Journalism Tips: News Story vs. English Essay

Jerz > Writing > Journalism

To write a news story, you’ll use many of the skills that help you write good personal essays; however, the two kinds of writing have important differences.

Your goals as a news writer are different, so what counts as “good writing” is also 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. The student writes as a learner.
  • You can trust your instructor to correct your mistakes. 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

  • Journalists aim to inform the reader.
  • The news is supposed to be a source of verified facts, not just a vehicle for passing along what people are saying.
  • Reporters write with authority, since they are relying on the words they’ve heard directly from the officials, participants, and eyewitnesses who have the most current, most accurate information. Most readers won’t know when a reporter is wrong.
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 fordemonstrating 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). (Reporters have various strategies for writing as an “Invisible Observer.”)
  • Journalists report the emotions and opinions of the sources they interview –not their own personal feelings. (Traditional news reporting attributes every emotion, opinion, or prediction to a specific, named source — avoid “some people say” or “it has been said.”)
  • 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.)

Instead of a thesis or research question, a news article has a lead (or “lede”).

Instead of long paragraphs designed to convince professors that you understand your subject, a news article has short paragraphs (usually 1-3 sentences) with details carefully chosen to help non-experts understand your subject.

Essay Structure:

  • Title
  • Thesis
  • Body
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography

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.

 

News Structure

  • Headline
  • Lead  1-2 short sentences
    who, what, when, where, why, how
    (not necessarily in that order)
  • Most Recent & Most Important Details
    (including the “nut graf, which explains why the story matters, why the reader should care)
  • Background & Further Details
  • Optional Details

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. (See: Inverted Pyramid.)

A news story is not necessarily chronological. Narrative can be effective in softer stories, such as this feature describing what happens when a world-class musician plays at a busy subway station.  But a reporter who attends a two-hour meeting should not start out by listing what happened first, then second, etc.

Instead, a good reporter would lead with whatever item was most newsworthy.  (See “What is Newsworthy?”)

Two-thirds of the way through the news story about the fist-fight that broke out during a school board meeting, the reporter might mention that before the fight, the board elected a new member and voted down a library expansion — but only if those items were truly newsworthy.

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.

The above passage uses vocabulary words accurately and avoids making grammatical mistakes; however, it is not a good examle of good news writing. What’s the first thing a journalist would do to this paragraph? Let’s see.

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.

The bulk of the paragraph said absolutely nothing. Using a fraction of those words, news-style writing writing can pack in a lot of information without needlessly overwhelming the reader.

Clarity

Clear prose empowers readers; ambiguity suffocates.

Since Fred Smith was elected mayor six months ago, the city saw the local unemployment rate drop to 4%. (Ambiguous; possibly a cause-effect relationship.)

Does “since” mean “because” (in which case Mayor Smith is praiseworthy) or “after” (in which case he’s just lucky)?

Unemployment dropped to 4%, six months after Fred Smith was elected on a platform promising economic reforms. (Clear; the reporter makes no causal claims.)

The revision begins begins with the subject and an active verb, a sure-fire way of emphasizing the main idea. The news is that “Unemployment dropped,” and the revision makes no claims that Smith was either praiseworthy or lucky. All we know so far is that unemployment dropped, and that the mayor is in a position to benefit.

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.

We still have a little problem. Let’s consider the word “failure.” Is that a word the mayor or his supporters use when they talk about their own tax reform plans? Probably not.

To be fair you have to write as if you are above the fray. Carefully attribute any opinions, predictions, or emotional statements to a named source.

Challenger Jane Jones pinned the tax reform failure on Mayor Fred Smith, saying he underestimated both the duration of the turnpike repairs and the frustration of Steelsburg commuters.

Even if you agree with Jones, in your role as an ethical journalist, you aren’t through with your reporting job until you have given Smith the chance to defend himself. Talking to neutral experts and the citizens caught in the crossfire will help you develop the full picture of a controversy, thereby helping you to inform the public.