Writing in the media environment

Reading: Writing for the Mass Media, chapters 4, 5

People who work in news

* do highly important work;
* are sometimes not very popular — and this isn’t as popular a major as it once was;
* have a real and sometimes immediate impact on people and society at large;
* provide society with accurate information and serve as independent observers;
* work very, very hard.

Writing in the media environment

Professional writers need to learn what it is to write in the media environment. This “environment” is not just a place — although it is often that, such as a television or newspaper newsroom or the writer’s pool of an advertising agency. But it is also a state of mind, an acculturation that the writer must undergo.

In this section we’ll discuss what it means to become acculturated as a media writer.

Purpose of media writing

The purpose of media writing is not self expression, although sometimes that is involved in your writing. The chief purpose of media writing is to inform the reader. It is to present information and ideas.

Two secondary purposes are persuasion and entertainment, but what lies behind almost all media writing is information.

How do we present information? That’s what we’re going to learn more about in this section of the course. Here are some of the key concepts we will cover:

* Information, the chief purpose of the writer.
* Accuracy, the chief goal of writer.
* The writer as a “third person” or impersonal presence in the writing.
* Writing for an audience, always.
* Conventions and practices of media writing.
* Steps in the writing process.
* Unity and transitions.

The media writer’s job is to gather, process and present information.

The first and foremost consideration in the processing and presenting of information is accuracy. Getting information right means understanding that information in its appropriate context. Many of the practices, customs and conventions of media writing are designed to ensure accuracy and to convince the reader that information is accurate.

Conventions and practices

Part of becoming a media writer to learn the conventions practiced by most writers for the mass media. You also need to learn some of the concepts and principles that underlie these practices.

• Objectivity and fairness.Part of presenting information is doing so without injecting your own beliefs or feelings into the writing. Media writers try to present information in a manner that does not reveal how they feel about it or what they think. Their job is to let readers or viewers make up their minds about what the information may mean. They go into what might be called a third person mode — writing impersonally, de-emphasizing the writer and emphasizing the information.

That’s why one of the major writing conventions is to let readers know where information is coming from. Sources of information and attribution are important parts of the media writing mix. In the weeks ahead, you will learn how to attribute information to a source when you are writing news and information. This is one of the most common practices that a media writer does.

• Editing. Writing is an individual act, but in the media environment, it does not remain with the individual. Most media organizations have some kind of editing process. Other people will get involved with your writing. They will edit and question it. They may rewrite it. This is part of the process, and writers need to get used to it.

Editing begins with the individual writer, however. Few people can write in a way that does not need editor. The good writer learns to recognize the weaknesses of the first draft and to take care in correcting them. As a JEM 200 student, you should get into the good habit of editing your work carefully. Learn to recognize the technical mistakes you might make, but also read you copy for wordiness, logic and coherence.

When you edit your work: Instead of telling yourself, “I’m going to find the mistakes,” tell yourself, “I’m going to make this better.”

• Time, space and deadlines. Almost all media writing is done under fairly strict deadline pressure. Newspaper reporters must meet daily deadlines. Broadcast reporter must meet hourly deadlines. Advertising copy writers and public relations practitioners must always meet deadlines.

That’s why in JEM200, your deadline for finishing your assignment is the end of the lab period. You need to learn to work under short and sometimes harsh deadlines.

But, you might argue, if I just had a little more time, I could do a better job. That argument is heard throughout the professional world. And, it might be true.

The problem, of course, is that if we didn’t have deadlines, few newspapers, magazines, newscasts, advertisements or newsletters would get produced. Deadlines make the process of producing these things more efficient and predictable. The mass media couldn’t work without deadlines.

So, get used to them.

Start developing habits that can let you function more efficiently. Read with great concentration; learn to block out distractions. Get into the habit of developing your writing sentence by sentence, rather than word by word.
Later in the course, we will talk about how to edit more efficiently.

• Writing for an audience. It may seem obvious, but the media writer must keep in mind that the writing is done for an audience — usually a mass audience. The writing will be read or heard by many people.

That imposes a great restraint on the writer, who must always ask, “What does the audience want? What does it expect? What must I do to satisfy the audience?”

Again, the point is that media writing is not done for self-fulfillment. It is done for a purpose of serving a large audience in some way.

Characteristics of a media writer

Successful media writing reveals the following characteristics about the writer:

  • maturity — an understanding of the responsibilities of the writer who asks that the audience invest its time and its money in what he or she is doing
  • knowledge of the language
  • knowledge of all forms of media writing and understanding of the proper use of these forms
  • willingness to risk having his or her efforts subjected to the judgment of a large audience

Writing coherently

Clear, coherent writing takes practice and effort. Most of us can speak well enough to be understood by our friends and acquaintances. Writing is a different matter. To say what we want to say in writing involves an enormous intellectual effort.

One of the things that helps media writers is that they use particular forms acceptable to certain media. For instance, the first form we will be learning in JEM200 is the “inverted pyramid,” and we will start on that soon.

Along with knowledge of the form, we must understand what we are writing about. That is, we should have a thorough knowledge of the facts, information and ideas that we are trying to present with our writing. Often, we will be asked to string a set of facts together in a unified way, and the technical tool we use for this is the transition.

There are several major forms of transitions. It is not important that you know them by name, but it is important that you understand how they work and when they should be used. They are

* connectors
* hooks
* pronouns
* associations
* logic

Three steps for improving your writing

As we begin the section on newswriting, you should do three things:

  • Read examples of good newswriting; your texts provide you with many examples of inverted pyramid news stories; and there is also the newspaper and the Internet.
  • Analyze these articles in light of what we have been telling you; look for examples of clear writing, good lead paragraphs, use of transitions, efficient writing, etc.
  • Emulate; copy. Try to do the same things in your writing that you have seen in the writing of others. Make your stories like the examples in the book.

News

Reporters are supposed to go out and get the news. But what does that mean?


News values

One of the first 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 (people love conflict — when it involves other people)
* currency
* impact
* prominence
* proximity
* timeliness (the latest, most up-to-date information)
* 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 85-88 in Writing for the Mass Media carefully.

Beyond news values (practical considerations)

Journalism — reporting and writing news — 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.

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 Knoxville, 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 associated with this event or topic? 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.

* One aspect of modern-day sensationalism is the concept of 24-hour news — news channels such as MSNBC, CNN, Fox, etc., that broadcast continuously. (Now, of course, you can add the web to that list.) Several things you should note:
* These news channels must fill the 24 hours.
* Not much of what you see is real news because . . . news is difficult and expensive to produce.
* Stories are run again and again; and certain stories, such as the missing blond woman story, are covered ad infinitum.
* Commentary, as opposed news, is relatively easy and cheap; and commentary on public affairs creates what we call an echo chamber — people saying the same thing to each other over and over.
* News is a highly comeptitive business.

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.

Journalists have to tell their audiences bad news. It’s not fun or pleasant to do this, but you’re going to be a journalist, that’s what you have to do.

Mass media ethics

What is the mass media (or news media) supposed to do? How is it supposed to go about its job? Is the process more important than the outcome?

The jobs of the mass media
— gather information
— distribute information in a way that informs society
— do this with a maximum of good and minimum of harm
— act independently
— act openly
— respect the audience; remember that they are individuals as well as groups
— stay financially healthy
— offer employment; protect employees

Necessarily, these jobs must be prioritized; some are more important than others.

Expectations about how this will happen

The process of operation of the news media becomes important – some might say all important.
— honesty in all things
— openness in operation (to some extent); no hidden agendas
— identification
— fairness
— respect for what they are doing – knowledge that what media do can affect people’s lives
— respect for individuals — sources; individual’s emotions
— integrity (keeping confidences)
— respect for the law and legal processes

Common ethical lapses and dilemmas

— falsifying information (Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke)
— plagiarism – using the words and information of others without giving credit
— privacy – intruding on the lives of individuals; a constant problem that happens as part of the natural process of gathering and disseminating news
— independence – acting for the news organizations
Problem: when news organizations are owned by larger corporations and cross promote, do they make decisions that are in their self-interest rather than the interest of those they are supposed to serve?
— balance and fairness – do (can) news media be fair, tell the whole story, present all points of view?
— photos – continue to be a real problem

One approach to ethical problems: Loyalities
— self – what are personal standards of integrity and ethics
— organization and peers – what is expected? rewarded? what is the organization about and what does it value?
— profession – what does the profession demand; what does it value?
— society – what are the standards society expects.

The ideal operational characteristics

Journalism involves a contract with the audience: The audience will give time and money if the journalist operates with

Honesty

Independence

standing apart from what you are covering
not accepting gifts

Respect

understanding the point of view of others
keeping your word
avoiding doing harm

 

JEM 200 attendance form

Do not fill this form out until you are instructed to do so.
 

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