02 Sep 2009 [ Prev | Next ]

English Essay vs. News Story

You may already be very familiar with how to write an essay for an English class.  Writing scholastic essays gives you verbal and compositional skills that transfer well to news writing.  Nevertheless, your goals as a news writer are different, so what counts as "good writing" is different.

 

English Essay

News Story


Audience: Your Instructor 

Usually, the instructor knows more about the subject than the student-author.



Audience: The General Reader 

Usually, the reporter knows more about the subject than the general reader. 

Essays for Your Instructor 

  • Your academic goal is to demonstrate how much you know or what you can do.
  • Your instructor does not expect you to be an expert. You are supposed to be learning. You write from the position of a learner.
  • An instructor already knows the subject matter, and is interested in evaluating your knowledge, technique, and growth over time. Your  teacher will read your work with an expert eye, ready to call your attention to claims that are inaccurate, misleading, or incomplete. 

Journalism for the General Public 

  • A journalist aims to inform the reader.
  • The journalist writes from a position of authority. The news is supposed to be a source of verified facts, not just a vehicle for passing along what people are saying. (We will cover the term "verification" later.)
  • Most readers won't know when you are wrong. Their understanding of the subject depends entirely on your ability to research and write the news. 

Personal Perspective

  • In high school, you may have been asked to express your feelings, perhaps by explaining what you would have done if you were in the protagonist's place, or relating a concept to your own life.
  • You used phrases like "I think" or "I feel" or "now that I look more closely at it..." in order to tell the story of how you came to your present understanding of a subject or incident.
  • Your teacher rewarded you for demonstrating personal involvement with the subject, because students who engage in this manner are generally more likely to learn the subject matter.  

Objective Perspective

  • Traditional journalists stay out of the story.  No "I" or "me," and no "this reporter," either. (We will cover the concept of the "Invisible Observer" soon.)
  • Journalists report the emotions and opinions of the sources they interview --not their own personal feelings. (We will cover the concept of "Attributions" soon.)
  • Journalism investigates each story from the perspective of those who care -- including those whose reasons for caring conflict with each other, or with the journalist's personal values. (If it's not interesting to you, it may be interesting to someone.)

 



Academic Essay

An essay begins with a question, and builds towards a persuasive answer.  It progresses from uncertainty to certainty, by carefully arranging evidence in order to persuade the reader.

When done well, the academic essay 

  1. identifies a specific, complex problem with no clear solution (the "research question")
  2. proposes a non-obvious, debatable answer ("thesis")
  3. examines evidence for and against the thesis, carefully stripping away the impossible and the unlikely, in a well-organized march towards the truth ("argument")
  4. offers and defends a final opinion ("conclusion") emphasizing the significance of the preceding debate and how it supported the thesis.  

While it is only one possible way to frame an academic argument, the "five-paragraph essay" is often a significant influence on the writing habits of college students.

 

Inverted Pyramid

A traditional news story begins with a lead (a micro-summary, in one or two sentences), and continues with a hierarchy of details, from most to least important. 



A news story is not necessarily chronological.

Some journalism uses narrative to powerful effect (for instance, describing what happens when a famous musician plays at a busy subway station).

But consider a two-hour school board meeting, with an agenda that lists 12 items.  

Depending on what matters to your readers, you might lead with item 8, spend a paragraph each on items 2 and 9, and mention items 4, 11, 3, and 7 in a single sentence. Then you might continue with more details about item 8, more about 2 and 9, and trail off with even more details about item 8.

A really good reporter might walk up to the officials after the meeting and ask a question about something that wasn't even on the agenda.

 


Flowery, Roundabout Puffery

Your high school teachers probably rewarded you for writing grammatically correct sentences in almost any context.


You might have been faced with the dilemma of how to respond appropriately to the significant praise your well-meaning teachers gave you for completing assignments that demonstrated a flair for words, and that being the case, possibly decided to respond by immediately developing the questionable habit of adding numerous unnecessary modifiers wherever humanly possible, never even once missing the alluring chance to boldly puff up your simple writing with all manner of clever, expressive adjectives and elegantly willing adverbs, endlessly repeating your ideas over and over, each subsequent time using ever more and more elaborate language, doubling up and even tripling up with lists and paraphrases and elaborations, to inflate and draw out your sentences, your paragraphs and your essays, determinedly and painfully stretching your one idea to reach the required word count, and in the process of filling as much valuable space on the open, willing page as you possibly can, tried showing off.



You might have been faced with the dilemma of how to respond appropriately to the significant praise your well-meaning teachers gave you for completing assignments that demonstrated a flair for words, and that being the case, possibly decided to respond by immediately developing the questionable habit of adding numerous unnecessary modifiers wherever humanly possible, never even once missing the alluring chance to boldly puff up your simple writing with all manner of clever, expressive adjectives and elegantly willing adverbs, endlessly repeating your ideas over and over, each subsequent time using ever more and more elaborate language, doubling up and even tripling up with lists and paraphrases and elaborations, to inflate and draw out your sentences, your paragraphs and your essays, determinedly and painfully stretching your one idea to reach the required word count, and in the process of filling as much valuable space on the open, willing page as you possibly can, tried showing off.



Clarity

Clear writing packs power.

Since Fred Smith was elected mayor six months ago, the city saw the local unemployment rate drop to 4%.

 Here, does "since" mean "because" or "after"?

Unemployment dropped to 4%, six months after Fred Smith brought his economic reforms to the mayor's office.

The revision begins begins with the subject and an active verb, a sure-fire way of emphasizing the main idea. Let's consider another example:  

The reason the tax reform project failed to secure necessary support is the mayor's underestimating the negative impact of unexpected turnpike construction delays on public attitudes.

 

This dreary passage avoids grammatical mistakes, but the abstract subject "reason" and the colorless verb "is" smother the action.

 

The reason The tax reforms project failed to secure necessary support is the because the mayor's underestimated the negative impact of unexpected turnpike construction delays on public attitudes.

 

Now the sentence opens clearly with the clear, concrete subject "tax reforms" and the active verb "failed." We've already trimmed some deadwood; now let's work on parallel structure, moving things around to emphasize the two things the mayor underestimated:

 

The tax reforms failed because the mayor underestimated the negative impact of unexpected turnpike construction delays on public attitudes and the unexpected turnpike construction delays.

 

Now, we'll further tweak the sentence, highlighting the relationship between the two reasons.
 

The tax reforms failed because the mayor underestimated the duration of the turnpike repairs and the anger of inconvenienced commuters.

 
 


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16 Comments

Aja Hannah said:

I've read this before and blogged about it. I don't really have anything new to say about it.

http://blogs.setonhill.edu/AjaHannah/2009/02/intro_to_journalism.html

Jeanine O'Neal said:
Richelle Dodaro said:

It was helpful to review the differences between academic essay writing and news writing because I enjoy writing in both of these ways so it helped to remind me of the differences in a clear way. I thought the presentation of the differences was clear because it was set up like a graphic organizer, and it was easy to compare the two since they were listed side by side. Essays are usually formal writing so when Dr. Jerz talked about how it's acceptable to write "I think" etc. in an essay, I disagreed with that because I was always taught not to use your personal voice in an essay unless it was a reflective essay or informal writing, such as our blogs. I'm sure it's generally accepted to use a personal voice in essays, but I don't agree with that because essays usually contain an argument and the writer does not want to sound biased in essay writing either. Readers can be more effectively persuaded in essays if scholarly quotes are included and specific points are proved without the writer directly giving his or her personal thoughts and opinions.

Kaitlin Monier said:
Wendy Scott said:

I found alot of this information really helpful. It is good insight to Journalism and the overall aspects. The difference of the Instructer mode, and the audience was a good overview because I tend to write for an audience perspective I guess rather than on a personal perspective. I like to give the reaction of current events kind of in the reporting field.
I thought that this article gave me an understanding on general emotions and the correspondance of what and istructor make expect or acknowledge.

Katie Vann said:

I like the difference

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