Journalism: Writing the Hard News Story

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Hard news articles are written so the the reader can stop reading at any time, and still come away with the whole story.  This is very different from an essay, which presumes that the audience will stick around to the end, and can therefore build to a finish.

There is no need to put a “conclusion” on a news story.  Each individual reader will “end” the story whenever he or she gets bored.  A particularly interested reader will keep reading to the end.

(See also: Fairly complex news feature. | Analysis of same story.)

sample story:

Hard News Story -- JournalismWild pig causes two-hour traffic delay on I-94

By JOE STUDENT
Staff Writer

St. Paul, Jan. 24  A 15-minute operation involving a forklift, 20 firefighters, seven police officers and one scared pig ended a two-hour traffic delay on Interstate 94 Sunday morning.

The wild pig, whom the fireman affectionately nicknamed “Tailgate,” apparently wandered onto 1-94 around 8 a.m. and fell asleep in the middle of the two-lane freeway.

St. Paul resident Geoffrey Saint was the first to come upon the 200-pound animal.”He practically took up the whole road,” Saint said. “I barely slammed on my breaks in time.”

Saint said the cars behind him followed suit, each stopping short after reaching speeds of up to 70 mph.

Saint stayed in his car and phoned area police, who responded at 8:20 a.m.

Lieutenant Terry Frank was the first officer on the scene.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Frank said. “Here was this huge, sloppy pig, just napping in the middle of the road, oblivious to what was going on around him.”

Frank said she attempted to rouse the pig by poking him with a stick.

“He just kept on snoring,” she said.

By 9 a.m., three fire trucks and four patrol cars had responded to the “sleeping pig” call.

“We just sat there and wondered what in the world we could do,” Frank said.

14 Dec 1999; by Lori Kurtzman, UWEC Junior
20 Apr 2003 — updated by Jerz
30 May 2012 — minor updates by Jerz

The Headline: Convey the general message in as many words as will fit (usually quite a small space). A headline should be informational, and can be clever, as long as the cleverness does not interfere with the information or earn groans from readers.

See  prize-winning newspaper headlines

The Lead: The lead, or the first sentence of the story, is arguably the most important part of the article. Based on the content of that first sentence, a reader will either look deeper into the story, or move on to the next one.

Therefore, how you craft your lead is very important. There are some basic rules one can follow:

  • The who, what, when, where, how, why lead.
  • Basically, just like it sounds. This lead tries to answer the 5 w’s and one h in one sentence.A 15-minute operation involving a forklift, 20 firefighters, seven police officers and one scared pig ended a two-hour traffic delay on Interstate 94 Sunday morning.

Experimental leads. If you answer the “5 w’s and one h” on the second or third sentences, you can be more creative with the first. The results can flounder and die, or have a great impact. Some examples for the pig story:

  • Tailgate the pig lay snoring in the middle of Interstate 94, oblivious to the fire trucks and squad cars that had gathered around him.
  • Geoffrey Saint never could have imagined what he'd meet in the middle of Interstate 94 during his drive to church Sunday morning.

Direct Quotes: Quotes breathe life into a story, but can be abused. Don’t quote material that isn’t quoteworthy. For instance, if Frank had said, “Officers arrived on the scene at about 9:00 a.m.,” you wouldn’t quote that.

If she had said, “That huge pig just sat there with tears running down his face and I thought my heart would burst,” well, that’s far more quoteworthy.

Paraphrased Quotes:

When a source’s words convey dry facts, or if the source’s exact words don’t fit the sentence you want to write, consider paraphrase.

Officers arrived on the scene around 9:00 a.m., Frank said.

You are still attributing the source properly, but no quotes are needed.


Additional Information:

Inverted Pyramid
In a straight news story, it’s best to get the most important information in your story up to the top– your reader will often stop reading after the first few paragraphs, so its important that they have a good grasp of the story. Put the least important stuff at the end, and leave the unimportant stuff out altogether.
Length of Paragraphs
This is different than a term paper for English class. Keep your paragraphs short (one or two sentences) and make each of your points concise. Readers grow tired of big blocks of text, so it’s best to break it up a bit.
Objectivity vs. Opinion
Your readers aren’t interested your opinion on the latest White House scandal –so keep yourself out of the story. Attribute every claim or opinion you report to someone else, and don’t editorialize. If you do, you take the entire element of objectivity– and thus, truth– out of your story.

See Also

News Story vs. English Essay
Your English instructor carefully reads your essay to evaluate the depth of your knowledge, the breadth of your vocabulary, and the loftiness of your ideas. Joe Sixpack glances quickly at your news story to learn who won the game, or when Route 30 will reopen, or what happened at the school board meeting last night. What counts as “good writing” depends on what the reader values.

Quotations: Using Them Effectively in Journalism
Use direct quotations to record the opinions, emotions, and unique expressions of your sources.  Let the direct words of your sources do as much work as possible, keeping yourself out of the story, and keeping transitions and explanations to a minimum. Use a phrase like “When asked about…” only when omitting it will create a false impression.

Feature Writing: The Invisible Observer
Traditional journalists are invisible observers who stay completely out of the picture, relying on factual observations and quotations from officials, participants, and witnesses do as much of the work as possible.

News Writing Links

And of course, the best way to write well is to read:

14 Dec 1999; by Lori Kurtzman, UWEC Junior
20 Apr 2003 — updated by Jerz
30 May 2012 — minor updates by Jerz

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