4 – Writing in the Media Environment

The news story is one of the basic forms of writing for the mass media. This chapter introduces the student to the basic content of the news story. The next chapter will introduce the student to the basic form of the news story.

Writing for the Mass Media was originally not meant to be a reporting text. Instead, it seeks to give students information about writing for the mass media and an opportunity to practice writing in the various forms that the mass media require. In doing this, however, students should have some understanding about what kind of information is appropriate for publication in a news story and where that information may be gathered. They should also understand some of the conditions media writers work under and the demands that are made on them.


Key terms and concepts

The following are some key terms and concepts that the student should understand.

News values — News values are the concepts used in making judgments about what events are news and what events are not news. Traditional news values include conflict, prominence, impact and currency.

Timeliness is the most common news value. It is inherent in most news stories. An event simply is not news unless it has occurred fairly recently.

News events will probably have the element of timeliness, but they are unlikely to contain all the news values listed in the chapter. Very few news stories do that. Consequently, editors and news directors must decide whether or not enough news values are present in an event — and if they are present with enough sway — to make that event a news event.

News sources — Information in news stories comes from three sources: personal (people whom a reporter talks with), observational (events that a reporter witnesses), and stored (any documents or records that a reporter can look up). The best news stories are written by reporters who have used all three types of information.

Accuracy — The importance of presenting accurate information is also discussed in this chapter. You will notice that it isn’t the first time that this subject has been introduced. We have discussed accuracy at length in previous chapters and will do so again in the next chapter. This emphasis on accuracy should be pointed out to the students. The need for accuracy is a pervasive one, and that’s why the topic reappears so much in this book. Those who would work in the mass media must develop good habits for obtaining accurate information. They should pay attention to the details of the information they obtain; they must also make sure they understand the significance and meaning of the information they have. Even in the writing assignments that are included in this book, the students must be careful in presenting their information. They must make special efforts to see that the details and the larger ideas are correct.

You might suggest (or require) that your students review the sections of the previous chapters that discuss the importance of accuracy. They might also look at the next chapter’s discussion of accuracy. A short essay or outline putting all of these ideas about accuracy together might be helpful to them in understanding the importance of accuracy and the methods for achieving it.

Deadlines — Every person who writes for the mass media writes under deadlines. Often these deadlines are too short for the writer to feel that he or she has done the best job. Still, the writer must learn to adjust to the deadlines of the organization.


Links and resources

Deadline pressure. One of the greatest difficulties for a beginning journalism student is writing with a short deadline. This particular link provides a mental checklist for reporters to consider when writing under time constraint.


Journalism ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists has dealt with ethical dilemmas and questions for journalists for many years. You and your students would do well to spend some time looking at, thinking about and discussing the SPJ Code of Ethics.



Chapter notes

Plagiarism. Students sometimes get mixed up about what constitutes plagiarism, but journalists should never let that happen. They should understand that plagiarism is one of the worst things they can do, and they should know how to avoid it. Here is what the Detroit Free Press has to say about plagiarism:

 When material is used in a story from sources other than the writer’s own reporting, those sources—other publications, previous Free Press stories, radio or TV newscasts, etc.—should be indicated in the story. That attribution need not be made for simple, verifiable facts like dates, but is essential for information that goes beyond simple fact—quotations or descriptions not heard or seen by the current reporter, characterizations or other generalizations not based on the writer’s own reporting, etc.

Using someone else’s work without attribution —whether deliberately or thoughtlessly—is a serious ethical breach. Staff members should be alert to the potential for even small, unintentional acts of plagiarism, especially in the reporting of complicated stories involving many sources.

Borrowing ideas from elsewhere, however, is considered fair journalistic practice. Problems arise in the gray areas between the acceptable borrowing of inspiration and the unacceptable stealing of another’s work. Our standards:

Words directly quoted from sources other than the writer’s own reporting should be attributed. That may mean saying the material came from a previous Free Press story, from a television interview, from a magazine or book or wire service report.

When other work is used as the source of ideas or stylistic inspiration, the result must be clearly your own work. That is, what is acceptable to learn from another are the elements of style and approach—tone, rhythm, vocabulary, topic ideas—and not specific words, phrases, images.

You can find what other codes of ethics have to say about plagiarism at Journalism.org. http://www.journalism.org/resources/ethics-codes/


The verb “said.” In journalistic writing, there is no good substitute for the verb “said.” Still, beginning students are sometimes self-conscious about using “said” so much in their writing, and they try to find substitutes. The problem with a substitute is that they are laden with added meanings that the writer may not want to include. For instance, a writer might try to use “claimed” instead of “said.” Claimed implies doubt — as if to say, he “claimed” he did it, but we’re not sure. Be care about using verbs of attribution; they may say more than you want to say. Stick with the verb “said.” It’s simple and straightforward, and you won’t have to carry any extra baggage by adding to its meaning. (There’s more on JPROF.com about verbs of attribution.)



Writing with verbs. Most good writing teachers stress the power and importance of verbs—often to skeptical students. Verbs are the engines of the language and have far more descriptive power than adjectives or adverbs. That’s where the skepticism comes in. Students interested in writing develop a belief that using good adjectives and adverbs will enhance their writing. Verbs are simply aids in the process. JPROF.com has an exercise that you can do with your students that might turn their thinking around. This exercise only a takes a few minutes and can be a lot of fun.



Clichés. One of the most dangerous traps a writer can fall into — especially a beginning writer —- is the use of clichés. Clichés are overused expressions that have lost their freshness and vitality. Chances are, if you hear a new expression more than once among your friends, it has already reached the status of a cliché — and it should be avoided like the plague (!! CLICHE ALERT!!). JPROF.com a list of clichés that should be avoided, but the list is not complete. You can probably add to it yourself.



Interviewing. One of the skills a reporter must develop is the art of interviewing. The text pays a good deal of attention to helping students develop this skill. For more information about interviewing, start with this article, The Art of Asking Questions from the Poynter Institute.



Scoop crazy. Every good journalist wants a scoop. Working in a world with relatively few rewards, the journalist seeks the occasional and often Pyrrhic victory of getting a story before anyone else gets its. Then, if the story is important enough so that other media outlets pick it up, professional practice demands that the other guys attribute the story to you. It’s their acknowledgement that, for a brief moment, you’re a better journalist than they are.


To those outside the culture of journalism, or not sympathetic to it, the desire for a scoop may sound a little crazy. But the desire to be first is a real and effective spur to journalistic practice. Sometimes, however, it can throw other journalistic practices out of kilter.


Such an instance occurred when New York Times reporters and editors struck a deal with Columbia University over a report that Columbia produced concerning anti-Semitism among its faculty. The deal was that Columbia would give the Times the report a day early if the Times would agree not to interview any of those who made the complaints about anti-Semitism in its story. Daniel Okrent, former public editor of the Times, outlines what happened in his column. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/10/weekinreview/10okrent1.html?_r=1&hp&oref=slogin


The question of deception. When the Spokane Spokesman-Review exposed nefarious behavior on the part of Spokane’s mayor, the newspaper used some deception in its reporting. The reaction of many editors would lead you to believe that “Thou shalt never deceive” is one of the most sacred of journalist commandments. But it’s not. Deception isn’t always a good idea, but it has a good history and support from one of the profession’s major codes of ethics.

More at JPROF: http://www.jprof.com/2013/05/17/the-question-of-deception-2/


Raising ethical standards. This spring has seen a spate of ethical lapses by journalists, so it might not be evident that our ethical standards have actually gone up during the past 20 years. Yet, this is probably the case.

More at JPROF: http://www.jprof.com/2013/05/19/ethical-lapses-2/


What wasn’t covered. An interesting article on the Poynter website gathers opinion from a number of journalism experts about the news media’s performance in 2005. One of the fascinating things about such assessments are the stories that these experts feel journalists ignored or provided less than adequate coverage for. Among those mentioned are the Bush administration’s defense of torture, the rise in gasoline and energy costs, the declining position of General Motors in the economy, and the cost of housing. Religion columnist Terry Mattingly had two interesting observations. No top journalist or media organization had paid much attention to the “Sunni vs. Shiite divide in Iraq,” which will have a great effect on efforts to bring democracy to that country. Mattingly said he was also surprised by the overly positive coverage of Pope John Paul II when he died. “When the Pope died, there was little coverage of the strong, strong hatred of John Paul II in the U.S. Catholic establishment and, especially, in higher education. All we got was the positive. We needed more balance, to understand the reality facing Catholicism here in the West.” Commentators were also asked to express their hopes for journalism in 2006. That brought this response from Jill Geisler, Poynter Leadership & Management Group Leader: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, in 2006, journalism’s leaders found the business model or models that underwrite high-quality newsgathering?”



What everybody talks about. A sidebar in Journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How is titled, “Everybody talks about the weather.” In addition to the weather, what are some of the other things everybody talks about? One answer would be sports. If you are located close to a major college or university, you can’t help talking about sports—or hearing a lot about sports. But there are many other subjects that everybody talks about. Take a look at the website for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (http://people-press.org/). Pew commissions surveys regularly about what news Americans are paying close attention to.


Gay TaleseThe writer’s life, Gay Talese style. For decades now, readers and critics have focused on Gay Talese’s writing style. In the 1960s he was a pioneer of the New Journalism, which used fictional and literary techniques to tell his nonfiction stories. But what readers should have been focusing on was his reporting, which is meticulous, exacting and precise. Talese has written his memoir, A Writer’s Life, which should give us some insight into his reporting methods. It will be a welcome addition to the literature of Talese and for his legion of fans.

More at JPROF: http://www.jprof.com/2006/04/23/the-writing-life-gay-talese-style/


High school journalist, undercover. David McSwane wanted to do “something cool.” What he did wound up shutting the entire U.S. Army’s recruiting effort down for a day. McSwane is a senior at Arvada West High School in Colorado; he’s an honors student there and editor of high school newspaper, The Westwind. When he heard that the Army was failing to meet its recruiting goals because of the unpopularity of the war in Iraq, he decided to find out just how far the service would go to sign someone up. That’s when things started to get interesting.

More at JPROF: http://www.jprof.com/2005/05/27/a-high-school-journalist-undercover/

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