5 – Basic News Writing
For those of you who have used previous editions of Writing for the Mass Media, this chapter represents a shift in content and emphasis —and it is emblematic of the shift that takes place in other parts of the book. The chapter title includes reporting because, increasingly, that is the emphasis of journalism. Whereas journalism instructors once had the luxury of emphasizing strictly writing without much regard for gathering information, that option is less frequently exercised.
Indeed, this is probably a good thing. Writing and reporting are interwoven in all professional realms. The journalist simply does not set about to write. He or she must report and write.
Text is one of the four tools of the journalist — along with images, audio and video. The journalist must learn to use all four. Everything begins with text, however, and despite the advent of some very different forms of information distribution, text continues to be primary.
Consequently, the news story format is one of the basic forms of writing for the mass media, and students need to have a good grounding in writing the news story before they tackle other forms of writing. Learning to write a basic news story teaches the student the importance of gathering accurate and complete information, making judgments about that information as to what is important and what is not, and writing so that the content and not the writing itself is what makes an impression on the reader.
Writing news teaches the student many of the disciplines that he or she will need to be successful in working in the mass media. Students should be reminded that the news story form is one that is used not only in newspapers but in many publications, particularly those produced by public relations departments. The habits that a person gains in writing news will be the habits he or she takes to other forms of writing for the mass media.
One of the most difficult concepts to learn about news writing is the manner in which a story should be developed. Students should pay particular attention to the text and examples in this chapter. Although many students understand the purpose and technique of the lead paragraph, they do not understand how to build a story in the second, third and subsequent paragraphs. Students will write a good lead but then drop into the narrative form in the second graph. They should read and analyze stories in the book — and better yet, in a local newspaper —to gain an understanding of how an inverted pyramid story should be written.
Key terms and concepts
The following are some of the key terms and concepts that a student should understand and be able to put into practice by the time he or she has finished this chapter.
Inverted pyramid — This is the most common news story structure. A lead paragraph contains the most important information that the writer has to tell the reader, and most of the story should in some way refer to the lead paragraph. A story written in the inverted pyramid form is rarely narrative; instead, the writer must make decisions about what information is most important and what is of lesser importance.
A news story should have unity — that is, it should be about one subject — and this unity is gained through a logical and coherent presentation of the information and an effective use of transitions.
Attribution — The concept of attribution was introduced in previous chapters, but in this chapter the student will need to understand it well enough to put it into practice. The student should know why attribution is important, when it should be used (and when it is not necessary), and what forms of attribution are acceptable in writing the news story.
Direct and indirect quotations — Special attention should be given to making sure that students understand the difference between direct and indirect quotations. If problems develop in this area, one exercise that an instructor might give is to select some direct quotations from the examples in the text or the exercises at the end of the chapter and have students rewrite them as indirect quotations.
Accuracy — This subject is again dealt with, as it has been in previous chapters. Students should pay close attention to the details of what they write as well as to the major parts of their story.
Links and resources
10 ways to write a great lead for a blog post. The ability to write compelling leads translates to success no matter if you are working for a print, online or broadcast organization. This site takes into consideration the needs and wants of the online community, and offers concise tips for crafting leads that hook readers in cyberspace.
Poynter online, writing from the top down. The inverted pyramid, despite its criticism, remains a fixture in the news industry. Chip Scanlan gives a short history on this form of writing and why, especially in the digital age, the inverted pyramid still is being taught and used.
SNN newsroom, the inverted pyramid. Another step-by-step guide of writing in an inverted
Headlines and summaries. The advent of the Web as a news medium has increased the importance and urgency of students learning how to write good headlines. This is a challenge for instructors because good headlines are difficult even for seasoned professionals. One of the answers is practice. Give your students lots of opportunities to write headline. Another answer is analyze and rewrite. Devote some very serious classroom time to looking at headlines and figuring out what’s right and wrong with them. One news website that has consistently good headlines is the BBC, British Broadcasting Company:
The headline writers there have a knack for writing accurate headlines, giving specific information and doing it all in just a few words.
Specificity is a great value in headline writing. Don’t allow students to get away with writing vague, generalized headlines that do not tell the reader anything of what is in the story. Make them struggle. It is a painful process, but you have to inculcate high standards.
JPROF.com has a number of headline and summary writing exercises that are online and available to your and your students. They can be found here:
The future of news writing. The final paragraph of the chapter text suggests that we should begin thinking about news story structures that would be alternatives to the inverted pyramid and would be more suitable to websites and mobile devices. Such as thought is painful to those of us who grew up learning and using the inverted pyramid and believing that it would never change. But we are in an age where readers are demanding information quickly — too quickly for the inverted pyramid to deliver satisfactorily. In the words of Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen, readers are “lazy, selfish and ruthless.” They know what they want, they don’t want to search for it, and if your website doesn’t give it to them, they’ll go away. And chances are, they won’t come back.
Read this classic report by Nielsen on how readers read the Web:
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