for the conflict in a story and emphasize that.
But use some judgment about how much to emphasize it. The news media are often accused of overemphasizing conflict. That over-emphasis is called sensationalism.

How unusual is the event? Emphasizing the unusual or the bizarre nature of an event is tricky. In this area, too, the news writer needs to take care to avoid sensationalism. When the unusual or bizarre nature of an event is emphasized over other more important aspects of an event, the news writer has not done a good job and deserves to be criticized.
Still the unusual aspects of an event are often of real interest to a reader, and a news writer needs to weigh this in considering facts.

What would be of interest to readers? This follows from our previous question. News writers should remember that they are writing for an audience, and that audience has certain demands and expectations. A news writer must satisfy those demands.

The inverted pyramid

The inverted pyramid is an anti-narrative structure of writing about events. Instead of starting at the beginning, the inverted pyramid structure demands that you begin with the most important information and that you present information in decreasing order of importance.

Some historians argue that the inverted pyramid form developed in the mid-19th century when news was first being transmitted by telegraph wires. The wires were unreliable — or during the Civil War would be taken over by the military — so a style of presentation had to be used that would get the most important information out first. The outcome of a battle might be the most important thing that happened during the battle. But rather than writing a narrative that delayed telling what happened until the very end, the journalist had to say it at the beginning of the report.

Today the inverted pyramid structure is highly developed and widely used, not just in newspapers and wire services but in many kinds of writing. Many business letters, for instance, use an inverted pyramid structure to tell the recipient immediately what the most important information is.

The most important part of an inverted pyramid news story is the lead paragraph. In MC102, a lead paragraph should be one sentence and a maximum of 30 to 35 words. Those are the technical requirements. The content requirement is that it tell the most important piece of information that occurred in the event.

In addition, a lead should contain the main who, what, when and where of the story. And they

  • should be direct and simple; they should have the most important information near the beginning of the sentence;
  • should not try to tell everything, but they should be good summaries of what the story is about;
  • should include specific information — concrete facts — about the story;
  • should not begin with the when element because this is rarely the most important thing you have to tell the reader;
  • should use a strong verb to describe the action;
  • should be accurate — above all else.

The second paragraph

Almost as important as the lead is the second paragraph. The second paragraph is where you develop some idea or piece of information that is in the lead.

You should not drop into a narrative in the second paragraph. Many students concentrate on writing good leads but then have a tendency to start at the beginning in the second paragraph.

Resist that temptation.

Remember that you are presenting information in decreasing order of importance. Each new paragraph should present the reader with some new information. But it should be tied to the previous paragraph by the skillful use of transitions.

Look at the examples in your supplement near the lecture outline for this week. You will see a lead paragraph and then three different second paragraphs. Notice how each one takes an idea from the lead and develops it. None of those paragraphs drops into a narrative about the story.

Those are good example for you to study carefully.

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