News Writing: Adopting the Perspective of the Invisible Observer

Jerz > Writing > Journalism

Journalism: The Invisible Observer. Reporters: Stay out of the story.

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.

Bad ExampleAn exciting stamp-collecting convention entertained and educated people from all walks of life this weekend at Elizabeth Mount College.
The reporter is stating multiple opinions — that the event was exciting, entertaining, and educational. The phrase “people from all walks of life” is also vague. This reads like advertising hype, not the neutral reporting of observed facts. 
Good Example“I never thought stamp collecting could be so much fun,” said Derek Johnson, a quarterback at Greenstown High School, visiting a sports history exhibit at the International Philately Summit at Elizabeth Mount College.
This version is better because the story isn’t being driven by the reporter’s opinions. While nothing bad is likely to happen if a reporter’s pro-stamp-collecting bias shapes a story about a philately convention, good reporters practice keeping their own opinions out of the story, no matter how low-stakes the story is.

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 a character. That sort of writing is fine for a social media post, but it’s an unnecessary distraction in a news story.

Bad ExampleWhen 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. The main character in this paragraph is the reporter, which leaves little room for the reader to connect with Smith.
Iffy Example“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.
Good ExampleRhythmic 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 setting; instead of focusing on the reporter, it aims to insert the reader directly into the scene, while also enriching the description of an experience with precise, relevant details (such as the reference to the Cuban uncle) 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.

Bad ExampleSophomore 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:
Iffy ExampleSophomore 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 away from “I” is helpful, but “this 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.)
Iffy ExampleIf 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?”
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.

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

Iffy ExampleRita Jones is a sophomore at Seton Hill University, who likes to bake cookies when she is stressed.
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.


Good ExampleExam week stress? Rita Jones makes cookies to soothe the soul.

“Chocolate chip! What other kind are there?” said the sophomore biology major, 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 such as “There are many ways to deal with exam week stress…” or a specific introduction of the quote: “When asked about the cookies…”


 See also:
Is the Question Part of the News? (Rarely!)11208549_624866124321869_1260561114_n
2005: first posted
2012: updated Bush references -> Obama

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