News Writing: Adopting the Perspective of the Invisible Observer

Jerz > Writing > Journalism

In traditional journalism, a reporter stays completely out of the picture, in order to present an objective point of view (a position that is fair to every side of an issue, avoiding bias).

In a humor column or a book review, the reader expects and wants a personal opinion; however, in a news story, a journalist should use direct quotations from sources to handle all the direct references to opinions and emotions. That means quoting people who say “This stamp-collecting convention is awesome!” rather than, in the voice of the reporter, writing “An awesome stamp-collecting convention took place over the weekend at Seton Hill University.”

Avoiding bias and preserving objectivity does not mean your stories have to be boring. But striving to write as an invisible observer means that you try to keep yourself out of the story.

In the following example, the journalist inappropriately appears as character. That sort of writing is fine for a social media post, but it’s an unnecessary distraction in a news story.

When I climbed the stairs to John Smith’s apartment, I heard a strange, rhythmic thumping. Could it be bongo drums? I opened the door, and saw Smith sitting on the floor, banging away. He smiled at me and told me to come in.
Too personal and self-referential. 
“Outside John Smith’s apartment, a strange thumping could be heard. Could it be bongo drums? When the door was opened, Smith could be seen sitting on the floor, banging away.  A visitor is smiled at and welcomed.
A little better, but “could be heard” by whom? And “could be seen” by whom? This revision sort of puts a paper bag over the head of the reporter, but the reporter is still part of the story. Structurally, this passage overuses passive verbs, which makes writing impersonal and vague.
The rhythmic thumping fills the stairwell outside John Smith’s apartment. Pounding away on the bongo drums he inherited from a Cuban uncle, Smith welcomes a visitor without missing a beat.
The revision captures the energy of the scene; instead of conveying the reporter’s sensory experiences, it aims to insert the reader directly into the scene, while also enriching the description of an experience with precise, relevant details that would not be obvious to a visitor who just happened upon the scene.

The combination of vivid description (powerfully conveying what is happening at the moment) and background details (that provide context for the experience) is how journalists use their creativity to create an emotional effect for the reader.

In a human interest story, the reporter isn’t supposed to be the interesting human.

Traditional journalism expects the reporter to stay out of the way, so the reader can experience an event as directly as possible.

Sophomore Rita Jones said she copes with stress by baking cookies. When I asked what kind of cookies she baked, she laughed and said that her favorite kind is chocolate chip, which makes her okay in my book. I agree with her — no other kind of cookie really matters.
Phrases like “when I asked” and “I agree” insert the reporter into the story. But writing from the perspective of an invisible observer is not as simple as removing the word “I”. See the following example:
Sophomore Rita Jones said she copes with stress by baking  cookies. When this reporter asked her what kind of cookies, Jones laughed and said that she doesn’t think any cookie exists other than chocolate chip.
In the above revision, the motion from “I” to “you” is helpful, but the reporter is about as invisible as a guy with a bag over his head. (Besides, this English professor has never heard any journalist use the phrase “this reporter” except in movies from the 1940s.)
If you ask Sophomore Rita Jones how she copes with holiday stress, she might bake you some cookies. When asked what kind of cookies, she said, “Chocolate chip! What other kind are there?”
In the above revision, the motion from “I” to “you” is helpful, but the reporter is about as invisible as a guy with a bag over his head. (Besides, this English professor has never heard any journalist use the phrase “this reporter” except in movies from the 1940s.)

We’ve made some progress on the Rita Jones story…  but now there’s a tension between the imaginary conversation (“If you ask Rita… she might”) and the real conversation the reporter did have with Rita (“When asked… she said.”)

Usually, you should avoid phrases like “When asked about…” — unless the omission paints a misleading picture of the event. (See the “bunny” example below.)

To polish up our cookie story, let’s go back to basics. What are the facts?

Rita Jones is a sophomore at Seton Hill University, who likes to bake cookies when she is streseed.

This story is not exactly hard-hitting investigative reporting, but it might appeal to students who are stressed as the end of fall term approaches. So, let’s try to introduce the reader to Rita’s stress-release tip as quickly as possible, giving them a reason to keep reading. The trick is to keep yourself — the trustworthy reporter — out of it.

Exam week stress? Rita Jones makes cookies to soothe the soul.”

Chocolate chip! What other kind are there?” she said, spreading a little fresh-baked love during a Thursday night study break at Seton Hill University.

Because the reporter has backed out of the picture, there is more room for the reader to enter, and engage directly with the details the reporter has provided.The reader doesn’t need to be told that “chocolate chip” was the direct answer to a question about what kind of cookies they are. 

Note the complete absence of a general introduction There are many ways to deal with exam week stress…” or a specific introduction of the quote: “When asked about the cookies…” 

When to use “When asked about…”

In very rare cases when leaving out the question would give a distorted picture of the context, then the asking of the question is part of the news, and a good reporter will work into the story.

Here is an example showing when leaving out the question would convey an inaccurate picture. (It’s a fake story — I made it up.)

Obama Shares Bizarre Bunny Wish

American president Barack Obama  stunned a Paris crowd when he expressed a desire to be transformed into a small furry animal.

“I would like to be a fuzzy bunny,” said Obama upon arriving at the Paris Convention Hall, where hundreds of European educators and financiers gathered for a United Nations conference on childhood poverty.

Obama also expressed dissatisfaction with his human ears.

“I have big ears, but they’re not floppy and fuzzy.”

[Insert quotation from one of the conference leaders, speculating on how Obama’s behavior will impact the effectiveness of the conference.]

[Insert quotation here from a political analyst speculating on what this will do to Obama’s poll numbers.]

[Insert quotation here from psychologist who specializes in people who take on the identities of animals.]

[Insert quotation from White House spokesperson saying the media is blowing this out of proportion.]

Sounds pretty bizarre, right? Don’t worry, I’ve also made up a transcript of what really happened, on the sidewalk outside the Paris Convention Hall, as Obama was rushing from his limo into the front lobby:

Reporter: Mr. President! Mr. President!

Obama: There’s time for just one question today, folks. Yes?

Reporter: Mr. President, if you had to choose between being a giant robot with laser beam eyes, or a fuzzy little bunny with floppy ears, what would you be?

Obama: (Laughing.) Those are my only two choices?

Reporter: Yes.

Obama. Well, then. Lasers and robots are too scary, too scary for children. It’s hard to help a child if they’re scared of you. So okay then. I would like to be a fuzzy bunny. I’ve been told I have big ears, but they’re not floppy and fuzzy. When it comes to listening to solutions to the problems faced by the world’s children, I’m all ears. (Laughs.)

Other reporters: Mr. President! Mr. President!

Obama: Sorry, sorry. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to hop to it.

There are no lies in the “Obama Stuns” story, but there are important omissions. The casual reader might assume the bunny statement was part of Obama’s prepared speech.

Here are several ways you might introduce this odd detail, if for some reason you felt it was newsworthy.

Barack Obama let his playful side show when a grade-school reporter asked whether Obama would rather be a “giant robot” or a “fuzzy little bunny.”

The president chose the bunny. “Now, if  you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to hop to it,” he said, before disappearing into the convention hall.

You might try the more stark

Offered the choice of being a robot or a bunny, Barack Obama chose the bunny. “I’ve been told I have big ears, but they’re not floppy and fuzzy. When it comes to listening to solutions to the problems faced by the world’s children, I’m all ears.”

You might choose one of the above options if you asked the question yourself. But if you’re looking for some “color” to humanize an event, you might want to play up this little incident. Once again, the reporter is writing as an invisible observer, stepping out of the way so that the reader can experience the scene directly.

On the steps outside the convention hall, Obama took a question from Pierre Clouseau, 7.

Clouseau, with a pencil perched behind his ear, shouted in perfect English: “Mr. President, if you had to choose between being a giant robot with laser beam eyes, or a fuzzy little bunny with floppy ears, what would you be?”

“I would like to be a fuzzy bunny. I’ve been told I have big ears, but they’re not floppy and fuzzy,” the president quipped.

2005: first posted
2012: updated Bush references -> Obama
Loading Facebook Comments ...