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  • 1. Newspaper Basics for Student Journalists A beginner’s guide to writing and editing news stories and newspaper headlines © David J. Climenhaga, 2009
  • 2. 2 TABLE OF CONTENTS Introduction 4 Section I — Beginnings 6 Chapter 1 — Defining News 7 Chapter 2 — Hard News and Soft News 10 Chapter 3 — The Five Ws 12 Chapter 4 — News Judgment 14 Section II — Writing the Basic News Story 19 Chapter 5 — The Inverted Pyramid News Story 20 Chapter 6 — The Basic Components of a News Story 24 Chapter 7 — Writing Hard News Leads 26 Chapter 8 — The Second-Day Lead 33 Chapter 9 — The Soft News Lead 36 Chapter 10 — Writing ‘Nut Graphs’ 41 Chapter 11 — Attribution 43 Chapter 12 — Using Quotes 47 Chapter 13 — Active Voice vs. Passive Voice 54 Chapter 14 — Using Transitions 56 Chapter 15 — Stories in Chronological Order 59 Chapter 16 — Just Before You File… 63 Section III — Turning in Professional Copy 66 Chapter 17 — The Style Mentality 67 Chapter 18 — Memorization and Style 70 Chapter 19 — Canadian Press Style 72 Chapter 20 — Defamation Law 79 Chapter 21 — Defamation Threats 87 Chapter 22 — Promises to Sources 90 Chapter 23 — Contempt of Court 94 Chapter 24 — Young People in Conflict with the Law 99 Chapter 25 — Plagiarism 101 Chapter 26 — Ethics in Journalism, Fairness and Balance 105 Chapter 27 — Cultural Sensitivity 116 Section IV — Reporting the News 125 Chapter 28 — Interviewing 126 Chapter 29 — Covering Public Meetings 137 Chapter 30 — Covering Elections 142
  • 3. 3 Chapter 31 — Writing Journalistic Obituaries 144 Section V — Basic Newspaper Editing 151 Chapter 32 — Newspaper Organization 152 Chapter 33 — Basic Newspaper Copy Editing 156 Chapter 34 — Common Pitfalls Faced by Copy Editors 158 Chapter 35 — Editing for Defamation and Contempt 162 Chapter 36 — Editing for Errors 168 Chapter 37 — More Work for Copy Editors 173 Chapter 38 — The Professionally Dirty Mind 180 Chapter 39 — Dealing With Profanity 183 Chapter 40 — Writing Basic Headlines 186 Chapter 41 — Common Headline Practices 192 Chapter 42 — Additional Guidelines for Superior Headlines 196 Chapter 43 — Writing Feature Headlines 207 Chapter 44 — Final Thoughts on Writing Headlines 213 Section VI — Public Relations 217 Chapter 45— Writing News Releases 218 Chapter 46 — A Journalist’s Perspective on News Releases 224 Chapter 47 — Media Conferences, Photo Ops and Other Events 229 Section VII — Glossary of Common Journalistic Terms 233
  • 4. 4 Introduction, for my King's University College students Each year for most of the past decade, I have had the privilege of teaching an introduction to newspaper journalism course to undergraduate students at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary or The King’s University College in Edmonton. In fulfilling my part-time duties as an instructor (usually while working full time in journalism or public relations), I have had the opportunity to use a variety of newspaper journalism textbooks and to read many more. To be blunt, very few of them are satisfactory, let alone really useful, especially to students who are interested in taking a general introductory course in newspaper journalism, but not necessarily pursuing a career in the field. The faults of these textbooks, as I see it, typically fall into several areas. Many of them are too specialized, concentrating on one aspect of newspaper journalism — say, interviewing techniques or feature writing. That's fine if you want to study the field in depth, not so helpful if your objective is to learn the basics. A few are just plain bad — their titles and authors will not be mentioned to protect the guilty. Several of these expend barrels of ink revealing what students don't need to know — the daily newsroom routine and strongly held opinions of a certain assistant city editor, say, or the arrangement of the furniture in a well-known metropolitan daily's offices. Often they have less to say about what students really need to learn. For example, students do need to know how to write a simple news story with a clear lead. If they learn that skill, it will benefit them all of their lives, whether or not they decide to make a living as a journalist! Likewise, no harm will ever come to a student because he or she has learned about the importance of style, and the basic rules of the wire service style that prevails in most Canadian newsrooms. Others textbooks are excellent — but encyclopedically so. Carole Rich’s superb Writing and Reporting News, A Coaching Method springs to mind. But these books go into much more depth than is required — or even desirable — for students who want to test the waters of journalism before making a career decision, who want to learn how to write effective press releases as a sideline to some other career, or who simply want to write effectively for the campus newspaper. Moreover, almost without exception, the best newspaper journalism textbooks, Ms. Rich's included, are written by and for citizens of the United States and consequently have a strong American bias. To top it off, these imported textbooks are very expensive — adding to the financial burden borne by 21st Century Canadian students. Indeed, all journalism textbooks, even the really bad ones, seem to cost a fortune. It’s my bias, having worked for newspapers much of my adult life, that journalism isn’t rocket science, so it offends me when a journalism textbook costs as much as a rocket science textbook. So it was my objective, in writing this book, to create a text that addresses these deficiencies.
  • 5. 5 My first goal was to write a textbook that covers the basics beginning journalists, and other students of journalism, really need to know to do the job on Day 1 in the newsroom. I have, I think, partly succeeded. My second objective was to keep it short and sweet — a manageable and comprehensible package for an introductory course. A third was to write it for students who live and work in Canada. My final objective was to make it affordable. I will certainly succeed in this last goal with this edition, because students in CMNA 395, King’s University College's introductory journalism course, will receive this book for the cost of duplication. The quid pro quo I ask of you, my students, is that you read it with a critical eye, seeking out for me illogicalities, material that is missing but needed, things that can be improved, and the inevitable typographical errors that bedevil all journalists. With your help, this textbook can be completed, improved and made available to more students. David J. Climenhaga St. Albert, Alberta June 2009
  • 6. 6 Section I BEGINNINGS
  • 7. 7 Chapter 1 Defining News What is news? If Biff proposes marriage to Maggie … and Maggie says No! That’s news. If there’s a cold going around, that's news. If the college cafeteria is serving cream of weenie soup again tonight, that's news too. In other words, at least on one level, news is information that affects our lives. It may shock us, amuse us, worry us, or merely irritate us, but if it's close to home it doesn't take much to become news of interest. On the other hand, if Biff proposes to Maggie, and you don't know either of them … Who cares? That's not news. It's a little different on a daily newspaper or in a broadcast newsroom, but not really so very different. Most journalists, and especially journalism teachers, carry around in their heads a list of about a dozen qualities that they think make a story worthy of coverage. All these lists are similar, because the culture of the news business has been reinforcing itself for generations. Here’s mine, in what I think is its components’ approximate order of importance: 1) Timeliness 2) Consequences 3) Proximity 4) Conflict 5) Mayhem 6) Celebrity 7) Novelty 8) Humour 9) Trends 10) Sex 11) Inspiration/Human Interest 12) Helpfulness Let's look at each quality: Timeliness — if it's new, it's news. This may not be the way it works in real life. There’s nothing particularly new about influenza, and it has a profound impact on a lot of people's lives each year. But it is the way it works in the news business, because there's a lot of competition to be the first with a story. So, to most journalists, if not to the man and woman in the street, timeliness is the most important determining factor in deciding if a story is news.
  • 8. 8 Consequences — if it has an impact, it's news. In the most logical of worlds, this one would probably be No. 1. This is why what governments do is considered so important by most journalists. If politicians vote to raise taxes, or close a school, it has an obvious impact on many people in a community. If nuclear war breaks out, it will have an impact on the lives of people all over the world. No news organization that is doing its job will fail to report a story that the editor believes will have an impact on its readers. Proximity — if it’s close to home, it’s more likely to be news. In the great scheme of things, three days of boiled potatoes in a cafeteria is no big deal. But on some university campuses, it might just cause a riot. The same is true of any action. The closer it is to home, the more likely it is to arouse interest and be defined as news. If a school bus plunges off a cliff in some distant land, the story is likely to be short and relegated to an inside page. If it happens in your community, it belongs on the front page of your newspaper. Conflict — where there's conflict, there's news. This is partly because where there’s conflict, there's more likely to be an impact on our lives. But it's also because conflict is dramatic, and exciting, and even entertaining. There's a reason so many works of fiction are about conflict. So whether it’s a war in a far country, or a noisy spat at city hall, conflict makes news. Indeed, conflict is so newsworthy that journalists sometimes succumb to the temptation of trying to generate conflict among the people they're writing about to make a better story. Mayhem — violence is news. There’s a nasty and cynical expression in the news business, “If it bleeds, it leads” Alas, there is more than a little truth to this, and this tendency by the news media may have a harmful impact on our perception of our society and the quality of our lives. Be that as it may, car accidents, drive-by shootings and schoolyard bullying all meet the criteria of news. Celebrity — if someone is prominent, what they do is more likely to be news. This is unhappy news to many people, but we all know it’s reality. If a street person assaults someone, it's not news. If an entertainer, a sports star or a prominent politician does the same thing, it is news. The more prominent the person, the bigger the news. Novelty — if something’s bizarre, it may be news. Something doesn’t have to be weird to be newsworthy, but oddity does often make otherwise inconsequential stories newsworthy. A pancake is a pancake is a pancake, but who can resist a story about a miraculous pancake with the image of a beloved religious figure on it? Humour — if it’s funny enough it’s news. Most everyone enjoys a chuckle, so if an event or development has a funny aspect, that may interest journalists. Often in journalism, there’s a cruel side to this notion — the “Darwin Awards,” which make fun of people who die after doing foolish things, or stories that sniff at scientific research as inconsequential, are examples. But even gentle humour can be newsworthy — if it can really generate a laugh.
  • 9. 9 Trends — if a trend is developing, it's news. Trends are important. They can have an impact on our lives. Knowing about them can help us make wise lifestyle or business decisions. So many editors look for stories about a wide variety of trends. If slightly overweight people are living longer, as the New York Times recently reported, that’s a trend that’s significant to a lot of people. If interest rates are climbing, the weather is getting warmer, fewer people are having children or buying SUVs, or more young people suffering from depression, all those are trends worthy of attention by journalists. Sex — sex is news. It may be a serious story about a nation’s policy regarding who gets to marry whom, or the shenanigans of an entertainer. You may be delighted or scandalized. But most editors agree — whether they really approve or not — that adding sex to the brew makes a story more newsworthy. Inspiration — uplifting stories are news. If a story shows someone’s perseverance, grit, courage or decency in the face of adversity, it can be news. Note, however, that such stories generally fall into the area of “human interest” unless they are tied to one or more of the other qualities generally considered to make news. Helpfulness — if it helps you, it’s news. Maybe. Need instruction on an easy way to have a flatter tummy, build a birdhouse, get a university degree while living in jail, raise happy, well-balanced children while holding down three jobs? These are all legitimate topics for news stories. But they are not, you'll note, generally stories that belong on the front pages. How-to stories are often also special interest stories, another category sometimes included on these lists. How get more rose blossoms from a vine may not interest every reader, but it's a good topic for the gardening section. Of course, there’s a kind of multiplier effect at work in many news stories. The more of these elements they combine, the bigger the story will be. Summary - News is information that affects our lives. - Most journalists and students of journalism have about a dozen key categories that they define as “newsworthy.” - The more of these elements in a story, the bigger the story will be. - A dozen elements that qualify as news are as follows: Timeliness, Consequences, Proximity, Conflict, Mayhem, Celebrity, Novelty, Humour, Trends, Sex, Inspiration/Human Interest, Helpfulness.
  • 10. 10 Chapter 2 Hard News and Soft News In the last chapter, we talked about the general qualities journalists generally agree make a story worthy of being covered. Before we start to learn how to write a basic news story, we need to pause to consider an important distinction that professional journalists make between two kinds of news — “hard news” and “soft news.” As the old joke says, there are two kinds of people: people who divide things into groups of two and people who don’t. In all newsrooms, there are two kinds of news: hard news and soft news. This is part of the way almost all professional journalists have come to view the world — by inclination and training. If you are to understand the culture of the people who report the news — either because you want to understand how stories become news or because you'd like to work in journalism — you need to understand this distinction. Hard news stories are accounts of events that have just happened or are about to happen. For example, crimes, fires, meetings, court testimony, speeches, protest rallies, acts of war, traffic accidents and elections are all typical topics of hard news stories. Hard news stories that have developed overnight or on the same day are often referred to by journalists as “breaking news.” Hard news stories emphasize facts, not opinion or analysis. So while hard news stories may contain “colour” — that is, highly descriptive passages using colourful language — the emphasis is on the bare, known, provable facts. Hard news is an account of what's happened (or is about to), why it happened, who was affected. Soft news, on the other hand, doesn’t depend nearly as much on the time element. Soft news places less emphasis on the facts — though it would be a terrible mistake to suggest that soft news must not have a factual foundation. Many journalists define soft news as news that entertains as it informs, with more emphasis on human interest, novelty and colourful writing and less of facts and events that have just happened. Soft news has less immediacy than hard news. Writers of soft news often aim for the reader’s emotions, not his or her intellect. Often a reporter has a little more leeway when writing soft news stories — he or she can write a little longer, use more dramatic language, reach for a laugh, maybe even let a little opinion creep into the story. Longer soft news stories are often called “features” or “feature stories.” (In the United Kingdom and Australia, these types of stories are sometimes called “take-outs.”) Profiles of famous people, descriptions of new diets and
  • 11. 11 social trends, how-to features that teach how to knit a sweater or build a fence, accounts to trips to exotic resorts are all typical examples of soft news stories. Is soft news unimportant? Not really. But it’s not news that happened overnight. The best soft news stories are based on hard facts, and are derived from hard news. Many soft news stories contain more information and research than the hard news stories they were based on. Editors often encourage writers to tie their soft news stories to current hard news — in the language of the news business, this is known as finding a “news hook” or a “news angle.” Sometimes too, soft news is written about some aspect of a hard news story. When you read that a tsunami has killed thousands around the Indian Ocean, that’s hard news. When you read about the personal stories of a team of rescuers digging out tsunami victims, that’s soft news. Sad to say, the soft news category is also an excuse for a lot of really bad writing. Still, done well, even news so soft that it's tied to no event or matter of significance can have merit. If a piece on how to tie a bowtie can make a reader chuckle — or laugh out loud — its writer has succeeded. Summary - Journalists typically distinguish between two kinds of news — “hard news” and “soft news.” - Hard news stories are accounts of events that have just happened or are about to happen. - Soft news has less immediacy than hard news — writers of soft news often aim for readers’ emotions, not their intellect. - The best soft-news stories are based on hard facts.
  • 12. 12 Chapter 3 The Five Ws Now that we have a working definition for “the news,” and now that we understand the difference between “hard news” and “soft news,” the next step is to think about the most basic building blocks of any news story. These are everywhere called the Five Ws (sometimes modified to the Five Ws and the H) and are well known to virtually everyone. Nevertheless, just because we all know that Who? What? When? Where? and Why? (not to mention How?) comprise the Five Ws (and the H), it’s worth thinking about this idea a little more in the context of writing professionally about news. Really, the Five Ws are the questions any reader or listener wants answered when he or she reads or hears any story — whether it is neighbourhood gossip, a fairy tale, a play by Shakespeare or a good joke. The difference between telling a joke, say, and writing a news story is just that we instinctively identify the Five Ws in a joke, while we have to take the time to identify them in a news story. So the starting point for writing any news story is understanding that the reader needs to know: WHAT … happened? WHO … did it happen to, or who made it happen? WHEN … did it happen? WHERE … did it happen? WHY … did it happen? HOW … did it happen? Unlike other forms of story telling, however, in the traditional news story — which we will begin to learn how to write in Chapter V — we not only have to make sure that we identify all Five Ws, we have to think carefully about what order to place them in. After all, the traditional news lead (that is, the first few lines of the news story), is very short. There’s usually not enough room to put all five Ws in the lead. Furthermore, unlike a joke, the style of news story common to English Language newspapers starts with the punch line! It doesn't build to a natural climax. So we have to exercise out news judgment — about which we'll learn in the next chapter — to determine which Ws belong at the start of the story. So, let’s imagine that your university dormitory roommate runs into the room, red faced and breathless, and shouts: “You'll never guess what I saw!” Your first question, of course, will be What? Now, let’s imagine some answers and think about what you’d ask next, and why.
  • 13. 13 “There was a fire!” says your roommate. OK, now that you’ve answered what, your next likely question is going to be Where? (After all, in a situation like this, you want to determine if you’re in any danger, or if anyone else you know may be.) “In the cafeteria,” gasps your roommate. The next thing you’ll likely want to know is When? (This will answer the essential question, under the circumstances, of “Is it out?” In other words, what's its immediate impact on me?) So far, you've been exercising something not unlike “news judgment” — a process we'll read more about in the next chapter — by determining the facts most likely to have an impact on your own survival. “Just 10 minutes ago, but it's out now,” your roommate says, starting to calm down a little. At this point, while you may want to review in your mind the location of the fire exits just in case, your next questions can be a little calmer: “Anybody hurt? Who started it?” (In other words, Who?) “I think everyone’s OK,” says your roommate. “The Fire Department just got here and told everyone they could come back in the building.” The next questions — in storytelling and news writing both, often the hardest to answer — are the after-the-fact questions. How? How did it happen? (“Some grease caught fire in a frying pan.” Why? (“The cook went out for a smoke and forgot to turn off the stove.”) At this point, we've answered all the basic questions a university dorm resident would want answered in these circumstances, and in a primitive sort of way we’ve exercised our news judgment too. Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? These are the tools used by any inquiring mind to explain reality. Therefore, these are questions that every news story must answer. Summary - The key building blocks of every news story are the facts that every reader needs to have answered. - The Five Ws — Who? What? When? Where? Why? — are the questions the reader of any story wants answered. - The initial problem for the writer of news is determining which of the Five Ws is the most important.
  • 14. 14 Chapter 4 News Judgment We have now considered the qualities that are commonly used to define information as news. In addition, we have divided the news into two categories: hard news and soft news and learned about the Five Ws. Finally, before we learn how to write a news story, we need to think about the concept of news judgment. News judgment is that quality of thinking that journalists (not to mention their critics) use to determine the relative merits of one story over another, in addition to the relative value of one part of any given story versus another part of the same story. In a nutshell, news judgment helps reporters sort out how where a story fits into the other basic questions we have already discussed. We use news judgment to determine if a hard news or soft news approach is warranted. We use news judgment to decide which of the Five Ws to emphasize. We use news judgment to figure out what it is about the story that makes it news. News judgment is very important because a lot of time and energy is spent in the news business filling a limited space (or limited period of broadcast time) with a virtually unlimited amount of news. Think about it: Once the advertisements are factored in, and regular features such as columns, letters to the editor and the crossword puzzle are included, only a limited amount of space remains for news. Even a large metropolitan daily newspaper can have very limited room for certain categories of news. I was the night city editor of a large Canadian daily for several years, and it was my responsibility to fill the city pages with local news provided by a large staff of reporters. On many weeknights there was enough space for fewer than a dozen short locally produced stories! Often we had two or three times as many stories. That meant many good stories got "spiked" — that is, set aside and forgotten about. Others had to be trimmed by the Desk, as copy editors are collectively known. (This, in the parlance of reporters, is called "butchering.") The situation is essentially the same in broadcasting, except that the capacity for news stories is limited by the number of minutes in the newscast instead of available newsprint real estate. This means that a lot of good stories — or stories that might be considered good somewhere else — simply don't make the cut. Or, they may make the cut, but in the process get cut themselves to little more than a brief. This naturally leads to lots of vociferous arguments about whether a story deserves to run, how long it should be, and where it should be placed on the page. (It’s not just journalists who think about this. Lots of people, for a variety of reasons, feel strongly that journalists — "the mainstream media" — give certain kinds of stories more and better play than they deserve while
  • 15. 15 ignoring other more important stories. Sometimes they are right. Sometimes they are out to lunch.) This also contributes to the competitive working atmosphere of the typical newsroom, in which journalists fight hard, with editors and with each other, to get the best possible play for their stories. A reporter working by herself writing a story must also exercise her news judgment to determine which facts get to stay and which facts get thrown out. Needless to say, if you are that reporter, and you have been told by your editor that your story can be no longer than 200 or 300 words, you are going to be tossing a lot of facts over the side. Finally, the reporter needs to decide which facts are placed in a prominent position in the story, and which facts go farther down. We'll discuss the format of the basic news story in much more detail in the next section, but it's no secret that in the conventional hard- news story, the most important facts are placed at the top and less important facts lower in the story. Since the generally accepted style of news writing prevalent on most Canadian newspapers calls for very short lead sentences, there will seldom be enough room to get all Five Ws and the H into that sentence. When Pope John Paul II died in the spring of 2005, for example, nobody wrote the story this way: An 84-year-old Polish man who lived in Rome died yesterday after a long decline and a brief illness. Yes, the facts are essentially correct, but we all understand instantly and intuitively what is wrong with this approach. Who and what are more important to this story than any of the other Ws. Here's how the BBC wrote it: Pope John Paul II, the third longest serving pontiff in history, has died at the age of 84. Naturally, this is a somewhat unscientific process. But is remarkable how different news organizations around the English-speaking world take the same approach to the same story — even though reporters write their stories in relative seclusion from one another. They have all, however, developed their news judgment along similar lines. One would only have to read the lead sentences from 100 different newspapers on the morning after the Pope's death to see the truth of this assertion. Because "good news judgment" is valued in the culture of news reporting organizations, it is worth thinking a little about how this process works. Lots of reporters — especially new ones — are accused of "burying the news" — that is, placing less important facts high in the story and burying important facts under mounds of copy. Reporters who recognize those gems of news are valued for their ability to recognize the real story. A crude example might be a politician who gave the same
  • 16. 16 speech about his party's economic policy in a dozen towns. Some of the politician's points might have been "news" on Day 1, but they're getting pretty stale by Day 12. But imagine that, in his 12th speech that politician revealed that, at 16, he'd robbed a bank! Now that's news! Naturally, if a young reporter were to stick to the economic details of the speech, he would risk being accused of exercising poor news judgment. On the other hand, if he put the bank robbery story in the lead, you can bet that the politician and his supporters would accuse the reporter taking something "out of context." (This may seem to some an excessively cynical view, but after many years reporting news, I have concluded that "I was quoted out of context" usually means, "I wish I hadn't said that.") Let's cast our minds back to the common definitions of news and work through an imaginary but plausible set of circumstances to learn about how journalists use their news judgment: Let's say you're working on the city desk of a daily newspaper in a major Canadian city. Let's also imagine that you've just moved to that city to take this job. One morning, the city editor hears on the police scanner that there has been a serious automobile accident downtown. She sends you to the address mentioned on the police radio and you are able to determine the following facts: 1. A man named Stephen Koerner has been killed. 2. Koerner was the driver of a car involved in a single-vehicle accident. 3. The accident took place at 100th Street and 100th Avenue downtown. 4. The accident took place at 7:30 a.m. 5. Police say the accident happened when the man’s car lost control and hit a light standard at high speed. 6. Police also say they believe the man lost control after suffering a seizure, and that his foot then depressed his car's gas pedal. 7. A large crowd gathered at the accident scene. 8. Several people in the crowd said they felt bad that the man died. You return to the office and prepare to exercise your news judgment to write an acceptably short news lead. Some interesting facts must go over the side. Some will be kept. Many reporters would come up with something like this: A man died during the morning rush hour after he lost control of his car and plowed into a lamp standard at a busy downtown corner. Police at the scene said they believe Stephen Koerner suffered a seizure just before the accident, causing him to press down on his car's accelerator pedal. He was alone in the car. But imagine that upon your return to the newsroom with this lead already blocked out in your mind, you're informed by a senior copy editor that Stephen Koerner was a well-
  • 17. 17 known businessman who once served a term as mayor. Because it added the element of celebrity, that would change the lead most reporters would write to something like this: Former mayor Stephen Koerner was killed during this morning's rush hour in a single- vehicle accident downtown. Police said they believe Koerner, who was alone in the car, suffered a seizure before his car plowed into a lamp standard. On the other hand, if you didn't know Koerner had been mayor, but had learned from police that this was the third consecutive day that someone had been killed at that intersection. Suddenly, because it adds the element of something extremely unusual, precisely where the accident took place would be of paramount importance. Resisting a powerful urge to refer to the address as “the death corner,” many reporters would write something like this. A man died during the morning rush hour after he lost control of his car and plowed into a lamp standard at the corner of 100th Street and 100th Avenue downtown — the third fatality in as many days at the busy intersection. Of course, if it turned out that both new facts were true, you'd need to use your news judgment to sort out which one was the most important and how to place them both appropriately in the story. Maybe you would come up with something like this: Former city mayor Stephen Koerner died this morning after his car plowed into a lamp standard at the corner of 100th Street and 100th Avenue downtown — the third fatality in as many days at the busy intersection. Sometimes all that stands between an insignificant announcement and a much better story is someone's memory of an important fact and the exercise of a little news judgment. If you worked for the newspaper in a town near an Armed Forces base and you'd received a press release about a routine appointment, you'd probably write a routine story. But if you remembered a fact or two, as someone did not so long ago, and used your news judgment, you might come up with a much better story, like this: A general who came under fire for a ceremony that cost taxpayers an estimated $250,000 has been hired to “guide” a leadership and ethics course for senior military officers. Retired major-general John Archibald MacInnes will be paid from $45,000 to $50,000 to act as mentor and guide for three months in a new course on conflict leadership and ethics at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto. So, before you write a story, you first need to think about three things: 1. Is it hard news or soft news? 2. What is it about these facts that makes them news?
  • 18. 18 3. What are the Five Ws and the H in this story? Then you need to use your news judgment to figure out what's important and what's now. And then you need to start writing… Summary - News judgment is that quality of thinking that journalists use to determine the relative merits of one story over another. - News judgment is very important because a lot of time and energy is spent in the news business filling a limited space with a virtually unlimited amount of news. - A reporter needs to decide which facts are placed in a prominent position in the story, and which facts go farther down. - Good “news judgment” is valued in the culture of the newsroom.
  • 20. 20 Chapter 5 The Inverted Pyramid News Story In the previous section, we defined the idea of “news.” Now we will learn how to write the news for newspapers. Journalists term this activity “news writing.” They almost always call the individual articles they write “stories.” However, “news stories” are not like traditional literary stories in a very important way. A traditional story begins slowly with some scene setting (“once upon a time…”), provides background information, rises to a climax, and often ends with additional information about what happened after the climax (an epilogue). A basic news story, however, begins with the climax and records all additional information in order of declining importance. If jokes were told like news stories, they’d start with the punch line! This is commonly known as the “Inverted Pyramid” story structure, because the order of precedence of facts can be illustrated as an upside-down pyramid. The most important facts are placed where the pyramid is fattest. The Five Ws and the H, obviously, should be found in the first few paragraphs of such a story.
  • 21. 21 These important facts are followed by less essential information. The style of writing is also known as the “wire service style,” because it was early wire services — which transmitted accounts of breaking news from remote locations by wire — that pioneered this method of writing. Like any form of communications, the inverted pyramid news story has certain limitations. For example, it can sometimes be more confusing than a chronological account of an event — it’s the reporter’s job to ensure it makes sense. In addition, it is most certainly more difficult to write a clear Inverted Pyramid story than it is to write a chronological story. However, the form also provided solutions to several problems faced by people who want to communicate news: - It provided a format to convey information in a quick and efficient way. - It served as an aid to readers who wanted to use the newspaper as an index of the day’s news — that is, by scanning the lead sentence, readers could determine if they wanted to learn more or skip to something they found more relevant. - It allowed, at least on the face of it, a format for providing a dispassionate and unbiased account of events. (One commercial reason for the adoption of this approach was that this allowed wire services to sell the same story to variety of publications with strongly differing editorial positions on the issues of the day.) - It permitted different publications that might assign differing importance to a given story to conveniently edit any story to a length that suited its priorities. (Hence, in the newspaper business, the widespread use of the verb “to cut” to mean “to edit.”) For these reasons, the Inverted Pyramid news story has become the basic form of newspaper writing. It is also common in many other kinds of publication, including Web pages. Because it is so common, it is the form that must first be mastered by any student with a serious interest in journalism. Because in some ways it is not a natural way to tell a story, it takes some work to write this way with ease and fluency. The problem, of course, is that while it’s easy in theory to state that the most important facts should be put at the top of the story, it’s not always so easy to determine what facts are most important. This, of course, is where “news judgment” comes in.
  • 22. 22 If the Prime Minister has been shot by an assassin, it’s pretty obvious what the most important fact in the story will be. If, on the other hand, the only potshots are being taken by opposition politicians, and the issues of the day is the appointment of a new Cabinet with 30 ministers, it’s not nearly so clear what is “most important.” The two best ways to develop this skill are: 1) Read a lot of newspaper stories. 2) Write a lot of newspaper stories. The first thing you should do when you sit down at your computer to write an inverted pyramid news story is ask yourself this key question: What is this story about? If you don’t ask that question, and really think about the answer, the risk is high that you will wander away from the main point of the story. This happens more easily than you might think. It can happen even in a simple, very short news story. However, if you can force yourself to condense the basic idea of your story into a single sentence, your story is likely to be greatly improved. Many writers call this concept writing a focus statement or focus sentence. One good way to come up with a one-sentence focus statement is to write or imagine a headline for your story. Another was is to imagine you are phoning a friend to tell her about the story, but she’s out and you have to leave a one-sentence message on her answering machine. If you think of how you’d do this with only 15 or 20 seconds available, you are on your way to writing a workable focus statement to keep you on track as you write your story. Summary - A basic news story begins with the climax and records all additional information in order of declining importance. - This is known as an Inverted Pyramid news story. - Inverted Pyramid stories provide a format to convey information in a quick and efficient way. - They also serve as an aid to readers who wanted to use the newspaper as an index of the day’s news. - Because it is so common, it is the form that must first be mastered by any student with a serious interest in journalism.
  • 23. 23 - The first thing the writer of a basic Inverted Pyramid news story should do is ask: What is this story about? - Writers should then compose a one-sentence “focus statement” to keep them from going astray as they write their story.
  • 24. 24 Chapter 6 The Basic Components of a News Story All well-written new stories have most of the parts listed below. Competent journalists know how to write each of these components into a cohesive whole. Most basic news stories should have: - A headline - A lead (sometimes written lede) - A backup quote - Attribution - Reaction - A “nut graph” - Background - An ending The Headline. The headline is seldom more than a one or two line summary of the contents of the news story, in larger type, that tells readers what the story is about and whether (for a particular reader) it is worth reading. Headlines have a telegraphic style and, because they must fit a particular and very limited space that is usually not known at the time the news story is being written, they are not usually written by the reporter. Headlines act as an index of the contents of the newspaper, and a summary of the information in its stories. The Lead. The lead is usually defined as the first sentence of a news story, sometimes as the first few sentences. If news stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, the lead is the beginning. The lead on a hard news story is often called a summary lead. Lots of journalists have their own definition of the ideal lead. Virtually all agree that a good hard- news lead should contain the most important facts of the story — at least some of the Five Ws. Most agree that the ideal lead is short — no more than 25 or 30 words. Leads should be “tight” — that is, written with economy. Leads need to be interesting — their job is to entice readers into reading the rest of the story. A news story with a strong lead is more likely to be read. The Backup Quote. Most news stories, except the briefest of briefs, should have a backup quote placed soon after the lead. Ideally, the backup quote — attributed to someone with knowledge of the story — will sum up the claim made in the lead in a pithy, comprehensible and entertaining way. The problem from the reporter’s point of view, of course, is that he must accurately transcribe a genuinely illustrative quote. Not every interview subject can or will provide a good backup quote. A good backup quote pithily explains what’s going on and keeps the reader reading. Attribution. All hard news stories require attribution, and even the softest of news stories require some. Attribution is the explanation of the source of the information in the
  • 25. 25 news story. It is also the identification of who made the statements contained in quotes or paraphrases of quotes. Attribution allows the reader to judge for herself whether the facts set out in the story have merit. The best stories contain lots of quotes — and all quotes have attribution. A news story without attribution is worthless. Reaction. Most hard news stories, and all news stories that contain controversial statements, should have reaction — the comments of someone who is familiar with the situation written about, or of someone with an alternative view of the main thesis of the story. If there has been a natural disaster in Ruritania, reaction should be sought from the local Ruritanian community. If your community’s MP, a member of the opposition, slams the government, a representative of the government should have the opportunity to respond. Fairness requires reaction. The Nut Graph. A nut graph informs readers of the focus of the story. It is usually located in the top third of the story — near the beginning of the middle — and it states the main point of the story. Lots of news stories must deal with complex topics and a variety of ideas, but all good stories should focus on one key theme. Not every story requires a nut graph — in a short, hard news story, the lead will serve the same purpose as the nut graph. In a feature story with a softer lead, a nut graph is essential to set out for the reader what is going on. Background. Most stories need some background for the reader to understand what’s going on. The history leading up to an event, the cast of characters, the value of the local currency, the physical properties of water — all are examples of background. The more complicated the story, the more pressing the need for background. Background helps explain the action. The Ending. Notwithstanding the notion of the Inverted Pyramid story — which in theory can be cut anywhere — the most elegantly written stories come to a clear conclusion that somehow ties the story up with a neat little bow. Sometimes writers end a story with a reference to future action that is expected. (“The trial continues Monday.”) Sometimes stories end with a new quote that summarizes what has happened. Good endings often fall victim to heavy-handed editing. Still, they are worth the effort: Good endings leave the reader with a feeling of satisfaction. Summary - All well-written stories have a beginning middle and an end. - The beginning is known as the “lead,” pronounced lede. - Well-written news stories typically contain such components as attribution, reaction, background and an entertaining summation. - Many news stories — especially those with a soft lead — require a “nut graph” to sum up the point of the story.
  • 26. 26 Chapter 7 Writing Hard News Leads The opening of a news story — usually the first paragraph — is termed “the lead.” In some places, this is spelled lede to differentiate it from lead, the metal from which newspaper type used to be made. Despite the potential for confusion with base metal, good leads are golden! The lead is the most important part of any newspaper story, because the reader usually decides whether to continue reading based on the lead. As a writer, you have only a few precious keystrokes, and a few seconds of the reader’s time, to persuade her to stick with you. As a result, newspaper writers naturally struggle with their leads. If you fail to engage the reader because your prose is pedestrian or you presentation is boring, you are not long for the newspaper business, in which success is based as much on your ability to entertain readers as to inform them. Sorry, but that’s the way it is. Hard-news leads — which are also often called summary leads or direct leads — must achieve two goals to succeed: 1) They must accurately summarize the most important facts in the story. 2) They must be interesting enough that the reader wants to continue reading. If a hard-news lead fails to summarize the facts contained in the story, the reader will not have a clear understanding of what is being reported and may not continue reading. If the facts are not accurately summarized, the writer will have misled the reader about the contents of the story. This is a surprisingly common sin among news writers. Because reporters work in a competitive environment, the temptation is great for them to exaggerate aspects of their stories to make them seem more newsworthy and hence worthy of better play. (This kind of exaggeration is disdainfully known in the trade as hype or torque.) The best way to achieve Goal No. 1, obviously, is for a hard news lead to provide the reader with as many as possible of the Five Ws. After all, the Five Ws are always the key questions the reader of any news story needs to have answered. Normally however, it’s not wise to try to include all five Ws — so the first task faced by the writer of effective newspaper leads is to try to select which of the Five Ws belongs in the lead, and which can be placed a little lower in the story. In other words, the writer must determine what is the most important information he wishes to convey in the story.
  • 27. 27 If you try to stuff too many of the answers to these basic questions into your lead, it will be awkward and difficult to understand, and the reader may give up. (Some writers call this a portmanteau lead, as it resembles a traveling bag stuffed full. Others call it overloading. ) Consider the following example: Albert Wells Jr., 18, a Grade 12 student at Bellrose Composite High School in the Edmonton bedroom community of St. Albert and the son of Mr. And Mrs. Albert Wells of 1406 Ryan Street, died at about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday when his dark red late-model Chrysler sports car went out of control and struck a telephone pole near the intersection of Highway 16 and Highway 2A just east of the neighbouring City of Spruce Grove. The author of this passage is trying to cram in too many of the Five Ws in hopes of seducing the reader into continuing. Interestingly, 50 or more years ago a lead like this would not necessarily have been seen as overloaded. But like everything else, fashions in news writing are always changing, and one key change over the past half century has been a move toward shorter, tighter leads. To satisfy modern conventions, the lead above needs to be recast to tell only the essential facts: An 18-year-old St. Albert high school student was killed late Wednesday when his car struck a telephone pole west of Edmonton. The second example tells the reader enough to know what’s going on in the story. Additional details should be added later. This modern convention exacerbates a problem faced by all writers of hard news leads: determining the order of information in the story. Let’s analyze the story of the unfortunate Albert Wells Jr. to see how this process might work. First, what are the Five Ws in this story? Who: Albert Wells Jr. What: Killed in a single-vehicle accident. When: 10:30 p.m. Wednesday. Where: Intersection of Highway 16 and Highway 2A. Why: Car struck telephone pole. How: Car went out of control. In the suggested recast lead, the writer has chosen to name five of the six key points, but in more general fashion that allows for economy of words. How, and the remaining details, will be filled in later.
  • 28. 28 The order used here, which emphasizes the WHO, seems defensible given the questions the readers of a local newspaper would most likely want answered. Here’s the lead again: WHO: An 18-year-old St. Albert high school student was killed late Wednesday when his car struck a telephone pole west of Edmonton. Still, journalism is an art, not a science, so another writer might try to emphasize another W. Let’s try the alternatives. WHAT: A single-vehicle crash west of Edmonton took the life of an 18-year-old high school student late Wednesday. WHEN: At 10:30 p.m. Wednesday an 18-year-old St. Albert high school student lost his life in a single-vehicle accident. WHERE: The intersection of Highway 16 and Highway 2A west of Edmonton was the scene of a fatal one-car crash Wednesday night. WHY: A car crashed into a telephone pole late Wednesday, resulting in the death of the vehicle’s lone occupant, an 18-year-old student from St. Albert. We can see more clearly when we try each of these approaches why the Who lead, in this case, works best. Still, as we saw in our discussion of news judgment in Chapter IV, an additional fact can change our decision about which W to emphasize. Imagine that the same intersection had been the scene of several fatal accidents in the preceding couple of years. Suddenly, Where becomes the most compelling fact: A deadly intersection west of Edmonton took another life late Wednesday when an 18- year-old St. Albert high school student lost control of his car and struck a telephone pole. Many city editors and newspaper writing coaches advise young newspaper writers to “keep it tight” or words to that effect. As a general rule, most newspaper editors would today agree that a good lead should be no more than about 25 to 30 words in length. Given contemporary sensibilities, this 30-word rule is good advice — especially when the story is so momentous that it speaks for itself. Consider these three leads from different news organizations all covering the same story on July 20, 1969: American Neil Armstrong has become the first man to walk on the Moon. So said the British Broadcasting Corporation, summing up one of the great stories of the century in 13 words. The Associated Press was even more economical: Man landed on the moon this day, Sunday, July 20, 1969.
  • 29. 29 But the AP’s 11 words were by no means the least spent on this topic. The New York Times lead summed up the story in a mere eight: Men have landed and walked on the moon. Sometimes, of course, a less momentous story requires more words in the lead in order for the reader to understand what is going on. Even when the lead is packed with all Five Ws, though, economy with words is an aid to clarity. So, as my first city editor used to say, repeatedly: “Write tight!” Inexperienced journalists, however, should strive to avoid the fault of writing so tightly that their sentences turn into incomprehensible telegraphs. One good rule for writing good leads and avoiding this fault is to write in complete sentences. (A sentence, for those of you who have forgotten, or who were never taught, is a group of words that expresses a complete thought. “Jesus wept” is a sentence. “A bumpy road” is not.) While economical use of words will almost always help a news story, however, it is not necessarily enough. When a story is as dramatic as men landing on the moon, or political leaders assassinated, the facts will speak for themselves and a compelling story will result. When the facts are a little less momentous — a fire with no injuries in a still- unoccupied suburban house, a minor robbery, a development permit granted by city council, for example — something in addition to brevity is called for. In the competitive atmosphere of the newsroom, journalists need to market their stories to editors for good play (that is, favourable location in the paper), not to mention better assignments in the future. The lead, of course, is the best advertisement for a journalist struggling to win the attention of the editors who make the decisions in the newsroom. One way to write a good lead on an otherwise remarkable story is to include a telling detail — some fact, possibly quite minor, that sets the story apart. Imagine, for example, that a man has robbed a credit union of a small sum of money (inevitably “undisclosed,” because police rarely reveal such information). Also imagine that the man said he had a gun, but never showed it, and that he escaped in a car driven by a confederate. Not much grist here for the daily mill! This story’s unlikely to amount to much more than a three-paragraph brief in the back of the city section. Given this material, the journalist could opt for a bare recitation of the facts: A small sum of money was taken when a man who said he was armed with a firearm held up the City Credit Union on Railway Avenue just before closing time Monday.
  • 30. 30 Ho hum. Or he could try to add a little value by spinning out a reference to the obvious aftermath of such an event. Police are searching for a man who robbed the City Credit Union on Railway Avenue of a small sum of money just before closing time Monday. But imagine that the robber escaped in a bright pink Cadillac bearing the name of a cosmetics company, or that he was wearing the uniform of a group of religious farm folk, or that his gun was revealed to be a rubber hammer! Any of these facts adds up to a striking detail that sets the story apart from all the other petty robberies that plague a big city on any day. Any one of them, incidentally, would make the story considerably more entertaining to write. Consider just one example: Police are looking for a man who robbed the City Credit Union just before closing time Monday, then escaped down Railway Avenue in a lipstick pink Cadillac. Because they set the story apart, such small facts belong in the lead. Another common way to add a little value — and a little interest — to the hard news lead is what journalists call the “impact lead.” An impact lead, as the name implies, explains the impact of a development being reported on the reader. So, a reporter might write: A fungal infection that can cause death has extended its range from Vancouver Island to the British Columbia Mainland — a development that could further depress the West Coast’s already lagging tourist industry. Once the writer has decided the most important information to put in the lead, perhaps including some telling fact, and presented it as a complete sentence, he should keep these additional common-sense lead-writing guidelines in mind. Keep it tight — use no more than about 30 words. Avoid distractions — strive to write a coherent lead that contains no capital letters other than the first one, no numerals, no commas and no formal titles. Remember, though, this is a goal, not a requirement. It is hard to do. Set the right tone — the tone of the lead should be appropriate for the event being reported on. A flippant, colloquial lead may be fine for a description of a spring festival or a soapbox derby. It is not appropriate for a report of a funeral, an airplane crash or an incident of domestic violence. When in doubt, err on the side of caution. Don’t bury the lead — don’t make readers wallow through insignificant facts to get the point of the story. Usually, for example, it’s the city council decision that belongs in the lead, not who on council voted for it. Cut to the chase!
  • 31. 31 Highlight differences — find the fact, like the lipstick pink Cadillac, that makes the story different. Speak clearly — jargon, acronyms, foreign phrases, abstract concepts, general and vague language all make it hard to understand what a story is about. Say what you mean and say it clearly and directly— your readers will thank you for it. Don’t mumble! Use active words — describe the action. Where possible use the active voice. Robbers held up the gas station is superior to the gas station was held up. Union members approved the contract not the contract was approved by the union. Be visual — help the reader “see” what’s happening. Jason Kenney looks exhausted. His complexion is chalky, his five-o’clock shadow positively Nixonian, his smart blue suit rumpled, and his tummy, a victim of too many quick and greasy restaurant meals, creeping over his belt. Put people first — don’t leave them in the background while favouring facts or technical material. Better to report that It is difficult to measure how many Ontario workers have lost their jobs because of U.S. trade sanctions, than to say It is difficult to measure the impact of recent U.S. trade sanctions on job losses in Ontario. Don’t start with subsidiary clauses — in other words, don’t put the cart before the horse. Despite an unusually dry spring, Saskatoon waterworks officials are confident that water rationing will not be needed this summer. Nope! Drop the dry spring for now. Use it later in the story. Saskatoon waterworks officials are confident that water rationing will not be needed this summer. Beware double-decker leads — don’t repeat the first paragraph in the second. This is a common error, as reporters strive to back up their leads with a telling quote and end up restating the obvious. A Victoria alderman is shocked and appalled that provincial transportation grants have been cut again. “I’m shocked and appalled that provincial transportation grants have been cut again,” Ald. John Thomson said Thursday. The quote should provide new information or be eliminated. Place the time element with care — strive for grace and clarity. The position of the time element in a lead is a potential problem. It should be placed so that it would sound natural if read aloud, but not at the risk of making the story confusing or unintentionally amusing. Normally, it’s better to put the time element after the verb: Union President Buck O’Dell and City Hospital Labour Relations Director Bob Clarke signed a new collective agreement Wednesday for the facility’s approximately 800 support employees. This sounds more natural than Union President Biff O’Dell and City Hospital Labour Relations Director Bob Clarke Wednesday signed a new collective agreement for the facility’s approximately 800 support employees. But not always: The Prime Minister said Wednesday… Now why did he say that?
  • 32. 32 Avoid the insultingly obvious — let the facts speak for themselves. There’s no need to tell readers that the death of a small child is tragic. There’s something wrong with them if they can’t figure that out for themselves. Yet “tragedy” is probably the most overworked word in Canadian tabloid journalism. Avoid clichés — don’t let something go terribly wrong. Yes, that motorcycle rider is lucky to be alive. He may not be so pleased about losing his right leg. This rule applies to more than leads, of course. Clichés like these anywhere in your story will have readers choking back tears. Summary - Journalists call the opening of a news story “the lead.” - The lead is the most important part of any newspaper story, because it is based on the lead that most readers decide whether to continue reading. - The lead must accurately summarize the facts of the story. - The lead must be interesting enough to command and keep the reader’s attention. - The modern preference is to keep leads short. - Economical use of words will benefit any news lead. - A telling detail that sets a story apart from the others belongs in the lead. - Lead writers should speak clearly and use the active voice.
  • 33. 33 Chapter 8 The Second-Day Lead and Other Variations Some journalists describe their job as writing history as it happens. That means that reporters often cover stories that will continue developing over days, weeks or longer periods. This creates the need for what is known in the trade as the “second-day lead.” The basic hard news lead assumes the reader is hearing about the story for the first time. The second-day lead tries to “advance” the story, or take it another step forward. Some journalists term this giving a story “forward spin.” In other words, the second-day lead can give a sense of immediacy to a story that is growing old — or that will be old by the time it appears. The notion of advancing a story is particularly important to newspaper journalists who know that many readers will read their story after they’ve already been alerted to the breaking news on their morning drive-to-work radio program. So, instead of writing a basic lead, say: A bearded man in black wielding a rubber mallet, who witnesses said resembled a member of a religious farming commune, held up a downtown service station late yesterday. … a journalist might try to add a little forward spin: Police are still seeking a bearded man in the black garb of a religious farming commune who held up a downtown service station with a rubber hammer late yesterday. Here’s a second-day lead from the June 2, 2005, edition of the Toronto Star: Police chief William Blair said today that yesterday afternoon’s shooting that wounded two innocent women at the Yorkdale subway station was believed to be drug-related and he said police are stepping up plans to take down the “small number of gangsters” still operating in Toronto. The news is that two innocent women were injured in a shooting. But given the vagaries of newspaper publishing, the Star’s editors knew the story would be getting long in the tooth by the time it appeared on the streets in the wee hours of the next morning. So they gave it some forward spin, to wit, police plans to nab Toronto’s remaining gangsters. Sometimes second-day leads are entirely justifiable. It’s legitimately news, for example, to tell readers that police have not yet caught the bearded robber clad in black. It’s professional to phrase that important information as forward spin.
  • 34. 34 Sometimes, speaking realistically, there can be a certain amount of fakery involved. This is the case with the Toronto Star lead. Is it really news that the Toronto police are stepping up plans to take down crooks? Or was this just a reporter’s response to a demand from management for a second-day lead? Since the police always intend to round up crooks, I say this second-day lead is a contrived one. But that, folks, is how the game is played! Novice newspaper writers should always be able to write a second-day lead when asked to by their editors. New journalists should also be familiar with a couple of other variations on the standard hard-news lead. The delayed-identification lead is useful when the Who element of your lead is not as important as the What element. The story of poor Albert Wells in the previous chapter contained an example of the delayed identification lead: An 18-year-old St. Albert high school student was killed late Wednesday when his car struck a telephone pole west of Edmonton. Albert Wells Jr., 18, of St. Albert was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident near Spruce Grove at about 11:45 p.m., police said. The writer identifies the accident victim by more newsworthy qualities in the lead, but doesn’t actually provide the details of his name until a later paragraph, delaying the identification. Another useful common variant is the impact lead, which attempts to explain in the lead how readers will be affected by the news being reported. Here’s one: The one-per-cent increase in interest rates announced by the Bank of Canada Thursday is expected to exert significant downward pressure on residential housing prices nationwide, bank economists agree. Summary - When covering stories that develop over a period of time, reporters need to write leads that take this into account. - When covering stories that may have been reported on broadcast media by the time they appear in the paper, journalists need a way to “move the story forward.” - One common way to deal with this problem is called the second-day lead.
  • 35. 35 - The second-day lead tries to give immediacy to the story by describing what’s happening at the next stage of the story. - Delayed identification leads are useful when the identity of a person in a news story is less important than what has happened to them. - Impact leads attempt to explain the impact of the news reported in the lead on the story’s readers.
  • 36. 36 Chapter 9 The soft-news lead If the hard-news lead is the essential skill that must be learned by all aspiring news writers, sooner or later they will all be asked to write a soft news story. What should a writer do when hard news goes soft? For starters, of course, a different kind of lead is required. Indeed, the key difference between hard news and soft news is the approach taken in the lead. Soft-news leads are often referred to as “feature leads” or “delayed leads.” These terms both give important clues about the fundamental problems faced by writers of soft-news leads. First, soft-news leads are generally found atop “feature stories” — that is, stories that in the terminology of the trade are a little longer, more reflective, use more colourful language, or perhaps probe a little deeper. They are stories that, at least in theory, give more scope to a writer’s creativity. In attempting to begin such a story — which may aim for the heart rather than the head — the writer ought not to hammer the reader with the most important facts. Indeed, with the approach typical of soft-news leads, the writer goes nowhere near the Five Ws in the opening of the story. Instead, she can take a little time to set the tone, paint the scene, introduce the reader to the atmosphere that surrounds the story — hence the notion of a delayed lead. The writer of soft news is allowed to tease the reader at the start of the story, and to use a more traditional storytelling structure of beginning, build-up, climax and conclusion. Thus the writer of a story about riding in a freight train locomotive through the Rocky Mountains, say, need not start with the most important facts — whatever they may be. (Maybe, The new General Electric AC4400 heavy haul locomotive can use its 4,500 horsepower diesel engine to haul…) Rather, she can write something like: This ain’t the Orient Express, but it’s still murder! With a soft-news lead like that, readers will get the point, and will more than likely stick around to get the story. In theory, with soft news leads, almost anything goes. But with one important caveat: It must work! The scope given soft news writers gives us some of the best writing in the newspaper. Alas, this artistic license also gives us some of the worst.
  • 37. 37 Typically, however, most successful delayed leads have one thing in common: they move from the specific to the general. So, for example, a feature story might start by describing Farmer John out standing in his field. The aim, of course, would be to illustrate why John’s outstanding in his field. While writers of soft-news leads are permitted — expected even — to take longer to get to the point of the story, they need to remember that readers nevertheless want to get to the point fairly quickly. After all, their objective is the same as that of a writer of a hard- news lead: to hook the reader, and to reel him in! In an era when tight leads and short stories are in fashion, a key piece of advice to novice news writers is to keep their soft news fairly hard. A delayed lead is fine, but not to the point the story becomes tedious. Moreover, this delayed approach requires the placement of a “nut graph” — a paragraph that sums up the focus of the story — high in the story. The nut graph, which we will discuss in more detail in a subsequent chapter, should appear by the fourth or fifth paragraph of the story. Writers should also remember that soft news, done properly, still requires plenty of hard facts. Soft or not, we are writing journalism, not poetry! Finally, writers need to remember that because of the fashion of the day, their soft news stories — like hard news stories — will be short and may grow even shorter. In short, as it were, the scope for delay in a delayed lead is shrinking. Now, as we noted above, the most common form of the delayed lead moves from the specific (an example) to the general (a principle). So, for example, on June 4, 2005, a Toronto Star reporter wrote: Most Palestinians think Khaled Kasab Mahameed has lost his mind. Two months ago, the Muslim lawyer from the biblical town of Nazareth took it upon himself to do what no Arab has ever before dared — he launched a museum dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust. A specific example of the action of one person is designed to illustrate the point, as the Star’s reporter put it a few lines later, that “as symbols go, Mahameed's efforts have been hailed as a watershed moment in Israeli-Arab relations.” In addition to moving from specific examples to general principles, most soft-news leads also tend to be anecdotal, or narrative, in nature. That is, they tell a story rather that set out a statement of important facts. Here’s an example of a storytelling lead, used atop a personality profile of an Ontario politician who attended the 1983 Conservative convention:
  • 38. 38 Claude Bennett is working the floor, pressing the flesh, touching elbows. He’s cool. All around him — pandemonium. There are almost 10,000 souls crammed into the Ottawa Civic Centre Arena this hot spring night, come to watch the destruction of some political careers, the flowering of others. Everyone is here for the show: pinstriped lawyers from unprestigious firms, bulging and purple-faced but still hungry; lean, shrewd-eyed, sunburned farmers from Elk’s Knuckle, with their plump, honest, ladies’ auxiliary wives; unwholesomely svelte young men in silk suits, $60 haircuts and wraparound sunglasses; tight-faced college keeners shadowing jobs as executive assistants; incredibly beautifully women, clad in gowns as colourful and splendid as Joseph’s coat. … Naturally, journalism professors (having no need to write to deadline), love to classify this stuff. Since there are plenty of things a writer can do with a soft-news lead that could never be contemplated in the hard news pages, there’s lots of scope for creating lists of categories of soft news leads. Of course, there’s really no end to the number of great ideas — or lame ones — that can be used for leading soft news stories. Here are just a few: Teaser leads try to tease the reader to tickle her fancy. Determined to live long and prosper, a drought-ridden Vulcan, Alta., started the 1990s with a bold move to put itself on the intergalactic map. And it worked … sort of. The writer hoped readers would stick with the story to find out that the Southern Alberta town had gone boldly where no other dust-blown Prairie town had gone before by bringing itself to the attention of North America’s legions of Star Trek fans. Ironic leads try to use the humour in irony to grab readers’ attention. Here’s one from a how-to story, a common type of feature, which tried to teach readers how to tie a bowtie. It takes a real man to wear a bowtie. Any sissy can strap on a long tie or wear no tie at all. But try walking into a room full of grease monkeys in stained coveralls and asking directions to the foreman’s office — if you’re wearing a nice polka-dot bow-tie, they’ll know right off who’s boss! Question-mark leads ask a question. They top most journalists’ leads-to-avoid list. Why? Because they usually ask questions readers don’t want answered. Still, done right, they can work. Is cowboy poetry keeping up with the times? Most of the more than 90 poets lariat who rode into Pincher Creek from across Western Canada and the United States this weekend for their seventh annual Canadian gathering say No. More to the point, they practically shout it: “NO!” List leads reinforce evidence of a trend. General Motors boasts that it makes the most fuel-efficient large cars on the market. Toyota’s hybrid cars sell so well that buyers usually aren’t able to arrange a test drive. Mercedes is building a two-seater that gets more than 75 miles per gallon. Suddenly, good mileage is important again.
  • 39. 39 Great-quote leads build on a quote. Passenger Charlie Powell knew something was wrong when he heard the bang and felt the wing of the elderly Grumman Goose seaplane dip. “I thought, ‘We’re all gonna die!’ … And most of us did.” Person-centred leads, like the one about the Nazareth lawyer above, try to use a story about an individual to illustrate a broader situation involving lots of people. Contrast leads highlight an ironic contrast to make a point. The mild mannered office clerk who turns out to be a mass murderer and the millionaire pilot who squired around movie stars then and hides in a hotel room now are all fodder for this approach. Play-on-word leads can be sublime, but they carry a high risk. After all, it’s said the pun is both the highest and lowest form of humour. A description of a boy and his grill might work on a summertime story about outdoor cookery. But if you’re thinking of linking petunia sales to the sweet smell of success, well, just forget it! Situational leads describe a situation in hopes of illuminating a bigger point. Ralph Plotz is exhausted. His complexion is chalky, his five-o`clock shadow positively Nixonian, his smart blue suit rumpled, and his tummy, a victim of too many quick and greasy restaurant meals, creeping over his belt. Still, you can sense the little tremor of anticipation when Plotz — suddenly the “enfant terrible” of Western Canada’s small-c conservative scene — eases his squat frame up to the podium. But the risk is high that they can descend into untended hilarity. The old journalist sits at his desk, staring at his computer, without an idea in his head. As more than one observer has pointed out, if the most exciting thing someone can do is sit, it’s time for another subject! Nightmare leads — It was a nightmare come to life… — and poetic leads are right up there on most folks’ Don’t-Do lists. Still, as in most creative matters, never say never. Done right, almost anything can work! Consider: They'll be ridin’ From Vancouver, Manitoba, Dawson Creek. Even one From Lubbock, Texas, Has set out For Pincher Creek. It's those drat-blamed Cowboy poets, 81 of ’em In all Comin' for
  • 40. 40 their yearly readin', roundup, tea party And ball. … Summary - Soft news requires a different approach to lead writing. - Soft-news leads are also often called delayed leads because they start by telling a story before getting to the key facts. - Delayed leads require the use of a “nut graph” — which explains the thesis, or the main point, of the story. - The nut graph should be placed high in the story so that the reader does not have to wait for long to find out what the story is about. - Most successful delayed leads move from the specific to the general. - Most soft-news leads tend to be anecdotal, or narrative, in nature — telling a story rather that setting out a statement of important facts.
  • 41. 41 Chapter 10 Writing ‘Nut Graphs’ Feature stories need nut graphs for the same reason hard-news stories need summary leads. A nut graph is a common newspaper industry term of a paragraph near the top of a story with a delayed, soft-news lead that sums up the focus, or the main point, of the story. In other words, it does the same job as the summary lead. It explains the main point of the story. Virtually everyone in the newspaper industry, by the way, abbreviates paragraph to graph. We’re not talking her about the graphs used to illustrate statistical stories. Like lead and lead, you’ll just have to get used to it! Nut graphs are also sometimes called focus graphs or focus statements, because they set out the focus or thesis of the story, or bridge paragraphs, because they bridge the colourful illustrative lead with the rest of the story. If the soft lead engages the reader’s imagination or emotion, the nut graph tells him why it’s worth continuing to read. Done well, the transition from the lead section to the meat of the story will be smooth and natural. Here’s one example. First the soft-news lead — which described a car accident experienced years earlier by Alberta’s premier: Ralph Klein may have been an inch from death, but at least he wasn't far from an emergency ward. The time was 2 p.m., Nov. 5, 1981. The place was a busy downtown intersection in Calgary. Then-mayor Klein and his faithful sidekick Rod Love were returning from, of all things, a Calgary General Hospital Board meeting. Near-disaster for the pair came in the form of a hurtling half-ton pickup, piloted by a young man from Olds who apparently didn’t see a light turn red. When the dust settled, Love's car was a write-off, the young man faced charges, and Klein was on his way to the nearby Holy Cross emergency ward. That’s followed by the nut graph, which puts the story in context — that was then, this is now — and explains why the situation 13 years before was ironic, if not significant: Thirteen years later, Klein had a new job in Edmonton, and inner-city emergency wards in Calgary — including the one at the Holy Cross — were on their way into history as a result of budget cutbacks.
  • 42. 42 The story then could move naturally to describing the debate over the cutbacks, and their impact. Here’s another example: Don't ever try to tell Karen and Bob Lyons word-of-mouth advertising doesn't work. They’d tell you about the gentleman from Japan who rented a car in New York City and drove across the continent to Pincher Creek to buy about $100 worth of their prize- winning honey. When he got there, he was surprised by how far it was, recalls Bob. But he never gave up and turned back. Then the nut graph: The Lyons’ visitors’ book is filled with the names of honey lovers from Japan, Europe, Australia and almost every corner of Canada and the U.S. The advertising effort that attracts these sojourners to this community about 150 kilometres south of Calgary is simple yet effective: word of mouth. Summary - Feature stories need nut graphs for the same reason hard-news stories need summary leads. - A nut graph is a paragraph near the top of a story with a delayed, soft-news lead that sums up the focus, or the main point, of the story. - Nut graphs are also sometimes called focus graphs or focus statements, because they set out the focus or thesis of the story.
  • 43. 43 Chapter 11 Attribution The concept of attribution is the fundamental building block of the concept of modern journalism. Without attribution, we all now sense, a story is nothing. Or, to put that another way, without attribution, a story is just your opinion, and who cares what you think? At least, if you have an opinion, as far as the world of journalism is occurred, you’d better be in a position that makes it worth reporting what your opinion is. Attribution, in other words, is where you tell your reader where you got your information. It can be as simple as the words “he said.” The idea of attribution in modern newspaper writing comes from the idea that a reporter’s job is not to write his own opinions, but is to provide readers with an unbiased — or at least a balanced — description of the facts of a story. Needless to say, inhabiting a real world as we do, it is never really true that a journalist can provide a strictly objective account of anything. Of course we all bring our opinions, our faith, our cultural perspective to anything we write about. But that discussion is for philosophy class, or maybe sociology. Certainly our personal ambition and our cultural biases may affect the stories we choose to report, and to some degree the assumptions we bring to reporting them, but the game of journalism as it has been played in North America for most of the past century has been at least to write our stories as if we were presenting an unbiased accounting of the facts. That means attribution is essential in a news story, hard or soft, because it is important to show readers where statements come from, who made them, why they made them, and why readers ought to consider their views. In other words, it is a basic assumption of modern journalism that readers are entitled to know the source of the facts, quoted statements and opinions in your story. Where to place attribution in a story can be trickier. Normally, reporters are expected to provide the source of the source of the information in their lead. This can be phrased specifically: It’s time for federal legislation to outlaw the practice of hiring replacement workers during strikes, says Buzz Hargrove, President of the Canadian Auto Workers union. Or it can be put more generally: The body of a man found near Fernie, B.C., has been identified as that of a missing hunter, police say.
  • 44. 44 Being too detailed and specific with attribution can make a lead cluttered and hard to follow and should be avoided. That detailed information can come deeper in the story. Nevertheless, regardless of where it is positioned in the story, every person quoted and most people referred to in a news story should be fully identified by name, job and (if only by implication) the reason they are quoted. This is known as setting up the quote. A quote in which the speaker has not been completely identified has not been properly set up. Sometimes attribution may be eliminated from a lead because it is common knowledge. Canadians are to vote today in a general election. But be careful, one man’s common knowledge is another man’s opinion. It is usually best to err on the side of providing attribution. Likewise, sometimes attribution may be skipped because it is implied. A man was in custody today in Yorkton, Sask., after an armed standoff following a police chase. It’s pretty clear the source of this information was the police, so the “police said” is implied. Further, most reporters know by experience that the police may be trusted to provide trustworthy information on some topics, and perhaps less so on others. We can be confident, for example, that if the police say they have arrested John Smith, suspected of a string of bank robberies, that they have done so. Our stories can safely reflect that. We should be more careful, however, when they imply (as they often do in such circumstances) that Mr. Smith is obviously guilty of the crime with which he has been charged. But even in this case, attribution is soon required. Yorkton RCMP said a man armed with a shotgun held officers at bay Monday night in a trailer court and threatened to kill himself. If we write that the weather tomorrow is expected to be sunny and warm, it’s pretty obvious that the source of the information was the weather office. Still, in such an example, there would be little harm to the lead is saying so. Attribution can also be skipped in the lead if the facts are easily verified. An 18-year-old St. Albert high school student was killed late Wednesday when his car struck a telephone pole west of Edmonton. No attribution required in the lead — although you’ll want it lower in the story regardless, even if it’s only a “police said.” But attribution must be placed in the lead is someone is making an accusation, or if opinion or speculation is involved. Consider this lead: Mechanical failure may have been involved in the death of an 18-year-old St. Albert high school student killed late Wednesday when his car struck a telephone pole west of Edmonton, police said today.
  • 45. 45 This lead requires attribution because someone (the police) is speculating about the cause of the crash. Now, look at this one: Alcohol use is suspected in the death of an 18-year-old St. Albert high school student killed late Wednesday when his car struck a telephone pole west of Edmonton, police say. This lead requires attribution even more urgently, because it contains an accusation about the conduct of the crash victim. Even though the victim is dead, fairness obliges to point out the source of the accusation. If the person accused were still alive, practical legal considerations — the presumption of innocence, the right of an accused person to a fair trial — make the need for attribution more pressing. The next lead would be fine, because it is factual and verifiable: A seriously injured St. Albert high school student has been charged with driving drunk after the car he was driving struck a telephone pole west of Edmonton late Wednesday. But imagine, instead, that the story went something like this: Albert Wells Jr. of St. Albert smelled of alcohol and slurred his words as he was cut from the wreck of his car by rescue workers… Obviously, in this case, attribution would be essential. …a Spruce Grove fire-rescue specialist testified Tuesday in a Court of Queen’s Bench trial. Whenever you site an accusation in a story, whether it is the police, a neighbour or a politician making the accusation, you owe a debt of fairness to both the accused person and the reader to explain who is making the accusation — and possibly to provide context that could explain their motive for doing so. Whenever a statement is placed inside quotation marks, implying that that the statement is someone’s exact spoken or written words, attribution must be provided. Finally, attribution is normally placed after the statement for which it is provided, especially if the information attributed is not earth shaking, or is perhaps not certain to be true. If taxes are not raised, the town of Duckville may have to curtail some essential services by the end of the year, says Town Councillor Ignatius Jones. The city has no business putting fluoride in Calgarians’ water, says Ald. Pearl Flugmann, a candidate for mayor in the Oct. 19 civic election. But sometimes, the identity or position of the person making the statement is so newsworthy, that the attribution belongs in front of the information being attributed.
  • 46. 46 Premier Ralph Klein says he will use the Notwithstanding Clause of the Constitution to prevent same-sex marriages becoming legal in Alberta. Or: The appointed head of the Metro Health Region says board members – including himself -- should be elected. Summary - Attribution is a fundamental building block of the concept of modern journalism. - Attribution is where you tell your reader where you got your information. - It can be as simple as the words “he said.” - It is a basic assumption of modern journalism that readers are entitled to know the source of the facts, quoted statements and opinions in a story. - Some leads that contain obviously factual information known by most people do not require attribution. - Leads that contain accusations, speculation or opinion always require attribution in the lead. - Attribution is normally placed after the statement for which it is provided. - But if the identity of the speaker is highly newsworthy in its own right, attribution may be placed before the statement.
  • 47. 47 Chapter 12 Using Quotes in News Stories Quotes are indispensable to journalism as practiced today. This is because, more often than not, news is what people say. Naturally, we all understand that Who says something, and What they say, makes news. But remember too that news is often also How they say it, When and Where they say it, and Why they say it. Quotes are important because they are the key mechanism of establishing attribution in journalism. So quotes and attribution go together like fish and water — it’s important to establish who said something (attribution), and it’s important to accurately establish what was said (quotes). Quotes lend authenticity to journalistic reports. They put readers in touch with what people in the news actually said. At least in theory, they allow readers to judge for themselves the merits of a speaker’s arguments. They are used as evidence to back up the statement you have written in your lead. For these reasons, whoever is being quoted must be identified clearly. It’s important that the reader of a news story is always be able to tell exactly where the information he is reading comes from. He should never have to guess if it’s the prime minister speaking, say, or just the reporter. In standard journalistic practice, there are two types of quotes: direct quotes and indirect quotes. A direct quote is the exact words that were spoken by somebody. Direct quotes are identified by the use of quotation marks. Everything inside the quotation marks should be exactly (or very nearly exactly) what the speaker said. The quotation marks mark off the words actually spoken from all the other material in the story. The value of direct quotes is that — again, at least in theory — they tell the reader precisely what someone said, in their own words. They allow the reader to make her own judgment about the merits of what the speaker had to say. They provide evidence that the statement in the lead can be backed up by documentation of something someone said. Moreover, direct quotes lend drama to a well-written story. A strong quote, accurately reported, can be the key to an effective story. The best quotes are entertaining and succinct.
  • 48. 48 The problem, of course, is that not all quotes are strong, or even make much sense. Some direct quotes are pretty blah. Others are confusing. In such cases, an indirect quote is better. So, newspaper writers should not fall prey to the common temptation to quote at any cost. More often than not, this arises more from the need to show their editors they are doing a good job than from the actual requirements of their story. Nevertheless, a direct quote should always be used when the speaker is saying something controversial, or when he is accusing someone of something. An indirect quote is a paraphrase — that is, the writer’s version of what someone said. The advantage of indirect quotes is that they can cut through excess verbiage to express what a speaker means succinctly. They can make a dull quote more lively, and a confusing quote clear. The principal difficulty with indirect quotes is that writers don’t always understand or interpret correctly what a speaker is saying. So if you’re going to quote someone indirectly, you need to be certain that you really understand what they meant when they spoke and ensure that you paraphrase them accurately Usually, well-written news stories use a mixture a direct quotes and indirect quotes. Let’s consider a couple of examples. Imagine that you’re covering a civic election in a big Canadian city. You interview the mayor, and she tells you: "I believe that I have done a good job and I am confident the citizens of our city share my view and will return me to office." This is a quote that’s on the borderline between being suitable for direct quotation or indirect quotation. Practically speaking, you might want to use it if it’s the best you’ve got and your story needs to demonstrate that you heard the mayor talking. Now, you would definitely want to use an indirect quote if the mayor had said something like this: “Speaking confidence-wise, regarding my electibility, notwithstanding the volatility of the electorate mediated by the popular perception of my past and ongoing administrative successes, I think it’s overwhelmingly clear that the citizenry shares my perception of a positive work-service continuum while in office and the probability is high that I will be returned with an increased plurality after the cessation of balloting.” A succinct paraphrase along these lines would work better:
  • 49. 49 The mayor said she was confident the public agrees she has done a good job and will return her to office on election day. On the other hand, if the mayor said of her chief challenger in the election, “I’ll kick Bobby’s ass!” you’d definitely want to put that in direct quotes. There’s just no way to effectively paraphrase such a sentiment! Using the same yardstick, in this example the direct quote is clearly superior to the paraphrase. Direct quote: “That jerk is the worst referee I’ve ever seen! He must be blind!” Indirect quote: He criticized the referee’s abilities. Returning to the first example, while new reporters are frequently told that editing quotes is completely unacceptable, it would be permissible to make a few minor editing changes if she had said: "I believe, uh, that I have done a, a, a good job and I am, er, confident the citizens of our city share my view and, uh, will return me to office." Random ums, uhs, ers and meaningless repetitions may come out of a quote without harming its integrity or the ethics of the writer. But again, you must be certain that what you’re taking out really is only a meaningless sound. Now, let’s consider some guidelines for when to quote, and when not to, in news stories: If you quote directly, you must quote accurately. Inside quotation marks, you are pretty much stuck with what the speaker said. There’s an obvious ethical problem with revising a direct quote in hopes of improving it. Fixing a minor grammatical error or editing out a meaningless repetition may be acceptable in many journalistic circles — but in this age of tape recorders and ever-present microphones, it is dangerous. Changing words outright or even reorganizing them a little is not appropriate. When quoting directly, you must strive for technical accuracy. If you quote directly, you should strive to quote elegantly. Beware the temptation to break the flow of the quote to include explanatory notes in brackets. Too many of these stage whispers ruin the quote and disrupt the flow of the story. If you must use explanations in parentheses, consider a paraphrase instead. Good quotes shouldn’t require a lot of explanation. Ellipses in quotes should be used with care. Ellipses — three dots used to delete wordy passages from otherwise coherent quotes — can be useful. Say someone said: “I’m certain because I’ve been around Parliament for a long time and really, really know what’s going on that we can defeat the government on Tuesday.” This could be usefully shortened to: “I’m certain … we can defeat the government on Tuesday.” But take care
  • 50. 50 not to change the speaker’s meaning. Never combine ellipses with notes, such as explanations in brackets. Always fully identify the speaker when you quote directly. If a statement is within quotation marks in a news story, the person who made the statement must be identified. In journalism, this is termed setting up the quote. A quote that suddenly refers to Smith, instead of Sr. John Smith, Chief of Dentistry at the Nanaimo Clinic, for example, has not been properly set up. Usually, when a quote falls below a reasonable standard of pithiness, use a paraphrase. There is little value in directly quoting the mayor saying something like “over the past six months, the spouses of city council members have only taken taxpayer- financed trips on 16 occasions.” Better simply to say, The mayor said spouses of city council members have only taken taxpayer-financed trips 16 times in the past six months. But very important statements require direct quotation, even if they are dull. If the Prime Minister is giving a speech on, say, the results of Quebec's next independence referendum, it's advisable to quote him in his own words, even if they're tedious. Use fragmentary or one-word quotes sparingly. Fragments and one word quotes are OK to express doubt — he called the party’s actions “criminal.” Likewise, they are acceptable to show someone used a highly charged word — he accused the chief executive of behaving like a “Nazi.” They can also indicate cultural or ideological disagreement. However, one-word quotes are not an appropriate remedy for sloppy note taking. The context of the quote should always be clear to the reader. Without more information, this quote is not particularly helpful: “It’s all politics,” the Liberal candidate said of the NDP campaign. Say what? Some writers try to solve this problem by adding afterthoughts: “It’s junk,” he said of the new Korean-built sedan. Recast when faced with the need to add afterthoughts. Quotes should back up the lead, not repeat it. Avoid double attribution. The story’s first quote should provide additional information or insight and move the story forward. Avoid leads like this. The prime minister was shocked and appalled by the opposition’s accusations of corruption. “I’m shocked and appalled by the opposition’s accusations or corruption,” the prime minister said. Avoid quotes that the speaker didn’t say. This is a common sin of headline writers. If you’re going to say, The critic called it a ‘wonderful’ movie, make sure she used that word. Partial quotes must fit the grammatical structure of the sentence. Avoid ungrammatical use of partial quotes: The driver admitted he “don’t have a chance” in Tuesday’s race. But also avoid partial quotes that would never have been spoken by the
  • 51. 51 speaker. The driver admitted he “doesn’t have a chance” in Tuesday’s race. Would he have really said: “I doesn’t have a chance”? In either case, recast. Be careful not to alter the meaning of a statement by using partial quotes. This means one thing: “There may be times when it makes sense to use chemotherapy to treat warts, but in 25 years of medical practice I have never encountered one!” This means another: “There may be times when it makes sense to use chemotherapy to treat warts.” In the second case, the stenography is accurate, the quote is not. Don’t attribute more to a quote than it really says. Alberta’s unemployment rate declined half a percentage point in June, a powerful indicator that the economy continues to be strong, a Statistics Canada report revealed today. If the report only said that the unemployment rate declined, you have gone too far and must recast to accurately reflect what was said. Avoid obvious clichés. Yes, avoid them even when they are in direct quotes. “He’s lucky to be alive!” “Something went terribly wrong.” “We went out there and did the job.” None of these should make the cut. However, if a speaker says, “it sounded like a nuclear bomb going off,” find out if he’s ever actually heard one. If he hasn’t, dump the cliché. If he has, however, write a story about it! Delete expletives. The question to ask yourself is: Was the profanity relevant to the story? It rarely is. If a criminal uses profanity during a holdup, that’s hardly news. If the prime minister calls the opposition leader a bad word in the House of Commons, it is. In the extremely rare cases where profanity is in fact news, what was actually said should be spelled out, not hinted at. Needless to say, profanity when used must be placed in direct quotes. In closing, we need to remember that there are grammatical rules and style rules for the use of quotes in news stories. One such key rule in use in Canadian newspapers, is that the punctuation mark that separates the direct quote for the rest of the sentence must be placed inside the quotation marks. So, for example: “I am prepared to run again in October,” Mayor Bronconnier said. Double quotation marks are used to set off quotes inside a news story. Single quotation marks are used to set of quotes within a quote. “The third time the shark struck the boat, the captain yelled, ‘we’re all going to die!’” Attribution can be placed at the beginning of a sentence, in the middle, or at the end — but in most circumstances where a short quote is used, the end is best.
  • 52. 52 The defence minister said, “We’re going to raise the budget of the budget of the Armed Forces, and we’re going to increase manpower through effective recruiting” “We’re going to raise the budget of the budget of the Armed Forces,” the defence minister said, “and we’re going to increase manpower through effective recruiting” “We’re going to raise the budget of the budget of the Armed Forces, and we’re going to increase manpower through effective recruiting,” the defence minister said. The first example can be useful when a story quotes a variety of sources, and it is important to make clear who is speaking. The second can be a useful way to improve readability by breaking up long quotes. More often than not, however, this technique works better if it is broken into two sentences with a judicious edit. “We’re going to raise the budget of the budget of the Armed Forces,” the defence minister said. “We’re going to increase manpower through effective recruiting” Still, in most circumstances the last sentence is the best. Finally, many words for said are useful when assigning attribution in a news story. Nevertheless, while a certain amount of elegant variation may help the flow of your story, a simple “she said” is usually best. So by all means exchange the occasional said for an observed or a noted, an exclaimed or even an ejaculated. However, if you intend to have a speaker aver something, or vow something, or announce it or interject it, be careful that you know what you are saying, for each of these has a precise meaning and is not a mere synonym for said. If the urge comes over you to have a speaker bark something, or sniff it, or spit it, or sigh it, well, think again and have them say it! Summary - Quotes document and support information or statements made in the lead or elsewhere in the news story. - Quotes accurately describe how people crucial to the story really feel. - Quotes colourfully describe the action going on in the story. - Quotes demonstrate the accuracy of controversial or accusatory statements attributed to speakers in the story. - Quotes demonstrate the accuracy of statements in stories where precise wording can be as issue, for example, in court cases and other legal matters.
  • 53. 53 - Quotes catch distinctions and nuances in passages of speech and convey the flavour of the speaker's language. - There are two kinds of quotes: direct quotes and indirect quotes. - Generally speaking, dull quotes should be paraphrased, lively statements should be quoted directly. - In Canadian newspaper reports, punctuation should be placed inside double quotation marks. - Quotes within quotes should be inside single quotation marks. - All statements within quotation marks must be attributed. - The best word to describe attribution is “said.”
  • 54. 54 Chapter 13 Active Voice Versus Passive Voice Most journalists, and most journalism textbooks, say that news stories should be written in the active voice. Most of the time they are right. The active voice describes the action. The passive voice describes the recipient of the action. The active voice delivers a clear, strong statement of what happened. From the point of view of writing news, it moves the story along. This is why it is beloved by journalists and others who strive to write exciting, engaging prose. The demonstrators threw rocks at the police. The passive voice can make an exciting event dull. It is an effective way to hide the responsibility of an action in an account of that action. This is why is beloved by government officials, lawyers and academics. Rocks were thrown at police by demonstrators. Often the active voice takes fewer words to describe something. They threw rocks. Rocks were thrown by them. Moreover, the passive voice makes it easy not to provide needed information about who committed an action. Rocks were thrown at police. Choosing the active voice over the passive voice can be more than simply recasting the words in a sentence. Passive: There was no sign of the sailboat at dawn. Active: The sailboat disappeared in the night. A simple way to remember how to write in the active voice is to memorize the order of subject, verb and object — SVO. The demonstrators (subject) threw (verb) rocks (object).
  • 55. 55 Young journalists are encouraged to write in the active voice because it generally makes for better, more entertaining, clearer news stories. This idea is drummed into their heads because so many of them have learned to write in the passive style favoured by government officials, teachers and supervisors. However, it’s important to remember that just because something is usually a bad idea doesn’t mean it always is. Sometimes when writing news there are sound reasons to use the passive voice. Let’s return to an example of a lead used to illustrate a different point in a previous chapter. A seriously injured St. Albert high school student has been charged with driving drunk after the car he was driving struck a telephone pole west of Edmonton late Wednesday. The passive voice is used in this lead for a good reason. The passive voice is sometimes necessary, especially in police blotter writing, because it does not carry an implication of guilt. If we were to use the active voice and say, for example, that a seriously injured St. Albert high school student has been charged with driving drunk after he drove his car into a telephone pole west of Edmonton late Wednesday we would be implying guilt, which is the job of the courts, not the newspaper. Summary - Journalists are usually encouraged to write in the active voice. - The active voice describes the action, the passive voice describes the recipient of the action. - A simple way to remember how to write in the active voice is to memorize the order of subject, verb and object — SVO. - Sometimes, however, the passive voice is better because it doesn’t indicate who was the author of an action.
  • 56. 56 Chapter 14 Using Transitions Meanwhile, back at the ranch… Boiled down to their essence, news stories are lists of facts. But they are more than just lists of facts because, written well, they are interesting and entertaining to read, in addition to being informative. Well-written news stories are interesting and entertaining, in turn, because they pull they reader along with the drama of the tale. Each fact needs to flow from the fact before it in an easy, natural progression. To achieve this goal, the writer of a news story, like the writer of any other kind of story, needs to use story-telling techniques. One simple but essential story-telling technique that must be mastered by news writers is the smooth use of transition words or transition phrases. The purpose of transition words and phrases — like the word “meanwhile” is the clichéd example above — is not to convey facts but to link the various parts of the story together so that the reader is able to move from section to section smoothly. Without these transitions, the lists of facts in a news story would be disjointed, the presentation choppy and, ultimately, the story would be distracting and boring. We use these same story-telling techniques when we move from one part of a story to another when we speak to a friend about something we’ve witnessed: So the clerk comes running out of the convenience store waving a broom, chasing the guy with the gun in his hand! Meanwhile, there’s cop car rolling up the back alley…. There’s our old friend meanwhile again, helping us — as we tell the story over a coffee — smoothly make the transition from the angry clerk to the patrolling police officer. A news account of this event might go something like this: A convenience store clerk armed only with a broom chased a pistol-packing bandit right into the arms of police Tuesday afternoon. City police praised the courage of the clerk, who told them he was tired of being bullied by robbers, when he snatched up the broom and drove the robber out of the store. However, police warned storekeepers against trying the same thing against armed bandits. “This clerk was lucky,” said Police Department spokesman Const. John Smith. “This could easily have ended in tragedy. We recommend co-operating, and then calling 9-1-1.”
  • 57. 57 As it happened, at the moment the clerk chasing the robber out the door, a police officer on a routine patrol had decided to drop in to the convenience store for a coffee and a donut. “The bad guy ran right into our officer’s arms,” said Smith. Meanwhile, on the south side, police are still searching for two masked men who held up a credit union earlier in the day… In this story, “however,” “as it happened” and “meanwhile” all serve as transitions to the next portion of the story. A transition can link the hard facts of a summary lead to the next element in the story. A huge state-controlled Chinese oil company has made an $18.5-billion US unsolicited bid for Unocal, the first major takeover attempt by a Chinese company of a U.S. corporation. The bold bid by the China National Offshore Oil Corp., demonstrates the increasing influence in Asia of no-holds-barred American takeover The phrase the bold bid signals the transition to the next part of the story — from the What of the first paragraph to the Why in the second. A story like this might make use of such transitions as “however,” “last week,” “moreover,” “in a response,” “in Beijing,” and so on to signal transitions from one part of the story to the next. In a sentence beginning, “However, the Chinese government said it would not interfere,” the however would signal to the reader that the focus of the story is about to change. A writer could also say “but” instead of however and achieve the same goal with a saving of two syllables. Doing so, however, risks complaints by readers who believe sentences oughtn’t to start with a but or an and. (This view, says the authoritative Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage is a “faintly lingering superstition.” Nevertheless, it lingers enough that some writer’s may decide not to risk it.) “Last week” and “in Beijing,” in turn, alert the reader that background will now be served up. “In a response” tells readers the other side’s opinion is about to be set out. “Moreover” indicates that we are about to receive additional evidence. And so on. Indeed, the examples of effective transitions are endless. Summary
  • 58. 58 - News stories are lists of facts. - Transitions are needed to ease the reader’s way from one fact to the next. - Transition words and transition phrases do this job. - Typically transitions do not convey facts, they merely smooth the reader’s progress to the next segment of the story and indicate the nature of the transition. - Words like “and,” “but,” “however,” “meanwhile,” “moreover” and “indeed” can all serve as transitions. - Likewise, such phrases as “in a response,” “in Ottawa,” “in a move,” “she also said” can serve the same purpose.
  • 59. 59 Chapter 15 Writing Stories in Chronological Order Now and then, the inverted pyramid story just can’t do justice to a dramatic set of circumstances. Faced with this dilemma, the news writer is occasionally justified in slipping for a spell into chronological order so as to tell a more engrossing tale. A story in chronological order is one in which the writer sets out some of the most important facts of the event he is reporting in the order in which they occurred rather than in their order of importance. In the traditional inverted pyramid news story, you will recall, the writer decides which facts are most important and concentrates those facts at the top of the story. She then puts the remaining facts in the order of their importance — paying no attention whatsoever to the chronological order in which they took place. But sometimes, telling a story in the order it happens makes the story easier for the reader to understand, and brings out the drama inherent in the series of events. Given the conventional wisdom of the newsroom, this happens only rarely. Nevertheless, as a news writer, you should be able to identify the sorts of occasions when a chronological story may work better. You should also know how to stitch together such a story. Remember that if you decide you need to use a chronological account, you still would not write a story that was simply a list of events in chronological order. When writers use this device, they blend the styles — beginning the story with a conventional news lead, then switching to a passage in chronological order, then reverting to inverted pyramid style. The problem with using only chronological style, of course, is that readers might get bored and go away before they got to the really interesting stuff: Mayor Gregory O’Neill opened Townsville Municipal Council Thursday with a short prayer and the singing of the national anthem. The six councilors in attendance then voted unanimously without debate to approve the minutes from the last meeting, and followed that up by voting unanimously to approve the agenda for Thursday night’s meeting. That done, councilors passed a motion to rezone a residential property at 135 Pleasant Street to allow the construction of a small onsite office for the architect who lives in the house. There were no objections from neighbours and the motion to allow the change also passed unanimously. Councilors then broke for 15 minutes to have coffee.
  • 60. 60 After the break, the council passed a motion to purchase out of city funds a new automobile for all adult residents of Townsville. It’s pretty clear, of course, what the problem with this example is. It’s equally clear that the best solution to this problem would be writing a traditional inverse pyramid news lead, in which the last paragraph is the first one. A story of a massive pileup in traffic, however, or a dramatic rescue or the final moments of voting at a political convention might all contain examples of passages where a switch to chronological order might improve the story. Consider this example: A High River, Alta., woman was rescued from the doorway of her mobile home Thursday afternoon moments before the structure was swept away in the raging waters of the Highwood River. The woman, a resident of the Riverside Trailer Haven, was one of about 300 residents of this community of 2,000, who were ordered out of their homes Thursday morning when the normally placid Highwood overflowed its banks and turned into a raging torrent that flooded basements throughout the town and destroyed six mobile homes. RCMP said the woman, identified as Mary Gilchrist, 35, had sneaked back into the flooded mobile home community to rescue a pet, a prizewinning albino parakeet. “We got a call at around 4:35, when the river was very high, that there was a woman in one of the trailers down by the riverside and that it looked like it was going to be swept away,” said RCMP Sgt. Raymond Chandler, who participated in the rescue. “I went immediately to the scene with several High River firefighters and we could see from where we were standing that the building was starting to shift and break up,” Chandler said. At about 4:45 p.m., Chandler said, the door of the trailer popped open and a white bird flew out. “Then I could see this woman standing in the doorway and waving frantically to us,” he said. “It looked like she was yelling, but the river was so loud at that point that no one could hear what she was saying.” Chandler said he feared for the woman’s life at that point because the river was very high and fast and the trailer was clearly about to break loose and float away. That’s when two local men appeared in a small aluminum boat powered by an outboard motor. “I don’t know how they did it,” Chandler recalled. “The boat could barely hold
  • 61. 61 its own against the river. But somehow they got it up to the door, plucked her right off her doorstep and into the boat.” Seconds later, he said, the trailer broke into pieces and was swept away in the flood. The men, who were not identified, and the woman came ashore about a hundred yards down the stream. “We had her out of the boat and into an ambulance in about two minutes after that,” Chandler said. RCMP said Gilchrist is recovering in High River Hospital from cuts, bruises and hypothermia. The cockatoo, named Popette, has not been seen since it flew out the door. Provincial officials estimate that the damage from the flood will top $10 million in High River alone. Several things should be noted about this story. First, it starts with a conventional news lead. It moves into a chronological account in paragraph four when the story becomes exciting enough to benefit from this traditional storytelling technique. Note also that the chronological portion relies heavily on quotes, which help effectively portray the drama inherent in the situation. Finally, the story slips back into inverted pyramid style in the last two paragraphs. In addition to raw drama, stories in which an amusing, quirky or unusual series of events take place may be candidates for chronological storytelling. For example: - While there’s nothing funny about bank robbery, the tale of a nervous bandit who drops his bag of cash, sets his gun on the counter while he stuffs the bills back in the bag and stands up to find himself staring down the barrel of his own pistol would lend itself to chronological style. - A story about a spy who wanted to turn himself in to the authorities in the country where he worked as a diplomat, but kept being referred from office to office by skeptical officials before finally surrendering himself to a newspaper reporter would be an ideal story for this approach. Use this technique sparingly. But use it to effect when dramatic or colourful situations arise. Summary - Occasionally, news is better reported in chronological order than in conventional inverted pyramid style.
  • 62. 62 - This only happens rarely, but reporters should be able to recognize and exploit the kinds of circumstances in which a chorological report is appropriate. - Even stories that use this device should begin, and usually end as well, with conventional news writing techniques. - Writers who use chronological accounts in inappropriate stories risk losing their readers before they get to the action. - Well-written chronological stories typically use quotes liberally. - The technique, while useful, should be used sparingly. - Stories that involve dramatic, funny, quirky, or unusual series of facts are appropriate for reporting in chronological style.
  • 63. 63 Chapter 16 Just Before You File… There’s an old expression in the newspaper business, which goes like this: “We have an unwritten contract with our readers. They pay a dime, and we explain everything.” Alas, nowadays, even a bad newspaper costs more than a dime. And seldom is everything explained. Nevertheless, your job as a journalist is to answer all the questions that a reader might logically ask — or, at the very least, explain why you can’t answer them. So, before you file your story — that is, before you submit your story to the editors for editing and publication — you should do is ask yourself if you have answered all the questions a reader would reasonably ask. This is part of a process of self-editing that every journalist should engage in before filing. For example, if you’ve written a feature about a prizewinning composer of children’s songs, you should remember to ask: What was the prize? It makes a difference, of course, if the prize was a community college song of the month contest, or the Governor General’s Award! Consider this example: The average retail price of gasoline in Edmonton rose 3 cents in a day Friday. This would be improved by answering the obvious question. The average retail price of gasoline in Edmonton rose 3 cents in a day Friday to 97 cents per litre. Or this example: He was sentenced to life in prison. This would be improved by answering the question all Canadian readers instinctively ask when reading stories of this type: what’s that really mean? He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years. Or, finally, this one: The Ontario Trucking Association said the sharp increase in prices for diesel fuel is a serious blow to the trucking industry and the thousands of Canadians it employs.
  • 64. 64 This would be improved by answering a perhaps-less-obvious question. The Ontario Trucking Association said the sharp increase in prices for diesel fuel will raise the cost of virtually everything that comes by truck — from groceries to gasoline, lumber to lace. Now you have gone through, but not quite completed, a process of asking key questions. You have started with the question: What is this story about? You’ve used that to keep yourself on track as you wrote the story. You’ve asked yourself: Have I emphasized the main point? Then you’ve gone back and asked if you’ve answered all the reader’s questions, perhaps finding a point or two you need to ask. If you have, you’ve written in the missing information. But you’re still not quite ready to file. Next, you need to ask yourself this: Have I fully identified every person quoted or referred to in the story? Are all the quotes properly set up? Read the story again with this in mind, making sure you fully identify each speaker, explaining her importance to the story. You’re getting closer, but the self-editing process isn’t quite complete. Still, there are more questions to ask. Have I overstated anything? Have I called it a crime wave when it’s really a series of car thefts? Have I called it a political battle when it’s really just a mild disagreement? Have I called it a little known Parliamentary procedure when in fact it’s a rarely used Parliamentary procedure? If you plead guilty to any of these questions, recast accordingly. Next, you should read the story with an eye to eliminating unneeded words. Remember, brevity is the soul of wit … and good news writing. Fewer words are better — at least until your story starts sounding like a telegram. Are there phrases that can be shortened or eliminated without detracting from the story? Eliminate redundancies. Have you said the story’s about a junior high school? If so, you won’t need to identify the principal as a junior high school principal. Eliminate windy phrases. Whether will usually suffice for whether or not, meeting for meeting with, consensus for consensus of opinion, lectured for gave a lecture, won for won a victory, and so on. Ask: Have I used colourful verbs? There’s usually something better than forms of the verbs to be, to get, to do, to have, to go. Police said the escaped inmate went out the door. Or, Police said the escaped inmate sneaked out the door? Finally, read your story through for clarity. Is there anywhere you have to slow down or read a passage twice to understand what it means? Are there unintended double
  • 65. 65 meanings? If so, recast the sentence to clarify the meaning. In other words, is the meaning of every passage completely clear? A useful trick to achieve this goal is to read the passage aloud. Often you will hear problems that you will not see. When you are satisfied you have completed self-editing the story as best you can, file it to the editors. But even then you are not done! As a reporter, you will only learn to do your job better if you pay attention to the changes editors have made to your story. This means answering their questions in a positive spirit — no matter how tired you are or how much you wish to leave the office for home. This means learning from the questions they ask — and asking yourself, How can I avoid that problem next time? It means that, even when the editors ask you no questions or give you no advice, you must read your story carefully the next day, note the changes that were made and learn from those changes. Summary - All good newspaper writers engage in self-editing before they file their stories. - Self-editing boils down to asking a series of questions and changing your story if you get an unsatisfactory answer to any. You should ask: - Have I answered all the questions a reader would reasonably ask? - What is this story about? Have I emphasized the main point of the story, and stuck to it? - Have I fully identified every person quoted or refereed to in this story? - Have I overstated anything? - Have I been windy or redundant? - Have I used the right words? - Is the meaning of every sentence clear on first reading? - Have I pad attention to the editors? - Have I learned anything from the way my story was edited?
  • 67. 67 Chapter 17 The Style Mentality Journalists need to develop a “style mentality.” That is, to work successfully in their field, style needs to matter to reporters and editors. Style, in this context, does not mean the colour of your necktie or the number pleats in your skirt. Style, in a literary enterprise, is the appearance of language in print. In other words, style is the choices that a publication makes about how words will be spelled, when capital letters will be used and when they won’t, what are proper abbreviations, when and if honorifics should be used, and so on. (Style is not grammar, which journalism students, not to mention reporters and editors, should have already mastered in its basics.) Ralph Waldo Emerson famously observed that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. So it may be. But consistency is important in a newspaper because the goal of a newspaper is to transmit information from writers to readers. The job of the newspaper writer is to communicate information from many sources and speakers to a great many readers. Inconsistency gets in the way of communication, and that is why consistency in style is considered a great virtue in journalism. The young person who takes this lesson to heart, and takes seriously his newspaper’s chosen style, has an advantage when it comes to securing jobs, and keeping them, and winning promotions. After all, editors, to a man and woman, think style is important because correcting style errors is wasteful, time- consuming work. Therefore, if you do well learning the style, you’ll save editors work, and you’ll have a competitive edge. From the reader’s point of view, consistent style can be said to: - Avoid confusion. - Make writers and the publications for which they write look more professional. - Avoid irritating readers, many of whom abhor inconsistency. So novice journalists should simply accept this reality: For the benefit of our own careers, and for the benefit of our readers, style is important. But if you agree with that view, or even just reluctantly accept it, you need to recognize the complexity of the task. Developing a style is not easy, for English is a complex language that contains words that are spelled the same but have more than one meaning, words that sound the same but are spelled differently, words that have the same meaning and the same sound but more than one generally accepted spelling! Add to the general complexities of the language the need to describe numbers, addresses and percentages in a consistent fashion, the availability of alternative measures for heat,
  • 68. 68 volume and distance, the local complexities of geographical place names and descriptions, the value of honorifics and we can see that style quickly becomes a complex matter. Should an address be written as ninety-one twenty-five Fiftieth Street, or 9125 Fiftieth Street, or 9125 50th Street? If the residents of Hillspring, Alberta, can’t agree among themselves whether their town should be called Hill Spring, should it matter to us? For that matter, is it Hill Spring, Alberta, or Alta., or AB? Do they labour there, or do they labor? A style mentality, or style sensibility, means adopting a mindset that always thinks about style, about consistency, in copy. This means that, wherever they go to work, journalists should attempt to quickly learn and adopt that publication’s style. It’s part of the job. It’s basic professionalism. Usually, daily newspapers have their own style on a small number of points — the spelling of local geographical features, for example — and adopt a wire-service style consistent with other newspapers that permits the easy sharing of copy. In Canada, virtually all newspapers use Canadian Press Style to determine most style questions. In the United States, most newspapers use the Associated Press Style. CP Style is the topic of another chapter in this section. Summary - Style is the appearance of language in print, the way words are spelled, capital letters used, addresses shown and so on. - The key to style is consistency. - Style matters to virtually all professional journalists, so young people contemplating a career in journalism need to be serious about style. - Journalists should develop a “style mentality” or “style sensibility.” - Consistency in style is considered a sign of professionalism among journalists. - It is held to avoid confusion. - Without a doubt a lack of attention to style irritates many readers. - Most daily newspapers have their own style on a small number of points of local significance. - Most daily newspapers adopt their country’s predominating wire service style.
  • 69. 69 - In Canada, the predominating style in newspapers is Canadian Press Style, or CP Style. - In the United States, the predominating style in newspapers is Associated Press Style, or AP Style.
  • 70. 70 Chapter 18 Memorization and Style When it comes time to deal with wire service style, in class and in the work place, memorization is important. This may be hard for students to accept in an era when memory work is not valued, and is felt to be intimidating. Nevertheless, when it comes to learning and knowing wire service style, memory work is king. The reason is because the predominating wire service styles used by most newspapers in North America — Canadian Press Style in Canada and Associated Press Style in the United States — are in important regards inconsistent, and to a degree (notwithstanding the supposedly logical arguments that underlie each esoteric point) illogical. Writing for deadline, sometimes under enormous pressure, is not the time to be pondering at length about whether it’s labour or labor, or whether the commas go inside the quotation marks or outside. It’s the time to know! Students are wise, therefore, to memorize the key points of wire service style now, and the key points of their newspaper’s style once they are employed. Thankfully, journalism is not rocket science, or even brain surgery, so the burden of memorization required is not overwhelming. Moreover, the reality is that the number of key points a reporter or editor needs to carry in her head is relatively small. One of the principal ideas behind the next chapter is to outline the points of Canadian Press Style that Canadian students really do need to have in their heads. The rest — unless they plan to make a career on the Desk — they can look up in the CP Stylebook. It’s probably not essential to know the proper ecclesiastical title of the Moderator of the United Church of Canada, and its CP-approved abbreviation. (It’s Right Rev., in case you were wondering.) It is essential to know how to write an address, abbreviate common names of places and groups, and write out a number without having to go to the Stylebook. So, to a remarkable degree, a little bit of memory work is the key to successfully landing and keeping a job in journalism. Hard-pressed copy editors and line editors will make their decisions about who stays and who goes on who knows the style rules and who submits clear, easy to edit copy. Their time is limited, their decisions are bound to be hasty. This may mean the student with the most potential, or the greatest creativity or courage (or the strongest inclination to argue), is the one who falls by the wayside. Alas, this is simply the way it is. You can be on the train or you can be left standing in the station.
  • 71. 71 One of the keys to ensuring you’re not left on the platform is simply to remember how things are done and get it right the first time! The way to do that is to memorize. Summary - Memorization is an important part of learning to work with wire service style. - When writing for deadline is not the time to be pondering style questions, or having to look them up. - Journalists should memorize key points of the wire service style predominant in their country.
  • 72. 72 Chapter 19 Canadian Press Style Whether or not you have noticed, you have certainly read a Canadian Press news story. Open any Canadian newspaper and you will see many stories that start with the initials CP. These are stories distributed by the Canadian Press. Even if you’ve somehow avoided newspapers entirely, you probably still haven’t escaped CP — which has a broadcasting arm that produces news and clips for radio stations called Broadcast News, or BN. The Canadian Press is a newsgathering co-operative financed by Canada’s daily newspaper industry. It’s had its high points and its low points, but since it was founded in 1917 it has served Canadian newspapers, and Canadian newspaper readers, well. CP is a wire service, a term that once sounded modern and now sounds rather quaint. It is used to describe a service that distributes news coverage by wire — or, nowadays, via the Internet. The idea behind a wire service is that every newspaper in the world can’t afford to have a reporter in every place in the world. But every newspaper can subscribe to a wire service instead, and run news gathered in faraway places by wire service contributors. Some wire services — like Reuters of the United Kingdom and Bloomberg News Service of the United States — are straight commercial operations that hire reporters and get stories from their bureaus around the globe. More often though, wire services are co- operatives — like the Canadian Press in Canada, the Associated Press in the United States and the Press Trust in Britain — owned and operated by the newspapers of the country. That way, a story from the Chronicle-Herald in Halifax can be distributed for use by the Victoria Times-Colonist, and a story from the Saskatoon Star Phoenix can be used by the Toronto Globe and Mail, and so on. So the Canadian Press, with bureaus in major cities throughout Canada, can edit and distribute stories from all its member newspapers for use by all its other papers — eliminating the need for member papers to run expensive bureaus of their own in far-flung places. In addition to editors in its bureaus, CP also employs its own journalists in a few major centres to cover and write important stories. The embarrassing little secret of Canadian newspapers is that CP’s reports are usually better than the stories written by papers’ own reporters — clearer, more accurate, with better leads. Young reporters could do far worse than to emulate stories edited and written by the Canadian Press.
  • 73. 73 If you plan to pursue a career in journalism, the Canadian Press Stylebook and CP’s Caps and Spelling are essential tools. (The latter is a smaller publication that lists words, proper names and abbreviations that frequently cause problems for writers and editors.) Even if you don’t, the good news is that they are both more likely to be more valuable additions to your bookshelf than most college textbooks. (The bad news is that CP Style, while religiously consistent with itself, is often illogical. Why are geographical abbreviations — P.E.I., N.W.T. — always shown with periods, and non-geographical abbreviations — RCMP, NATO — written without? It’s not logical, but it is the way it is. Memorize the difference!) They are essential tools because most Canadian newspapers follow CP Style. That is, virtually all of them produce stories in which numbers, addresses, geographical names, dollar amounts, temperatures and dates are written in a uniform format. Consider the simple question of percentages: are they shown as percent, per cent or %? (The Canadian Press Stylebook says “per cent.” The Associated Press Stylebook says “percent.”) The advantage of this is obvious when stories are being shared among a large number of newspapers. (The difficulty of keeping copy consistent is obvious too — just look at the number of editors CP must employ in its bureaus!) The reality for students of journalism in Canada is that they need to know the key points of CP Style. Indeed, it’s a good idea to start writing all your stories in CP Style right now. Check the Stylebook when you must be certain about an obscure point, but you need to keep the commonly areas that are listed below in your head. If you do, and your copy reflects your knowledge, you are more likely to be seen as a professional from the day you walk into the newsroom. There’s an old CP proverb, much quoted by journalists: When in doubt, leave it out. But if you encounter a question of style, and you’ve not memorized it form the cheat sheet below, the real proverb is this: When in doubt, look it up in the Stylebook! Essential Points of CP Style Numbers The greatest, or at least the most commonly occurring, inconsistency in Canadian Press Style is in its treatment of numbers, which naturally crop up in a wide variety of typical instances. In general, CP Style requires you to spell out whole numbers below 10 and use figures for 10 and above. When they are in a series, there will often be a mixture. There were three Fords, two Chevrolets, 15 Volkswagens, 22 Chryslers and one Humber on the car lot, of which 30 had four-cylinder engines, 10 were sixes and three were eights.
  • 74. 74 Numerals, however, are used in ages when they stand after a name. Bruce, 3, had two sisters, five and seven. Numerals are also used in numbers with fractions and decimals. He fired a .30-calibre revolver at a target 9.5 centimetres by 7.2 centimetres. Numerals are also used in decisions, votes and scores… The Oilers beat Calgary 6-5. The court ruled 5-4. …and in heights expressed informally. The robber stood 5-10. Percentages Percentages are shown in CP Style as two words, “per cent.” Two per cent, 12 per cent, 1.3 per cent. Times Specific times are shown as numerals. Break minutes from the hour with a semicolon. 2 a.m. (but not 2.00 a.m.), 2:20 a.m., 8 in the evening (but never 8 p.m. in the evening, which is redundant), 3 o’clock. Addresses Numerals are usually used in specific addresses. Numbered street names nine and below are spelled out — Fifth Avenue; 123 Fifth Ave. Streets, Avenues and the like are abbreviated in specific addresses (1406 Ryan St.), but not in general addresses (the 1400 block of Ryan Street). In cities like Calgary that break addresses into quadrants, CP style requires that we abbreviate the quadrants with periods. 1352 Norfolk Dr., 10015 85th Ave., 3G St. Albert Rd., 1476 Eighth Ave., in the 1200 block of Whyte Avenue, 2178 Fourth Ave. N.W., the crash took place on Crowfoot Trail in Calgary’s northwest.
  • 75. 75 Temperatures Numerals are used, unless Celsius or Fahrenheit are not specified. 5 C, -20 C, eight degrees. Number Exceptions Alas, when it comes to recording numbers, there are many exceptions in CP Style. Here are two common ones. Spell out a number above 10 at the start of the sentence. Thirty to 40 men were waiting when the sun rose. Spell out numbers in figures of speech. The Ten Commandments, the Twelve Apostles, the Seven Deadly Sins, a ten-gallon hat. (But, CP insists, it’s the Gay ’90s, the Dirty ’30s and the Roaring ’20s.) Months and dates Months are always written out in full when they are not part of a specific date. The merry month of May. It was a gloomy November. In September, the kids went back to school. Christmas will come again next December. In precise dates, however, these months are always abbreviated, as shown: January (Jan.), February (Feb.), August (Aug.), September (Sept.), October (Oct.), November (Nov.) and December (Dec.). March, April, May, June and July are never abbreviated. Jane was born on Nov. 13, 1951. He sister Sally was born on May 11, 1957. Disaster would strike New York on Sept. 11. The days of the week are never abbreviated. The dreadful deed happened on a Saturday. The national holiday will be on Friday, July 1, 2005. Money
  • 76. 76 Use numerals if preceded by a symbol representing a currency, write it out if not. Use numerals for fractions under 10. Show U.S., Canadian and other dollars using abbreviations without periods. $5, five francs, $2 million, a $7-million house, $6.7 million, 2.5 cents, $500 million US, $2 Cdn, 6 cents. Capitalization of Job Titles Capitalize job titles before the name, but not after. AUPE President Dan MacLennan. Dan MacLennan, president of AUPE. Prime Minister Paul Martin. Paul Martin, the Canadian prime minister. Punctuation Always place periods and commas inside quotation marks. “There’s no way we can make the payments on time,” she said. “If we don’t get support from the city, we will lose the building.” (Not, … ”we will lose the building”. ) Provinces and States Spell out provinces and states when used in descriptive passages. You may use B.C., N.W.T. and P.E.I. in descriptive passages, however. Abbreviate all province and state names when used after the names of a community. Remember, the CP Style abbreviations are not the same as Canada Post’s — always say Alta. in a news story, even if you prefer AB on an envelope! CP’s abbreviations for provinces are as follows: Alta., B.C., Sask., Man., Ont., Que., N.B., N.S., P.E.I., Nfld., and N.W.T. Write out Yukon and Nunavut. Similar rules and exceptions apply to U.S. states, all of which may be found in the CP Stylebook. Organizations Abbreviate the titles of legal corporations in their company names. Spell out in descriptive passages.
  • 77. 77 B.C. Ferries Corp., Cargill Inc., Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd., Canadian Pacific Ltd., Sun Microsystems Inc., Smith Bros., General Motors Corp. is one of the largest corporations in the world, and its Canadian subsidiary is the largest company in Ontario. But spell out words like company when they are not part of a corporate entity. The Canadian Opera Company, the Company of Young Canadians, the Smothers Brothers. Abbreviations CP’s general policy on abbreviations is that geographical abbreviations take periods, others do not. The RCMP have several offices in the N.W.T. HMCS Calgary ran aground on the south coast of P.E.I. The United Nations, in CP’s opinion, is not a geographical entity. Therefore, it takes no periods. The U.S. and the U.K. are members of the UN. Titles such as Dr., Capt., Prof., Lieut. are abbreviated, if they come before names, on first reference. They are written out in descriptive passages. Dr. Ron Anderson. Prof. Daniel VanHeyst. Capt. Hiram McMillan. The professor stood at the front of the class. Sgt. Darcy Henton of the RCMP said the men were arrested without a struggle. He said one of the men was the captain of the barge and the other the chief lieutenant to the leader of the smugglers. Spelling CP Style is generally to spell words as they are spelled in the Oxford Canadian Dictionary. However, there are many exceptions, which are set out in CP Caps and Spelling. CP now prefers the British –our spelling for worlds like colour, labour and harbour. It prefers the shortened American program over the British programme, however. CP prefers judgment (not judgement) and centre (not center), kilometres (not kilometers).
  • 78. 78 If the spelling of a proper name differs from CP’s style, however, use the spelling favoured by the subject. The U.S. Department of Defense. The American Federation of Labor, centre stage of the Lincoln Center. Local preference prevails in the spelling of geographical place names. Friday Harbor, Wash., in the U.S. San Juan Islands is about 40 kilometres as the crow flies from Bedwell Harbour, B.C., in the Canadian Gulf Islands. Summary - The Canadian Press is a news gathering co-operative financed by Canada’s daily newspaper industry. - CP and similar businesses are known as “wire services.” - The idea behind a wire service is that every newspaper in the world can’t afford to have a reporter in every place, but they can all subscribe to a wire service and run news gathered in faraway places by wire service contributors. - The Canadian Press Stylebook and CP’s Caps and Spelling are essential tools for journalists. - Journalists in Canada should know the key points of CP Style, which are outlined in this chapter. - Remember the CP adage: When in doubt, leave it out!
  • 79. 79 Chapter 20 The Law of Defamation in Canada The law of defamation in Canada supposedly exists to protect the reputations of people about whom defamatory statements have been made. A defamatory statement is a statement that tends to lower a person’s reputation in the eyes of others. At times, the law of defamation succeeds at this reasonable and laudable goal. Unfortunately, the Canadian law of defamation is not very good at doing what it is supposed to do — that is, protecting the reputations of natural people. But it is very good at doing something that is not part of its claimed purpose — that is, suppressing legitimate, democratic criticism of people, corporations and other institutions. There are several ways that the law of defamation in Canada, and in other Commonwealth countries, is a bad law from a journalist’s point of view, or indeed from the point of view of any person concerned about freedom of expression in our society. - It is a complicated area of law that is costly both for litigators and defendants, making it expensive for journalists to defend against even shaky lawsuits, and extremely difficult for people who are not wealthy to defend their reputations. - The law, which has its origins in the notorious Court of Star Chamber, often puts the onus on the defendant, or the person accused of making a defamatory statement. In other words, unlike criminal law, the defendant is presumed to be “guilty.” (Technically, the term is liable. Guilt or innocence only applies to criminal cases. But, in reality, the effect is much the same.) This makes reasonable defences more difficult than they should be. - While the truth of a statement is held to be a defence, the truth must be proved according to the standards of a court of law — not those of the court of public opinion or of common sense. So while everyone in town may know the character flaws of a well-known person, finding a witness willing to swear to them in court may make a defence of truth impossible. - Since the legal fiction of a “legal person,” i.e., a corporation, applies to the law of defamation, it is subject to frequent abuse by powerful corporations, unions and other wealthy groups as a mechanism to suppress criticism. - The penalties in Canada are potentially quite severe — the financial losses to a person found to be liable for a mildly defamatory statement could be much higher than the fine in a minor, or even fairly serious, criminal prosecution. This adds up to a serious problem for working journalists — especially freelancers and those who work for small publications with inadequate resources to defend against defamation suits.
  • 80. 80 However, there are some things journalists can do to protect themselves against frivolous defamation suits, and to provide themselves with a more effective defence in the event that a suit proceeds to the courts. These practices should be observed by all journalists — those employed by large news organizations with the resources to fight lawsuits, and those who are not. The first thing Canadian journalists need to do is simply to remember that they do not live in the United States. This may involve unlearning a certain amount of information absorbed by osmosis from television and other sources. Since 1973, defamation law in the United States has taken a dramatically different route from the law in other English-speaking countries. As the result of a landmark Supreme Court case called Times versus Sullivan, the rights of U.S. journalists to free expression are vigorously protected by the courts. They can report facts and interpretations of facts about “public figures” — which can be almost anyone in public life — with little risk. They can allege criminal behaviour or inappropriate lifestyle choices by people in public life without needing to be prepared to defend their claims to the standards of a courtroom. There is good and bad in this, of course. The important thing for Canadian journalists to remember, however, is that none of this applies in Canada. Moreover, Canadian courts have repeatedly made it clear they have no interest in moving in the same direction. In Canada, defamation is a civil suit — technically called a tort — which means that in the Canadian Constitution it comes under provincial jurisdiction. Therefore, in each province of Canada there is a piece of legislation, usually called some variation of the Defamation Act, which sets out the rules of this tort. In every case, Canada’s provincial defamation acts are based on the English tort of libel — or, written defamation. All Canadian Defamation Acts extend the rules of libel to include any material that is taped, videotaped, filmed or otherwise recorded. In other words, these provincial laws extend the rules of libel to defamatory statements in any permanent form. There is another Common Law tort called slander — which is generally defined as spoken defamation. The rules of slander more fairly balance the rights of the plaintiff (the person making the complaint) and the defendant (the person being held liable for a statement), so an argument can be made that slander should be the foundation of Canadian defamation law. But what should be is not what is, and Canadian journalists are forced to deal with defamation law based in the rules of the tort of libel. Because defamation is civil law and not criminal law: - There must be a complaint for a suit to be launched. - One is said to be liable, not guilty.
  • 81. 81 - The penalty is a sum of money called damages. (There are two types of damages — compensatory, meant to compensate the plaintiff for his or her loss, and punitive, meant to punish the defendant.) The key problems with defamation law from a journalist’s viewpoint are that the onus is on the defendant to prove there was no defamation, and that damages are assumed, therefore the defendant must prove there has been no damage. In Canada, anyone is theoretically responsible for a defamatory statement if they are involved in the publication of the item in any way — be they the speaker, writer, reporter, editor, producer, publisher, Web hosting company, news vendor or paperboy! Speaking practically, this means that journalists are responsible for statements they write even if they are only accurately reporting something said by someone else. Using such phrases as “he said,” “she alleged,” “according to the police” are no defence. Moreover, the idea of “malice” in Canadian law is broadly defined to include such motives as trying to get good play for your story or get a promotion by breaking a big story. If the plaintiff can prove there was malice, the size of the damages can be increased. (In U.S. law, malice is defined in the ordinary sense of the word.) Damages in successful Canadian defamation cases are often in the range of $10,000 to $15,000. The difficulty of Canadian defamation law and the severity of its penalties gives rise to a phenomenon that journalists call “libel chill.” That is, because the expense and inconvenience of defending oneself against a defamation suit is so great, journalists and their employers become too cautious and do not publish stories that would be in the public interest. It is a fact that many more defamation suits are threatened than actually go to court. Sometimes this is because the plaintiff’s case is weak. Just as often, though, it is because the threat of a suit is as effective as actually going to court at bullying journalists and newspapers into not writing stories inconvenient to the plaintiff. If you face a defamation suit, there are five principal defences available to you: - Truth. As noted above, the problem with this first defence is that you must be able to prove the truth of a statement you have made or reported to the high standards of a court of law. That means you must have documentary evidence that will be accepted by the court, or the testimony of a reliable witness who is prepared to testify on your behalf. Sometimes willing informants are not so willing when it comes time to testify. - Qualified privilege. Examples of a qualified privilege are a critical letter of reference written without malice, or a fair and contemporaneous (that is, timely) account of a public meeting, including a city or town council meeting. You need
  • 82. 82 to be able to prove that your statement was an accurate and timely account of what was said in the meeting — for example, by producing Hansard, the written record of Parliamentary or legislative debate. Moreover, you must prove that the meeting was truly public — and it’s not if certain members of the public are excluded. Furthermore, this defence comes with a best-before date! A rehashed version of what was a fair and contemporaneous account when it was published will not longer have a qualified privilege months or years later. - Absolute privilege. You are said to have an absolute privilege when you publish a timely report of things said in Parliament, in a provincial legislature, or in a Canadian court proceeding. (This is why politicians who have been criticized in the House of Commons often challenge their attackers to repeat their remarks outside the House — that is, where the law of defamation applies.) - Fair comment. A fair comment is a comment that states a reasonable conclusion based on provable facts. The problem with this defence is that you must be able to prove in court the facts on which the comment is based. A reasonable person might well conclude that Councilor Smith ought not to hold office because he is a thief. But you must be able to prove in court that he is in fact a thief if you want to argue your opinion was a fair comment. - Consent. To use a defence of consent, you must be able to prove that you have informed the person who claims to have been defamed that you intended to publish the statement they’ve complained of, and further that they have consented to the publication. (Evidence could take the form of a note giving you permission to publish, a tape of the plaintiff giving you permission or a report of a witness who heard or saw the plaintiff agreeing.) One tricky aspect of this defence is that, in the eyes of the law, if the person who gave consent withdraws their consent, it is gone. Inevitably, your defence against a defamation suit will depend heavily on the testimony of witnesses. Lawyer Stuart M. Robertson, one of Canada’s leading authorities on defamation law, says that witnesses must satisfy three criteria: 1) They must have first-hand knowledge of the truth of the facts you have published, or that a relevant document is authentic. 2) They must be able to be identified in court. 3) They must be credible — that is, their testimony must be believable. “If you don’t have such a witness,” Robertson concludes, “you don’t have credible evidence.” While the law of defamation as practiced in Canada makes the jobs of journalists more difficult, there are a few sound practices that may reduce your chances of being sued for
  • 83. 83 defamation and which, if you are sued, may reduce the chances of the plaintiff being successful at law. First, it is helpful to state clearly in your copy the sources of your information. Regardless of the threat of lawsuits, this is sound journalistic practice. But stating the source of your facts clearly will also reduce the chances of a suit being brought, as a person who might bring a complaint (or his legal counsel) can see evidence that you do have a defensible case. There are advantages to this approach as well if you are wrong, as it makes clarification, explanation and, if need be, apology, easier and more obviously in good faith. The same logic applies to the value of clearly stating facts in your article that show the timeliness and necessary conditions to mount a defence of absolute or qualified privilege. (Prime Minister Paul Martin said in the House of Commons yesterday that…) Again, this is simply good journalism. In reality, of course, lawsuits that actually get before a court will involve the argument that you were making a fair comment. It is extremely helpful in such cases that you explain the logic behind your comment in the copy that will be read by readers. For example, if you were to state that a famous business tycoon was a fat liar, you would surely be on shaky ground. The sound of a defamation writ dropping on your desk might only be a matter of time. If you were to argue that this claim was a fair comment, even if evidence existed to support it, a court might be unlikely to look upon your argument with much sympathy. However, if you were to set out your argument clearly in the text of your article, then explain the reasons for reaching your conclusions (and if the facts on which your conclusions were based could be supported by documentary evidence or credible testimony) your fair comment defence would have a greater chance of success. Stated forcefully enough, the strength of your argument might even discourage a suit. For example, what if the imaginary tycoon was known to weigh 300 pounds on a frame of normal height, and furthermore that he had written on one occasion that as a businessman he habitually lied to his employees on matters of importance? If you were to recount these facts and then conclude, it is reasonable, therefore, to state that this tycoon is a fat liar, your defence would be a much stronger one. If you were to suggest as well, however, that such a person broke the law, you cannot use this defence. You must defend such a comment as a fact. So, if you were to conclude from the evidence of his business practices that he was a fat, lying thief, you might have a more difficult defence. Finally, when using the fair comment defence for a report of an opinion held by someone other than yourself, you should record the name and address of the person making the comment. You may require them as a witness. Without that information, the prudent
  • 84. 84 course may be to take the advice of the old wire service adage: When in doubt, leave it out. At this point, a reader might reasonably wonder, if the Canadian law of defamation is so effective for plaintiffs, why do we see politicians, criminals and others so often assailed in public without hearing of defamation suits occurring as a result? The reason is because there are other calculations that often weigh on a decision to sue for defamation. A person in trouble with the law may have neither the expertise nor the financial resources to defend their reputation. Indeed, a strong case can be made that because of its expense and complexity, defamation law is not available to the citizens who need it most — those of us who actually depend on our good reputations to earn a living. As journalists, you have a moral obligation to treat the poor and powerless with the same respect as you treat the wealthy and powerful. Politicians may simply calculate that the political costs of a lawsuit are simply too great to warrant the risk or pursuing even a strong case. There can be no doubt that this political calculus has saved more than one Canadian journalist from an uncomfortable week in court. Finally, threatened suits that do not result in court action are not reported, so unless as readers we are particularly alert — for example, scanning the corrections and apologies section of newspapers with a critical eye — we may never know that a threat has been made and scored a success. Threats by corporations and other institutions, including unions, to sue for defamation have become quite common and constitute a dangerous trend. Yet they seldom actually go to court, and hence are under-reported in the media and in legal reporting publications. Common Civil Defamation Danger Areas Because of the nature of their work, there are several common situations that may pose a particular risk of civil defamation to journalists: - Testimony from a previous legal proceeding and court documents. Remember that what was said is not necessarily true. There is no privilege if the trial, hearing or inquiry happened a long time ago. - Statements by police and officials. Alas, just because someone wears a uniform or holds a high office, does not mean that what they say is true. No privilege may attach to what they say if the proper conditions are not met. Take the same care with statements by police and officials as you would with remarks by any Tom, Dick or Harry! Moreover, employees owe a duty of fidelity to their employer and may be disciplined if they breach it. People in such a circumstance make lousy witnesses.
  • 85. 85 - Statements by politicians. Reporting what politicians say is protected by qualified privilege if they say it in a public meeting. They and you are protected by absolute privilege if they say it in Parliament or a Legislature. In all other cases, the usual rules apply. - The Internet. Anything published on the Internet is subject to the same laws as anything published in any other form. - Photos of suspects. You have a qualified privilege if you publish a photograph of a person being sought by the police in connection with a crime. You have no such privilege if you publish a photo of another person, even if they have the same name. This happens more often than you may think. - Hearsay. Second-hand statements you have heard are dangerous. Hearsay is not admissible in court and probably should be excluded from good journalism as well. Criminal Libel Although it remains in the Criminal Code, the law of criminal libel appears to be dormant in Canada today. In the event a criminal libel case were brought in any of the sub- categories of this law – defamatory libel, seditious libel or blasphemous libel — the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would certainly be used by the defence. However, in the current social and political atmosphere, such a prosecution seems unlikely. Nevertheless, criminal libel remains in the Criminal Code and hence the possibility remains that a prosecutor somewhere in Canada will try to use it in the future. Defamatory libel (Section 297) is defined in much the same way as the civil tort of defamation — “matter published without lawful justification or excuse, that is likely to injure the reputation of any person by exposing him to hatred, contempt or ridicule.” The Criminal Code prescribes a penalty of two years imprisonment, or five years if the author of the offending statement knew it was false. Blasphemous libel (Section 296) is not defined by the Code. In its original sense it meant defaming God. Seditious libel (Section 59) is defined by the Code as the advocacy of the use of force, without the authority of law, to accomplish governmental change in Canada. Both carry a penalty of two years’ imprisonment. One can imagine circumstances in which such a law could come into use. The Code also specifically proscribes the use of a threat of defamation for the purposes of extortion (Section 303). Summary - The law of defamation in Canada creates several problems and concerns for working journalists. - It is complicated and expensive to defend against defamation suits.
  • 86. 86 - In defamation law, the onus is on the defendant to prove his statements are not defamatory, and did not do damage. - Truth is a defence, but truth must be proved to the standards of a court of law, which in civil law is the balance of probability. - Corporations may sue for defamation as if they were natural people. - Penalties can be quite severe, with damages of more than $10,000. - There are five principal defences — truth, absolute privilege, qualified privilege, fair comment and consent. - Reporters must take care they have met the conditions of a defence in order to use it. - Journalists can protect themselves to a degree by citing their sources in their copy, and by explaining to readers the logic behind their conclusions and comments. - The Criminal Code offense of Criminal Libel is dormant in Canada today.
  • 87. 87 Chapter 21 Dealing With Defamation Threats If you write for a newspaper for any length of time, you are bound to be threatened with a defamation suit. This is an occupational hazard of the trade, and most threats are just that — mere threats. Nevertheless, because facing a lawsuit for defamation can be a serious and expensive matter both for you and your employer, you should treat all such threats as if they were serious. You may be threatened with a lawsuit for something you’ve written. You may be threatened with a suit merely for asking questions. More often than not, the tone of the person making the threats is belligerent. Human nature being what it is, most journalists are tempted to respond with an equal measure of belligerence. This is not wise. A better response is to treat all threats of defamation suits as complaints. Stay calm. Listen. Take notes. Don’t get angry. How you react to complaints can reduce the likelihood that you will face a defamation suit. The first thing to do is to remember that, even if threats are phrased belligerently or menacingly, the person threatening you may have some legitimate grounds for concern. If you can get past the belligerence with a polite response, you may be able to solve the problem immediately and proceed in a reasonable manner. Faced withy a threat for merely asking questions, you should politely continue until it is obvious you are going to have no success. At that point you can politely terminate the interview — if it’s not already been terminated by a phone slammed in your ear. At this time, you need to assess if you have gleaned anything from the interview worth putting in your story. If the answer is yes, by all means use it. If you have received nothing but abuse, however, the best advice may be to take it under advisement and move on to another source. The temptation may be strong to include a rude or abusive response in your story. There are rare occasions when such material is genuinely newsworthy. Generally, however, telling readers that someone you interviewed was rude to you is a sign of inexperience and a lack of professionalism on your part. Your readers want the news. They don’t care if someone was rude to you when you went to get it. The best thing to do in such circumstances is to calm down and suck it up! The worst thing to do is get mad and write something intemperate. That way, even if your caller was out to lunch the first time, he may have grounds for a suit when he next calls back!
  • 88. 88 So, regardless of the nature of the complaint, the best thing you can do is be polite. Make a genuine and sincere effort to understand the nature of the complaint. You’ll only complicate matters if you respond by taking an aggressive position. Be patient: Even if the person complaining is rude, stick with them and try to get to the root of the problem. If the caller says you got the story wrong, try to get him to explain how he thinks you should have written it. He may have a point, and you will have an opportunity to get the story right. He may be off base. Start taking notes right away, date them properly and keep them on hand until the matter is resolved. Take good notes. Better yet, tape the conversation. Either way, with tape or notes, this conversation may provide you with an opportunity to ask questions again and confirm much of what was said in the original interview. When you do this, however, focus on the facts. Doing this can help defuse accusations of legal “malice” on your part. If you are specifically told you will be sued for defamation, you must inform your employer as soon as you can. Many large media operations are insured against such legal actions, and there may be notification requirements to activate your employer’s libel insurance policy. If you are a freelancer, book author or otherwise working on your own, you are wise to consult a lawyer quickly — despite your natural concern about the expense of legal fees. A lawyer — especially one that specializes in defamation law — can advise you on whether your caller has a case, and how best to respond. Your lawyer will advise you against taking actions that might harm your case — such as writing a letter defending your story or publishing an apology that contains statements that help the plaintiff’s case — in the event the threat becomes an actual lawsuit. But whether you are on your own or are the employee of a large corporation, don’t tell your caller that you will be consulting a lawyer. Such a statement could well have the effect of making someone just blowing off steam decide they’d better have a lawyer too! In addition, do not tell them how you researched the story or put together the facts. Giving away this information could hurt your effort, or that of your employer, to defend your story in court. Finally, upon receiving a complaint, don’t rush to check the accuracy of what you have already published. Investigation, after publication, could become evidence that you didn’t properly check your facts in the first place. Summary - Treat all threats of defamation suits as if they were complaints.
  • 89. 89 - Respond to all complaints — including rude ones — with courtesy and patience. - Make a sincere effort to understand the complaint and get it straight. - Never make a belligerent response to a belligerent complaint. - Take notes. Or make a tape. You may have an opportunity to confirm your original reporting. - Inform your employer of all defamations threats. - If you’re working on your own, consult a lawyer. - Do not reveal anything about how you did your work. - Do not investigate the accuracy of your report after it has been published.
  • 90. 90 Chapter 22 Making Promises to Sources You’ve doubtless heard such terms as “off the record,” “not for attribution,” “background,” and “deep background.” Or, from a U.S. news magazine’s files in a case that emerged in the news in 2005: “Double super secret background.” These notions came about because people who act as sources of news often want their identities to be kept confidential. There are good and bad reasons for this desire. Sometimes, such people are genuine whistleblowers who want to keep their names out of the news because they fear their jobs, or even their lives, may be in danger if they are identified. More often, though, sources who wish to remain anonymous are peddling not much more than common gossip, usually with the objective of hurting someone else’s political career, or their business. Readers should treat with caution any news story — no matter how reputable the journal in which it appears — that is based entirely on anonymous sources. Journalists should treat with caution any source that refuses to be identified. At the very least, you should make an effort to understand what their objectives may be. Stories should rarely be based entirely on anonymous sources — they should never be based solely on one anonymous source. Sources who wish to remain anonymous should treat journalists with caution — because reporters may not be able to keep their promises to guard someone’s identity. The simplest advice — though not necessarily the best in a complicated world — is if you don’t want to see it in the newspaper next to your name, don’t tell it to a reporter! All this said, it’s a fact that many important stories that serve the public interest would never see the light of day without anonymous sources. The tradeoff is almost always the same: If you’ll tell me something, I’ll print it without identifying where it came from. Usually, both parties get something from such a deal — the journalist gets a story and the source gets protection from the legal and social implications of revealing the story. But if you are going to offer confidentiality to a source, you need to be careful, because there are ethical, practical and legal implications. Some of the risks include: - If you write a story based all or in part on a source’s revelations, you could be sued for defamation for what the source said, Note that, you will not be able to use anything said by an unidentified source as a defence in a defamation suit. - People unhappy with your story will sometimes try to use a defamation action as a fishing expedition to try to discover the source of the leak, that is, the originator of the unauthorized information.
  • 91. 91 - If the story results in a criminal investigation or quasi-judicial hearing, a court or official my try to force you to reveal your source, or hand over notes or documents. The penalty for refusing to do so could be jail time. - A story based entirely on unnamed sources may be unfair to people accused of wrongdoing in such a story, who do not know the identities or the motives of their accusers. - A story based entirely on unnamed sources may lack credibility with readers. So, the first thing you should do when contemplating writing such a story is to make any agreement with your source before you get the information. To do otherwise would be unfair to the source and invite misunderstanding. Second, everyone should clearly understand what everyone else intends to do. Terms like “off the record” and “background” are ambiguous and may mean different things to different people. Do you intend not to publish the material at all, and merely use it to pry facts from other people? Or do you intend to quote the source with a vague reference to his or her place of employment? You’ll save trouble and embarrassment, not to mention heartache, if you make everything perfectly clear before proceeding. So what do these terms mean? On the record means that the person providing the information agrees to that everything may be used in the news story and that he may be identified by name and position as its source. When you call a source, you should establish this by identifying yourself clearly as a reporter and explaining what you intend to do with the information. As an honourable person, you may want to remind sources who are not used to dealing with media that they are being interviewed from time to time during the process. Off the record is generally held to mean that you are agreeing not to use the information provided in your story. You may use it, however, to get information from another source — although it’s generally understood that you won’t identify the first source to the second. Not for attribution and background are generally held to mean that the information may be used in your story, but the source may not be identified. A general reference may be acceptable. For example, you may be able to describe your source as “a senior Health Ministry official.” (Or, as a New York Times story recently described a source, “people who have been officially briefed on the case” and “a person involved in the case who also requested anonymity because of the prosecutor's admonitions about talking about the investigation.”) This is often not clear, even to people who bandy these terms about on a daily basis. You’d better make sure everyone is singing from the same hymnbook if you’ve agreed to get information as background or not for attribution. Deep background is a term more suitable for the movies than for real life. Probably to most people it means that you can use the information, but not with any attribution
  • 92. 92 whatsoever. Again, everyone had better spell out clearly what they think they’re agreeing to. All this said, there are things you can safely promise and things you cannot. You can safely promise: - Not to identify the source in your story. - Not to willingly identify the source of your information to anyone outside your news organization. - To reasonably try to protect the source from any legal action based on the information he or she has given you. But unless you are a freelancer willing to spend time in jail for a principle, if you are going to make such promises, you must have the support of your employer. You will need your employer to agree to some or all of the following points, and you should be able to communicate the extent of your employer’s agreement to your source. - To take every possible legal step to avoid identifying your source. - To cover any costs or damages that might arise from publication of the source’s information. - Not to identify your source to readers. - Not to identify your source to anyone in the newsroom or only to identify your source to certain people in the newsroom — for example, one senior editor. You cannot realistically promise: - Never in any circumstances to reveal the source’s identity. (Double super secret background? In the event, even with all that, the source was revealed!) - Never to reveal the source’s identity to a judge or police investigation. If you have a source that insists on this type of protection, you need to ask yourself about the source’s possible motivations. You should also try to duplicate the source’s information from another source or sources — preferably people who are willing to go on the record or documents whose provenance can be verified. If you can’t duplicate the information elsewhere and your source cannot or will not provide credible documentation, you should again ask yourself seriously about the possible validity of the information you have received. Summary - Sources of news often want their identities to be kept confidential.
  • 93. 93 - There are positive and negative reasons for such a wish and part of your job as a reporter is to assess those motives in deciding whether to use information attributed to unidentified sources. - Anonymous sources have less credibility than those willing to be identified. - Despite reasons for treating stories based on unnamed sources with caution, many stories of legitimate service to the public would never be printed without anonymous sources. - Journalists and sources should know precisely what they are agreeing to when they enter such an arrangement, including what you mean by terms such as “off the record” and “background.” - You will usually need the agreement of your employer to make promises to sources. - You can safely promise not to name a source in your story. - With your employer’s backing, you can safely promise to do what you can to keep the source’s identity from being revealed. - It is probably not realistic to promise a source their identity will never be revealed, regardless of circumstances. - If you get information from a source that cannot be identified, you should try to duplicate it from a source that can be.
  • 94. 94 Chapter 23 Contempt of Court Defamation is a civil suit, even if its consequences can be as severe as those of being caught committing a crime. Contempt of court is a crime. It is not a civil suit. The nature of this serious crime is the act of interfering with the administration of justice. The nature of journalism puts many journalists at a high risk of being in contempt of court. The penalties for contempt of court can be quite severe — and are entirely up to the judge! Covering crime — and its consequences in court — were always a staple of journalism and have become more so in recent times. There are those who turn their noses up at this trend — not without some justice when it’s taken to extremes, as it is in many Canadian cities. But from the point of view of storytelling, crime and punishment (with our without capital letters) have it all! There’s drama, symbolism, powerful moral lessons, terrific characters, tragedy and comedy — all played out in a public courtroom in virtually every community in the land. No wonder journalists love covering crime and the courts. Alas, crime and the courts are an area of relatively high risk for journalists — at least if they don’t pay attention, act responsibly and keep their wits about them. There are two types of contempt of court that journalists need to worry about: - Disobeying court orders not to write about some aspect of a legal proceeding. - Publishing something that carries a risk of prejudice to a legal proceeding. (Lawyers call this the sub judice rule, from the Latin for “under the court’s jurisdiction.”) It is important to note at this point that the idea of contempt of court wasn’t just dreamed up out of sheer mischief to bedevil journalists, as inconvenient as the court’s rules may be to the telling of a good yarn. Contempt of court exists because it is important in a society of laws that the orders of the courts be obeyed — just as we expect the court to be obeyed when it is acting in our interests, say, in a lawsuit or community dispute. By the same logic, contempt of court exists because it is important that people on trial, and people whose fates may be decided in other ways by a judicial proceeding, have a right to a fair trial. This is a classic case of conflicting rights — which often happens under the rule of law. In Canada and the United States, we have a constitutionally protected right to free expression. In both countries, citizens have a constitutionally protected right to a fair trial if they are accused of a criminal offence.
  • 95. 95 Obviously, if something we urge or report in a journalistic story makes it more difficult for an accused person to have a fair trial, those rights are in conflict. Which is more important? The answer is different in Canada and the United States. In the U.S., free expression trumps the rights of the accused. In Canada, the rights of the accused usually trump the right to free expression. As a journalist or an observer of society, you can make a strong case that it should be one way or the other. But as a fair person, you must concede that both rights exist for a reason and serve a purpose in our society. In either country, as noted above, journalists can get in trouble for violating a court order not to write about some aspect of a legal proceeding. To avoid this problem, if you are covering court in either country, you must pay attention to what is going on in court! This can be more easily said than done — court proceedings can be deadly dull. But judge’s orders that something must not be reported can come and go very quickly. If a reporter is not on her toes, she can miss one and be in big trouble the next day. If you haven’t been paying attention, and fear you may have missed something important, a good piece of advice is to ask the court clerk. While it’s by no means true of all, many court clerks in Canadian courtrooms are extremely helpful to journalists. And unlike lawyers who represent the different sides in a case — who can also be helpful — the clerk usually has no axe to grind. Unlike journalists covering the courts, who are usually inexperienced and working up to a better assignment, the clerk is sure to know what’s going on. But beware, when the court proceedings are done, she will leave swiftly. So ask your question as soon as you can, as soon as the judge has left the room. (Note that the court official who takes records is called a court reporter. Journalists who cover courts sometimes go by the same name. Be careful of the distinction.) In Canada, you must also assume that the identity of a victim of a sexual assault may not be published legally. Often, this means the identities of the accused person, friends, family members and witnesses may not be published, or even hinted at, if they tend to reveal the identity of the sexual assault victim. There are exceptions, but they are rare and must be expressly allowed by a judge. Assume you may not publish the name — even if he or she wishes you to. Check with court officials before publishing if you think the case you are covering may be an exception. In Canada, you must also assume that you may not publish anything that reveals the identity of a minor who is accused of a criminal offense. We will look at the Youth Criminal Justice Act in more detail in the next chapter. The same general rule about
  • 96. 96 friends, family members and witnesses — and crime victims — applies for the same reasons as it does to cases involving sexual assault victims. Journalists can also get in trouble, as noted, for publishing anything that carries a risk of prejudice to a legal proceeding. There is a fairly lengthy list of such danger areas — and not all of them require the reporter to actually be in court covering a legal proceeding to get in trouble. For example: - Voir dires. Pronounced Vwar Dear, a voir dire is a Latin term for a trial within a trial to determine the admissibility of evidence. In a jury trial, testimony heard in a voir dire cannot be reported without a high risk of the reporter being found in contempt. Fortunately, it’s easy to tell if a voir dire is under way in a jury trial because the jury is sent out of the courtroom. So, if the jury’s not there, don’t report it! If the testimony is found to be admissible, it will be given again before the jury and you can safely report it then. Voir dires happen frequently in Canadian courtrooms. - Violating publication bans. As noted above, publishing something that is true but that is not admissible in court, or on which the court has placed a publication ban, and therefore which jurors and readers are not entitled by law to know, can constitute contempt of court. - Photographs. Specifically, publishing photographs of persons suspected of a crime in cases where identity may be an issue at trial. For example, if an accused robber’s defence is, “sure, the guy in the bank photos looks like me, but it just wasn’t, I was somewhere else,” identification is going to play a key role in determining guilt or innocence. The photograph could prejudice a jury and endanger an accused person’s right to a fair trial. You don’t have to be in court to have a problem with this one — you can be sitting on the night desk of a newspaper, miles from the courtroom. To make matters more complicated, many newspapers and broadcasters nowadays ignore this concern, and the police often actively subvert it — telephoning journalists to tell them when accused persons will be led into the Arrest Processing Centre. As a fair-minded journalist, you should resist the publication of photos in such circumstances. - Hallway comments. Comments by lawyers, police, witnesses and court officials about how a trial is proceeding could be seen as prejudicing the trial. Using such comments is a frequent temptation to journalists. Generally, it’s wise to avoid the temptation. If it wasn’t said during court proceedings, take care. - Criminal records. Stating the criminal record of an accused, especially in a report filed during a jury trial, carries a high risk. The purpose of the trial is to determine the guilt or innocence of the person charged with a specific offense. Past offenses, convictions or behavior may be irrelevant to the trial and may bias
  • 97. 97 the jury against the accused. This information can only be safely reported if it is brought up in evidence or after the trial. - Psychiatric records. Psychiatric records or the general mental health of the accused present the same problem as criminal records and the same rule of thumb should apply. Only report them if they are brought up in evidence, or after the trial. - Information from civil suits. Pleadings, or even the amount of claim in a civil suit can be safely reported before a civil jury is chosen and after the trial, but should not be mentioned when the jury is empanelled for fear of prejudicing their deliberations. But note, even when it’s safe from a contempt perspective to report such things, they could result in a defamation suit. - Bail applications. Another area of high danger to reporters — because really hot stuff gets said in testimony at bail hearings. Few reporters can resist the temptation to try to report such material. Many will complain and whine when told it can’t be reported. Sorry, but it can’t. Wait until after the trial. - Urging a result. You’re in contempt of court — technically at least — if you urge a court to reach a certain decision. Saying “Mr. Smith should be found guilty and hanged by the neck until dead” urges a result. It would be even more dangerous to say, “The jury had better find Mr. Smith guilty…” The farthest you should go is to say, “if Mr. Smith is found guilty…” The purpose of a criminal trial is to determine the guilt or innocence of an accused person. The job of a journalist who covers the courts is to report what happened. Keep your opinion of what ought to happen to yourself. - Sentence applications. When an application is made to shorten the jail sentence of a person who has been convicted, you can report what happened in court before the jury. But, as in the point above, be careful not to say anything that might appear to be urging the jury to reach a particular conclusion. - Criticizing the court. You have a right in our democracy to criticize the decision of a court, or the logic of a court decision. But take care. You do not have the legal right in Canada to criticize the motives of the court as improper. If you say the judge is corrupt, you are in contempt of court. - Guilty as reported. Reporters often phrase their reports so as to imply that an accused person is guilty. Determination of guilt or innocence is the job of the court, not the newspaper. If the newspaper implies guilt, you have hurt the accused’s right to a fair trial and may be in contempt. So don’t say “Murderer’s trial to begin Thursday,” say “Trial of accused in murder case to begin….” U.S. newspapers can get away with implying those who are accused are guilty. We don’t do that in Canada. We may say that a person has been charged with an offence and faces trial — we may not say he is guilty until the court finds him so.
  • 98. 98 Unlike newspapers in Britain, however, Canadian journalists do not have to say “Mr. Smith is assisting the police in their investigations,” a phrase everyone in that country knows means “Mr. Smith is under arrest as Suspect No. 1!” The right to a fair trial is important. The courts take it seriously and guard it jealously. As a journalist, you need to keep this in mind — both to protect the rights of someone else and to protect yourself. Summary - Contempt of court is the act of interfering with the administration of justice. - Contempt of court is a crime, not a civil action. - The penalties for contempt of court can be quite severe and are entirely up to the judge. - Covering crime and the courts is an area of journalism that has a risk of contempt charges. - You can be found in contempt for disobeying court orders not to write about some aspect of a legal proceeding. - You can also be found in contempt for publishing something that carries a risk of prejudice to a legal proceeding. - In Canada, the rights of the accused usually come before a journalist’s right to free expression. - To avoid problems with contempt when covering the courts, you must pay attention to what is going on. - The court clerk can often help an inexperienced reporter determine what can be reported and what cannot. - In Canada, the identity of a victim of a sexual assault may not be published legally. - In Canada, you may not publish anything that reveals the identity of a minor who is accused of a criminal offense. - There are several contempt-of-court danger zones for reporters, including in particular voir dires, bail hearings, and implying in a report that an accused person is guilty.
  • 99. 99 Chapter 24 Reporting on Young People in Conflict with the Law When young people come into conflict with the law, powerful emotions are often set loose. Members of the public, and many members of the working media, feel strongly that the public has a right to know — or, at any rate, ought to have a right to know — about young people who pose a threat to society. When they are told that the law prevents the identification of young criminals, and their victims, people who feel this way often become extremely angry. At the same time, Parliamentarians, members of the judicial system, parents of young people in conflict with the law and, yes, many members of the working media think that the law should protect, or at least help to reform, such youths. Like the rights of the accused and the right of the public to be informed, the desire to protect and nurture children even though they may have made serious mistakes in relation to their behaviour is a classic example of conflicting rights. On one hand, it could be argued that this concern is the mark of a civilized and mature society. On the other, it can be argued that failing to identify youths who pose a danger to society is naïve to the point of destructiveness. The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) is an attempt to balance those competing — and equally legitimate — goals of society. The Youth Criminal Justice Act came into effect on April 1, 2003, replacing the by-then extremely controversial Young Offenders Act (YOA). One of the most controversial features of the YOA was the fact that it imposed significant restrictions on journalists, including a ban on publication of anything that would tend to identify an accused person under 18 years of age. (Often forgotten in the debate was the fact that most laws dealing with youth in conflict with the law, including the old Juvenile Delinquents Act and U.S. legislation, includes such a prohibition.) The YCJA continues that ban — but with some exceptions. This means that journalists — especially reporters who cover crime and courts stories, and the editors who handle their copy, must be familiar with the YCJA. Like the YOA, the YCJA imposes serious limitations on what journalists can write. The new act makes it a criminal offense to publish anything that would tend to identify the young offender — including photos of family and friends in which the subjects of the photo can be recognized, the names of under-age victims, parents and friends, and schools that such people attended, and the names of young witnesses. The YCJA also states that a child under the age of 11 years cannot be charged with a criminal offence — a provision controversial with people who believe such young people
  • 100. 100 are capable of criminal intent. A person over 18 is considered an adult and is no longer subject to the provisions of the YCJA. However, a person over 18 who was charged with a crime when they were under 18 — even if the event leading to the charges occurred many years before — cannot be identified under the provisions of the YCJA. In addition, this legislation ended the practice of transferring youths to adult court — although prosecutors remain able to seek adult sentences for youths convicted of serious crimes. The YCJA, however, contains certain exceptions to the prohibition on identification of young offenders. These exceptions are as follows: - When a person under 18 has been given an adult sentence after being tried and convicted of first or second degree murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, aggravated sexual assault or a serious violent offense for which an adult would have faced imprisonment for more than two years. - When a person under 18 has been given a youth sentence after being tried and convicted of first or second degree murder, attempted murder, manslaughter or aggravated sexual assault — as long as the court has not made an order banning publication of the young person’s identity. - When a person under 18 wants to tell his or her story — if either that young person is now older than 18 and is not in custody, or if the youth is granted the permission of a Youth Court to be identified. - When the police apply to a Youth Court for permission to name a person under 18 to help them apprehend the youth. However, in such cases, once an arrest is made, the normal rules apply. In addition, the YCJA allows young victims or witnesses, under 17 years of age, to sometimes be identified with their permission after they have reached 18 years of age, with their parents’ permission or, in the event they are dead, with the approval of the parents. Regardless, it is important for journalists covering crime involving young people, or the lives of young people in conflict with the law, to exercise extreme caution when contemplating identifying anyone involved in a crime committed by a person under 18. Remember, violating the identification provisions of the YCJA is a criminal offence. Summary - In Canada, the legislation that deals with young people in conflict with the law is now the Youth Criminal Justice Act. - The Youth Criminal Justice Act in 2003 replaced the controversial Young Offenders Act.
  • 101. 101 - The YCJA attempts to balance the rights of members of society to be informed about youth crime with the needs of young people in conflict with the law. - The YCJA imposes significant restrictions on journalists. - The YCJA prohibits in most circumstances publication of any material that would identify or tend to identify a person under 18 charged with a criminal offence. - This prohibition usually includes identifying parents, friends, schoolmates and victims of under age criminals. - Under the Act, a child under 11 cannot be charged with a criminal offence. - Violating the Act’s restrictions on publication is a criminal offence, and hence an extremely serious matter for journalists.
  • 102. 102 Chapter 25 Plagiarism The easy advice about plagiarism is this: Just don’t do it! This is good advice. Indeed, at almost all major newspapers, plagiarism is technically grounds for dismissal. But real life can be a little more complicated. The world of journalism contains many subtle inducements to reuse old work, to cut corners just a little. From there, it is not far down the slippery slope to outright plagiarism. The dictionary defines the act of plagiarism as to steal and pass off the ideas or words of another as one’s own. In the academic world, plagiarism is taken extremely seriously, and to be caught plagiarizing someone else’s work can be expected to have career-destroying consequences. In the entertainment industry — as is well known to anyone who follows the news — less strict standards prevail. Sometimes tunes or lyrics will seem too close for coincidence, yet entertainment publishers will vigorously, and often successfully, defend their artists’ work as original and any similarities to an earlier work as merely coincidental. The penalties for artists who plagiarize often don’t seem very severe. In journalism, the working definition of plagiarism falls between the two approaches described above. First off, most journalists would remove the words “the ideas” from the definition. It’s often proclaimed that one can’t copyright an idea. That leaves us with a definition of plagiarism as to steal and pass off the words of another as one’s own. The nature of journalism, after all, is highly derivative from other sources. In many cases, large numbers of journalists (all trained to take the same approaches) are covering the same story, using the same research sources, and interviewing the same people. As a result, there are bound to be similarities in their stories. Moreover, among the most common sources for journalists are “news releases” or “press releases” written by public relations people. Since the goal of the public relations industry is to get its statements into print without changes, there is no penalty at all for journalists who rely so heavily of news releases that their work verges on plagiarism. Journalists, of course, know this, and often behave accordingly. They shouldn’t, of course, and it is sound journalistic practice to rewrite all publicity handouts of this sort, or to quote them with proper attribution. Sometimes, too, particularly felicitous turns of phrase lodge themselves in our minds and arise unbidden and unrecognized at what seems to be an appropriate moment. Who among us has not plagiarized Shakespeare or the Bible without knowing it?
  • 103. 103 In addition, virtually all journalists have been guilty at one time or another of plagiarizing their own work. Plagiarism is the wrong word to use here, of course — repeating, or copying, would be more appropriate. In the culture of the newsroom, with its need for the quick processing of facts and the speedy filing of stories, such an approach is not just tolerated, it is encouraged. However, it is but a short step from copying words and phrases, even whole passages, from one’s own stories to doing the same thing with other stories from one’s own newspaper. After all, journalists in such circumstances may tell themselves, the newspaper, not the employee, owns the copyright to the story. Again, while the opposite is often said, the reality is that such behaviour is tolerated, even encouraged. From there, however, it is not far to copying passages from another newspaper or source. This too, despite claims to the contrary, can be encouraged — because few newspapers like to admit that they did not exclusively break a story, or get the scoop. More danger lurks here, however, because un-attributed quotes or passages from another publication are found, accusations of plagiarism are almost certain to follow. This is particularly so today, since the advent of the Internet and Web-based search engines, which make it very easy to search and compare literary passages. It’s easy to see how, given examples like these, that newsroom culture often seems tolerant of plagiarism, at least borderline examples that serve the interests of the newspaper. Moreover, it is a fact that responses to plagiarism are extremely inconsistent. Many journalists have lost their jobs and their careers for even minor incidents of plagiarism. Others commit the act shamelessly and frequently with apparently no consequences whatsoever. It is a fact that there are prominent Canadian journalists who are infamous within the business for their plagiaristic ways — yet even when their obvious thefts are caught, they go on being published and promoted. In journalism, it’s most often when columns or opinion pieces that use highly personalized styles or writing, or exclusive stories that have been broken by one publication, are plagiarized, that real trouble begins. Because, like academics, journalists are jealous of their work and its exclusivity and therefore don’t like it when someone is caught copying them. As a result, working journalists who engage in this practice are often scorned by their colleagues, even if there are no disciplinary consequences. So, practically speaking, how is a young journalist to sort out what is both a practical and ethical question? First, we can agree that stealing someone else’s work is unethical, and try to govern ourselves accordingly. Second, we can recognize that the ethical answer is in fact an easy one — in a word, attribution. In journalism, as it is practiced in North America today, there should be no shame in attributing virtually everything! It’s how the game is played. Our readers are better served if they know the source of our information.
  • 104. 104 So while you don’t need to attribute facts that are general knowledge, things that you have seen with your own eyes or facts that have been set out in previous stories, there is no shame, and no risk of plagiarism, in explaining to readers the sources of all the rest of your material. This is especially so when, as noted earlier, statements contain accusations or controversial material. If need be, use quotation marks liberally. The very best newspapers are not afraid to state that another publication or news organization broke a story first. So the best advice, when we set out to write history as it happens, in the usual hurry, is to be sure that you attribute the source of your material and, insofar as possible, that you do not repeat passages written by other journalists. If you are tempted to steal a passage outright from another writer or another publication, that is the time to say to yourself: Just say NO to plagiarism! Remember, thanks to the Internet, you will almost certainly be caught. Summary - In journalism, plagiarism is generally defined to mean passing off someone else’s words as your own. - The consequences are potentially quite severe — plagiarism is grounds for dismissal at most newspapers. - But there are many subtle and not-so-subtle encouragements to journalists to copy earlier work on the same topic. - The best practice is to seek an ethical solution to the problem. - First, we should agree that stealing the work of others is unethical, and strive to avoid the practice for that reason. - Second, we should recognize that our readers are better served as we as writers are protected by clear attribution of the sources of our information. - You don’t need to attribute generally known facts, things you have observed yourself or facts established by recent reporting in your own paper. - Everything else should be attributed. - If you are ever tempted to steal a passage whole cloth without attribution, that is the time to remember that, thanks to the Internet, you are almost certain to be caught.
  • 105. 105 Chapter 26 Ethics and Journalism, Fairness and Balance Most of us who attended Sunday school in our childhood remember the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Indeed, all of the world’s great religions and ethical systems contain some version of this idea. The Golden Rule is as good a starting place as any for a quick discussion of the ethical practice of modern journalism. How would we have done unto us if we were to be the subject of a journalist’s work? Some of us, probably most of us, would ask that nothing inconvenient, uncomfortable or problematic be written about us or our activities — even if it happened to be true! Alas, if complying with such wishes is how we interpret the Golden Rule, the practice of journalism would be impossible for us. This is because, inevitably, when we set out to write about people’s activities, we are going to write things they would prefer were left unwritten. As always when we try to live an ethical and honourable life, rights and principles of equal or similar value sometimes come into conflict. Which is more important? The convenience and privacy of a public person who may be merely advocating a controversial policy? Or the right of the affected public to know about it, and its possible implications? This conundrum is at the core of most ethical problems in journalism. If you go into a career in journalism, there are certain to be times when you are going to write things that the people you are writing about don’t want written. (It’s no different in many other professions, of course. If you become a police officer, you will be called upon to enforce laws you yourself may feel are unreasonable. In doing so, you will certainly make some people unhappy.) If you report and write for a living, and if you do your job properly, you will sometimes have to make people unhappy. But this does not mean you should needlessly act like the proverbial bull in the china shop. Your first obligation as an ethical journalist is simply to think seriously about the potential impact the things you write will have on the people and institutions you plan to write about. This may result in you changing the way you approach stories, in small ways or significant ways. Or it may result in no change at all, but incline you to do your duties with a sense of humility. As a starting point, it is a useful and thoughtful thing to do. Always think seriously about what might happen as a result of what you intend to write. Then ask yourself if your story has to be written that way to achieve its goals and serve your readers well. The second obligation of an ethical journalist is to write with fairness and balance. This is an overused phrase, in part because ideologically committed groups misuse it to mean
  • 106. 106 writing with a bias that favours their side. In the 1900s, so often was this phrase heard from right-wing critics of the media that some journalists made a bitter joke of it, derisively abbreviating it to FAB. But fairness and balance is nevertheless an important idea. It means this: It means writing stories about breaking news that includes all reasonable responses. It means balancing the strong arguments or assertions by one group with the position of another. It means always giving people accused or errors or wrongdoing an opportunity to respond. It means not tricking people into making intemperate statements. It means considering the rights of the people written about, even if they are accused of being criminals. It means news writing, insofar as is possible, objectively, that is, dispassionately and without attempting to advocate one position or another. It means thinking seriously both about the rights of the people we write about, and the right of readers and citizens to be informed. The concept of fairness and balance is a worthy and honourable journalistic objective. Rules of Thumb for the Ethical Practice of Journalism That said, there are a number of practical rules of thumb we can keep in mind when we do journalistic work that will guide us in situations that frequently arise when you write news stories. These include: - Representing yourself and your work honestly when speaking with sources of information. - Treating the subjects of your stories with consideration appropriate to their level of sophistication about journalism. - Being clear and honest about what you intend to do with information gathered. - Giving the subjects of critical stories an appropriate opportunity to respond to criticism or accusations. - Cutting deals to get scoops. - Showing stories to people you write about before the stories have been published. - Not being unduly influenced by the subjects of your stories. - Considering the rights of accused persons — even when you can get away with ignoring them! - Identifying sources in your copy in an appropriate manner. - Dealing with errors forthrightly and honestly
  • 107. 107 First, represent yourself and your work honestly. When you speak with potential sources of information, it is important that you represent yourself honestly, as well as describing honestly what you intend to do with the information you gather. This can be as simple as stating, when you telephone a person you would like to interview: “This is Jane Smith of the Punkdoodle Corner News Advertiser. I’d like to speak to Mr. Jones about his plans to run for Mayor.” If you introduce yourself like this to a secretary, by the way, you should repeat your identification and your intentions when you get Mr. Jones on the line. Furthermore, it is good journalistic practice, when you believe you finally have the right Mr. Jones on the phone, to confirm that in fact you’re talking to the right person. (“You’re the Mr. Jones who runs Davy Jones’s Cruise Ship Travel Agency, right?”) Sometimes, reporters are tempted not to properly identify themselves for the simple reason that getting information out of people can be difficult, and identifying yourself as a reporter can make it more difficult. Moreover, situations may arise in which you are mistaken for someone else and told information you wouldn’t have otherwise received. For example, witnesses to a crime will sometimes confuse a reporter on the scene with a plain-clothes police officer. In such circumstances it can be tempting to cheat a little to get a better story. But this is neither honest nor practical. In the short term you must deal with the moral implications of your dishonestly. In the longer term, you may create credibility problems for yourself and for other journalists. Better to state clearly who you are — and remind an interview subject if they seem to be confused about your identity. Obviously, it is highly unethical to talk to someone conversationally without identifying yourself as a journalist, and then to quote them by name in a news story. Treat the people you interview for stories with honesty and appropriate consideration. Sometimes, people you are interviewing will attempt to cut a deal. (“Maybe, I’ll tell you what you want to know if you won’t quote me.”) Sometimes, in the face of a refusal to tell you anything, you may want to attempt to negotiate such a deal. For example, some reporters will read back part of their notes and argue, “You said this… I don’t think that’s going to hurt you/ Why don’t you let me quote you on just that statement?” Sometimes given that level of control, subjects will agree to be quoted. Regardless, it is important if you do this that you are as good as your word. If you’ve negotiated a deal like this — some form of treatment or lack of it in the story in return for more information — it is a good idea to review it at the end of the interview to make sure, as they say, that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet. It is better to lose all or part of your story than to appear to dishonourably “burn” someone who may have misunderstood the deal you thought you had agreed to. You need to know you could end up with less when you review the deal, but you also know a misunderstanding could sully your reputation. You are only as good as your word — use the opportunity you have to make sure there are no misunderstandings.
  • 108. 108 Sometimes, you will properly identify yourself and get a good interview, only to be told: “But don’t print that! It’s all off the record!” Now you have a problem. If you go along with this, a good story may just fly away. But if you don’t, and tell your subject they knew whom they were talking to, you could cause serious problems for them and for yourself. What should you do? A good rule of thumb is to treat people who are not used to dealing with media more gently than those who are. If a neighbourhood druggist, who has just been robbed and who might never before have been interviewed by a reporter, tries to wiggle off the hook for something he has said, you should probably let him go — even though it means an inferior story. If a police officer, or a politician or a public relations official tries the same thing, you are within your rights to think twice about going along with them. As one well-known journalist used to say of such circumstances: “No mercy!” Sometimes you may conclude you would be within your rights to write the story anyway, but refrain from doing so because you want to preserve your working relationship with the person who gave you the information, then reconsidered. This is called protecting your sources. If you opt to quote them anyway, you must be aware they will often protest and accuse you of unethical behaviour — even if they only did it as a “fig leaf” to ensure they are not held responsible for the publication of information they truly wanted to release. If this happens, they may never talk to you again. In such a situation, you face both ethical and practical considerations. Be clear and honest about what you intend to do with the information you collect. It is better — in both practical and moral terms — to explain clearly what you intend to do with the information you receive, rather than mislead an interview subject, even a little. Often people from whom you want information will say, “Are you going to put this in the newspaper?” Most reporters’ hearts sink when they hear this, because they know the response to an answer of “Yes” may be a refusal to say anything more. Or, worse, an angry insistence that you not quote them at all. But it is better to risk this than to risk the fallout from accusations — sincere or disingenuous — that you deceived someone about your intentions. So, if you’re asked, respond honestly. If you don’t like the answer you receive, this is a point at which you can begin to negotiate what you will quote with the person you are interviewing. (And sometimes they’ll surprise you. As one American police officer then said: “All-RIGHT! Well, be sure to send me a clipping!”) Journalists usually don’t like to think of themselves as sales people. But an important part of the job of journalism is salesmanship. You need to persuade people to give you information they may not be inclined to tell you about. Sometimes you also have to sell them on the idea of letting you use it. But, like any ethical sales person, your sales pitch should be an honest one.
  • 109. 109 Always give the subjects of critical stories an appropriate opportunity to respond. News is a competitive business. Success in the news business for journalists is a matter of competition. So the temptation is often strong to run with stories without tipping your hand to the competition — or sometimes even to the people you are writing about. (This isn’t an unreasonable concern, by the way. The subjects of unfavourable stories have been known to tip off journalists friendlier to them to weaken a scoop with a more sympathetic story elsewhere. And they have been known to get their lawyers to launch a swift defamation suit to suppress a story.) Moreover, in the past few years as the owners of several major Canadian media operations have taken up a more stridently ideological approach to news coverage, and journalists have been tempted not to provide space for points of view they perceive to be unpopular with their owners. However, your account cannot a fair one if you don’t provide an opportunity to likely opponents of a policy or action to have their say. So in every story that involves a policy change or action, reporters should seek out and include opinion from alternative sources about the action being taken. Usually, it is obvious on the face of it who will oppose a policy most vehemently. If the government proposes a policy, the opposition will do their job and speak against it. But journalists also have an obligation to dig a little deeper and provide a range of objections — which can be quite nuanced — and qualified support as well. Industry representatives, for example, may think a government’s environmental policy goes too far; environmentalists may think it doesn’t go far enough. Journalists should include a fair selection of views. (See the section below for some thoughts on when to get reaction.) Needless to say, all this takes time, so a reasonable balance must be struck, based on such factors as the time available until deadline, the complexity of the story, and how controversial it is likely to be. But if you know a story is going to be controversial, you must try to provide opponents the opportunity to respond. Finally, there is the matter of the placement of this “reaction” in news stories. As a general rule, it should be placed after an introductory passage that explains the policy or action being reported on in enough detail to be properly understood. About a quarter or a third of the way into a story is often a good place. The story should flow naturally and logically — first the key facts, then supporting arguments by proponents, then the reaction. Do not make the mistake of putting reaction “too high” in the story, especially not so high that it obscures the point of the policy or action that you are reporting on. If a government or company has announced something, they deserve to have their action properly described before opponents try to debunk it. For example, if City Council has voted to require cats to be leashed, your first-day lead should not begin like this: “Cat owners attacked the city’s new leash law today as unnatural and unfair to felines…”
  • 110. 110 Don’t cut unfair deals to get scoops. Cutting deals to get scoops is an inevitable result of competitive journalism. It is also a problem for journalists because it can easily become an ethical grey area. People interviewed for stories often tell journalists, in effect, I’ll give you the scoop if you’ll treat my position with sympathy in your story. A reasonable response might be, I can’t treat your position with sympathy, but I can guarantee you that I will explain your position fully. But the temptation may be great to give the subject of the story what he wants in order to get the scoop. Some Canadian governments have made deals with journalists to give them exclusives if they will promise to get no reaction at all from likely opponents. This gives a big scoop to the reporter, and effectively defuses opposition to the government’s policy — which inevitably is reported on the second day by other media, after the story has decreased in importance and impact. It gives the government the opportunity to implant its arguments, unmediated by any counter-arguments, in the mind of the public. This arrangement is extremely tempting to many reporters and media companies — especially if they are in sympathy with the government offering the deal. However, it is quite plainly unethical, and hurts the credibility of all journalists in the long run. It is, however, reasonable to consider your competitive position. Often, even at the risk of missing some valid viewpoints, it is fair to leave getting reaction from opponents of breaking news contained in an exclusive story until the last minute if you feel they are likely to try to tell other journalists. Don’t show your story to people you are writing about in advance of publication. Sometimes the deal offered in exchange for access to exclusive information is a request or requirement to see and approve your story before it is written. Once in a while some bright corporate spark will try to put such an arrangement in writing. For practical and ethical reasons, no journalist can agree to this. Moreover, no news organization can afford to spend time and resources on a story, and then give the subject of the story the right to veto it! Adding another layer of outside editing to any story could create a logistical nightmare. Many newspapers have policies against this kind of thing for just this reason. But your readers also assume that what they are reading is the work of a journalist, who is at least making an honest attempt to write unbiased copy. By giving the topic of your story the opportunity to read and change it, you are deceiving and abusing your readers. You may also be putting people you have gone to for reaction, who also deserve consideration, in a difficult position in advance of the publication of the story. So don’t do it! An argument can be made that it is acceptable to show technical passages within a story to an expert in the field, even the person you are writing about. If you do this, however,
  • 111. 111 be prepared for unexpected problems. Never show your lead or reaction until the story is published. Try not to be unduly influenced by the people you are writing stories about. Everybody agrees, journalists ought not to take bribes. But what about more subtle offers, say, a good lunch paid for by a politician? Or simply accepting a ride back to the office instead of waiting for a cab? Sometimes it’s not entirely clear what is reasonable. Many news organizations have specific policies or general guidelines about when to take things that are not paid for, and how much to take. Some set a limit of $5 or $10 on the value of small items that may be accepted. Some smaller news organizations may allow reporters to take trips on someone else’s expense if it’s the only way to get a story — this could mean hitching a ride on a transport plane into a war zone or spending a week for free in a luxury hotel. At the very least, if your employer allows you to accept such offers, your readers deserve to know about it in your story. If you don’t want to tell readers, you probably shouldn’t accept the freebie. Obviously, journalists are wise to check on their employer’s freebie policy before they go out on assignment. Sometimes you must accept something for free to write the story. Say a ride on a new roller coaster for a colour piece on an amusement park that will open in a week’s time. However, in such situations, most people can be counted on to use common sense and conduct themselves honestly. However, even honourable and intelligent people can fall under the spell of a good speaker or sales person. As a result, when you sit down to write your story, you owe it to your readers to think dispassionately by what you were told by a persuasive speaker — just as you may want to go home and do the arithmetic by yourself after talking to a good sales person. Calling for reaction can help you, as well as your readers, to break the spell woven by a persuasive interview subject. Of course, some people may accuse reporters of being hypocritical by pretending to be sympathetic when they interview someone, even goading them into making strong statements. This is a legitimate concern and a reasonable place for journalists to do some soul-searching. You will often want to appear sympathetic and interested when conducting an interview — or at least not cantankerous and disagreeable. But paying attention and being polite does not mean you have to pretend to agree with outrageous or offensive statements by the person you are interviewing. For some of us, of course, this seeming sympathy may be more than good manners. As a wise reporter once said: “I love them all when I’m talking to them. It’s only when I sit down at my typewriter that I realize what bad people they are!” Keep in mind the rights of people in trouble with the law. People who have been accused of a crime are considered innocent in the eyes of the law until they have been
  • 112. 112 convicted by a court of law. They have rights, and they are as entitled to be treated fairly by journalists as any other group of citizens. Theoretically, accused people have legal rights — especially the right to a fair trial. Unfortunately, this is easy for journalists to forget — and easy too for journalists to get away with forgetting. For while an accused person may technically have the right to a fair trial in which his or her identity will be proved before the court, the legal system may not much care about the rights of an accused in what appears to be an open and shut case. Prosecutors and police want to give the impression the accused is guilty. Probably they sincerely believe in their case. But they may also feel such an impression enhances their chances of getting a conviction. They may merely feel it makes them appear to be heroes in the eyes of the public. The judge may be focused on running his trial and processing his docket. The defence lawyers may be quietly lying in wait for an opportunity to have a mistrial declared. Meanwhile, journalists who want a scoop may be more than happy to accept a police invitation to the door outside the Arrest Processing Centre to snap a photo of an accused being led past in handcuffs. Accused people in such situations are often their own worst enemies — nobody looks their best in handcuffs, but flashing the bird at a photographer seldom enhances one’s appearance of innocence! Despite all these pressures, responsible journalists should think about the rights of accused persons when they write and publish their reports. We should take care not to imply accused persons are guilty — and not just because we may get slapped on the wrist by a judge. If identity is an issue in a case, we should think carefully before running a photo of the accused — even if we know the competition is likely to do the same thing. (Imagine that you have been accused of robbing a credit union, but that you were out of the city at the time of the crime. Your defence might well be that, yes, you look like the bandit, but so what? You were in Moose Jaw when the robbery took place. You can see how running a photo of you, in handcuffs, escorted by a burly policeman, could leave the impression in the mind of a potential juror that you were indeed the guilty party.) We ought, moreover, to observe the same standards of fairness when we write about the poor and powerless as we do for the wealthy and powerful. This is easy to say. Sometimes it is hard to do. Think about it when you write about people who are in conflict with the law. Identify sources in your copy appropriately and honestly. Journalists are often tempted to write their stories as if the facts in them had more significance than they do in reality. This is a natural tendency in a competitive business, in which the most significant stories tend to get the best play, and the writers of stories frequently on the front page get the best stories next time, and the most influence, and the best pay.
  • 113. 113 Exaggerating the significance of stories in this way is so common that slang expressions have developed in the trade to describe it. Journalists frequently refer to oversold stories as being “hyped” or “torqued.” One common way for journalists to torque stories is to exaggerate the importance of the person who has provided the information. This can happen with sources who are identified — Mr. Smith, a former member of the armed forces who is an expert on low- intensity warfare. (Who said he was an expert?) But journalists are particularly prone to hype up stories this way when quoting unidentified sources. We are all familiar with the litany of terms: “A high government official.” (How high? Or perhaps we should ask, high on what?) A source close to the prime minister’s office. (How close? Walked past one evening?) A lawyer familiar with the details of the prosecution. (Familiar how? By reading the newspaper?) You should not fall prey to this temptation. Wherever possible, you should identify sources by their titles or job descriptions. This goes double if you choose not to identify the source. Your readers deserve a description that accurately reflects the true position held by your source, and thus the relevance of their views to your story. Finally, deal with your errors forthrightly and honestly. Journalism is history on the run. Mistakes are inevitable. Yet, sometimes as a major story is breaking, it is important to convey information as it becomes available, even though it may eventually prove to be incorrect. (Casualty tolls in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, for example, tend to be low. They go up as the authorities gather information from the scene.) So copy written while a story is still developing should make it clear that some information is unconfirmed, and that better information will be provided later as more facts become known. But inevitably in any journalistic enterprise, plain old mistakes are made. Names are misspelled. A photo of one person is used to illustrate a story about someone with a similar name. Numbers are changed due to typographical errors. A host of incorrect information, serious and picayune, can creep into every page of the newspaper, every segment of a broadcast. Faced with an error for any reason, journalists should correct their stories as soon as possible. If the error is extremely minor — writing Capital Regional Housing Corp., say, instead of Capital Region Housing Corp. — it may be acceptable simply to correct it in the permanent record and get it right the next time. But even middling errors deserve a formal correction in print or on the air. Good newspapers run corrections all the time, sometimes almost daily. Only bad ones deny that they make mistakes. Corrections should be included with all stories in electronic databases. This way, errors are not perpetuated as new stories are written based on old ones. They should be displayed in print prominently — usually in the same location on page 2. Sometimes, if the error was egregious, they should be given the same prominence as the original story.
  • 114. 114 Some reporters disagree with the corrections, feeling their original information was accurate and the correction slights their work. Others complain that if copy editors inserted the mistakes, the correction should state that the error was the result of an editing error. Good advice is to accept both situations with grace. Generally speaking, journalism owes more to readers and people written about than the pride of reporters — who are, after all, paid for their efforts. Copy editors save reporters from embarrassment more often than they embarrass them. Finally, in the case of serious misinformation that could result in a defamation suit, a promptly published correction can go a long way to reduce the possibility of a suit and, in the event one happens anyway, to reduce the damages. In conclusion, always remember that when you interview someone for a news story, you and they have different agendas. In the final analysis, you want a good story. They want to tell their story, but only their story. Those differing agendas are fuel for misunderstandings, and can come into conflict in surprising ways. It is both honourable and makes practical sense for you to make an honest attempt to avoid these kinds of misunderstandings when you set out to write a news story. Summary - The first task of an ethical journalist is to think seriously about the potential impact the things they write will have on the people and institutions they plan to write about. - The second is to attempt to write stories that are fair and balanced. - Journalists should represent themselves and their work honestly. - They should treat the subjects of their stories with appropriate consideration. - They should be clear and honest about what they intend to do with the information they are gathering. - They should give the subjects of critical stories an appropriate opportunity to respond. - They should resist the temptation to cut unfair deals to get exclusive stories. - They should refrain from showing their stories to the people they are writing about in advance of publication. - They should try not to be unduly influenced in any way by the people they are writing about.
  • 115. 115 - They should keep in mind the rights of people who are in conflict with the law. - They should identify sources of information quoted in their copy in an appropriate and accurate manner. - They should be prepared to deal with errors in their stories forthrightly, honestly and quickly.
  • 116. 116 Chapter 27 Cultural Sensitivity Much ink has been wasted in the letters-to-the-editor column assailing journalists for “political correctness.” Usually this criticism is leveled by someone who feels a news story has not been adequately insulting about a group or person that the critic doesn’t like. At the same time, journalists are frequently assailed for slighting individuals and groups for a variety of reasons. Since almost every news story contains the potential to offend someone or some group, journalists need to take extra care to write with fairness, sensitivity and taste when describing age, race, religion, sexual preference or any other category whose members may feel hurt or slighted. If this is political correctness, so be it. Some would define it simply as good manners. The trouble is that sometimes — even frequently in a culturally and racially diverse country like Canada — race, religion, age, gender, sexual preference or whatever becomes a legitimate part of a news story. So none of should mean that journalists should not forthrightly describe groups, their beliefs or their actions, or hesitate to report on strong comments about those people when they are newsworthy. Sad to say, sometimes an offensive, racist or sexist remark can be newsworthy in itself, depending upon who said it and the circumstances in which the comment was made. There are parallels to the debate about reporting on obscenity in which journalists must from time to time engage. If a drunken yahoo on a street corner yells a racist comment at a passing cab driver, there is no news value in reporting this unless it results in an action that is newsworthy and that needs to be reported. (For example, if the cabbie responds by shooting the yahoo, or if a riot subsequently breaks out.) On the other hand, if the deputy prime minister makes a racist comment in the House of Commons, that fact is newsworthy given the position of the person who made the remark. In those circumstances it needs to be reported on. How to report such comments can also put journalists in a difficult position. As a general rule, reporters should write exactly what was said, using the actual words and not euphemisms, and let readers judge for themselves. Situations may arise, however, when the reaction may be so strong a newspaper wants to take care in how it portrays strong comments. Faced with a situation like this, a reporter must make a difficult judgment call. In most workplaces, journalists should consult with their senior editors for input on the news organization’s policy for dealing with such situations. Journalists also need a good ear for language, a sense not just of what is appropriate, but when a term may be appropriate to use. For members of a cultural group will sometimes address one another in ways that would be considered offensive if given voice by
  • 117. 117 outsiders. Moreover, our language is in constant flux — terms that may be gentle, or even full of praise, during one generation, may become offensive in another. To do our jobs well — and not just in areas of sensitivity — we journalists need to understand and respond to changes in our language. The question “when should we change?” is always a difficult one. When are we being over-sensitive? When are we being patronizing? When are we pandering to a group that does not deserve our consideration? When are we guilty of being offensive? When are we using overtly bigoted terminology? Are there situations in which it is legitimate to do so? None of these questions are easy to answer. But we can be guided by common sense, common decency and a good ear for the English language. As a general rule, we should also be guided by the preferences of the people concerned. Let’s consider some of the areas in which “cultural sensitivity” issues frequently arise: Race Human nature being what it is, races and nationalities come into conflict. Conflict inevitably gives rise to insulting group names. Moreover, terms that were considered part of normal discourse at one point in history can become highly charged and offensive in another. Terms that were once highly charged can seem quaint and gentle after a generation or two if the conflict dies down. Inevitably, race must be described in some news stories. Journalists need to take especial care not to do so in a fashion that is knowingly or unwittingly offensive. First, we should identify a person by race only if is truly required by the story. We should always ask ourselves this question: Is race really relevant to this story? For example, it would be quite proper to write a headline that said: Scottish celebrate Robbie Burns Day or Native group protests job discrimination It would be quite another thing to write: Dutchman robs city bank or Italian stabs wife and children However, in the latter situation, description of race or nationality may be unavoidable if a person is sought by the police and their race is a valid part of the police description. To consider some other common situations, it would be appropriate to describe the race of a recipient of hate mail, or the nationality of a person about to be deported to their country of origin because, in both cases that is a relevant part of the story. Where race
  • 118. 118 animates an issue or controversy — say, a debate over immigration or claims of discrimination against a specific group — it is appropriate to discuss it. Sometimes, it may be appropriate to mention race when the subject of a story is engaging in an activity unusual for people of that race. For example, when he played in the Canadian Football League, Alberta Lieutenant-Governor Norman Kwong was one of very few players of Chinese origin to play professional football. Making that observation — at the time or about that time, as we are here — was and is appropriate. It probably would not be so now of a player of any race, because of the multicultural nature of Canada. But take care, it is not appropriate to stereotype races by stating or implying members are, for example, all not athletic, or all musical. When gathering comments in such stories, we should take care that our sources reflect the racial and cultural diversity of the story and not just run to the same government and academic “experts.” Derogatory terms and expressions of outright racism must be treated with extreme caution. As a general rule, they should not be used except in direct quotes, and serious thought should be given to whether the quote merits inclusion. If you do use offensive materials — which wire services label “borderline” to alert editors to the problem — you should always draw it to the attention of your editors. Names of Races The names of nationalities, races, tribes and peoples should be capitalized in copy. Arab, French-Canadian, Cajun, American, Tsuu T’ina, Haida, Asian, Chinese, Jew, Latin. Terms like black, white, yellow should not, as they are not proper names. The term black is acceptable, although in the United States the term African-American is frequently used. The term African-Canadian has not gained similar acceptance. The term coloured — although considered acceptable in some places on this globe and despite the fact it occurs in the name of a well-known and legitimate equal-rights organization — is problematic in Canadian society and should generally be avoided. Likewise, avoid the use of such terms as “mulatto” to describe persons of mixed race — despite the fact it may be considered part of normal discourse elsewhere. Take care when hyphenating Canadians — Polish-Canadians, Japanese-Canadians, Ukrainian-Canadians and the like. Some cultural groups use this as a proud form of self- identification and it is not, in and of itself, offensive. Nevertheless, it is rarely necessary in a news story. Still — if the Government of Canada apologizes to Canadians of Chinese origin for the so-called “head tax,” as it did in the summer of 2006 — it may be appropriate to refer to Chinese-Canadians in this context. It is increasingly acceptable to describe native Canadians as Aboriginal People or First Nations people, both of which are capitalized by the Canadian Press. The term native should be used with care, as should the term Indian — which is preferred by some
  • 119. 119 Aboriginal Canadians, disliked by others. If possible, it is better to refer to a specific community — for example, Blackfoot, Cree, Haida. If that community has a preferred spelling — Tsuu T’ina or Siksika, for example — then use it. Take care with the term “tribe,” which is coming to have a derogatory implication of primitiveness. Use band or nation instead. Religion A similar rule of thumb should be used when describing members of the various religions practiced in Canada. Derogatory terms should be avoided unless genuinely newsworthy, a very rare circumstance. Care should be taken to describe religious beliefs and terminology accurately. Often, if we are not associated with the religion we are writing about, this means talking with someone who is an expert — a clergyperson, or at least a believer and practitioner. In matters of religion especially, journalists should not assume that what is culturally widely understood within their community is understood by all in our culturally diverse society. So a ceremony common in the Christian Reformed Church and terminology pertinent to it should nevertheless be explained for readers from other cultural backgrounds, just as we would explain a Sikh or Muslim matter for Christian readers. This is not really cultural sensitivity, of course, it is merely good journalism. It bears in mind our unwritten contract with every reader, as the old saw goes, “they pay a dime and we explain everything!” Gender Insofar as our language makes it possible, we need to treat the sexes equally and to avoid stereotyping. Naturally, we will reveal the sex of someone we are writing about merely by the pronoun we use — he, or she. But we should be sensitive about whether certain information related to sex is relevant, or whether our assumptions are in fact stereotyping. Should we describe a woman’s marital status — single, married, divorced? The answer is, only if we would do the same thing when writing about a man. Likewise, we should not describe the physical features of a woman unless it is strictly relevant to the story. The same rule of thumb applies: If we were writing about a man, would we describe him as blond, or attractive, or whatever? If not, we had better describe women according to the same standard. Use parallel references for the sexes — men and women, not men and ladies, or men and girls. And for heaven’s sake, don’t be patronizing — don’t express astonishment that a member of one sex is good at something traditionally associated with the other. Another form of stereotyping to be avoided is making the assumption that certain people being described are of a given sex — unless they actually are. For example, don’t use the term housewives to describe users of certain kinds of cleaning or cooking products.
  • 120. 120 Many traditional words have male and female versions — actor and actress, for example. Some traditionally have been used by members of both sexes, but seem to imply maleness in their construction. For example, alderman. The trend in journalism and society today is toward the use of gender-neutral terms for both — say, actor to describe female thespians, or councilor to describe an elected municipal representative. Several such gender neutral terms are listed below. But, again, take care. Some newspapers and wire services still prefer the traditional terms in their copy. And many women in professions with traditional, male-sounding titles, prefer the old to the new. Simply replacing “man” in such words as businessman, alderman and fireman often sounds awkward and contrived — strive for more elegant alternatives: Gender specific Gender neutral Actress Actor Authoress Author Fisherman Fisher Newsman Reporter Policeman Police Officer, Constable Stewardess Flight Attendant If the sex of, say, the police officer you are writing about is part of the story, a gender- specific alternative such as policewoman would be appropriate. Writers should strive to avoid the hopelessly tortured. Man-eating shark will do, thank you very much, not person-eating shark! Write his or her, only if by doing otherwise you would make it appear women would be excluded from something when they are not. Take care using their as an alternative that you cast your sentence so as not to torture the grammar of the language. Finally, never assume that a married women wishes to use her husband’s name. Always ask. Indeed, this goes to a broader rule. Never assume anything about anyone’s name! Always ask, and always check the spelling. That way you will offend neither Jon Psmith or his wife, Ms. Jones. One final note, if your newspaper uses honorifics and titles — Mr., Mrs., Ms. Miss, Dr., Col. — take care to check which versions are permitted by your publication for women, and which honorific the woman you are writing about prefers. Never assume that a high office holder is a man. This is a particular problem for copy editors dealing with copy from abroad describing people from cultures with which we are not familiar whose names may not tell us what we need to know about their gender. Take the time to check. The alternative is often embarrassing.
  • 121. 121 Disability Remember that people with disabilities are people, not their disabilities. So when you write about people with disabilities, describe their disabilities accurately and explain the relationship of the disability to the story. Don’t dismiss whole classes of people by their disability — the disabled, the blind — and try to avoid terms that are not specific. For example, mentally retarded means something different from mentally ill. Do not confuse such terms. Take particular care with the term crippled, which is seen by many as dismissive and insulting and, moreover, can be a permanent or temporary condition. Try to explain the meaning of terms describing disability in more detail. A person may be legally blind, for example, but still able to see a computer screen. If this is the case, and it is relevant to your story, you should say so. In journalism, you should generally avoid loaded terms such as victim and suffering to describe people with medical conditions and the impact of those conditions. As in other areas where sensitivity is required, you should normally not express surprise that someone living with a disability can cope with other aspects of their lives, or excel in unrelated areas. Sexual Orientation Another unavoidable area rife with the potential for offending a variety of readers for a variety of reasons is the need to describe people who live in homosexual relationships. The term “gay” to describe such relationships, while offensive to a few readers, is generally acceptable in journalism. Moreover, its meaning is widely understood. Therefore, we are generally safe to write of gay people and gay relationships, though it is dangerous to stereotype such people by taking about gay lifestyles. (Some readers may object to the appropriation of a perfectly good English word that means something else. Alas, this happens in all languages and it is beyond our control. Silly once meant pretty. Its meaning changed. Get used to it!) Another acceptable alternative is same-sex, as in, same-sex relationship. Since many gay people do not believe they had any choice in the matter, the term sexual orientation is less controversial than sexual preference. Age The specific is always better than the general when practicing journalism, so it is always better, for example, to refer to a man as aged 54 than to use the more general middle- aged. Take particular care with terms that imply a lack of maturity, or infirmity. At 26, someone who is 67 may seem elderly. Few people of 67 think of themselves as old, let along elderly! If you only use the term to describe people over 100, you’ll probably offend only a few.
  • 122. 122 Generally speaking, a person’s age does not belong in the lead of a news story unless there is a specific reason (someone challenging an age-based rule, for example), the story is an oddity (100 year old tests for karate black belt) or an obituary. People under 16 may be referred to as boys and girls. Divisive Issues From time to time in democratic society issues emerge that are particularly divisive. When this happens, partisans in society will try to frame the issue — that is, describe it in a certain way — that promotes their point of view. Journalists need to take care when using such terms to do so in a balanced way, and not to appear to buy into the ideological package promoted by one side or the other. One example in our current society is the abortion issue, over which society is roughly equally divided with strong positions from which a workable compromise is hard to imagine, let alone implement. Both sides see the terms “pro-abortion” and “anti- abortion” as being inadequate to describe their positions. They have chosen to call themselves pro-choice (meaning supporting a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion) and pro-life (meaning they advocate full legal protection for human embryos or fetuses, usually by opposing abortion). Such terms may be used to describe organizations and people who hold those beliefs if those people and organizations prefer the terminology. But in such cases, journalists should take pains to explain what the terms mean to those organizations, and should be prepared to get and include in their stories suitable reaction from people and groups who do not agree. Conclusion In matters of cultural sensitivity, novice journalists soon discover that it is impossible to please all readers. Often disagreements exist within cultural groups about which term is the most appropriate, culturally sensitive to describe their group. Frequently to describe a group in the way its members generally prefer is to be accused of ignoring a moral issue by some other group with a competing, radically different worldview. So some controversy is inevitable in matters of cultural sensitivity. We can do no more than to try — sincerely and positively — to describe issues that impact cultural groups with empathy if not sympathy, with our ears tuned to the pitch and tone of the English language, and with the desire to inform, not to anger or hurt. Summary - There is not much merit in a debate over “political correctness” if you object to language that attempts to show cultural sensitivity.
  • 123. 123 - Journalists are right to take care to describe people and groups in ways that are not needlessly offensive. - Nevertheless, journalists do need to write forthrightly about such topics as race, religion, gender and issues related to them. - Journalists need to take especial care to describe race and nationality in news stories in ways that are not knowingly or unwittingly offensive. - It is not appropriate to stereotype members of different races by implying or stating generalizations about the behaviour of the race. - When gathering comments for a story in which race plays a role, journalists should take care that their sources reflect the racial and cultural diversity of the story and not just run to the same government and academic “experts.” - Bigoted or offensive comments should only used in direct quotes, and then only when there is a compelling reason for their inclusion in the story. - When such material is used, it should be flagged to the attention of editors. - Care should be taken to describe religious titles, group names, terminology and believers accurately and sensitively. - Gender-neutral language is generally preferred to gender specific language where not required by the specific details of the story. - Journalists should always ask how a married woman prefers to be referenced in a story, and should never assume that she prefers to user her husband’s last name. - With few exceptions, journalists should never write as if accomplishment by a member of one sex or the other is a surprise or an oddity. - The appearance of a member of one sex should not be described in a story unless it would be appropriate in a similar story to describe the appearance of a member of the other sex. - Specific is better than general when describing disabilities. - Avoid such terms as victim or suffering to describe people with disabilities. - It is generally acceptable to describe people who are homosexual by using the term gay. - Another acceptable alternative is same-sex.
  • 124. 124 - Specific is also better than general when describing age. - It is better to give a specific age, as a numeral, where relevant, rather than describing people generally as young, middle-aged or elderly. - Young people under 16 years of age may be described as boys and girls. - When covering divisive issues, care should be taken not to adopt terminology that attempts to frame the issue in favour of one side or the other.
  • 125. 125 Section IV REPORTING THE NEWS
  • 126. 126 Chapter 28 Interviewing Writing the news story is only half the story! Getting the story is the other half. The most important way journalists get stories is by interviewing people they plan to write about. So, obviously, conducting interviews is one of the key tasks of journalism, a job that that no reporter can avoid. Being able to elicit the answers you need from someone you are interviewing is an essential skill for journalists. Interviews may be conducted over the telephone or in person. There are advantages to both approaches. Over the telephone, the person being interviewed cannot see when you’re taking notes, or whether you have a tape recorder running. This can be a significant psychological advantage in getting your interview subject to feel comfortable. On the other hand, when you interview someone in person, you are better able to perceive nuance by observing body language, facial expression and other hints. Naturally, in- person interviews also provide you with more to observe and describe surroundings and write a more colourful story. Most veteran journalists would agree that the key to a successful interview is preparation. This does not mean that journalists cannot do well if they are thrown into covering news stories as they break, without the opportunity to plan or even any knowledge of whom they will be interviewing. In such circumstances, reporters must do whatever planning they can on the run — in the taxi on the way to the scene of the crime, while they take a deep breath before phoning the police department’s desk sergeant. Nevertheless, planning for interviews when we can provides us with the mental framework for preparing as best we can in emergencies when there is little time. Preparation Here is a list of a half dozen things you should do to prepare for an interview: Step 1: Research. Do at least some research before every interview. This can mean simply consulting the newspaper’s files so that you understand the basic outlines of the story. Or it can mean extensive reading on the topic. Court records, academic textbooks, journalistic databases are all appropriate places to look. You may also want to talk off the record to you colleagues, other journalists and former and present associates of the person you plan to interview for background information. Good research will inform and improve your story. It will also help defend you against those interview subjects who try to hide behind their expertise and use it to intimidate those who would dare to ask them questions.
  • 127. 127 Step 2: Sales Pitch. Many interview subjects are nervous about being interviewed, or even hostile to the idea of helping you write your story. If they don’t refuse you outright, they may nevertheless hesitate. You should be prepared going into the interview to be prepared to explain to your interview subject why they’re important and essential to your story, and to think of arguments that might help persuade them to co-operate. Step 3: Make a List. Prepare a list of questions you need to ask. Spend some time on your list — and think about the order in which you will ask questions. Generally, it’s a good idea to start with softer, more general questions and move to tougher questions that might cause the subject to cut you off toward the end of the interview. A list will also help you stay on track if you interview an engaging speaker who uses charm and enthusiasm to keep you away from sensitive questions. Ask basic questions first (Who? What? When?), next follow-up questions, then controversial questions. Your list should always include a final question: Is there anything you’d like to add or tell me about this story? Questions need to bee brief, so think about this at the planning stage. Step 4: Request and Identify Yourself. Call for an appointment — or to ask to conduct a telephone interview right away. If it’s a phone interview you want, be prepared to proceed immediately. If you’re new to this game, it may be tempting to put off what could be a challenging job. But you may never get another chance when your source is “in the mood.” Don’t let it slip away. Always clearly and honestly state who you are, who you work for and what you want to do. This may make a few people refuse to talk, but most will and when they do you will face no ethical dilemmas about having misled them as to your true purpose. Say something like: “Hi. This is Mary Smith from the Olds Albertan. I’d like to interview you about your plans to run for mayor.” Be prepared to negotiate politely with a secretary. But if the secretary blocks your attempts to request an interview, be prepared to consider other techniques. Remember, some senior officials read their own e-mail. Step 5: Dress Appropriately. Dress in a way that will set your interview subject at lease. If you’re interviewing strikers on a picket line, don’t wear a three-piece chalk-stripe suit and a silk repp tie. If you’re interviewing a business executive, don’t wear steel-toed boots and a T-shirt. Many reporters try to strike a reasonable balance: sports jacket, a neat shirt and slacks — nothing too fancy, nothing to ragged. If you are a man, be prepared to wear a tie, or not, as circumstances dictate. If you are interviewing religious people in a place of worship, be respectful of their traditions — be prepared to wear religious headgear if requested, take your hat off in a church. If you are a woman, you may want to pack a headscarf for this reason. If you’re going to make a career of journalism, buy a pair of rubber boots that fit and throw them in the trunk of your car. The day will come when you thank me for this advice. If you are going to interview someone over the telephone, of course, you may wear whatever you please! Step 6: Be There or Be Square! Be on time. Always be on time. If you simply cannot avoid being late, phone ahead and explain the problem. But don’t put yourself in this position. Remember what they say in the army: “Time spent in reconnaissance is never
  • 128. 128 wasted. Scout out the office location and the best way there the day before if you have the chance. Early is better than late, but don’t be so early you’re a nuisance. Basic strategies for conducting interviews OK, you’re there on time. Your subject is willing to be interviewed. Now you must think about how to conduct an interview. First, break the ice. Don’t start off an interview by being confrontational. Try to seat yourself in a comfortable, non-confrontational position. Introduce yourself and re-state your purpose. Look for ways to establish rapport. But don’t waste too much time on this phase. You’ll want to cut to the chase fairly quickly. Use a conversational style. You’re not a police officer and this isn’t an interrogation. Barking harsh questions will likely get you nowhere fast. Use diplomacy and tact to present your questions in a conversational style. This will almost always work better. Don’t let your subject see your list. A long list of questions can put them off, or arouse their curiosity. Try not to let them see. Put questions in the back of your steno pad and flip back to refer to them. If you’re one of the fortunate few, memorize them. Start with an easy question. Save the hard stuff for later if you can. The basics — Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? — are always a good place to start. But be ready to ask tough questions early if time is limited. You can usually tell by context. If your subject has booked an hour and served you tea, you will probably have an opportunity to ask the tough stuff later. If she’s already edging you toward the door, you might have to go for the jugular now. Use open-ended and closed questions. Closed questions require a specific answer. “What time did the fire start?” Open-ended questions provide the interview subject with an opportunity to elaborate and provide explanation. “What was the goal of this reorganization?” Often this technique works best if you alternate open-ended and closed questions, moving from factual detail to explanation. Think about this possibility when you create your list of questions. But remember that while open questions provide more opportunity or elaboration, as the interviewer you never know what you’re going to get. “The big issue in this campaign is whether to spend $20 million on a new civic building. What's your view?” A closed question can allow you to close off an avenue of evasion. “If elected, will you vote for or against building a new $20-million civic building?” If your subject evades such a question, you are within your rights to tell your readers that he did so. Ask follow-up questions. When the person you’re interviewing answers one question, you may want to conversationally follow her lead and move to a follow-up question. Often it makes sense to move from the general to the specific. “You’ve described your policy goals with this initiative. Can you give me some examples?” Be prepared to ask
  • 129. 129 new questions, not on your list, if a news opportunity presents itself. “Now, you said you robbed a bank when you were 16…” But also be prepared to move back to your key questions. Try to stay in control. Some interview subjects will try to “run out the clock” to avoid the tough questions. It’s your job as the interviewer to keep track of time and get back to the core questions if they move too far away. Don’t be rude, but try to keep the interview on track. This is sometimes easier said than done. Ask background questions. It’s important to understand the background and context of situations. So be prepared to ask questions about the background and history of a story. Don’t be put off if unco-operative interview subjects try to belittle you or mock your ignorance at this point in an interview. It’s a common technique to try to control the flow of questions and keep an interviewer off balance. Politely ask them anyway. Let their scorn run off you like water off a duck’s back. Remember that you are here to serve your readers, and they need the background just as you do. Repeat important questions. Your subject won’t answer a question. Politely ask it again. Maybe use different words the second or third time. It’s surprising how often this technique works with otherwise intelligent people. Sometimes they’ll get so annoyed with how dumb you’re being, repeating a question that they’ve made it clear they won’t answer, that they’ll blurt out the real truth they’d hoped not to reveal. Request definitions. Don’t pretend to understand jargon if you don’t. There are no dumb questions. Your readers need to know and so do you. So always ask for explanations of terms you are not familiar with, or technical aspects of the story. Get help with a chronology. If you’re writing a story about a crime, an accident, a game or a battle, it’s often helpful to ask your subject to help you construct a chronology of events. You don’t have to write your story in chronological order, but you do need to understand the order in which events took place in order to write about it. Check and re-check. Always get the person you are interviewing to spell names and technical terms. Get them to confirm their title. Confirm that all information you have taken down is correct. If they say something about someone else, be prepared to check it with that person. Save the worst for the end. If there’s time, save the tough questions for the last third of the interview. That way, you’ve got something if your subject decides to walk away in a huff. But there may be times in an interview when you have to ask tough questions. Now is the time to get to it. Be prepared to use tact — but don’t be so tactful you fail to communicate what you’re asking. It’s pretty tough to ask questions about someone’s sexual or financial improprieties. But if it’s a legitimate part of the story, you’d better be prepared to ask clearly. Blame someone else if you must. “Your opponents are saying you’re frequently intoxicated and are no longer able to do your job as mayor…”
  • 130. 130 Get the names of others. Not all interviews, of course, must end with hard questions. Sometimes toward the end of an interview it’s a good idea to ask for the names of others who could be interviewed about the same story. Interview subjects will often be happy to help. Give the subject an opportunity to raise concerns. Always end with a question like this: Is there anything you’d like to add or tell me about this story? This is only fair. But it also protects you against accusations that you steered clear of a difficult topic, or failed to provide your subject with an opportunity to explain themselves. It’s a good question and it helps cover your butt! Who could ask for more? Ask if you can call back. Close the interview by asking if it’s OK if you call back if you have a follow-up question. Most people will say yes — so use this opportunity to get their contact information. E-mail address? Cellular phone? Direct (no secretaries) phone line? This is often your best chance to get such information. Often you will need to ask a follow-up. Sometimes you won’t — but keep the numbers for next time! Additional thoughts on interviewing This is journalism. There are no dumb questions. Not very many, anyway. It’s axiomatic that you need to understand what you’re writing about to write about it clearly. So start by making sure you’ve really got the basics. - Who: Get the full names of everyone involved in the story you are covering. Check the spellings. Is it Dwayne or Duane? MacDonald or McDonald? Ask people how to spell their names and the names of the people they're talking about. (Here’s a tip: Write their name in your notebook, show them the page and ask them if it's correct. You’ll often catch mistakes you’d have missed if you’d tried the same thing verbally.) - What: Ask for details, not just the broad outlines of what happened. Find out the order in which things happened. Be prepared to challenge your sources about apparent discrepancies. - When: Get the exact times of events, but get the chronology too, even if that means just approximate times. How long did it take for the police to respond to the 911 call for help? When was the chief executive who is being fired hired? - Where: Describe the scene and note it down with the thought of writing colour later. Were the streetlights working where the crime took place. Did a shrub obscure the intersection where the accident happened? Take a note!
  • 131. 131 - Why: What caused the event you’re writing a story about? What contributed to it? This is the place to ask for background that will help you and your readers understand what happened. - How: What do witnesses or participants think is most relevant? How do they describe events as unfolding? What seems most significant in their accounts of things? Here’s another important question: So what? Are people angry? Do they care? What are they going to do about it? What might the consequences be? Ask this too. How you ask these questions will affect the quality of the information you receive. Common sense tells us the Five Ws are not always enough. Since the path to the information that you need may be blocked by the interview subject’s unwillingness to co-operate, an important pat of your job as a journalist is to know if you’re not getting the right answer. If you’re not, you also need to know what to do about it. There are numerous reasons why you may not get true answers. The people you interview may simply be reluctant to make a commitment, or to appear to be pinned down. As noted above, they may be fearful the truth will embarrass them, or people they support. Some interview subjects quickly turn their answers into long and rambling discourses, which make little sense and are difficult to quote. Others bark out “Yes” and “No” in response to your questions, with no context or elaboration. These one are even harder to quote. We talked about open-ended and closed questions. We discussed how open-ended questions are useful for eliciting opinions and colour, but closed questions are more effective for pinning down interview subjects about what they really think or really plan to do. Clever interview subjects — and needless to say, this describes a lot of politicians and business people — have developed strategies for getting around closed questions. These kinds of interview subjects love open-ended questions because they give them an opportunity to run — away — from difficult topics. But if you try to pin them down they can still prove slippery. Many will try to rephrase your question in a way that’s more favourable to their perspective. If they’re being recorded for broadcast, they’re careful not to repeat negative implications in your question. YOU: “Mr. Mayor, a new survey shows 60 per cent of the voting age citizens of our town are opposed to building a new City Hall. Why are you pressing ahead with this project?”
  • 132. 132 MR. MAYOR: “You’ve really asked me what the citizens of our city want. I’m confident that they want the kind of economic and legislative leadership they’re getting from my administration. Our plans for a new City Hall are an excellent example.” Naturally, most interview subjects aren’t quote this blatant. But most play some variation on this game, and some come pretty close. Another common technique is to pick part of the question and answer only that. You can solve that problem by breaking your questions into individual questions that address only one point. An argumentative subject may try to challenge the assumptions in your question. “No! No! If you read the questions carefully, only 20 per cent oppose a new city hall!” You’re on firmer ground in this situation if you’ve done your homework before starting the interview. As noted above if you ask a simple closed question — “If you’re elected, will you vote for or against the new city hall?” — you’ve got a better chance of boxing in your subject and getting an answer you can work with. If you’ve asked a straightforward question, and your subject throws up roadblocks or evades it, you’re entitled to tell your readers he wouldn’t provide a straight answer. If you’re faced with an evasion, you can also ask a clarifying question. “I’m not sure I understand. Does this mean that you will, or that you won’t, vote in favour of a new city hall?” (To put this another way: Is you is, or is you ain’t, my baby?”) Always listen carefully to what the person you are interviewing is saying. (Don’t commit the sin of those reporters you see in scrums on TV, looking around for your next interview while a politician talks into your tape recorder.) If you’re paying attention, you’re much more likely to pick up on it if someone is trying to mislead you or evade your question. You can ask a review question at the end of the process. “Have I got this right: You've said now is not a good time to increase taxes. You've also said the city needs a new city hall. Does that mean you don't yet know how you're going to vote on the city hall issue?" On taking notes in interviews When you interview someone, you have to be able to transfer the information you hear to your story. You have three options: memory, notes or recording. Each have their advantages and disadvantages. Let’s talk about memory first. A very few of us have a photographic memory and can remember everything we see and hear. If you are such a person, you are extremely
  • 133. 133 fortunate. Most of us are not so lucky. For the vast majority of us, memory is out — at least for specific quotes and an accurate recounting of events. You can also use a tape recorder, technology that often seems like a good idea at the time. Tape recorders, however, have significant disadvantages. They can intimidate the people you are trying to put at ease. They frequently make words and phrases that are spoken indistinctly impossible to understand. (So you’re back to memory.) They are mechanical devices, so they break down. When your recording is gone, you are right and truly out of luck! Finally, for most of us, recordings are extremely time consuming to transcribe. Often, you can’t find the quotes you remember and need until you have transcribed a lot of material. Only then can you start to write your story. For this writer, using tape adds a minimum of about an hour to the time it takes to write a news story. Recording an interview does give you one psychological advantage: The person you are interviewing is less likely to accuse you of getting it wrong or making up quotes. Some politicians bring a flunky with their own tape recorder to intimidate you. In such circumstances, you may want to have a tape running too. Nevertheless, for many of us, relying on a notebook is the only option that makes sense. You may not be able to get down every word, but you can mark important passages that you want to quote as you go along. And you can transfer quotes from your notes to your story immediately. Since you can put your list of questions at the back or front of your notebook, you can flip back and quickly check that you’re getting what you need, while you conduct the interview. Under WHO, you might say: - Full name? - Spelling? - Age? - Address? - Married? - Family? Most reporters develop their own form of shorthand — abbreviating words such as “with” to “w,” for example. You can use initials and descriptions to identify speakers — although don’t forget to identify them in your notes. (JS=Jake Smith.) If you take notes, you should read them over immediately after the interview, while your memory is fresh. You can add explanatory comments, print words written unclearly that you may forget later. Write large — it’s easier to decipher! And leave space to add additional notes and clarifications later.
  • 134. 134 Put quotation marks around direct quotes you are confident of in your notes. Don’t use them around paraphrased sections. Finally, if you just can’t keep up, you’re within your rights to ask a speaker to slow down — at least for a crucial passage. If you have the opportunity, in some circumstances you may want to read words said back to the person you are interviewing — if only to establish they really said what you think they did. You can lose a good quote this way if your interview subject reconsiders. But that’s better than seriously misquoting someone. If you can hardly believe you ears, you probably should clarify. Now and again, it’s what they really said and they’ll say it again. That’s when you’re in the clover! Motives and reliability of people being interviewed Finally, we need to think about the motives and the reliability of the people we interview for news stories. After all, our information is only as good as its source. Good journalists always need to be concerned about where they get their information. While you aim to deal in facts, you need to remember that those who speak with you — who supply all or part of the information you use — may have their own motives. Indeed, facts to them may not be sacred! So you must always assess the facts they give you. (Never forget that you could be successfully sued for writing defamatory statements based on their “facts.” People may give you wrong or incomplete information for many reasons. They may feel the truth will embarrass them. (Are they greedy? Are they at risk of going to jail?) Or the truth might hurt someone they like, for example, a politician they'd like to see elected. (This is the motive that often gives rise to “spin.”) By the same token, they may want to portray a political or business rival in a bad light. They may be seeking wealth, glory or respect and feel a concocted story may help them. Some interview subjects may be seeking a sense of self-importance they think will come from supplying you with a news story. They may not know much about the issue but just be publicity hounds. Or, they may just be habitual liars, crazy, or deluded. (It’s surprising how often things like this happen. At least once in your career in journalism, you are likely to meet someone who, say, believes the armoured car crew are really thieves in stolen uniforms, and the cops they called are in on the plot!) So, while journalists are in the business of asking other people questions, sometimes they should save some questions for themselves:
  • 135. 135 - Why was I tipped to this story? - Why am I being told these things? - What does the teller have to gain? - What is his connection to the event? A reasonable degree of skepticism is always healthy. Still, you can generally have confidence in many people you meet in the course of your duties as a journalist. In most cases, for example, city planners have little motivation for giving you false information about a new subdivision. Usually the police have no reason to give you false information about an arrest. And there’s seldom any reason to doubt the accuracy of data in a census document or a Statistics Canada report. Still, it pays to remember to think about checking the reliability of those giving you information. But also be aware that because a source has some potential bias doesn’t mean the data he gives you should be completely ignored. Often people close to stories can give you good, reliable information. But always bring a critical eye to information you receive from such people. Summary - Interviewing is one of the key tasks of reporting. - If reporters can’t get the story without conducting interviews, they need to develop strategies for conducting effective interviews. - Preparation is the key to a successful interview. - Do some research. - Prepare a sales pitch to get a reluctant source to talk to you. - Make a list of questions. - Request an interview and identify yourself. - Dress appropriately. - Always be on time. - When you’re conducting the interview, start with gentle icebreaker conversation. - Use a conversational style.
  • 136. 136 - Don’t let your subject see your question list. - Start with an easy question. - Use open-ended and closed questions to achieve strategic goals. - Ask follow-up questions. - Stay in control of the interview. - Ask background questions. - Repeat important questions and questions that have not been satisfactorily answered. - Request definitions. - Build a chronology of events. - Check and re-check. - Save the worst for last. - Get the names of others to interview. - Give the subject the opportunity to add anything they want. - Take notes. - Always be aware of the motives of people you interview. - Don’t trust them implicitly to get it right.
  • 137. 137 Chapter 29 Covering Public Meetings Covering a public meeting should be easy. After all, you’re there and so is almost everyone you’ll likely need to talk to. Like many other things in journalism, however, things are seldom quite as simple as they seem. Covering meetings well requires foresight, planning and news judgment. The key skill required to cover a public meeting of any kind is news judgment — that is, the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is true of covering public speeches, and it is especially true of covering business meetings with an agenda, such as municipal council or school board meetings. Meetings of municipal councils, government bodies, school boards, corporate shareholders, union members and the usually deal with several items — some mundane, some important. So the first task of a reporter covering such a meeting is to recognize which is which. Moreover, given the rules of conducting business meetings, it can be assumed that the most important items on the agenda will never be dealt with first, and rarely even in the first half of the meeting. As a result, meetings should never be covered in chronological order. Instead, the reporter needs to listen carefully to all the items on the agenda, make careful notes of the comments by participants in the meeting, and then write a story that properly reflects the most significant item or items on the agenda. If the most important item on the meeting’s agenda is dealt with in the last 10 minutes of a three-hour meeting, that item must be in the lead of the story, not at the end. Nor should you assume that more important items will have more time devoted to them. Politicians can be sneaky that way — working out the key details in private, then dealing with an important decision very swiftly in the public portion of a meeting. As the person for covering what’s going on, you need to be alert, and paying attention — sometimes no easy task when aldermen have been droning on for an hour about the intricacies of the mill-rate system. So, as a journalist, you must focus on the most important item in your coverage. You should put less important items lower in the story. And you should leave some out entirely. When it comes to writing your story, you should avoid leads that are too general as well as leads that cram too many issues into the top of the story. For example, you’re being too general if you write:
  • 138. 138 City Council took up the issue of property taxes. And you’re packing in too much to little effect if you write a laundry list: City Council met last night to discuss parks maintenance, sewer system projects, property taxes and the scheduled selection of a new city manager. Your readers deserve hard facts about the most important item on the agenda. And they deserve them quickly. You’re best to focus on a single issue in the lead. And your lead’s focus should be on concrete actions that have been taken by the body being reported on. When you’re exercising your news judgment to determine what to emphasize in the lead, look for issues and actions that affect people. The more people affected, the bigger the story. Given those thoughts, here’s a better lead than the two above: City Council last night voted to raise property taxes eight per cent. In addition to being equipped to exercise your news judgment, you need to do some preparation before you attend a meeting. Walk into a town or city council meeting cold and you're sure to be confused. So, whenever possible, get a copy of the agenda ahead of time. (These can be obtained from the town hall or school board office.) This can give you a head start on figuring out what's important and what's not. Once you have an idea of what’s on the agenda, research issues that you're not up on. Research in a case like this can be as simple as reading your newspaper’s clippings on previous stories about the same issue. Make a call before the meeting to make sure you understand what's going to happen. Politicians have agendas to pursue, but they’re usually happy to give you their take (and their spin) on what’s about to happen. The City Clerk or the group’s secretary can explain technical details about the agenda. Get the correct spelling of councilors' and trustees' names in advance — if possible well before the meeting, at the start of the meeting for sure. When you chat with officials before the meeting, always jot down a phone number. Ask for their mobile number — they might just give it to you. Save them all for future use — they will make both follow- up checks and future stories easier. When it comes to covering speeches, you’ll need to take a similar approach to covering a meeting with an agenda. In some ways, speeches are easier. At least you don't have to track down your principal source. Nevertheless, they can be tough assignments.
  • 139. 139 First, to cover both speeches and meetings well, you need to train yourself to take good notes. Tape recordings work well as a back up, and as insurance, but when you’re writing to deadline it just takes too long to transcribe tapes. (Moreover, it’s risky to rely on tape recorders, which can and do break down without indicating that everything is wrong. At least if your pencil breaks or your pen runs out of ink, you’ll know it when it happens. Always carry a spare!) Second, you need to train yourself to recognize a “good quote.” Some reporters develop a sort of radar that lets them know when a good quote is coming. Even if you don’t have that ability, though, you need to be able to recognize a good quote when you hear it — and get it down in permanent form. Since it’s difficult to record every quote from a long speech, it’s important to determine what’s important. The need for strong quotes is obvious. They make the story more dramatic and entertaining — and hence more likely to be read. They also back up the thesis of your lead. As you listen — and you need to really listen, not just transcribe like a stenographer —  you need to be mindful of the likely structure of your story. That way, you can listen for the quotes you need to back up the lead you expect to use. Like meetings, speeches seldom start with the news. Indeed, more often than not, they start with a joke — which is only news if it’s in particularly bad taste or for some other reason inappropriate. So, just like meetings, it’s dangerous to try to cover speeches in chronological order. One again, you’ll have to use your news judgment, not mere chronology. Your news judgment will not necessarily be the same as that of the person giving the speech. If a politician has given the same speech in a dozen different towns, and you’ve heard them all, and then the speaker suddenly deviates from the script, the deviation may be news. If the script outlines the same old series of political promises, and the deviation recounts how the politician robbed a bank at 16 and went to jail, that meets every definition of news. And as surely as you’ll put that in your lead, the politician will complain the next day that he’s been “taken out of context.” More typically, however, your news judgment may tell you to put the emphasis on something different than what the speaker emphasized. A politician may talk about the benefits to society of the policy she’s announcing. You may want to emphasize the cost to taxpayers. Which leads us naturally to two other issues: questions and reaction. Sometimes a speech will leave questions unanswered. It’s part of your job as a reporter to try to ask those questions. If you’re dealing with the prime minister, and he’s surrounded by armed bodyguards, this can present a problem. More often than not, though, it’s as simple as walking up to the hall at the end of the meeting and asking, “Mr. Mayor, what’s this going to cost?”
  • 140. 140 If you have a question during the speech, jot it down in your notebook. Try to get it answered after the meeting. If you can’t talk with the speaker, try one of his aides. If you try and you can’t get an answer, you’re within your rights to note that fact in your story. (“The prime minister refused to say how much revenue would be lost if the tax break were implemented…”) Sometimes too, both speeches and meetings at which decisions were made cry out for comment by groups or individuals affected. Again, it’s part of your job as a reporter to try to get that reaction. Often the best time is right at the meeting. Sometimes you’ll have to go back to the office and make a call. But if the speaker criticizes someone, that someone should have the opportunity to reply. If a speaker advocates a policy that will affect individuals or groups, those people should have the opportunity to comment. If a speaker has said something particularly hurtful or harmful about someone, you need to think also about the legal implications of such remarks. In the chapter on defamation law, we discussed how reporters enjoy a qualified privilege when writing fair and accurate accounts of a public meeting, soon after the meeting. So you are probably safe if you accurately report strongly critical comments made in a public speech. But you do need to ensure that the meeting was truly public — for example, that any member of the public was welcome if they paid the entry fee. If the meeting was not truly public, more caution may be required about what you write. Regardless, fairness requires that people criticized have the right to respond. Finally, sometimes politicians have their aides hand out copies of their speeches in advance. This can be a big help because it gives you an opportunity to identify and highlight likely leads and quotes for your story. Usually, such speeches come with the note “check against delivery.” This is good advice. You should always quote what the speaker said, not what was written in advance. If he varies dramatically from the script, of course, that’s sometimes news too. Summary - News judgment is the key to effectively covering speeches and public meetings. - Do not cover public meetings and speeches in chronological order. - Rather, put the most important items in the lead. - Focus on a single item in your story lead when covering public meetings and speeches. - In public meetings, focus your lead on concrete actions taken by the body being reported on.
  • 141. 141 - In public decisions, look for issues and actions that affect people. The more people affected, the bigger the story. - Think about the structure of your story as you are reporting the meeting. - Listen to the speech — don't just take notes. - Use tape recording as a backup — and insurance — not as the principal method of recording what was said. - Give people who are affected by the decision of a meeting an opportunity to comment. - Give people who are criticized in a speech the same opportunity. - Be careful that criticism you report from a speech or meeting took place at a truly public event.
  • 142. 142 Chapter 30 Covering Elections Sooner or later, most reporters find themselves covering an election. Indeed, if you stick with journalism, you may eventually find yourself in an editorial position where you have to make decisions about how elections are covered. It’s pretty obvious why, in a democracy like Canada, covering elections is so important to the news media. Given their importance, it’s also pretty clear why most journalists jump at the opportunity to play a part in election coverage. The trouble with elections is that while they happen periodically, they don’t happen every day. So as journalists we don’t have the opportunity to go out the next day and do it better. More often than not, if we’ve made a mistake in the way we approached covering an election, by the time the next election rolls around we’ve forgotten all about it. What’s more, there’s probably no area of human endeavour in democratic societies in which the people being reported on try so hard to control how the news is reported. As a result, politicians can be counted on to try to decide for you what’s news, and what isn’t. And finally, even if we are high-profile reporters, with influence and recognition, on election night we tend to be acting as a small cog in a big machine. That means that while it helps to think about how we should cover elections, we’re not going to have much influence in the heat of the campaign, or during the confusion of election night. Still, it is worth thinking about how we cover elections, and planning to do better next time. So, for starters, we should be prepared. The time to prepare background stories on issues of interest to voters, profiles on likely candidates, statistical charts of past election results, and to assign ridings and parties for coverage is well before the election, not in the thick of the campaign. Moreover, as Election Day nears, avoid the temptation to let the politicians alone control the agenda. This means not just talking to politicians, but to voters as well. Let the voters tell you what their concerns are — and use your privileged position as a journalist to take their concerns to the politicians. Naturally, election coverage is going to be focused on the personalities and approaches of the key party leaders. But as journalists, let’s not forget what concerns the voters and, as best we can, we should try to clarify the party positions of voter concerns. Naturally, election coverage should provide background on the major issues. Our duty as journalists should also extend to providing context. For example, asking what will a new energy policy mean to gasoline and heating prices? Will it increase jobs? What will be its impact on taxes?
  • 143. 143 Since most politicians are relatively unknown to the public, the Canadian Press asks reporters to also provide colour: Describe their gestures, language, the response of the crowd, the size of the crowd, it’s skepticism or credulity. But be careful not to descend into mere hype. Don’t let the frenzy of an election keep you from thinking clearly. So be careful to use such descriptive terms as landslide accurately. A mere plurality (that is, the most votes of any candidate) is not a landslide, even if it’s a healthy one — indeed, it’s not even a majority (more than 50 per cent of all votes cast) — but, in Canada, it’s enough to become an MP. Moreover, don’t write as if you know the mind of the electorate. To claim, say, that voters rewarded the government may say more than you know, or can know! Just as with public meetings, reporters covering elections must comply with the law. Since during election campaigns, politicians will make actionable statements about one another, this means being alert to defamation law. As noted earlier, you have a qualified privilege if the statement was made in a truly public meeting. But make sure you know it was truly public — and not, for example, open only to the speaker’s supporters. If you’re not sure, seek your editor’s advice. In Canada you must also be aware of provincial and federal laws that control certain forms of advertising and campaigning in the period just before an election. You may not be able to report late public opinion polls, for example, or election night polling results from elsewhere in the country until the polls in your region have closed. Finally, remember that elections don’t end on election night. The aftermath of any election brings significant news stories. Just think about what happened to the U.S. presidential election in Florida in 2001 and Ohio in 2004. First come the recounts, perhaps the legal challenges, the missing ballot boxes and other such technical stories. Then comes the expert analysis of what happened. Then comes the coverage of the parties getting up for the next election. Summary - Elections are among the most important stories reporters can be asked to cover in a democracy. - Preparation is key to good election coverage. - Preparation should be done well before the election. - Journalists should work hard not to let politicians control the election-coverage agenda. - Journalists should not forget what issues concern the voters.
  • 144. 144 - Elections coverage should provide background and context to the debate and issues. - Don’t write as if you know the mind of the electorate. - Be sure your election coverage complies with the law. - Cover the aftermath, as well as the election.
  • 145. 145 Chapter 31 Writing Journalistic Obituaries For some reason, obituary writing has come to have a bad reputation among inexperienced journalists and people who have a passing interest in journalism. If you take up journalism as a career, chances are good that someone among your friends and family will make a joke about how, if you don’t watch out, you’ll end up writing obits, as news stories about those who have died are known in the trade. Maybe it was the movies, but somehow the notion seeped into the public consciousness that only junior reporters and old hacks on their last legs have to write obituaries. This, of course, is errant nonsense. Study after study, and years of observation by people in journalism, all show that reader interest is strong when it comes to obits. So if your write an obituary — about almost anyone! — you can be confident it will be well read. Indeed it’s hard to imagine a more interesting, challenging and rewarding activity in journalism than writing about the lives of important people and people who have made a mark in our communities. When we speak of journalistic obituaries, we are talking about news stories about the lives of people who have died. Timeliness is an element in the newsworthiness of all journalistic obits. That is, usually they are about someone who has recently died. Now and again they are about the life of someone whose death has just become public — say, someone who has long been missing and whose body has been discovered. For this reason, these stories are sometimes called spot news obits. Obituaries, therefore, are not works of journalism about people who are long dead and whose deaths, moreover, have long been known about. These might be more properly called journalistic biographies. Nor are they the death notices written by relatives that appear for a fee in the pages of many newspapers — although these notices, confusingly, go by the same term. The aim of the people who write such notices is to memorialize a relative or friends. Most of them try to remember the positive, and gloss over the unseemly. They take seriously the superstition that we ought not to speak ill of the dead. Sometimes they take it so seriously that they elevate the less-than-saintly to sainthood! Our job as the writers of journalistic obituaries is a little different: because we are writing a news story, we need tell about a life as it was, and to tell our readers what it meant. Therefore, we need to be prepared to be accurate, not to airbrush out the wrinkles — but also to keep them in perspective. Because we are writing for the readers of newspapers, we need to strive as we would in any news article to tell the story in an entertaining way, illustrated by telling quotes that engage the reader’s attention. As the Canadian Press Stylebook says: “They should be portraits, with brush strokes provided by friends, family,
  • 146. 146 colleagues or acquaintances who can provide insights…. Sharp quotes add colour and depth.” As journalists, we should report the deaths (and on that occasion the lives) of newsworthy people. This, of course, means that well-known lawyers, politicians, prominent scientists and military and religious leaders are all appropriate subjects for spot news obits when they die. But we should also report the deaths of people who lives were significant for other reasons. Examples might include the handicapped parents who raised a normal child to be a success, the mother who worked for years in a modest job to put several foster children through university. Obituaries should also be written for people who were not famous or regularly in the news, but who did something noteworthy in their lives. For example, former hockey player Paul Henderson has not been much in the news for decades, but when he dies he will be the subject of an obituary in most Canadian newspapers because of his moment in history, when he scored the winning goal in the first Canada-Soviet hockey series in 1972. Likewise, the engineer who designed a well-known bridge in your community, the jail guard who won a medal for heroism after saving a child who had fallen through the ice, the little-known astronomer who first observed a comet that later flared brightly in the night sky and the imaginations of the superstitious would all be appropriate subjects. Obituaries should also be written about the infamous. Paul Bernardo and Osama bin Laden will deservedly be the subject of obituaries when they die — or when their deaths are discovered. In such cases, unsavoury details are pertinent. But even when writing about the lives of those who have done much good, the unsavoury side should not be left out. Terry Fox was famously cranky; Ulysses S Grant abused alcohol. Obviously, though, such facts should be kept in perspective when writing an obituary. Similarly, obituaries should be written about people whose lives symbolize something. For example, the unassuming man who lived quietly for years in a small Alberta town would be a suitable subject simply because he had the bad luck to be marching through Hiroshima, a prisoner of war of the Japanese, on Aug. 6, 1945, when the first atomic bomb exploded in anger. Someone who contracted HIV from a tainted blood supply, or suffered dementia after eating tainted beef, would be an appropriate topic for the same reason. Finally, it is a tradition within journalism that we give our own a send-off with a decent obit. Police officers who die in the line of duty get a parade. Prominent politicians may lie in state. A journalist who toils in the service of truth should get a few lines and a decent headline somewhere in the B Section of the newspaper!
  • 147. 147 Spot news obituaries follow a traditional format. All new journalists should learn this style. A spot news obituary should open with simple facts that answer the questions most readers want answered: the name of the subject, identifying details, notable achievements, the cause of death and the age of the person who has died. The traditional format places the age at the end of the other relevant facts listed in the lead, most often as a separate sentence included in the first paragraph. Additional information is then added. The Canadian Press Stylebook uses this excellent example of the start of an obit written in the traditional format: Glenn Gould, the world-famous Canadian concert pianist, died early today in hospital, a week after a stroke from which he did not regain consciousness. He was 50. After the lead paragraph, which as noted traditionally includes the age as a separate sentence at the end, details of the subject's life are given in inverted pyramid style rather than chronologically. This is because, for example, such details as the subject’s early education are rarely as interesting or relevant as his or her later accomplishments. This format can be altered slightly to reflect unusual circumstances. For example: Rock Starr, one of Canada's foremost pop musicians and the last survivor of the legendary 1970s group Abbotsford, died Tuesday of a drug overdose. He would have turned 53 today. Or: Rock Starr, one of Canada's foremost pop musicians and the last survivor of the legendary 1970s group Abbotsford, died Tuesday of a drug overdose. He was 52, and he died on the 25th anniversary of the day Abbotsford's first hit single became a No. 1 song. The length of a spot news obituary should depend on the subject’s newsworthiness — which, naturally, will vary from place to place. Often an obituary of 50 to 100 words will suffice — although even short obits should include a significant fact or two about the person and his or her life. Longer obituaries should include biographical facts, the names of survivors and funeral arrangements. The traditional news obituary should always include the full name of the subject. However, care should be taken not to put the full name in the lead if that might confuse the reader. Consider: Few readers would know that Herbert Khaury was the singer Tiny Tim or that actor John Wayne was christened Marion Morrison. Even writing Orenthal James Simpson for the notorious American sports figure better known as O.J. Simpson would confuse many readers.
  • 148. 148 The identifying note in the first paragraph should be something that symbolizes the subject’s life and career. Often it will be something that happened in the past. For example, from the BBC: Paul “Red” Adair, whose exploits fighting oil well fires around the globe made him a household name, died in August, in Texas. He was 89. Always state the age. Readers want to know. (To calculate age, take into account the month and date of the subject’s birth. Someone born on Feb. 2, 1952, who died on Jan. 29, 2005, was 52, not 53.) When a precise age is not available, give some indication — perhaps from a major event that took place during the subject’s life. Likewise, always state the cause of death — again, readers want to know. Some causes of death carry certain connotations. For example, AIDS. But, generally speaking, in a journalistic obituary, the public’s right to know outweighs the family’s right to privacy. An exception can be reasonable made when it is clear from the context of the story that the death was the result of old age. If you don’t know the cause of death, however, you should never speculate about it. When listing the cause of death, writers should use the common term and not use technical or medical jargon. Say “heart attack,” not coronary thrombosis. Similarly, unfamiliar medical terms should be explained: Hodgkins Disease, an uncommon disorder of the lymph nodes and spleen. When stating the cause of death, if it was the result of violence, there is seldom any need to include the gory details. A brief, simple explanation of the circumstances will suffice. Moreover, reporters should remember that, in the end, everybody dies of heart failure. Therefore, “heart failure” should never be given as the cause of death. If suicide was the cause of death, special sensitivity is needed. Many newspapers have a policy of not reporting suicides. This is fine, if the death is not particularly newsworthy. If the person who has died is sufficiently newsworthy to warrant a journalistic obit, however, the cause of death should be noted unflinchingly. What is true of technical references to medical conditions is true of every part of a journalistic obituary — plain, common words are preferable to euphemisms. We all die, and many of us are buried in a coffin. We don’t pass away, we are not interred and not in a casket, thanks very much. Further, in Canadian Press Style, we die of an illness, but not from it. CP also asks that we refer to the surviving spouse as wife or husband until the funeral or memorial service, widow and widower only after that ceremony. Avoid referring to people who have died as the late — especially when describing things they did when alive, or when describing someone who dies long ago. (The late Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, for example.) Accuracy is always important in journalism, but with the possible exception of court reporting, where legal sanctions may apply, this is no more so than in reporting on the dead. In an obituary, you simply must get it right! Check every fact, every spelling, every
  • 149. 149 reference — especially every name. Don’t let a Macdonald morph into a McDonald, or, heaven forbid, a proud son of Ireland become a native of Iceland! When writing an obituary, check your newspaper’s files. They are often the source of valuable information. You may also use the Internet — but take care to verify information found on the World Wide Web. Also remember that funeral directors are a great source of help to you doing this difficult job. They are professionals, used to working with bereaved families and the media. They are usually happy to provide you with the information that you need. They also often act as a go-between between you and the family if you need a family spokesperson to interview, or if you are seeking a photograph of the subject of your story. And remember, there are no silly questions in journalism. So always confirm with the funeral director that the person you plan to write about is really dead. Mistakes happen, and not just to Mark Twain. Sometimes they are not innocent mistakes — as in the case of the jilted lover who informed newspapers of the death of her ex-pal, who was still among the quick. Another reason to check is that many newspapers write obituaries of famous people, especially those known to be in ill health, in advance. This may sound gruesome to the uninitiated, but we are in the business of writing news, and news happens unexpectedly even to young people in good health. As the Boy Scouts say, it's best to be prepared. But this also means that you have a special obligation to ensure that the person written about is really dead when, say, an unexpected obituary comes across the news wire. As CP advises its news editors: “When an obit shows up in a newspaper's electronic return news, always check with the paper by telephone. The story may be one prepared in advance.” In conclusion, writing obituaries is important journalistic work. It should be taken seriously and should not be seen as demeaning or a step down from more important topics. It is a beat suitable for senior writers of great skill. Summary - Writing obituaries is an important job that deserves serious attention. - Journalistic obituaries are news stories about the lives off people who have died. - Timeliness is important — usually they are about someone who has recently died. - These stories are sometimes referred to in the trade as spot news obits. - Our job writing an obituary is to tell about a life as it was, and to tell our readers what it meant.
  • 150. 150 - Report the deaths of conventionally newsworthy people — prominent lawyers, scientists, politicians, medical practitioners, religious and military leaders and the like. - Also report the deaths of people who did something noteworthy — possibly only once — in their lives. - Also report the deaths of people whose laves symbolize something larger in society. - Don’t forget that the infamous should also receive obituaries. - Spot news obituaries follow a traditional format: - The obituary should open with the name of the subject, identifying details, notable achievements, cause of death and age. - The age is often included as a separate sentence at the end of the first paragraph. He was 88. - The length of a news obituary should depend on the subject’s newsworthiness. - The traditional obituary should always include the full name of the subject. - A well-known nickname or initials should be used near the top of the story if they are better known. - Always state the age of the subject. - Always state the cause of death. - Use common terms, not technical or medical jargon. - Avoid euphemism — say “die,” not “pass away.” - The subject should die of an illness, not from it. - Refer to the surviving spouse as wife or husband until the funeral, widow or widower thereafter. - Accuracy is always paramount in obituary writing. - Funeral directors are a valuable source of information and help. - Always confirm that the person you plan to write about is really dead.
  • 151. 151 Section V BASIC NEWSPAPER EDITING
  • 152. 152 Chapter 32 Newspaper Organization When “civilians” encounter a journalist, unless it is their neighbour, that person is most likely to be a reporter. Naturally, then, reporters — the hunters and gathers of the news — are the public face of the news business. Add to this the fact that reporting can be an engaging, even romantic, occupation — in the streets, covering a different story every day, meeting new people, often very interesting and influential people, uncovering scoops — reporters have become a stock figure in film, fiction and our shared cultural impression of the world. When members of the public think about editors, it is usually merely as a boss of reporters. Someone who — according to the movies, anyway — sends reporters places, yells at them a lot, possibly chomps on a cigar and says crusty, quotable things. In the reality of the news business, reporters are like the infantry soldiers at the front of a great army. They are backed up by a long train of support workers — especially copy editors — and decision makers, usually senior editors. Different news organizations will experiment with different titles and, from time to time, different systems of organization. Some, for example, have tried systems of “pods” — groups of reporters and editors who cover a variety of stories in the same general topic area. For example, one pod might cover governments and the courts, another social issues and trends. Most, however, follow a tradition, fairly rigidly hierarchical structure that has been proved, time and again, to work well to facilitate the coverage and processing of news. Let us briefly consider the editorial structure of the typical newspaper, which serves as a rough model at least, for most other newsgathering organizations. The Publisher. At the top of most daily newspapers is someone called a publisher. But while the publisher may have a background in journalism, his or her job is not to supervise the work of the paper’s journalists, except in the most general sense. Rather, the publisher is, in effect if not title, the newspaper’s Chief Executive Officer, responsible running the business affairs of the organization. Nowadays, newspaper chains are increasingly selecting their publishers from the advertising side of the business rather than the news side. The Editor-in-Chief. Many newspapers also have a top editor called the Editor-in-Chief. The Editor-in-Chief is the news department’s top executive. But on most papers, the Editor-in-Chief’s job is to generally oversee all news operations, and also to act as the news department’s public face and chief spokesperson. But, more often than not, Editors- in-Chief are not the people who really run the news department.
  • 153. 153 The Managing Editor. In most newspapers, that person is the Managing Editor. The Managing Editor is the business manager of the news department, and the leader of the news gathering team, the executive responsible for ensuring that the newspaper’s staff covers all stories within its area of coverage, that department heads select wisely wire copy from around the world. This editor must ensure that reporters, photographers and plans for their assignment are all in place to cover any likely story as it breaks. The News Editor. A little ahead of the editors of each of a newspaper’s departments comes an editor usually called the News Editor. This editor is responsible for selecting the stories from the paper’s various departments that will go on the front page and in the first section of the paper. The News Editor usually selects selecting the most important stories of the day after a meeting with all the department editors — which usually takes place around 2 p.m. on a morning daily. The Department Editors. Under the Managing Editor come a number of department editors. Most daily newspapers break up these departments in the same way, again because this system has worked well for many years. Almost all have a City, Business, Sports and Entertainment department, responsible for coverage of those topics and the supervision of reporters and their assignments. Some larger papers also have additional departments for foreign news, national news and regional news. The Business Editor is responsible for the assignment of stories and supervision of journalists covering and editing business news. The Entertainment Editor is responsible for the assignment of stories and supervision of journalists covering and editing entertainment news and reviews. The Sports Editor is responsible for the assignment of stories and supervision of journalists covering and editing sports news, including wire coverage and statistics from out of town sports. The City Editor. Of these department editors, the most important is the City Editor, who is usually responsible for the largest group of staff reporters and coverage of the most complex stories within the paper’s geographic area. The City Editor must ensure that breaking news such as fires and accidents are covered, as are the meetings and announcements of local government agencies such as City Hall, school boards and nearby municipal governments. On many newspapers, the City Editor may also supervise out-of-town bureaus (the traditional name for a newspaper’s remote offices) in the Legislature, the national capital and nearby municipalities of importance. If there is a major catastrophe, it is the City Editor’s job to co-ordinate coverage. The Copy Editors. Each of these departments typically employs copy editors — traditionally known collectively as “The Desk.” The copy editors, said the great New York Times senior editor Theodore M. Bernstein, is at “the heart of the newspaper’s power.” Copy editors make or break a newspaper. Their job is to edit the work of reporters, write headlines and photo captions, and in the modern era to make up the pages. They are fact checkers, the reader’s last line of defence against errors and bad writing.
  • 154. 154 The Slot. Each respective desk typically assigns a senior editor to act as “The Slot,” or, more traditionally, “The Slot man,” to assign stories to pages. In years past, the Slot — so named for the place on the horseshoe-shaped copy-handling desk commonly used in the age before computers — would assign the headlines. The Photo Editor. In addition to all of these, most major newspapers have a Photo Editor, responsible for the supervision and assignment of photojournalists. The Photo Editor must work most closely with the City and Sports editors, who assign the largest number of local stories that need photographic illustration. The Editorial-Page Editor. Off a little to the side on most organizational charts comes the Editorial Page Editor. On some newspapers, this function is fulfilled by the Editor-in- Chief. Regardless, this editor is responsible for supervising the work of the newspaper’s editorial writers, and for filling the opinion pages next to the editorial page as well. The Editorial Page Editor usually acts as chair of the Editorial Board, made up of editorial writers, and perhaps the Editor-in-Chief and the Publisher as well. The Editorial Board determines the newspaper’s editorial position on a variety of issues. The “Night Side.” Major newspapers are a 24-hour operation, or close to it. The typical mid-sized daily in Canada has a deadline for late-breaking stories of around 11 p.m., and the ability to do “replates” — new late pages — for an hour or two after that as the presses run. (Hence the expression, now seldom heard in news rooms, “Stop the presses!” At some point, as the majority of the press run is completed, the value of replates becomes negligible.) Since senior editors can’t be expected to work 24 hours a day, most newspapers duplicate the work of at least two senior editors during the evening shift. Almost all, therefore, have a Night News Editor, responsible for remaking the front page if major stories break during the evening — as they often do. Most also have a Night City Editor, responsible for co-ordinating the coverage of major breaking stories in or near the city. The Night City Editor is usually also responsible for ensuring that pages are sent by copy editors to the pressroom on time. These are important and responsible positions, often stepping- stones to bigger things. Other departments usually assign a reporter on a rotating basis to fulfill this function. Other Editorial Titles. In addition, larger newspapers have a variety of other titles for significant editorial jobs. These include Assignment Editor (a sort of Assistant City Editor responsible for story assignment) and Executive Editor, a title that can mean the most important person in the newsroom or a broken-down old hack sidelined until retirement. Summary - Reporters are the public face of the newspaper industry. - But copy editors are the heart and soul of a good newspaper.
  • 155. 155 - The typical newspaper is headed by a publisher, who is in effect the chief executive of the newspaper. - The editor-in-chief is the news department’s top executive. - The managing editor, however, is the editor who really runs the news department. - The news editor selects stories from the paper’s various departments for the front page. - The city editor oversees the operations of the city department’s staff and freelance reporters. - Department editors oversee individual departments, such as Sports, Business and Entertainment. - The “slot man” or “slot person” assigns stories to copy editors to handle, or edit. - A newspaper’s “night side” handles breaking stories during the evening hours. - The photo editor oversees photo assignment and editing. - The editorial page editor is the title usually given to the editor who heads the editorial board, assigns the writing of editorials and establishes the newspaper’s editorial policy on issues.
  • 156. 156 Chapter 33 Basic Newspaper Copy Editing — The Work of the Copy Editor If a newspaper’s editorial department were an ocean liner, the senior editors would be like the officers and the reporters would be like the deck crew. The copy editors, however, would be like the engineers and stokers who work below deck, stoking the boilers and operating the engines. Without officers or crew, the ship might not get to the right place. Without the stokers and the engineers, it would get nowhere at all. To use a different metaphor, copy editors are the heart and soul of any news organization. Grammatically correct, educated use of language and accuracy of facts are the two principal hallmarks of quality journalism. The copy editor is the last line of defence between sloppy, hurried reporters and the reading public. There is a myth that was prevalent in journalistic circles in the 1970s and 1980s, and which still lingers in some quarters, that newspapers should write for people with a Grade 6, or Grade 10, or whatever, education. This is patronizing, untrue, and no doubt part of why newspapers today are having trouble retaining readers. The language used in a newspaper should be the language of a well-educated person. This does not mean using a $15 word when a 5 cent word will do as well. But nor does it mean that journalists should write like ignoramuses for ignoramuses. If this is the case, then the cause is lost! The English writer Kingsley Amis famously and abusively categorized speakers of literary English and colloquial English as berks and wankers. “Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower class than one’s own. … Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin. Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own. … Left to them, the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.” Writers, Amis wisely advised, should “try to pursue a course between the slipshod and the punctilious.” The job of the copy editor is find the balance between the language of wankers and berks. It is to ensure precision in language as well as in fact, and to do so in language that can be understood by most if not all readers. Therefore, out should go the high-brow, literary or academic language, as should slang and jargon. Once again, we should be guided that we have an unwritten contract with the readers: They pay a dime (or nowadays a dollar) and we explain everything. Some of you, novice writers in particular, may feel this constant stress on good English is a sign of snobbery with no place in a fast-paced, widely circulated metropolitan daily. But systematic use of language results in clarity of reporting, eliminating confusion about meaning. Moreover, as we have said before in other contexts, it is part of the culture of
  • 157. 157 the newsroom, and a newcomer will do well to accept the values of the trade if she or h hopes to succeed. Finally, it is important to note that for a variety of reasons, the work of a copy editor can be extremely unpopular with people whose writing must be edited. This is because, as the British author H.G. Wells famously said, “No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” This passion, of course, leads to a variety of sins by copy editors — unneeded tweaking, “drive-by editing,” “busy-fingering” and imposing the editor’s voice on a reporter’s copy. Still, charged as they are with responsibility for correcting errors of grammar and errors of fact, rooting out legal problems and ambiguities, copy editors must be brave enough to confront real problems they find in copy. They should also be committed to preserving the voice of the original writer, not merely imposing their own voices on the story. Achieving this takes sensitivity and skill. Summary - Copy editing is a key job on any newspaper. - Copy editors are the heart and soul of every great newspaper. - The two principal hallmarks of quality journalism are grammatically correct, educated use of language and accuracy of facts. - The copy editor is the last line of defence between sloppy, hurried reporters and the reading public. - The language used in a newspaper should be the language of a well-educated person. - Systematic use of language results in clarity of reporting, eliminating confusion about meaning. - Part of the culture of the newsroom is producing work with good grammar and accurate facts, so newcomers would do well to accept the values of the trade if they hope to succeed. - Copy editors must do their important job while resisting the urge to needlessly “busy-finger” reporters’ copy. - Fixing problems while preserving the original voice of the writer takes sensitivity and skill.
  • 158. 158 Chapter 34 Common Pitfalls Faced by Copy Editors Many mistakes are common to virtually all writing — journalism included. These are mistakes of grammar and usage, spelling and punctuation. In addition, editors who handle journalistic copy must be concerned with errors of fact, and errors that could get a news organization into legal difficulties. In this chapter we will review a few of the common problems encountered by newspaper copy editors. Novice journalists should take from this discussion practical hints that will help them deal with problems they encounter in their jobs. However, this discussion should also encourage a mindset, a way of looking at the problem of journalistic writing, that will result in new reporters and copy editors producing better copy — and thus serving their readers better. We do not have the time and space, alas, for a complete study of grammar starting with the notion that “a sentence is a group of words expressing a complete thought” and extending through to infinitives and gerunds. For the purposes of this course, then, we will assume that students understand the basics of English grammar and hope for the best. However, let us start with a few of the most common grammatical blunders for which copy editors should keep their sharp editorial eyes peeled. Disagreement of number between subject and verb Frequently the verb is too far away from the subject. As a result, the writer may become confused and use the singular form when the subject is plural, or the plural form when the subject is singular. Copy editors should be on the alert for instances where words between the subject and the verb may confuse a reader. For example, “Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition believes in democracy” should be amended to “Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition believe in democracy.” Either/or, neither/nor; between and among Either/or and neither/nor compare only units of two. So it is wrong to write, “Neither height, weight nor volume should be considered in this calculation.” Moreover, there can be no agreement between groups larger than two. So it is correct to say: “Water from this tap runs either hot or cold.” However, it would be wrong to say: “There could be no compromise between the French, the Germans and the British.” Amend this to read: “There could be no compromise among the French, the Germans and the British.” Dangling participles A participle is an adjective ending in -ing. It must be placed with care, lest we unintentionally ascribe the action in the sentence to the wrong actor. The results can be
  • 159. 159 hilarious, or, worse, fodder for your natural enemy, the libel lawyer. “Soaring gaily above the field, the fullback watched the lark.” Who is soaring gaily here? The fullback, or the lark? Another example: “After being whipped vigorously, the chef should chef should chill the cream.” The cream, of course, and not the chef should be whipped. Ambiguous pronouns Care must also be taken to ensure that pronouns such as “it,” “he,” “she” and “them” do not contribute ambiguity to the meaning of a sentence. An Internet page describes an advertisement for a vacuum cleaner: “Don’t kill your wife with work. Do it with electricity.” Clearly, it is ambiguous — and unintentionally hilarious — in this example. “The bylaw will come before city council only if it can be dealt with swiftly.” Council? Or the bylaw? “After the Premier and the Finance Minister spoke privately, he said a plan would be announced within a week.” Which he? The Premier, or the Finance Minister? “Pills can be dangerous to children. Be sure to keep them locked in a cabinet.” Spelling errors Spelling in journalistic copy in the 21st Century needs to be accurate and consistent. This is axiomatic. If you don’t agree — stop thinking about a career in journalism right now! However, consistent spelling is obviously difficult — just consider the number of misspellings that even the best of put in our own copy. (Quick now, is it miniscule or minuscule?) The good news is twofold: First, at this point in history, spelling is pretty much standardized in the English language. Yes, there are differences in style between common American and Canadian spellings, but one style or the other can easily be chosen — or, in the case of newspapers, will already have been chosen for us. So we can proceed in confidence knowing that there usually is a correct spelling. Second, accurate spelling is an essential skill that can be learned. Practice, and attention to detail, will make you a better speller over time. We have already discussed style and the style mentality in another section. The purpose here is to consider routine actions that can help copy editors identify incorrectly spelled words and ix them. And in the 21st Century, we have a huge advantage unknown to previous generations: The computer spell-check. Always use your spell check software. It will not catch every error, but it will catch many you otherwise would have missed. Never release a story to another editor or to the press without running the spell check. Never release a page without running the spell check on the entire document. On most Canadian newspapers, Canadian Press style is the final arbiter of the spelling of most words. Where CP style is silent, as it often is, CP now makes the Oxford Canadian Dictionary the final arbiter of both spelling and meaning. Common punctuation problems.
  • 160. 160 Punctuation is another area in which it is easy to sow confusion and ambiguity, not to mention outright error. Properly used, however, punctuation promotes clarity. In journalism, sentences that require little punctuation are usually superior. However, this does not mean that copy editors should eliminate punctuation marks willy-nilly. Copy editors must read sentences for their true meaning — which sometimes will not be immediately clear to the copy editor. When this occurs, your responsibility is to query the writer if possible — or to puzzle out the meaning from the context of the story if the writer is not available. The copy editor should then make he meaning of the sentence clear. Consider how the placement of commas affects the meaning of the following sentences: - The boys and girls who were on the ground floor escaped. - The boys and girls, who were on the ground floor, escaped. - The man who is an atheist will be imprisoned. - The man, who is an atheist, will be imprisoned. - The woman who is married is happy. - The woman, who is married, is happy. Typographical style. Every newspaper worth the name has its own style for the spelling of many words, abbreviation, capitalization, quotation of titles and so on. Most Canadian daily newspapers use the Canadian Press Style as the foundation of that policy. It is your duty as a copy editor to learn your newspaper’s style, and to adhere to it. Of course, reporters should feel an obligation to do the same. But it is a sad fact that reporters of 20 years’ experience of the author’s acquaintance have never managed to learn their paper’s style. Some would say this should be a horsewhipping offence, but in many cases these reporters bring things to their work that outweigh their sloppiness with style, weak spelling and other sins. But it is the copy editor’s special responsibility to fix these problems, and to be knowledgeable about their employer’s style. The place to start, of course, as outlined in an earlier chapter, is with a thorough knowledge of the basics of Canadian Press Style — plus knowing where to go to check more esoteric points of CP Style. However, most newspapers have a few distinct style points of their own — mostly to deal with local geographical features and the like. A few papers, such as the Globe and Mail, have more extensive style systems of their own. Even the Globe, however, turns to the CP Stylebook when its own stylebook is silent on a topic.
  • 161. 161 When the CP Stylebook says nothing, in turn, CP now names the Oxford Canadian Dictionary as the final arbiter of both spelling and meaning. In those rare cases where there is no guidance whatsoever on how to deal with, say, alternative spellings for a local geographic feature, or a slang word that has just appeared on the scene, you may have to use your common sense combined with the precedent of how others have dealt with similar problems in the past. Summary - A few common blunders plague journalistic writing and copy editors have a special responsibility to be familiar with them. - Copy editors should strive to recast sentences to make their meaning unambiguous and clear. - Some of the problems summarized in this chapter include: - Disagreement of number between subject and verb — Reporters include such errors in his copy with surprising frequency. - Using either/or or neither/nor pairs to describe groups of more than two. - Dangling participles — Being in a ruinous state, I was able to buy this textbook very cheap! - Ambiguous pronouns, common selling errors, ambiguous punctuation and the like. - To avoid spelling errors, copy editors should always run computer spell checking software on every story their edit. - Copy editors should also run the spell check on every page they edit in pagination software. - Virtually all newspapers have their own unique typographical style on a few key points. - Most Canadian daily newspapers use the Canadian Press style as their basic style manual. - Copy editors have a responsibility to know both their own paper’s unique style points plus the basics of CP Style.
  • 162. 162 Chapter 35 Editing News for Defamation and Contempt Reporters, either maliciously or innocently, frequently stray into reporting questionable material — either words that may be defamatory or accounts that may be in contempt of court. Editors have a special responsibility to edit reporters’ copy in a way that as far as possible allows them to report the news, but that eliminates or minimizes the risk of being held liable for defamation or being accused of contempt of court. Just as the copy editor is the reader's last line of defence against lousy reporting, he or she is the newspaper's last line of defence against the kind of serious legal difficulties that can arise from reporting libelous or contemptuous material. In earlier chapters, we discussed the law of defamation in Canada, and the law of contempt. Now we need to look at these legal problems from the perspective of an editor who is responsible for recognizing them when they appear, and swiftly eliminating the problem they present. Thus the first job of the copy editor, obviously, is to be familiar with the law, so that he or she can recognize problem areas when it appears in reporters’ copy. Problems of this sort typically arise not because reporters are lazy or incompetent, but because they are conscientious and enthusiastic. They want to report the news as quickly and completely — and, of course, exclusively — as possible. Their hurry, and their enthusiasm for the story, can inevitably lead to a certain amount of corner cutting by some reporters. It is the job of the copy editor to ensure that corners are not cut and that words that can harm the newspaper are not printed. For example, reporters often unintentionally “convict” persons accused of crimes. Writing or reporting a story in a way that makes an accused person sound guilty is a natural temptation for a person who works closely with police and prosecutors, and who gets his information from them. It is easy for us to understand the mindset of police and prosecutors. Their job in our adversarial justice system is to build a case and to win a conviction. Naturally, they believe in the justice and the merits of their arguments — and, as common sense tells us, more often that not they are right. But the job of the journalist is not to report the facts as if an accused person were guilty — even if he works with and enjoys the company of police officers and officers of the court. Our job is to report the arguments presented by both sides in a balanced and fair fashion. If reporters, by merit of their close association with the legal system, are now
  • 163. 163 and again led into temptation, it is the important job of the copy editor, who enjoys a little distance from the story, to deliver them from evil. That, for example, means watching for words and phrases — and even the use of photographs — that tend to imply that a person is guilty. Remember, implying guilt on the part of an accused person can bring a journalist into contempt of court. Even showing a photograph of a person in a case where conviction may hinge on identification may be in contempt. Another area of potential contempt is reporting of forbidden facts. Simply because the stories reported there are so good — and so newsworthy — reporters will often report information from bail hearings, records of previous criminal convictions of accused persons and the identities of young people protected by the Youth Criminal Justice Act. It is the job of copy editors to know and recognize such situations — and to exercise a steady “blue pencil” (nowadays a computer delete key) to eliminate such problem material. It is important, in reporting matters that are before the courts, to properly attribute statements that were made in testimony in court, and to make it clear to readers that the account is fair and timely. (Remember, a reporter is inoculated against defamation suits by a qualified privilege if the report is of a public meeting or court case that just happened. That defence may no longer exist if the details of the case are repeated a year or two later.) It is the copy editor’s job to ensure that this is done. But while attribution such as “the witness said,” may be helpful in a report of a court case, the copy editor must also remember that such phrases as “it was said,” “it was alleged,” and “according to police” are no protection against a libel suit. Remember, as we discussed in an earlier chapter, in Canada everyone in the chain of publication of a defamation — theoretically even the newspaper delivery boy — may be held liable for a defamatory statement! In Canada, as discussed in an earlier chapter, a defamation (libel or slander) is a statement that tends to lower a person's reputation. Those who play any part in publishing a defamatory story must, if sued, be able to prove in court with reliable evidence through the testimony of reliable witnesses that the facts in the statement are true, or that the publication took place on a privileged occasion (a fair and accurate account of a public meeting, legal or legislative station) or that the complainant consented to the publication or broadcast. Well-known Toronto defamation lawyer Stuart M. Robertson has identified a number of defamation danger zones for reporters and editors. These include: - Testimony from a previous legal proceeding. What was said there is not necessarily true, nor is it necessarily privileged.
  • 164. 164 - Police press conferences. Just because the police said it doesn't mean it's true, or privileged. Au contraire! - Affidavits and pleadings. What is stated in such documents is often useful, but difficult to prove. The only time you can rely on privilege is if it is read in court. - Photos of suspects. Beware you're not identifying the wrong person as a suspect. It happens — more often than you’d think. - Statements by politicians. What politicians say is only truly protected by privilege at public meetings, inquiries, council meetings, the Legislature or Parliament. - Hearsay statements. Second-hand accounts are dangerous. - Statements by civil servants and employees. Since they have a responsibility to maintain confidentiality, they may not be reliable witnesses. - Fair comment. A fair comment must be clearly set up as a comment, it must be based on fact, if it suggests that a person broke the law, it is not considered "fair" and must be defended as fact. As a general rule, copy editors should also be careful to avoid if possible, a query forcibly if not, statements attributed to anonymous sources or statements that appear on the face of it to be irresponsible. Good copy editors should also beware of “funny stories,” lest they make the persons named look ridiculous — and hence hold up the person described to ridicule and contempt. The reporter — in the heat of writing the story — may not see the alternate, defamatory interpretation of his words. It is the job of the copy editor to consider that possibility, and deal with it if need be. According to Robertson, contempt of court risks fall into two general areas: - Breaching court orders not to publish some aspects of a legal proceeding. - Publishing something that constitutes a real risk of prejudice to legal proceedings. The first is self-explanatory. Danger zones for the second can be as follows: - Comments by lawyers, parties or witnesses about how a jury trial is proceeding. If the comments are made outside of court, they’re riskier than if they’re said while court is in session. - Voir dires, or trials within trials. These determine the admissibility of evidence. In a jury trial, they cannot be reported without risk of being found in contempt.
  • 165. 165 - Criminal record of the accused in a criminal trial by jury. This can only be reported if it's brought up in evidence, or after the trial. - Psychiatric situation of the accused. Again, only what is introduced in court may be reported. - Pleadings or amount of claim in a civil lawsuit. They’re out, once a jury has been chosen. They can be reported before the jury is chosen and after the trial is over — but, remember, then they could result in a defamation action. - Application to shorten sentence in jail. You can report what happened in court before the jury. In reporting more, take care not to say anything that might be taken as urging the jury to reach a certain conclusion. - Bail applications. Most testimony at bail hearings is out of bounds. It’s also often terrific stuff from a journalistic standpoint. As a result, reporters will often try to sneak it past. Don’t let ‘em! Finally, as a general rule, assume that the identity of any victim of a sexual assault cannot be legally published. This also often means that the names of accused persons, their relatives, or other clues about their identities, cannot be published if they tend to identify the alleged victim of the crime. Likewise, because of the Youth Criminal Justice Act, it is a criminal offence to publish anything — including dramatic pictures of friends and family, the names of under-age victims, and schools — that would tend to identify the young offender. The YCJA prohibits publication of the identity of any person under 18 accused of a crime, unless the young person is dangerous, and publication of his or her identity is necessary to assist the police in making an arrest. But once the arrest is made, the usual rules apply. Reporters should know this. But often, for one reason or another, they forget. It is the job of the copy editor to protect them from themselves. Summary - A special responsibility of copy editors is to edit news stories to ensure they do not contain defamatory statements and that they are not in contempt of court. - A first important step for copy editors, therefore, is to be familiar with both areas of law.
  • 166. 166 - Reporters are often tempted to cut corners because they are in a hurry to be first with a story, and because they want to write the most dramatic, newsworthy story. - Copy editors must be on guard for problems caused by the attitude. - Reporters often unintentionally “convict” persons accused of crimes. Editors should recognize this common problem and correct it. - The editor’s job is to ensure the facts of legal proceedings are reported in a fair and balanced manner. - Implying guilt on the part of an accused person can bring a journalist into contempt of court. - Showing a photograph of a person in a case where conviction may hinge on identification may be in contempt. - Other forbidden areas include reporting bail hearings, previous criminal records or anything that tends to identify young people in conflict with the law. - Defamation danger zones for editors include: - Testimony from a previous legal proceeding. - Police press conferences. - Affidavits and pleadings. - Photos of suspects. - Statements by politicians. - Hearsay statements. - Statements by civil servants and employees. - What you think is a fair comment. - Danger zones for contempt of court include: - Publishing anything forbidden by a court order. - Hallway comments by lawyers, witnesses and other parties to a jury trial. - Voir dires, or trials of the admissibility of evidence within trials.
  • 167. 167 - Previous criminal records. - Psychiatric situations of an accused. - Pleadings or the amount of a claim in civil cases. - Applications to shorten sentences. - Bail applications.
  • 168. 168 Chapter 36 Editing news stories for errors of fact A chapter on editing journalistic copy for errors is doomed to be inspirational in nature. This is because no textbook author can begin to predict the errors that journalists will insert into their copy. Journalists make errors about everything! They will put dams downstream from reservoirs, they will misname geographical figures, they will put Hamlet in the Bible, they will ascribe divine powers to simple machinery, they will turn women into men (especially if they have foreign names that don’t easily identify the sex of the person to someone in our culture) and vice versa, they will put C.D. Howe in John Diefenbaker’s cabinet (and give him the wrong ministry to boot!), they will put wars in the wrong century, or on the wrong continent, they will call beloved religious leaders Mr., and they will bring the dead back to life. And more! Some reporters will do all of this themselves, and in one story to boot! Indeed, if you’ve worked as long on a newspaper copy desk as had the author of this chapter, you’d know that not only have you not seen it all, but you never will. Sometimes they even have an excuse. That is, when a story is breaking, facts are often unclear. It is quite acceptable to report what we might term “provisional facts” in such a circumstance — as long as a reasonable degree of doubt, the source and the reasons for the lack of clarity are made clear to readers. For example, a newspaper might print an account of a violent crime based on the most accurate information available at the moment the newspaper staff first heard of the incident over the police radio. In the next edition, the paper might report that a man was severely beaten in Calgary at 10th Street and 11th Avenue S.W. The following day, however, with the case investigated and clarified by the police, the story may change: The beating may in fact have taken place in an apartment on Kensington Road, several blocks away and on the other side of the Bow river, whence the victim was taken by car and dumped at the place where he was found. Such variations on the facts are an understandable and inevitable result of reporting news as it happens. It is less excusable, of course, to include outright, blatant errors of fact in journalistic copy through ignorance, laziness or spite. Ret journalists will do these things too. And it is without question that one of the principal functions of the newspaper copy editor to detect such errors in fact, and to correct and eliminate them.
  • 169. 169 How is one to do this? Since errors can come from anywhere, and be about anything, it is undoubtedly difficult. Nevertheless, there is hope — or, at least, there are things that can be done to reduce the number and probability of errors. First, of course, it helps for the copy editor to be a true renaissance person — with a vast store of knowledge about a huge variety of topics, well founded in culture and literature, perhaps familiar with several languages and technical fields, as well as being in possession of a brilliant mind an acute memory. Alas, that will not describe many of us who end up working on the copy desk. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the more you read, the farther ahead you’ll be as a copy editor. Moreover, it doesn’t matter what you read — fiction, non-fiction, reference texts, your newspaper, other newspapers, classic fiction or frothy detective novels, whatever! So read! Read guiltlessly and widely, in books, magazines, newspapers and on the Internet. This will not only provide you with an increasing store of knowledge, but it will enhance your ability to speak critically. Because we’re not all renaissance men and women, where possible newspaper copy should also be examined by several people. In newspaper editing, two heads are generally better than one, and three better than two. Nevertheless, the constraints of time and publishing deadlines mean that the principal burden for fact checking will fall on the copy editor. In addition, we should be aware of certain problem areas in which reporters commonly make mistakes of a serious sort, and about which we should therefore be doubly alert. These areas include the following: - Spelling of names. If you are not absolutely certain, it always pays to check the spelling of a name. This one time, John Smith may turn out to be Jon Psmith! - Addresses. In the experience of this old copy editor, reporters often get addresses wrong, so it pays to double check. - Geographical details. Reporters are even more prone to get geographical details wrong — to place Peace River, Alta., above the 57th Parallel, for example, or describe a lake as being downstream from a dam, or place the capital of British Columbia upon Victoria Island. Most newsrooms have an atlas — use it! - Sums and percentages. As a class, reporters are bad with numbers. Check their arithmetic. If their percentages don’t add up to 100, query them and provide an explanation for readers. This means you should learn the formula for calculating percentages.
  • 170. 170 - Dates. Reporters tend also to be bad with history. Check their dates. Don’t let them sell you a wooden nickel with the date B.C. stamped on one side! - Location and descriptions of past events. For the same reason, editors should be particularly alert when handling copy that purports to describe and explain historical events. Reporters frequently get it wrong. Check again. - Canadian Constitutional details. Sad to say, Canadian reporters are often unfamiliar with Canadian constitutional law, and too familiar — by osmosis, presumably — the U.S. version. Canadians don’t directly elect their prime minister, nor can they plead the Fifth — except colloquially. (Although you can’t really read Americans the Riot Act, either.) What comes under provincial jurisdiction in Canada may be a federal responsibility in the U.S. Finland has no “federal” government — Fin land not being a federation. Copy editors need to know these things. Trust your instincts! If something seems wrong — or not quite right — check it again! Every fact and figure presented by a reporter should be suspected. Consider the following: The downing of the Iranian aircraft brought memories of the sinking of the liner Lusitania on May 1, 1916, in which 1,195 lives were lost after the American liner was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of England. What would you question about that sentence? The reporter got the casualty count right. Alas, Lusitania was torpedoed off the west coast of Ireland and she set said on May 1, though in 1915, and managed to stay afloat until May 7. Moreover, while she was loaded with Americans, she was a British liner. It was, however, the Germans who did the deed. What about this one: Alberta government employees in Grande Prairie and Peace River are celebrating the province’s decision to give extra vacation days to government workers who live north of the 57th Parallel. But why? Grande Prairie and Peace River are south of the 57th ! Remember, thanks to the Internet, checking is easy. Finally, another form of common error in a story is the inclusion of facts that are inconsistent with one another. The facts of a story must be consistent. If facts in one paragraph seem to contradict those in another paragraph, a change must be made to one case or the other, or an explanation must be provided.
  • 171. 171 Frequently, for example, reporters will describe criminals feeing from their scene of their crime by one route in one part of a story, and have them take another route in another part of the same story. However, reporters are particularly likely to introduce inconsistent facts in their leads. They do this because they are trying to hype or torque their leads beyond what the true facts of the story will support in order to get better play. The good copy editor will be on the alert for this kind of inconsistency in leads. For example, a story may say the mayor denounced waste in city departments. But the context of his remarks may merely be mildly critical. If he mildly criticizes or suggests reforms, that is not enough to support a lead claiming he denounced anything. Consider the following example: Calgary Mayor Al Duerr Tuesday denounced the waste of taxpayers' money by city departments. “We must ensure that city taxes are not wasted,” Duerr said. “Every dollar must be spent carefully, and a dollar's worth of service must be obtained from it for the people of Calgary. “I am tired of hearing attacks on this municipal government by people who do not understand the cost of running a city without the support we had from the provincial government only a few years ago.” Clearly, in this made-up example, Duerr is not denouncing the waste of taxpayers’ money, he is denouncing people who criticize his city for wasting money. The copy editor must soften or change the terms to bring the lead into conformity with the quoted statement and the facts of the story. Summary - No one can predict the errors journalists will introduce into their copy. - Errors are inevitable when news is breaking because a clear picture of unfolding events is not available. - Errors are also inevitable, however, because reporters may be lazy, in a hurry, inattentive, or mistaken in their beliefs. - Copy editors need broad knowledge in a wide variety of areas.
  • 172. 172 - The best way to get that knowledge is to read widely. - Since we can’t all know everything about everything, it helps to have newspaper copy read by several people — time permitting. - Several problem areas can be identified where reporters make errors of fact. These include: o Spelling of names. o Addresses. o Geographical details. o Sums and percentages. o Dates. o Locations and descriptions of past events. o Canadian Constitutional details. - Copy editors should trust their instincts if something seems to be wrong. - Every fact presented by a reporter should be treated as suspect. - The facts of a story must be consistent. - If they are not, the story must be amended to be consistent with one version or the other. - Leads need to be consistent with the facts as stated in the story. - Beware of, and be prepared to change, leads that overstate the facts in the story.
  • 173. 173 Chapter 37 More Work for Copy Editors We have now covered the basics of a newspaper copy editor’s responsibilities, as well as discussing in more detail some of the specific problems that copy editors are likely to encounter in their work. Let us now look at a number of additional challenges that newspaper copy editors will come across in their work. Buried leads Reporters frequently “bury” their leads. That is, they place the “real” lead anywhere from paragraph three to paragraph 30. Indeed, with surprising frequency, they'll put the real lead of a story in its very last paragraph. Needless to say, there can be honest disagreement about what is the “most important” set of facts that deserves inclusion in the lead. Nevertheless, copy editors need to be on guard against this tendency among reporters, who can be led astray by a news release that intentionally tries to misdirect them, by their own enthusiasm for a less-important aspect of the story, by their ideological views, or by a mere lack of skill. Being able confidently to make such decisions required both the ability to write good leads yourself, and strong news judgment. Obviously, to do this job properly, the editor must read the entire story through before starting to make changes to the lead. Imagine that a corporation issues a news release announcing the implementation of a new management structure, including the appointment of a new chairman of the board of directors, a new president and chief executive officer, and the movement of several other senior executives to new responsibilities. The news is relayed in faultless journalese, with a crisp lead focusing on the new president. Naturally, many reporters will be tempted to take the same approach as the writer of the news release — and in many cases that would be the right approach. But imagine also that somewhere deep in the release, a passing mention is made to the company’s very high-profile president and CEO leaving to spend more time with his family and pursue new opportunities. Or, the release may have made no mention of the former president whatsoever. In either case, if the former president’s profile was high enough, this is obviously the lead, and the news release contained an attempt to misdirect coverage away from the real story. Leads may also be buried if the reporter chooses the wrong kind of lead. As readers will recall, there are two basic kinds of leads — the standard news lead, which puts the climax in the first paragraph and arranges all other facts in order of declining importance below it, and the “delayed” or feature lead, which works up to a climax later in the story.
  • 174. 174 Some reporters just love feature leads, or fall in love with a play on words that requires a delayed lead approach. But feature leads, by definition, bury the lead. So copy editors are also called upon to use their news judgment to replace a clever feature lead with a summary lead that gets right to the point of the news. Making certain that the lead’s facts are correct and that right lead has been chosen are a significant component of a copy editor’s job. Story development Once the copy editor has read the story through and made any necessary repairs to the lead, he or she must deal with the development of the rest of the story. The story’s narrative should develop in a natural and logical fashion, with transitions from one part of a story to another managed smoothly. Some reporters, however, summarize important parts of the story in their lead, and then never get back to them. This sounds like a glaring omission, a sign of real incompetence, when stated baldly like this. But in the heat of writing a story for deadline, it is easy for any reporter to do. So copy editors need also to be on guard for undeveloped threads that are mentioned in the lead, the nut graph or introductory sub-sections of a news story, but then never followed up. If a copy editor discovers that material like this has not been followed up, there is a problem with the story. Remedies can include calling the reporter for illumination and adding that to the story, seeking and finding back-up facts elsewhere and adding it, or eliminating the unverifiable statements from the story. Editing for length Journalism should be the realm of the concise writer. Often this expressed in the phrase “tight writing.” Nevertheless, many reporters do not write tight paragraphs. Reporters, quite good ones too, will add repetitive phrases, redundant words and unneeded paragraphs. It is the job of copy editors to trim, boil down and cut stories, both to eliminate sloppy excess verbiage and to make stories fit the space available for them. (Reporters, of course, just hate this, and habitually call it “slashing” and “butchering.”) Nevertheless, the request to cut two or three column inches from a 10-inch story is a daily occurrence on a metropolitan daily newspaper’s copy desk. Cutting a 10- or 20- inch story to a two or three-inch brief is not uncommon. The need to do this gives rise to the verb “to brief,” as in, “We’re going to have to brief this story.”
  • 175. 175 Trimming and boiling off excess words in someone else’s copy typically seems easier than doing it with your own. But many copy editors — this author included — find that another journalist’s copy “becomes their own” as they work on it. It is important, whether the copy editor is merely pruning a few words or lopping off whole paragraphs — that an effort be made to preserve the original voice of the reporter, not to recast the work as your own. When you can trim a 16-column inch story to 10 column inches without the writer noticing that you have taken anything out or complaining about it, you know that you have become a good editor of copy. It can be done! Estimating story length Copy editors should be able to estimate the length in column inches or whatever measure is used by their paper for raw copy produced by reporters, either on paper or in electronic format. Fortunately, modern copy editing computer software often does this job for us. Nevertheless, being able to estimate length is a useful skill both for editors and reporters. As a reporter, it can save you a lot of grief and time to write copy about the length requested by your editors. You will appreciate not having your deathless prose “butchered.” The copy desk will appreciate being saved the work of butchering it! Copy editors can pick at random several one-inch long samples of their newspaper’s body copy and count the number of words in each sample. This will give a fairly accurate idea of the number of words required to make up a column inch of body copy. Taking the typeface and column width used by the Calgary Herald as an example, about 35 words take up a column inch. We know by experience that a little over 500 words — which a lot of reporters seem to like to write — adds up to about 15 column inches at that measure. When the author worked on the Herald’s copy desk, such stories were routinely boiled down to about 10 column inches. An old-fashioned rule of thumb was that about four lines of type on a manual Underwood typewriter equaled about an inch of copy. By the way, young journalists may wonder “Why column inches?” Even in the metric era, inches remain the standard editorial department measure for newspaper columns. No doubt this will change in time — perhaps when our American cousins adopt the metric system. In the meantime, for those of you who have become thoroughly metrified, think of the distance from the end of your thumb to the first knuckle as being about an inch. Sentence structure
  • 176. 176 The custom and belief in journalism is that short and simple sentences are the most effective for reporting the news. Moreover, the narrow columns traditionally used in newspapers led to the common use of very short, one-sentence paragraphs. This remains a standard practice on most Canadian and U.S. newspapers. It should not mean, however, that stories should be arbitrarily chopped up merely for the sake of typographical appearance. Nevertheless, some copy editors argue that appearance and readability are enhanced if a variety of sentence lengths are used. Both this and the desire to break up newspaper copy into short paragraphs compel copy editors to divide longer sentences into shorter ones, even when the meaning is clear. Reporters that try to pack too many of the five Ws into their leads also create sentences that are long, involved and hard to follow Copy editor should impose a style of paragraphing that preserves the basic unity of thought in the story. Brightening and toning down stories Reporters often fail to strike the correct note with the tone of their stories. Sometimes they adopt a sprightly or humourous tone to describe a tragic situation — often because the circumstances of the tragedy are bizarre or unique. Sometimes they adopt a too- serious tone for a story that could be presented in a more light-hearted way. One of the copy editor’s jobs is to brighten up or tone down stories as appropriate. The first requirement o this job is a good ear for the language, and for what is appropriate. Beware the copy editor who lacks that ability! Often a copy editor can tone down a story when it has been phrased too strongly or that has the wrong perspective simply by eliminating colourful adjectives and replacing strong verbs with milder ones. Sometimes it will be necessary to strike out words that describe the story in a distasteful way. The copy editor’s objective is not to suppress facts or resort to meaningless euphemism, but to tell the story in polite language in a way that is not offensive. Profane language or gruesome descriptions in news stories are usually put there only to titillate readers, not inform them. Copy editors should ask themselves: “Is this profanity or gruesome description really needed to tell the story?” Only rarely is the answer yes. If it isn't, cut it out. “Brightening up” copy requires the judicious use of colourful adjectives or active verbs. Sometimes this goal can be achieved by creating a sharp summary lead from a long and involved statistical story. Sometimes it can be done by taking a dramatic phrase or detail
  • 177. 177 from within a story and putting it in the lead with the aim of transforming a dull account into an interesting one. Fairness and balance Despite the common misuse of the phrase in journalism, copy editors need to make a sincere effort to ensure that stories describe the news in a manner that is fair and balanced. This means that both sides to a dispute or controversy deserve relatively equal treatment. Coverage of a criminal trial or lawsuit can recognize that while one side gets a hearing one day, the other will have the opportunity to respond the next. Even so, however, the basic principles of fairness and balance should be kept in mind while editing the story. If the removal of a fact distorts the story, for example, the fact should be retained. If a person faces an accusation in a story, that person should be given an opportunity to respond in the same story in which the charges are published. Sometimes this is not possible, but readers should be informed that the effort was made — “Mr. Smith could not be reached for comment.” However, if the story contains such a phrase, it is essential that in fact a sincere effort was made to reach Mr. Smith. If a reporter has made no effort to include balance in a story, the copy editor should draw the omission to the attention of the editor in charge. Copy editors should strive to eliminate all words or phrases that give unwarranted publicity to persons or businesses, or that in effect advertise businesses or goods. Copy editors should also make an effort to eliminate obvious opinions or biases placed in copy by reporters. This is sometimes done knowingly by reporters. Sometimes it is lifted unconsciously from news releases. Regardless, the remedy is often as simple as removing a single subjective word (usually an adjective) that suggests an opinion. A hard news story should contain no word or phrase that can be interpreted as a matter of opinion, rather than fact, unless it is clearly attributed to someone cited in the story. Readers would be surprised at how often this happens. Be on the alert for such phrases as: “Unfortunately, the Liberals lost the vote….” Or “Happily, Mao recovered his health and returned to the fight...” These are matters of opinion. Eliminate the words “unfortunately” and “happily.”
  • 178. 178 Avoid the painfully obvious All journalists should strive to avoid the painfully obvious. However, since reporters cannot always be depended upon to do this, it becomes a special responsibility of the copy editor. Was the accident victim lucky to be alive? Did something go terribly wrong just before the fatal plane crash? Did a child die in a tragic accident? Excise the obvious! Summary - Copy editors need to be alert to “buried leads.” - When they are found, they should be unburied! - Leads are sometimes buried because the reporter simply emphasizes the wrong part of the news story. - Editors need to exercise their news judgment to deal with this problem. - Leads may also be buried when reporters use delayed feature leads in stories in which a hard-news summary lead would be more appropriate. - Copy editors also need to edit with an eye to story development — facts referred to early in a story should be backed up with explanation deeper in the story. - Stories need to be edited for length, both to eliminate extraneous words and to fit the space available in the newspaper. - As far as possible, copy editors should strive to preserve the reporter’s original voice when editing for length. - Long sentences often need to be broken into simpler, shorter units. - Editors need to consider the appropriate tone of a story, and may need to “brighten up“ or “tone down” stories depending on the circumstances. - Copy editors can tone down stories that are phrased too strongly or have the wrong perspective by eliminating colourful adjectives and replacing strong verbs with milder ones. - Sometimes copy editors will need to strike out words that describe the story in a distasteful way. - Copy editors need to ensure that stories are fair and balanced.
  • 179. 179 - Both sides to a controversy deserve relatively equal treatment. - People accused of improper actions should be given a chance to respond in the story that makes the accusation. - If they cannot be contacted, the story needs to inform readers of that fact. - Copy editors should eliminate words that indicate bias - Copy editors should also eliminate words that indicate opinion from hard news copy. - Where opinion is expressed, there must be attribution. - Copy editors should eliminate words that tend to advertise a product or service.
  • 180. 180 Chapter 38 The Professionally Dirty Mind To do her job properly, a journalist must cultivate a “professionally dirty mind.” This doesn’t mean, of course, that journalists should speak offensively, or while away the hours in the newsroom telling obnoxious jokes. Moreover, there’s more to a professionally dirty mind than mere smut. He point is that as professionals who work with words and language, journalists — especially copy editors and above all headline writers — must be constantly aware that words and phrases can have alternate meanings and must be alert to possible unintended meanings that might creep into print. Unintended meanings in journalism often come about in one of two ways: because a word or phrase has an alternate or slang meaning, or because the position of the words, or the use of punctuation, unintentionally conveys the wrong impression. So, for an example of the first sort, to describe an unmarried man as a bachelor may, in certain contexts, imply to the reader that the man is homosexual. Therefore, to write “Mr. Smith, a bachelor…” may be, depending on the context of the story, to court danger. In Britain, to write the phrase “assisting the police with their inquiries” implies that someone is in custody, suspected of a crime, but not yet charged. In Canada, journalists don’t have to play quite so cute in such circumstances. In the United States, they don’t have to worry about this implication at all. Nevertheless, merely using the phrase may carry the connotation of crime. Likewise, people are often referred to as “tired and emotional” to imply that they were drunk. This may seem funny, or merely a minor ethical issue, but it can have serious consequences. In Canadian defamation law it doesn’t matter what you meant to say, it matters what readers understood you to mean. So if Mr. Smith is, say, the president of the League to Preserve Traditional Marriage and he can produce witnesses willing to testify in court that they took the bachelor reference to mean he was gay, he may very well have grounds to successfully sue you. The second type of miscommunication happens when you start out to say one thing and end up saying quite another — often withy unintentionally hilarious results. The Lethbridge Herald copy editor meant to write a headline saying an intoxicated man who broke the window of a pawnshop and stole a violin would be sentenced to nine months in jail. What he wrote, famously, was:
  • 181. 181 Drunk gets nine months in violin case Even the positioning of punctuation in a sentence can dramatically change its meaning. Consider the meaning of the following sentences, with and without commas: The woman, who is married, is happy. The woman who is married is happy. We have all seen lists of funny headlines with unintended meanings. As journalists, we should not wish to have our work end up on one. To avoid this, we need to be as precise as possible, to read what we have written carefully to ensure that we have not added an unintended meaning. Journalists therefore should be alert to puns. Beware, for example, any headline with the word probe in it! The only things that should ever be laid in a headline are criminal charges and cornerstones! Journalists, also, should be as up to date as possible on slang and the specialized terminology of various trades. Of course, the problem with this is that language is a moving target — and part of the goals of slang and trade argot is to exclude outsiders. Hence the hardy perennial newspaper feature stories on the “latest” teen slang — usually months out of date by the time they see print. (Who remembers Valley Girl slang? Grody to the max? And to think, it was once the topic of in-depth feature coverage in several national U.S. news magazines. Well, gag me with a spoon!”) Everything said in this chapter goers double when dealing with sexual innuendo. Alas, given human nature and the English language, there is never any shortage of that. So take care, if you intend to imply someone in politics has a too-coy relationship, not to unintentionally suggest something more intimate. Kicking baby considered to be healthy Golf pro plays with own balls: Nike Never withhold herpes infection from loved one Milk drinkers are turning to powder None of the authors of these headlines meant to say what they said. What they said was funny, but, to repeat, it’s not a kind of comedy that will enhance your career as a journalist. To avoid this fate, always ask yourself: - Is there an unintentionally rude pun hiding in my copy that could embarrass me or my paper? - Have I unintentionally created the impression someone did something they did not in fact do, or that something happened that did not in fact happen?
  • 182. 182 To check, try reading your copy aloud and listening to what you are saying. Summary - To do their jobs properly, journalists need to cultivate a professionally dirty mind. - This means journalists must be constantly aware that words and phrases can have alternate meanings. - Journalists therefore should be alert to possible unintended meanings that might creep into print. - Miscommunication can happen when a word or phrase has an alternate or slang meaning. - Miscommunication can also happen because the position of the words, or the use of punctuation, unintentionally conveys the wrong impression. - Even untended meanings can have serious legal consequences. - Journalists, especially editors, must therefore be aware of puns. - Journalists should try as far as possible to be up-to-date on current slang. - Journalists should be doubly careful where sexual innuendo could be involved. - Before you file your story or headline, you should always ask, is there an unintentionally rude pun hiding in my copy that could embarrass me or my paper? - You should also always ask, have I unintentionally created the impression someone did something they did not in fact do, or that something happened that did not in fact happen? - Reading your words aloud can often reveal unintended alternate meanings.
  • 183. 183 Chapter 39 Dealing With Profanity Journalists, and especially editors, must regularly confront the problem of what to do about profanity in newspaper stories. We need only listen to the conversations around us as we walk down the street to know that in the early 21st Century profanity has become a part of ordinary discourse for many people. Whether we approve or disapprove, or don’t particularly care, profanity has become part of our day-to-day lives. The problem is what to do about it when profanity creeps into journalistic accounts of the news. The copy editor must answer two questions when he is handed a story containing profanity: 1) Does this rude word belong in the story at all? 2) If it does, how should I present it to readers? The answer to the first question on most newspapers is a question of policy, and of community standards, quite legitimately defined. A word that may be acceptable in print in the Toronto Star, for example, may not be in the St. Albert Gazette. To some degree this is a business decision about what readers of a publication in a particular community will accept — and it is right that the business leaders of the newspaper have a say in making the decision. But editors should make a news judgment about profanity too. Profanity should only be used in news stories when the profanity itself is newsworthy. Since the exercise of news judgment is more of an art than a science, there is bound to be vigorous disagreement (occasionally quite profane) about whether an obscene word belongs in a news story. What follows is a suggestion for a commonsense policy on whether or not to report profanity. As a general rule, we can expect inexperienced reporters to be in love with the idea of being able to write strong language in their stories. As a result, reporters are often inclined to use profanity where it would be best left out. Likewise, as a general rule, business managers — concerned as they are with not offending advertisers — can be expected to want to leave out profanity where it should be included. What is suggested here is a saw off, guaranteed to irritate almost everyone — except the consumer of news, who is well served by such a policy. In determining whether the use of profanity in a news story is appropriate, context is everything. Specifically, the context of whether the use of profane language reflects on the fitness of a person to hold an office or position.
  • 184. 184 If a robber uses profanity in the course of holding up a convenience store, or uses a racial epithet to insult the clerk he is threatening, this is not newsworthy. The is no news value whatsoever in informing readers that low-class characters who hold up stores late at night use the F-word as part of their ordinary discourse. We would simply expect such commentary from such villains. There is no language test for the suitability of a candidate for armed robbery. In this and like circumstances, the profanity should not be included in the story. Some might argue that use of profanity in such an account is colour, or description that will paint a dramatic picture of the events. Save such colour for your novel. It’s not news. On the other hand, it the bishop of a large church, or the Prime Minister of a country, uses similar language in a sermon or a Parliamentary debate, arguably this is newsworthy. Either they have carefully pondered the implications of making such a statement, or they have not and have provided us with an unexpected glimpse into their innermost thoughts. Either way, their use of such language both emphasizes the point they are trying to make and reflects on their fitness to hold office. In this and like circumstances, the profanity should be included in the story. A useful yardstick in making this decision is to think of a bright child that you know, a precocious reader — perhaps a brother or sister, son or daughter. You probably don’t want them reading a rude word from the newspaper in your hands. Ask yourself: Does the need to report the word or phrase outweigh your wish for the child not to see it? If you think it does, it’s probably newsworthy. Thus it was entirely proper for news reporters to write the phrase Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau used in the House of Commons and then dismissed as “fuddle-duddle.” And it was likewise the proper decision to report the words of a U.S. Secretary of Agriculture when he crudely dismissed an entire race with an insulting phrase. Which leads us to the second point — how should an editor deal with that profanity? Essentially journalists have three options: 1) They can report the words forthrightly, spelled out in all their lack of glory, exactly as they were spoken. 2) They can use euphemism and evasion to describe the meaning of what was said, without using the actual words. 3) They can use words, but fudge them through the use of asterisks or dashes. As a general rule of thumb, the best newspapers opt for the first approach in most cases where the profanity is genuinely newsworthy. This is the recommended approach if it is within the policy of the newspaper that employs you. Use profanity sparingly, but clearly
  • 185. 185 when you must. Assume, when you use it, that your readers are mature individuals who have a right to know what was said. The second approach is acceptable too in some cases — for example, commentary on the use of profanity arising from a specific example in the news. Indeed, profanity in the news generally has a best-before date — it’s only newsworthy when it’s actually news. The problem, of course, is that by resorting to euphemism, we can mis-report what was actually said. Better to use the actual words and let the reader judge for herself. The third approach is, in the opinion of this writer, too cute. It neither protects the reader’s sensibilities nor fully informs her. It can make a mild profanity appear to be something much worse. Better to spell it out in the rare cases when you decide to use rude words. It’s best to use profanity very rarely. Judged critically, it is seldom newsworthy. When it is, it should be stated forthrightly. Summary - Editors often have to decide whether to use profanity in news stories. - When they come across profanity, they must decide, Does this rude word belong in the story at all? - If it does, they must also decide how to present it to readers. - As a rule of thumb, profanity should only be reported if it is newsworthy, and that decision should be based on whether the use of the word or phrase reflects on the fitness of the user to hold office. - Sometimes also it may be used if it has been spoken to make a particularly newsworthy point by a prominent person. - Use of low language by low characters in the commission of low acts has no news value. - If you use profane words in a story, you can state them right out, disguise them through the use of euphemism or obscure their spelling. - In most cases, when the news is fresh, it is best to spell them out and let the reader know exactly when was said. - Use profanity only rarely in news. - When it’s newsworthy, be forthright about it.
  • 186. 186 Chapter 40 Writing Basic Headlines The headline is the distinguishing characteristic of the modern newspaper. Indeed, a newspaper just wouldn’t be a newspaper without headlines. We’re so used to reading headlines in newspapers that it’s impossible to imagine a newspaper without them. Without headlines, quite literally, we wouldn’t know what to read! They’re such a good idea that they’ve been adopted everywhere. You can pick up a newspaper written in Nepalese, Urdu or Finnish, Basque, Inuit or Romanian and they’ll all have headlines. And yet, when newspapers were first invented, they didn’t have headlines. Somehow — maybe because there was no TV or Internet to distract them — people read the newspaper anyway, just figuring out what the story was about from what the writer had to say. But once they had been invented — almost certainly in the United States, and quite possibly by accident — no newspaper could do without them. Because no newspaper can do without headlines, newspapers need people who are skilled at writing them. And writing headlines is not easy. It is an art — but an art that has come to be subject to numerous unwritten rules that make headlines even harder to write. Traditionally, this job has been assigned to copy editors. Copy editors also read and correct reporters’ raw stories. The two jobs are a natural mix. By editing the stories first, copy editors have the information fresh in their minds needed to write an effective headline. The aim of this chapter is to discuss the purposes and requirements of the headline, and the generally agreed upon conventions of headline writing. This brief chapter is heavily indebted to Headlines and Deadlines, by the late Theodore M. Bernstein of the New York Times. Bernstein devoted half of Headlines and Deadlines, still the definitive book about the copy editor’s work, to the topic. Any student serious about working in journalism would do well to read Headlines and Deadlines (published by Columbia University Press, New York). The headline is a little summary, a sample, that tells us at a glance what the story beneath it is about. As noted above, newspapers didn’t always do that. Not long after newspapers were invented, they began breaking up their lines of type, and signaling that a news story was about to start, with a simple label or caption. “Daily Events.” “Political News.” “Court Announcements.” “Bridge Collapse.” Labels differ from the typical modern headline in that they lack a verb, a word denoting action. This seems pretty obvious, spelled out on the page of a book. But it’s interesting to look at news published by people who aren’t professionals — and to gauge our reaction to it. Typically, when someone first puts out a school newspaper, a church newsletter or a
  • 187. 187 neighbourhood flyer, they include something that looks like a modern headline, but they write labels, without verbs. When we read it, it seems amateurish — but to many of us it is not immediately obvious why. The reason is that the conventions of modern headline writing — which we are so used to we seldom think about — have been ignored. So what is the purpose of the headline? First, it is to present an accurate summary of the contents of the story as quickly as possible. Remember, letting readers absorb and contextualize information speedily is a key goal of the modern newspaper. To achieve that first goal, the headline must: - State plainly what the story says. - Be accurate. Additional purposes of the headline can be summarized as follows: - To index news of greatest interest to individual readers. - To tell the news to readers of headlines alone. - To convey the significance of the news. - To communicate the relative seriousness of the news. - To make the newspaper attractive. - To illustrate the character of the newspaper. The headline achieves each of these goals in the following ways: Indexing. The quick, accurate summary of the information in the story serves the indexing function. Readers can decide at a glance if they are interested in reading more. If they’re not, they can move on immediately to something else. Headlines alone. There is no shame in only reading headlines. One of the jobs of a newspaper is to provide readers who don’t have time to read with an instant summary of the day’s events. The headlines do that job. Significance. Headlines convey the significance of news by their size, and their placement in the paper. The bigger and darker they are, the closer to the top of the page or the front of the newspaper, the more important, generally, is the story. Seriousness. The tone of the headline informs us of the seriousness of the story. Silly puns are for silly stories. Serious news deserves a certain gravitas. Attractiveness. Headlines are also an important design element in newspapers. As the graphic designers say, “text is art.” An attractive look will attract readers, or so newspaper publishers believe. Character. Design elements also give a newspaper its distinctive look, which in turn tells us about the character of the publication. Big, bold, black headlines hint that the
  • 188. 188 publication has the values of a commuter tabloid. Restrained headlines in old-fashioned bookish type bespeak a serious approach. The Headline-Writing Challenge Writing headlines that meet these simple objectives — let alone the complicated rules we’ll discuss in a moment — is hard for one simple reason: Space is extremely limited! Not so many years ago, headlines were assigned to copy editors along with a story to be edited. The headline assignment — often scrawled in pencil on the raw copy — would look something like this: 2/36/2. That meant two lines of 36-point type over a width of two columns. Copy editors, in turn, used to carry around in their heads something called “the unit count system.” In a nutshell, this assigned a numerical value for every letter: 2.5 for capital Ws and Ms; 2 for most other capitals, 1 for most lower-case letters, and 1/2 for i’s and f’s and l’s. Most punctuation marks occupy a 1/2 unit each, and numerals, except 1, take 1 1/2. We can see the reason for this when we look at the following 10-letter lines: AAAAAAAAAA WWWWWWWWWW MMMMMMMMMM IIIIIIIIII jjjjjjjjjj llllllllll wwwwwwwwww Nowadays, this job is done differently, using computers, as we will discuss in a moment. Nevertheless, because the fundamental problem of space and letter width is unchanged, it is useful for us to think about the unit count system to help us conceptualize the mental process of writing a headline. Remember: In any given size and type, the number of letters and spaces between words that will fit on a line is rigidly limited. It is the job of the copy editor to write a headline in which the lines fit that space. Taking Bodoni Bold, a common headline typeface, as an example, one 13-pica column (a common width expressed in a traditional printer’s unit of measurement) gives you 22 units per line if your headline is set in 14 point — pretty workable, but quite tight. Set in a more readable 36 point, you only have nine units — which makes writing a headline much more difficult. Set in 72-point type, you’d only have 4.5 units — which would make writing a headline that made sense extremely difficult. Nowadays, thanks to the use of computers, headline writing is a little easier. This is because computers all us to fudge type size and kerning — the distance between letters — microscopically. This gives us more flexibility than we've ever had writing headlines.
  • 189. 189 The workflow on the typical newspaper copy desk has also changed because of computers. Instead of laying out the page himself on a dummy sheet, and then assigning headlines and stories to copy editors, the Slot now assigns entire pages. Using sophisticated programs such as QuarkXPress or Adobe PageMaker, the copy editor designs the entire page, and writes the headlines to fit the space she herself has assigned. However, the basic need remains to write headlines that fit the size and spacing that looks best on the page, so the basic principle of the headline count technique remains in use. After all, four lines of 36-point type over one column is still a tough headline call, even if we can play a little with type size and kerning. Helpful synonyms for headline writing Another key aspect of the headline writing challenge is the need to find short synonyms for longer words, the better to fit the limited space available. Copy editors need to keep in their heads long lists of short, pithy words that can help them fit big and complex ideas into little spaces. Over months and years, copy editors learn large lists of such words — from the common rift, to describe a disagreement or separation, to the now obsolete but entertaining yegg, to describe a safecracker — and store them in their heads. To get you started, here are a few examples: - Accord, or deal, for agreement - Bar, for prevent - Bare, for expose - Bid, for request - Blast, for criticize strongly - Cite, for enumerate - Curb, for restrain - Dip, for decline - Foil, for thwart - Hike, for increase - Mull, for consider - OK, for accept - Pact, for agreement - Post, for appointment - Quit, for resign - Rift, for division or separation - Row, for argument - Slate, for nominate, arrange or schedule - Vie, for compete - Vow, for pledge, or promise
  • 190. 190 Remember, these are just a few examples. As a copy editor, it is your responsibility to have a lexicon of such handy words in your head. If the headline can’t be made to fit, it is of no use. If it doesn’t clearly tell the story, it is nothing more than decoration! Basic Headline Terminology To communicate with other headline writers, we need to be familiar with a small technical vocabulary. First, headlines are written in lines and columns. Lines are the number of lines of type in a headline. A two-line headline would look like this: Headline writing called challenge A three-line headline would look like this: Headline writing called challenge for copy editors Columns are vertical sections of typed lines. When more than one column lies side-by- side, they are separated by a rule, or blank space. When both edges of a column of type are lined up, the columns are said to be justified. (Just to confuse matters, journalists also call feature articles that appear regularly in a newspaper columns.) In addition, because there are different kinds of headlines, more specialized terminology is required: First, the term headline is usually abbreviated by copy editors to head. In most newspapers, the principal headline — which is often the only headline — is called the main head or the top head when it needs to be distinguished from other kinds of headline. Additional common headline terms include the following: - The Deck, or Deckhead is a smaller headline that is usually placed underneath the main headline. Depending on the design of the newspaper, a deckhead can run over the same number of lines as the main head, or over just one column. These are also sometimes called a Bank, or Bankhead. - A Hammerhead is a large one-word display/label head, usually illuminated by a prominent deckhead. - A Kicker is a line of type placed above the main headline. Kickers usually contain information on an additional, subsidiary angle. - A Label is an overline used by many papers to indicate the general topic area of the story.
  • 191. 191 - A Pullquote is a quote, pulled from the story, displayed in headline style as a graphic element in the design of the page. - A Subhead is a small headline used to break up type in stories. In addition, individual headlines are sometimes described in shorthand by the number of lines and columns they occupy, as in “Write me a 2/36/2. (Two lines of 36-point type over two columns.) Summary - The headline is the distinguishing characteristic of the modern newspaper. - The headline is a little summary that tells us at a glance what the story beneath it is about. - Headlines must state plainly what the story says. - Headlines must also be accurate. - Headlines index news f interest to individual readers. - Headlines tell the news to readers of headlines alone. - Headlines convey the significance of the news. - Headlines communicate the relative seriousness of the news. - Headlines make the newspaper attractive and illustrate the character of the newspaper. - A Deck, or Deckhead, is a smaller headline usually placed underneath the main headline. - A Hammerhead is a large one-word display/label head, usually illuminated by a prominent deckhead. - A Kicker is a line of type placed above the main headline. Kickers usually contain information on an additional, subsidiary angle. - A Label is an overline used by many papers to indicate the general topic area of the story. - A Pullquote is a quote, pulled from the story, displayed in headline style as a graphic element in the design of the page. - A Subhead is a small headline used to break up type in stories.
  • 192. 192 Chapter 41 Common Headline Practices Headlines are usually written according to certain common practices so universal that they have been elevated to the level of rules. Readers are s used to seeing headlines written according to these rules that something seems amiss — the product seems amateurish — if they are not followed. Since these common headline-writing practices amount to conventions, your headline- writing work will look more professional and polished if it falls within these guidelines. Even if you decide to break a rule, it’s important to know that you’re doing something out of the ordinary, and why. All of these practices are followed on most copy desks of most major newspapers in Canada and the United States. Headlines should contain a verb This is the key distinguishing characteristic of the modern headline. While some tabloid newspapers seem to be reverting to label heads as a way to cope with extremely tight space, verb-less headlines are generally frowned upon. When choosing a verb, the active voice is considered preferable to the passive voice. Moreover, it is considered preferable — though it is not always possible — to place the verb in the first line of a multi-line headline. Headlines are normally written in the present tense Headlines are normally written in the present tense. In other words, the present tense is customarily used to describe past action in headlines. Thus Judges open door to court challenge usually means Judges opened door to court challenge at some point in the recent past. Headline writers achieve two goals by using the present tense to describe the immediate past. First, the present tense is usually shorter — Man robs grocery rakes fewer letters than Man robbed grocery — where space is at a premium. Second, a headline in the present tense puts the reader at the scene, bringing a sense of immediacy to the event being described. This is something borrowed from ordinary speech — a good storyteller often switches from the past tense to the present tense as he nears the climax of his story. Future action is shown in headlines through the use of the future tense, the infinitive (a combination of the preposition “to” and the basic form of the verb), or the present tense
  • 193. 193 plus a date. Parliament will adjourn tomorrow. Mayor to seek re-election. Quilters stitch giant blanket May 23. However, action in the distant past in headlines is indicated through the use of the past tense. Egyptian empire crumbled slowly not Egyptian empire crumbles slowly. Minor words are omitted in headlines Headline language normally omits non-essential words, chiefly articles — “a,” “an,” “the.” Obviously, one goal of this practice is economy — anything that can make a headline fit the limited space available is a good thing. But the practice also lends a staccato, telegraphic quality — just like the telegraphs of yore, once the bearers of the latest news. However, care needs to be taken with this practice lest we unintentionally mislead. Boy dies at play may mean something quite different from Boy dies at a play. Similarly, the verb forms “is” and “are” are usually omitted. Theatre manager (is) prepared to quit. Moreover, the words “here” and “today” are usually implied, and therefore are omitted. If the story below is about somewhere else, or about something that will happen in the future, the headline should say so. Punctuation in headlines is similar to punctuation in sentences Punctuation in headlines is almost like punctuation in sentences — but with one key difference. The sentence never ends with a period. Other than that, periods are used in normal ways. Commas separate dependent and independent clauses, just as they do in a sentence. But in a headline, a comma has an additional, very practical purpose: to replace the word “and,” an obvious space saver. Clouds rain dogs, cats. Dashes can separate independent clauses, and can also be used to indicate attribution, replacing the word “says.” Taxes must rise — mayor. Colons can be used in exactly the same way with even more economy of space to indicate attribution. Taxes must rise: mayor. Apostrophes are used in the same way in headlines as in sentences. Quotation marks too are used in the same way, but to economize on space it is traditional to use single quotes, rather than doubles as we would in a page of type. Quotation marks may also be used to indicate double meaning, or doubt. ‘Dead’ sailor shows up own
  • 194. 194 funeral. Victim of ‘torture’ vows to sue police department. However, in the latter case, the quotation marks should not be used when the structure of the headline makes it clear the claim being advanced is in doubt. Candidate claims ballot box was stuffed, not Candidate claims ballot box was ‘stuffed’. Semi-colons are used to separate the equivalent of two separate sentences. (A period, of course, would be used in a normal paragraph.) Gale lashes Nova Scotia; damage said extensive Capitalization of words in headlines is normally similar to capitalization in sentences Headline writers once capitalized every word important in a headline. Manitoba Tourist is Robbed in Mall Washroom. Nowadays, however, virtually all newspapers in North America use normal capitalization, sometimes called “up-and-down style.” Manitoba tourist is robbed in mall washroom. However, some exceptions still apply, most prominent among them, the New York Times. Numbers may be expressed as numerals or words, as required Headline writers may use numerals or words, as required by the space available, to indicate numbers nine and below. Numbers 10 and above, however, are normally expressed as numerals only, as in normal newspaper copy. Millions and billions may be expressed by the abbreviation M or B in headlines only. Coast Guard rescues six boaters Coast Guard rescues 6 boaters Coast Guard rescues 16 (not sixteen) boaters Cost of Coast Guard rescues tops $3M Summary - Headlines are usually written according to common practices so universal that they have been elevated to the level of rules. - Virtually all headlines should contain a verb - Most headlines should be written in the present tense. - Minor words should be omitted from headlines.
  • 195. 195 - Headlines never end with a period. - Otherwise, headline punctuation should be similar to sentence punctuation. - Capitalization of words in headlines is similar to capitalization of words in sentences — unless you happen to work for the New York Times. - Numbers nine and below may be expressed as words or numerals as required.
  • 196. 196 Chapter 42 Additional Guidelines for Writing Superior Headlines In addition to the conventions set out in the previous chapter, which are so commonly practiced that they have the force of rules, a number of guidelines are followed by most copy editors with the objective of producing better headlines. These can be summarized as follows: Headlines should be based on the first few sentences of a news story It is generally held that headlines should be written from information that appears in the first few sentences of a news story. A few editors advance an alternative theory, that copy editors should “dig deep” into the story for facts on which to base the headline. This, they argue, will somehow keep the reader reading. However, the more common — and practical — view is that the headline is a sort of “super lead” summarizing the key facts of the story to tell readers what the story is about. Obviously, if this is true, the headline should summarize the lead, just as the lead summarizes the key facts of the story. Nevertheless, wherever possible, the phraseology of a the headline should not exactly echo that of the lead. Abbreviations should generally be avoided in headlines Abbreviations should be avoided in headlines, unless they are so well known that any reader will recognize them. Thus, RCMP, FBI and — in the business section — TSX and GNP are acceptable. But even fairly well known abbreviations and acronyms — the likes of OECD and HR&E — should always be avoided in headlines. This is inconvenient for headline writers, but in the end the effort is worth it. It is acceptable — in headlines alone — to abbreviate millions and billions of dollars with the use of a single capital letter. Town budget to top $3M. Well-known people may be referred to without their first names in headlines
  • 197. 197 Well-known people may be referred to without their first names in headlines — but they must be well known in your community. Furthermore, care should be taken not to confuse people with identical, similar or too common names. It would be acceptable to refer to the present Mayor of Calgary, David Bronconnier, merely as Bronconnier in a headline in a Calgary newspaper. In almost any other city in Canada, that would be very confusing. Readers in most communities in British Columbia would understand from the context of a story that a reference to Campbell meant Premier Gordon Campbell. But a headline writer in Vancouver might want to take more care as long as Larry Campbell wears the chain of office. Care should also be taken in headlines about people with very common names — Smith, Williams — to ensure the context makes it crystal clear what Smith or Williams is being discussed. An obituary, however, should have the name in the headline if possible, even if the name is not well known. The full name, including first name and initial, is often used in the headlines of journalistic obituaries. Repetition of a word in a headline is frowned upon It is considered bad form to repeat a word in a headline. Bus line to buy new bus Police Commission slams police chief’s comments Likewise, most newspapers prefer that words not be repeated in different headlines on the same page. That said, copy editor’s should not take this reasonable desire to extremes. If the only synonym for dirt a copy editor can think of is feculence, best use dirt twice! The verb should be placed in the first line of a multi-line headline Generally speaking, not only should every headline contain a verb, but if it is a multi-line headline, the verb should be placed in the first line. Remember, however, that this is a guideline, not a rule. With very narrow calls, it is often simply impossible. Editors always try to make their treatment of a story, including the headline, forceful, active, dynamic and colourful. Placing the verb in the first line often helps achieve those goals. However, editors should avoid the temptation to stretch the facts to make the story better than it really is.
  • 198. 198 So Airline pilots report stormy skies is inferior to Aircraft battered by heavy winds — as long as those pilots weren’t reporting storms they saw, but didn’t fly through. Gentle puns are acceptable to brighten headlines The use of plays on words is traditional — in some places almost required — to brighten up otherwise routine stories. But care should be taken not to be unintentionally misleading to the literally minded. It would be quite acceptable, for example, to write Coffee futures perk up in a story about the stock markets. But it might be dangerous to say Airline reports stormy skies In a business story about the airline’s trouble finding paying customers. The literally minded might well reach the conclusion that this was a story about the weather — a disservice to the reader of headlines alone, and to those who rely on headlines to index the news. Figurative words are acceptable if used with care Likewise, it is OK to use figurative words and constructions in headlines — with care. When a speaker opposes a project, it is therefore acceptable to say he “attacks" or "assails" it — if his opposition is really that strong. If he's merely casting a negative vote, however, "attacks" would be too strong a word to describe his action. Metaphor should be used with care, however. Navy group fires new broadside at arms proposal uses a figure of speech effectively. City council ruling gives clear road to new bus line does not, because there is the risk a reader might think the city is, literally, about to build a new road.
  • 199. 199 Each headline deck should contain a verb Not only should every headline contain a verb, but each deck of a multi-deck headline should contain is own verb. The exception to this rule, of course, is if one deck is a label (discussed in a previous chapter) stating the general subject area without a verb. Secondary headlines should be different from the main head Moreover, the secondary headline — the deckhead — should not repeat in similar words what has just been said in the main headline. The copy editor should dig deeper to find something else to report. This way, readers get more information from the components of the multiple headline. For example: Headline: University to build new student centre Deckhead: Facility will include gym, restaurant Secondary headlines should not contain essential information By the same token, secondary headlines such as deckheads, labels and kicker heads, should not contain information that is essential to the story. For example, it would be misleading to write a main headline that said Man strangled wife to death with a kicker line that read “Crown prosecutor alleges” or a story label that said “Crown allegation.” The problem, of course, is that a reader in a hurry might read only the main head, and come away from the story with the impression that the crime was a fact, not merely an unproven allegation. Headlines should be written in the active voice Just as we said about news stories, headlines should be written in the active voice, unless the active voice unintentionally implies guilt. Thus a headline that says: Teen-aged professor teaches first course would be superior to one that said: First course given by teen-aged prof
  • 200. 200 Specific is better than general in headlines Specific information is always better than general information in a headline. (This is true of journalism generally.) This describing your university’s financial plan for the year ahead as a $12M budget is clearly superior to describing it as a Big budget. Likewise, Study calls exercise key to long life is clearly superior to Study emphasizes benefits of exercise Headline writers should avoid ‘blind’ first lines Copy editors who are trying too hard to keep the verb in the first line of a multi-line headline can fall victim to the blind first line — that is, a first line that doesn’t tell us much at all about what is going on in the story. Like love, the first line of Accident claims two miners’ lives is blind. Recast this to read, more informatively, something like this: Two miners die as shaft caves in which even keeps the verb in the first line! Headlines should not ‘editorialize’ Headline writers should avoid the temptation to present opinion as fact in a headline. This is known in the business as “editorializing.” To put this another way, headlines that contain opinion should also always also contain attribution — that is, the source of the opinion should be identified. The line between characterizing actions and editorializing is often a thin one. But, as has often been said, there is no provision for explanatory footnotes in headlines, so the copy editor should stick to “just the facts.” Remember, it is quite easy to show attribution in a headline through the use of a colon or a dash, plus the source of the information, or just through the judicious use of quotation marks. Thus a headline that stated as fact:
  • 201. 201 Taliban forces face total defeat in Afghanistan states as fact something that is really just someone’s opinion. However, Taliban forces face’ total defeat’ in Afghanistan or Taliban forces face defeat: NATO commander both make clear the reality of the situation. Likewise, Canada is going to the dogs editorializes Harper says Canada going to dogs and Canada viewed as going to dogs does not. Headline writers should beware of libel and contempt The same laws governing defamatory statements and contempt of court govern headlines as newspaper copy. Worse, emphasizing a libel or contempt in the story through the headline makes it worse, and more obvious. So copy editors should take care not to repeat problem material from copy in the headlines. Even if the copy has been written with care to guard against defamation complaints, the risk of giving a misleading impression that could result in legal difficulties is much greater in the crowded environs of the headline. Attribution or the source of a controversial claim can be key to avoiding a defamation complaint when writing a fair and contemporaneous account of a public meeting. Likewise, the source of information in a fair account of a court proceeding can be critical to avoiding legal problems. Thus…. Mayor Brown revealed as forger could prompt a libel suit after Mayor Brown's trial, whereas… Witness terms Mayor Brown a forger would not. Likewise, headlines that “convict” people on trial — like stories that do the same thing — carry the risk of serious contempt of court charges. Thus…. Police arrest robber
  • 202. 202 is in contempt of court before the accused has been convicted, and thus carries the risk of serious legal complications, whereas Man arrested as robber is not in contempt. Excessive omission of words should be avoided As previously noted, as a general rule, words like “a,” “an” and “the” should be omitted from headlines. This speeds up the pace of the headline. But they should only be omitted as long as their omission does not create confusion or ambiguity. For example: King takes little liquor seems to mean something quite different from King takes a little liquor Ambiguous words should be avoided By the same token, headline writers should take care to avoid ambiguous words and phrases — especially where the unintended connotation could be a rude one. Thus, Police chief to probe meter maids should obviously be immediately recast Likewise, though perhaps more innocently, West Coast will fight turns on handwriting should be recast to avoid the impression war is about to break out when the topic of conversation is someone’s holograph will. Peculiar place names spell danger For the same reasons, peculiar place names can be dangerous in headlines: Likely to build recreation centre (Likely, B.C., that is — look it up in the atlas!) Olds has big problems (An Oldsmobile, or Olds, Alberta?) St. Albert cuts charity (How did he ever get to be a saint?) Wind destroys Many Berries (No big loss — unless you happen to live there!) Negative and tentative headlines are considered bad form
  • 203. 203 Inevitable, copy editors must handle tentative and negative news stories. The temptation to write a headline that matches the story’s lack of certainty is strong, and to a degree forgivable. Nevertheless, negative and tentative headlines are considered in the business to be bad form. Thus, as a general rule, copy editors consider the word “may” to be an enemy of a forceful, eye-catching headline — as in, Prime minister may run again. Rather, goes the conventional wisdom, in such situations, the headline writer should try such words as “probable,” “looms,” “expects,” “likely,” “hopes” or “fears.” As a general rule, readers are not interested in something that did not happen. They want to know what did happen, and what will. So… City does not get injunction is not at interesting as: Court refuses to grant injunction to city Finally, likewise frowned upon are what we might call “Shah of ran still-dead” headlines that tell us something is still the case, but don’t impart any additional information. For example: Murder trial continues in Court of Queen’s Bench Better to dig into the story for some telling detail, fact or angle: Murder trial witness recalls day of horror Question-mark headlines are frowned upon Just as negative and tentative headlines are considered poor form, so are headlines that end in a question. Thus… Will Mandel seek second term as Mayor? Is considered inferior to: Mandel ponders seeking second term … Or: Mandell said to mull second term … Split heads should be avoided “Split heads” — that is, headlines that split thoughts started in one line into two lines — should generally be avoided. Each line of a headline should end where there might be a pause in normal speech. A headline that splits a word in two, of course, is simply never done:
  • 204. 204 Headlines are unaccept- able when split like this But more subtle splits, that put different parts of the same thought on different lines, are often seen. The good copy editor, nevertheless, tries to avoid them, treating each line of a headline more or less as a unit. Thus: New computer to get trial run today is considered inferior to Computer to get trial run today or New computer to get trial run or Computer gets trial run today The first headline divides an integral grammatical structure, the parts of a verb. The next two examples place the parts of the verb together, while the third solves the problem by opting for a one-part verb. Here is another example: Thieves active in downtown hotels This would be better recast as: Thieves rob rooms in downtown hotels As a general rule, such words as “the,” “a,” “in” and “of” belong with the line they refer to. This is a very common error, easily fixed nowadays because they are all short words and computer typesetting allows flexibility in the size and kerning of headlines. Other forms of split heads separate adjectives and the words they modify: Police solve murder mystery in Bowness
  • 205. 205 Better to write: Police solve murder of Bowness student The latter headline has the additional advantaging of giving readers an additional fact. Note, however, that it is virtually impossible to avoid splits in extremely narrow headline calls. Police solve murder mystery Moreover, sometimes headlines are clearer with a split than without one. Copy editors should not torture the language to avoid split heads. Police Solve mystery of murder If the first line of a headline with three or more lines contains a verb, many papers do not object to a split in the second or third lines. Summary - Headlines should be based on the first few sentences of a news story. - Abbreviations should generally be avoided in headlines. - Well-known people may be referred to without their first names in headlines. - Repetition of words in headlines is frowned upon. - The verb should be placed in the first line of a multi-line headline. - Gentle plays on words are acceptable to brighten headlines. - Figurative words are acceptable if used with care. - Each headline deck should contain a verb. - Secondary headlines should be different from the main head.
  • 206. 206 - Secondary headlines should not contain essential information. - Headlines should be written in the active voice. - Headline writers should avoid blind first lines. - Headlines should not editorialize. - Headline writers should beware of libel and contempt. - Excessive omission of words should be avoided. - Ambiguous words should be avoided. - Peculiar place names can cause ambiguity. - Negative and tentative headlines are considered bad form. - Question-mark headlines should be avoided. - Split heads should usually be avoided.
  • 207. 207 Chapter 43 Writing Feature Headlines Reporters are granted more scope when they write soft-news feature stories. Therefore, copy editors may also be given more license to take chances and do unusual things when they write headlines for feature stories A feature headline should reflect the tone of the feature story. If the story is restrained and sombre, the headline should be restrained and sombre as well. If the story is light and humourous, the headline may take a light and humourous approach. Of course, in either case, the headline must also inform the reader what the story is about. Bright headlines do not belong on serious stories, no matter how clever the joke may seem to the copy editor responsible for handling the story and writing the headline. Nevertheless, a good pun can perk up a story about an increase in the price of coffee futures, and you can’t have too mulch humour in the headline on a story about composting! The character of the individual newspaper printing the story must always be considered by the headline writer. Some publications can get away with biting headlines, or mean or rude puns, but those may not be considered appropriate in a more sober “newspaper of record.” Nevertheless, the author of this paragraph did once get away with writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail the following headline on a story about a sailboat named French KIS: Perth yacht club in uproar Over tongue-in-cheek name In addition to the challenges noted above, feature stories, especially longer ones, are often singled out for special design treatment by copy editors using QuarkXPress software, or even by the newspaper’s design department. The resulting use of unusually large (72- point and above), oddly positioned or single-word headlines can challenge copy editors even more than the normal pressures of telling a story in a short news headline. Conveying humour, or tragedy, or excitement in a few short words, and at the same time providing the information necessary to summarize the news in the story, is one of the most difficult challenges facing any copy editor. Here are some of the common devices used by copy editors to write feature headlines. - Rhyme. Rhymed heads are usually inappropriate, and often sophomoric. Consider this recent one from Royal buss sparks protocol fuss
  • 208. 208 Yuk! Sometimes they almost make the grade, as did this one from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, found on the Internet: Walking off the calories at London’s lovely galleries And sometimes they do, as in this one, found in the New York Times in the 1950s by Theodore Bernstein: Lowly cold bug flits hither and yon bites Ike, his Mrs. and Shah of Iran Generally speaking, though, copy editors need to remember: These are the times when headline rhymes are major crimes - Alliteration. If rhyming heads seem sophomoric, the effect of alliterating heads is almost always worse. From a paper in Arizona: Bisbee’s better birds bring birders This one, from an Indiana newspaper, is a little better: Miscreants make mischief, molasses mess Here’s another stinker about a Conservative U.S. politician who blamed the Devil for his loss at the polls: Satan’s sorcery stops statesman Now and then, an alliterative head can work. Here’s another one from the long-ago New York Times, also found by Bernstein: Plumber's pause for poodle's paws proves profitable In this one, the New York Post proves there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to use alliteration in a headline:
  • 209. 209 Nun snubs hug, gets slugged - Puns. Plays on words more often ring false than true. Sometimes, though, like the example above about coffee shares perking up, they are irresistible to copy editors. And so, wrote someone at the Toronto Star: Marijuana issue sent to a joint committee But plays on words are a risky strategy. The San Antonio Express-News banned pun headlines in the spring of 2006 when a rash of them irritated readers. Among them: Mumps outbreak swells Pope names flock of new cardinals - Twisted clichés. A cliché given a twist can be at once familiar and surprising: Any airport in a storm On a story about zoo’s a successful match-up of two great apes: She’s the gorilla his dreams - Allusion. Alas, the highbrow literary allusion has gone out of fashion in headlines. The problem is that nowadays, many readers are unlikely to get the reference. However, they can work if the reference is reasonably well known: Lord of the pop flies But allusions to pop culture can work well. From Britain’s Guardian: Mrs. Culpepper’s lonely hearts club banned Allusions fail when they are at once crude and obscure. Several newspapers tried pun headlines when comedian Don Adams, famed for his role as the wisecracking secret agent Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, died at 82 in 2005. They all fell flat. Or, as Max would have said, “Would ya believe … they missed it by that much!”
  • 210. 210 Would you believe dead as a doornail? - Minneapolis/ St. Paul City Pages We’ll miss him by about that much - The Daily Texan Cone of Silence descends on Smart - The Australian - Colour. A colour story — that is a story that is heavily descriptive — can work with a colour headline. That is, as long as clarity is not sacrificed to the desire to paint a colourful picture in the headline. Winter's icy grip wrestles Calgary to halt - Humour. Many of these headlines strive for humour, as well as allusion, poetry, allusion or plays on words. Some of them succeed, more or less. Some fall flat while making an honourable attempt at a joke. If the story is a light one, a humourous headline is entirely appropriate. However, headline writers should strive not to write headlines that are unintentionally hilarious. We’re all familiar with the genre. Long lists have circulated for years, even before folks started bulk mailing them on the Internet: Juvenile court to try shooting defendant It is the privilege of the author to have met and worked with the author of this famous headline, which appeared in the Lethbridge Herald: Drunk gets nine months in violin case A good way to avoid such blunders is to read your headline aloud before committing yourself. - Tragedy. The headline on a tragic story should not be maudlin. Guard inappropriate use or overuse of such words as “hero” and “tragedy.” Overuse of the latter term to bludgeon readers with the obvious is a particular sin of the tabloid press. Stating the painfully obvious is never appropriate, and often unintentionally funny. Accident victim luck to be alive … is foolish.
  • 211. 211 Cold wave linked to temperatures Is hilarious! - Hammer heads. Hammer heads — one or two large label words, usually with a large explanatory subhead — are a way to provide a powerful graphic punch to a story. But they can be difficult to write for obvious reasons — it’s hard to explain a story in a single word. THE BOMB Atomic explosion at Hiroshima brought the end of war as we knew it Summary - Copy editors have more scope when they write feature headlines than when they write heads for hard news stories. - Feature headlines should reflect the tone of a feature story — never write a humourous head, for example, on a dark and somber story. - The character of the newspaper running the story must be considered by an editor in determining whether a particular headline is appropriate. - Technical design software such as QuarkXPress can have an impact on the approaches taken writing feature headlines. - Most feature headline techniques need to e used sparingly, and with care. - Some techniques that can be used on feature or soft-news stories, but almost never on hard-news stories, include the following: - Humour - Rhyme - Alliteration - Plays on words - Twisted clichés - Allusion - Colour
  • 212. 212 - Stories concerning tragic matters deserve reserved headlines. - Humour should be used with great caution, and attention to the tone of the story. - Headlines should not bludgeon readers with the obvious.
  • 213. 213 Chapter 44 Final Thoughts on Writing Headlines Writing headlines is difficult. Many aspiring journalists freeze up when they try to write a headline —particularly a challenging headline with extremely limited space — for the first time. Nevertheless, student journalists should take comfort from the indisputable fact that, while hard at times, writing headlines is a job that grows easier with practice. The more you do it, the better you will get. And, while some people have a natural ability and others must struggle, with practice any reasonably intelligent person can become good at headline writing. The place to start writing a headline is always by reading the entire story. As obvious as this sounds, it is not done with surprising frequency. The reasons are usually a lack of time to do the work at hand. Nevertheless, imagine the mortification of the entertainment page copy editor who put a reference to “Janis” in the headline atop a story about the music of Scott Joplin! The best way to read the story for the purpose of writing it headline is to edit it. The close reading required to edit a story fixes the facts the story describes in the mind of the copy editor, giving the headline writer time to digest them. When you edit a story, you should be making mental notes about possible headline ideas. Over time, this will become an instinctive process. It is unprofessional to try to write a headline without reading the story — expect in situations where several editors using pagination software must engage in “gang editing” of a page in order to meet deadline. In such situations, special responsibility falls on the shoulders of the final editor to handle the page to ensure that headlines are accurate, appropriate in tone and make sense. ‘Skeletonizing’ Stories to Write Headlines Many analysts of the headline writer’s art recommend “skeletonizing” a story as an analytical tool before writing the head. In other words, framing the facts from the story in a skeletonized sentence. Here’s a lead from a Canadian Press story published on June 18, 2006: Canadian researchers have unlocked the molecular secret that eliminates the symptoms of Huntington's disease in mice, a landmark discovery that is offering new hope for preventing the devastating effects of the disorder in humans. Here's a skeletonized version of that lead: Canadian researchers have cured Huntington’s disease in genetically modified mice. Here’s a three-line headline based on that skeletonized lead:
  • 214. 214 Canadians cure Huntington’s disease in modified mice Here’s the lead from another health story that ran the same day, this one in the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper: The elevated incidence of asthma in wealthy Western countries has long puzzled researchers seeking to explain why affluence would be associated with a debilitating respiratory ailment. Now, a handful of studies suggests at least part of the answer may be the exposure of young children to the heavily polluted air emanating from chlorinated indoor swimming pools. Here's a skeletonized version of that lead: Studies suggest exposure of children to fumes from chlorinated swimming pools may be contributing to asthma among kids in advanced nations. Here’s the Globe’s headline: Pools can be hazardous to children’s lungs First- and Second-Day Headlines Continuing stories raise the concept of “first-day” and “second-day” headlines. A second- day head should not repeat the news covered on the first day — even though the story is bound to include this material for background purposes. A first-day headline might say something like this: Motorcyclist dies in hit-and-run crash Possible second-day headlines should attempt to advance the story: Police seek pickup driver in death of motorcyclist The first headline covers the breaking story. The second assumes the reader is aware of certain basic facts, and attempts to update the story with the latest in formation. It is considered bad forms to repeat the information headlined the day before as if they were new facts.
  • 215. 215 Avoiding ‘Headlinese’ Even tightly abbreviated headlines should, insofar as possible, sound as if they were written in natural English. This means that headline writers need to resist the temptation to write in “Headlinese,” a strange language that afflicts newspaper copy editors from time to time. Headlinese, so described, is characterized by the use of nouns as adjectives… Council fight blocks river bridge plan … symbolic phrases … “Gay unions” “Love nest” “Foul play” … or, very short archaic words associated only with headlines, not normal English, for example: Flay — to criticize (it really means to skin alive!) Mull — to think about. Mum — Silent Nab — to Capture Nix — to block by withholding permission Rap — to criticize Rip — to criticize strongly As in: Tories mum on plan to nix gay unions Testing headlines Finally, when a copy editor has written a headline, he or she should ask a number of questions of himself or herself: 1. Have I told the essentials of the story? 2. Are my facts straight? 3. Are my grammar and spelling correct? 4. Are the key facts in the main head? 5. Have I avoided repetition? 6. Have I been specific?
  • 216. 216 7. Have I avoided technical terms? 8. Have I provided proper attribution for opinion or controversy? 9. Does my headline reflect the tone of the story? 10. Have I avoided the painfully obvious? (Accident victim lucky to be alive.) The goal of these 10 questions is to test the headline to see if it does its job properly. Summary - Writing headlines is hard – but gets easier with practice. - The best way to write a headline is to start by reading the entire story. - The best way to read a story for the purpose of writing a headline is to edit it. - When you edit a story, you should be making mental notes of possible headlines. - You can “skeletonize” a story lead by framing its facts in a basic sentence — a useful technique to help you write a headline. - Second-day headlines should not repeat news covered in the first day’s story and headline. - Second-day headlines should try to advance the story. - Copy editors should strive to avoid “Headlinese.” - “Headlinese” is defined as the use of nouns as adjectives, symbolic phrases and short archaic words associated only with headlines. - Copy editors should “test” their headlines by asking a series of basic questions to ensure it properly does its job.
  • 217. 217 Section VI PUBLIC RELATIONS
  • 218. 218 Chapter 45 Writing News Releases A news release is a short article, usually written in the style of a standard hard-news story, that is sent to media with the aim of encouraging favourable coverage of the people, company or organization that issued the statement. News releases are also commonly referred to as press releases and media releases. There is much more to the business of public relations, of course, than merely writing news releases. But it is fair to say that the common news release is the foundation of the public relations business. After all, public relations people and the folks who pay good money to employ them by the thousands recognize that when it comes to selling a product, or a point of view, no publicity is worth more than legitimate news coverage. Since you can’t buy a favourable news report in the New York Times, the Toronto Globe and Mail, on a national TV network’s newscast or the pages of your town’s community weekly — and readers and viewers generally know it — it’s easy to see why news releases are often valued more than full-page ads, billboards or paid TV spots. In this regard, all news releases are an effort to influence the media to see a story a particular way. It would be fair to say that virtually all news releases beyond simple announcements of an upcoming rugby or soccer game amount to an attempt to manipulate the media. Literally thousands of news releases are sent to media organizations every day, 365 days a year. They come from corporations, governments, sports teams, churches, political parties, musical groups, clubs, societies and a host of other groups, not to mention a goodly smattering of individuals with an axe to grind and the need to grind it in public. The vast majority go straight into the garbage — or, nowadays, the recycling bin. Nevertheless, news releases are a major source of news for media. This is partly because news organizations are used to receiving story ideas this way. They expect to get information in the form of news releases from governments and corporations, and they’re set up to deal with them. If you fax or email a news release to a major newspaper or broadcast station, you can be reasonably certain that someone will look at it, even if they don’t decide to use it in the end. It’s also, sad to say, because many news organizations today are understaffed and overworked. If reporters don’t have the time to dig for news, companies and other organizations will use news releases to bring story ideas to the media. If a news release is well written, and presents news in a way that piques an editor’s imagination, it can be effective in encouraging the kind of coverage desired.
  • 219. 219 The writers of news releases sometimes also play on the well-known herd instinct of the media — that is, the tendency of all media outlets to cover the same story, for fear of being scooped. For this reason, some PR shops include a list showing who will receive their release with each copy. That way, each news editor may think, “the competition has it, so I’d better use it too…” Of course, people who are thinking about encouraging coverage of their endeavours should always ask themselves this question first: Do I really want to see this story in the media? This is because sending out a news release is a “fire and forget” proposition — once you’ve released the information to the media, you no longer control it. You can try to suggest an approach to a story by the way you word your release. More often than not — too often! — this works just fine. But remember, there is no law that says a journalist has to cover a story the same way you want them to. There is no way to prevent a journalist from asking a question you’d rather leave unanswered. So the starting point for any would-be public relations person should always be: Is it worth the risk? If you’ve answered that question in the affirmative, what makes a good release? To put that another way, what qualities are likely to make your release effective? First of all, you need to remember that while the purpose of a news release is different from that of a news story, the same writing principles apply. So you need to write something that sounds like a standard inverted-pyramid news story, with a strong summary lead that sums up the main point of the story. If you’ve got real news to impart, right from the get-go, your chances of winning the attention you desire are improved. Of course, what you think is news won’t always be accepted as news by the editors you’re trying to impress. For example, if you’re the PR writer for a federal minister, and you’re writing a news release that begins… The government will introduce a law Tuesday to outlaw tobacco, with stiff prison sentences for anyone caught in possession of the substance … you can be reasonably certain that everyone on the planet will agree that it contains news! If, on the other hand, you’re the PR person for a small company that’s changing its name, you may not get the response you think the story deserves. It’s important to you — after all, you’ve spent months on the project. But … Garnett Butafuco, President and Chief Executive Officer of Saskatchewan Grommet and Holepunch Co. is pleased to announce the corporation will now be known as Grommet International Corp. … just isn’t likely to raise more than a routine ho-hum when the business editor of the local daily reads the release you sweated over all night. That caution aside, you’ll get better results if you provide accurate information, clearly written with the strongest news lead you can come up with under the circumstances.
  • 220. 220 So write in plain English. Don’t use a $5 word when a 5-cent word will do. (This is easier advice to give than to take. How many news releases say initiative, when they should say decision or plan?) Keep it short. You can trust an old pro: If your news release is more than two pages, double spaced, news editors and reporters are unlikely to read past the second page. When the word came down form on high, carved on stone tablets, it contained only Ten Commandments. This is also about right for the number of one- or two-sentence paragraphs in a good news release. (Don’t try to save paper by printing on both sides of a sheet. This makes the release harder for the reporter to use. Stick to one-sided copies — not a problem if you’re faxing, of course.) The Canadian Press also advises press release writers not to hide bad news under misleading words. (It’s a layoff, they say, not a downsizing, or, God forbid, a rightsizing. Needless to say, when it comes to writing news releases — particularly when governments and big corporations must for legal reasons publish bad news — this advice is honoured in the breach more often than not.) Answer all the questions a reader would ask — and those, of course, include: Who? What? When? Where? Why? And How? (But — as we discussed in the chapters on basic news writing — don’t try to answer them all in the first sentence.) However, they also include: Who says so? Who is involved? And, How much will it cost? What was the prize the prizewinner won? When will the new car be in showrooms? And so on. Explain all technical terms you must use — and avoid them if possible. Provide informative background on the company or organization that is making the announcement. (In the best of all worlds, news release writers would not to give the wrong impression by withholding important facts. For example, if you have record- breaking revenues but profits are down, you ought not to forget the second fact. Good advice — but good luck getting companies in financial trouble to take it!) When you write a news release, be conscious of the relevant time elements. Not just that the president made his comment today or yesterday, but when the game will be played, when the product will be available in stores, or when the when the band will play in various cities. In addition, remember that wire services like to include the ages of people they write about. So if you are introducing an entertainer, political candidate or a new corporate executive, you may want to include that person’s age and place of birth in the release. This is all good advice for writing any news article, but beyond keeping it clear and tight, and looking for a good hard-news lead, there are certain conventions associated with news releases that it is sound practice to observe:
  • 221. 221 - Always put a date at the top of the release. Usually you should specify that the news may be published at once by including the words “for immediate release.” Some PR people try to embargo the information in releases, that is, state that it may not be used before a certain date. This is not advisable, because some large news organizations have a policy of ignoring such requests. - Always write a one-line headline. A simple summary is best, and specific information is preferable to more general statements. - Always give contact names or numbers somewhere on the release. One of them should always be the person quoted in the release. The numbers must work, and someone should be available to comment for a reasonable time after the release goes out. Remember, good newspaper reporters want their own quotes, and broadcast reporters require them on tape. - Always include the address of the company or organization issuing the news release. - Always indicate the end of the release. Traditional ways to indicate the end of a news story include the numeral 30 (often shown as -30-), the # sign and the word END. You may give some thought to including extras with your news release. Some, such as photos, are worth considering. Some are not such a good idea. Photos are usually welcomed by editors. But anticipate the needs of the publications that will use the pictures. Prove a newsy shot with a high-contrast background, or a good clear head and shoulders shot — known in the trade as a mugshot. Don’t provide busy pictures, artsy photos or overly dark shots. If you provide a photo, always include a caption, also known in the business as cutlines. If you’re faxing out a release, of course, providing a picture can be a problem. If you’re e-mailing it, the photo can be provided as an attachment — although not all news organizations will accept attachments to e-mails. You may also want to provide a media kit — that is, a package (usually enclosed in a colourful folder) that in addition to the news release contains photos, biographical material, technical background sheets, maps, clippings of past news coverage, new story ideas and the like. Media kits are a great idea for occasions when you have an announcement newsworthy enough to get reporters to come to you. They are not suitable for more routine announcements, or even for major developments when the media is already covering an ongoing story.
  • 222. 222 However, you should resist the urge to distribute free samples and other materials. This is generally frowned upon as slightly distasteful, bordering on bribery. A rare exception might be when a sample of the product was required to write the story. As a general rule, though, substitute solid information for freebies. Your final problem is to whom to send your news release. If you’re a professional PR person, you should keep an up-to-date list of publications and news organizations in your area, plus reporters and editors. If you haven’t encountered this problem before, you can quickly create a list by consulting a number of publications available at most public libraries or at home: - Matthews Media Directories - Canadian Advertising Rates and Data (CARD) - The Yellow Pages - The Internet Creating a distribution list can be time consuming, but it is essentially an easy task. Failing that, if you have the money, several companies such as Canada News Wire and PR Direct, a branch of the Canadian Press, will send your release to a long list of media for a fee. Send your release to assignment editors, city editors, and appropriate beat reporters. But don’t bother with senior news organization executives, who are unlikely to receive your material anyway. Remember, the news desk trumps the publisher every time. In closing, the World Wide Web provides opportunities for enhancing your news releases — but, at present, not for delivering them. You can offer high-resolution photos through a Website, as well as background material in PDF format. But you can’t make news organizations visit your Website. To get them to look at your news release, it’s still preferable to fax them a copy. Summary - A news release is a short article written in the style of a standard hard-news story that is sent to media. - The aim of a news release is to encourage favourable coverage of the people, company or organization that issued the statement. - News releases are an effective way to influence media perception of an event or organization, and to encourage coverage. - News releases need to be faxed or emailed to news organizations. Don’t wait for them, though, to come to your Website.
  • 223. 223 - News releases should be written in the traditional hard-news, inverted pyramid style. - News releases should be no more than two pages long, double-spaced. - All news releases should include the names and phone numbers of two contacts, who must be available to answer media calls for a reasonable period of time. - All news releases should include the date of release, and the issuing organization’s address. - A news release should include a short, one line suggested headline. - Indicate the end of a release by writing –30-, # or END. - People who send out news releases should be certain that they really want media coverage. - Photos can be a useful addition to a news release. - If you include a photo, be sure to also include a caption.
  • 224. 224 Chapter 46 A Journalist’s Perspective on News Releases As a journalist, it is important that you treat news releases with caution. This is because the goals of writers of news releases and other public relations materials are significantly different from the goals of journalists. In the previous chapter, we discussed ways to write an effective news release. As was clear from the context of that chapter, one of the principal goals of a public relations person writing a news release is to present information in a way that supports and enhances the objectives of his or her organization. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is important for journalists to understand it — and to understand that news releases (which might more accurately be called publicity handouts) are not necessarily news. Moreover, even if they are judged to be newsworthy, the journalist should understand that the news they contain is not necessarily packaged in a way that serves the interests of readers, and that the key points identified are not necessarily the points that should be emphasized by the reporter. Your job as a reporter is to report the news, regardless of its effect. It is not to parrot back what you have read in a news release. The job of the public relations person sending you a news release is to get you thinking in a certain way — a way that makes it as likely as possible that the PR person’s message will get to your readers with as few changes as possible made by you. While it sounds cynical, it is a fact that the less editorial interference, editing or fact checking there is, the happier the PR person will be. In other words, to some degree, every public relations person is engaged in an effort to manipulate the media. This is why, to put it bluntly, professional PR people try to write their news releases as much like real newspaper stories as possible. Done well, in correct Canadian Press style, a news release will not only suggest an approach to the journalist that is covering the story, it may tempt him to run the release as news with very little checking and very few changes. All the better, from the PR person’s point of view, if the journalist does so without explaining the source of the information to readers. Remember, the goal of PR people — even when they are working for entirely legitimate organizations to achieve worthwhile goals — is to get you to tell their story in their way. As a professional journalist, you owe it to your readers — and to your sense of craft — to probe deeper, to ask questions and to take a different approach if a different approach is warranted.
  • 225. 225 Press releases typically leave unanswered questions that are not in the interests of the organization publishing the release. As a journalist, it’s your job to think of those questions and it’s your responsibility to ask them. Press releases also typically try to put a spin on a story — that is, to interpret facts in a way that benefits the group issuing a release. Again, as the journalist, you need to be open to playing the story a different way. Let’s consider a hypothetical example: Imagine that the public library in the fictional Municipality of Willow Creek is considering increasing its charge for services, as well as reducing the level of service to the community’s library users. The goal of the library’s board and administrators is to save money. The library PR department might issue a release that reads like this. For immediate release: Library board introduces changes to balance budget With the aim of balancing its shrinking operating budget, the Willow Creek Public Library Board today announced a number of changes to fees, hours and services, which will go into effect Jan. 1. Library Director Jason Heistad said that the decision to introduce the changes was made in anticipation of funding cuts from both the municipality and the province. “Reduced operating grants are a reality in today’s economy and we want to be ready for them by making adjustments that will have a minimal impact on our customers,” Heistad said. “All the changes we are introducing are based on the results of surveys conducted over the past two years that indicate customers would opt for some service cuts and pay fees rather than face a tax increase,” he explained. As a result, in the New Year the annual fee for adults’ cards will rise $5 to $10… (…and so on). This seems like pretty straightforward stuff — at least, making it seem straightforward is the goal of the Library PR Department. But, whoa! Just a minute here! What’s really being proposed? And why is it being phrased this way? The library, of course, can’t really avoid announcing that its fees are going up substantially. But it wants to put a favourable spin on that story, which may well prompt a negative response in the community. So in its news release, it has buried the real lead — a 100 per cent fee increase and cuts in service — amid claims and suggestions that (a) it’s all minor, routine stuff, (b) it’s someone else’s fault (in this case, the municipality and the province), (c) the public was properly consulted, and (d) the alternative is higher taxes.
  • 226. 226 Now, there’s little question that the information contained in this news release is newsworthy. But if you simply reproduce this news release as it was presented to you, you’re not doing your job properly and you’re not serving your readers very well. You should always rewrite a news release, no matter how straightforward it appears. In an example like this one, of course, it’s not straightforward at all. So, probably, your story should start something like this: Library Board to raise fees, cut service Library subscribers’ fees will jump 100 per cent to $10 a year and services will be cut, the Willow Creek Public Library Board announced today. Blaming expected cuts in funding from the municipality and the province, Library Director Jason Heistad said in a news release that the board felt it had no alternative but to raise fees and cut service. “Reduced operating grants are a reality in today’s economy and we want to be ready for them,” Heistad said. The library director said the board had polled library subscribers last year and that most indicated they preferred service cuts and higher fees to an increase in their taxes. He promised that the changes would have “minimal impact on our customers.” This version cuts to the chase and tells readers what’s really going on. Probably the library director will hate it. But it’s not your job to please him. Remember, it’s not his job — or that of his PR department — to determine what is news. That job belongs to the journalists covering the story. However, a news release like this may also raise additional questions. For example, was the touted survey a fair one? Or was it biased in favour of what the board had already decided to do? Is the only alternative really a tax increase? Moreover, even if it is, why did the library raise fees before the Municipal Council cut its budget? Of course you should ask the library director those questions, but you should also think about seeking reaction elsewhere. What do members of the Municipal Council say about the suggestion the only alternative is high taxes? What is the view of a group that represents the poor? What about neighbourhood groups? Friends of the library? The Chamber of Commerce? All of these groups may offer an alternative perspective on the claims made by the author of the news release. Even with the most straightforward and simple information, however, you owe it to your readers to tell them it comes from a news release, as shown above. That way, they can judge for themselves the agenda of the person or persons making the claims.
  • 227. 227 Two final notes: First, journalists should be particularly cautious with materials that seem to originate from public relations agencies as opposed to in-house PR departments. Such agencies are usually entirely legitimate businesses. There are many groups too small to require full- time PR help that nevertheless require assistance on a contractual basis from time to time. Nevertheless, if public relations firms are going to engage in questionable or shady practices, this is the type of circumstance in which it is most likely to happen. Indeed, it is a fact that some PR firms only bill for payment if some mention of their clients is published in the media. If a PR person seems to be pressuring you to run a story as a used-car salesperson might pressure you to purchase a beat-up car, this should raise a red flag for you about what their agenda may be. Second, you should always make an effort to check and confirm that the information in a news release is accurate. This will give you an opportunity to ask questions and to get your own quotes, both of which will improve your story. It will also enable you to ensure that you — and the organization’s name that is on the news release — are not the victims of a hoax. Such hoaxes are uncommon, but they do happen from time to time. Summary - Journalists should treat all news releases with caution. - The objectives of news releases writers and of journalists are not the same. - Public relations people who write news releases do so to support and enhance the objectives of the organization they work for. - That means they will not mention important aspects of a story. - It also means they will try to put their spin, or interpretation, on a story. - To some degree or other, every news release is an attempt to manipulate the news media. - When covering a story based on a news release, you should always ask additional questions and seek clarification. - This will give you an opportunity to confirm that the news release is not a hoax, a check you should always make. - When covering a story based on a news release, you should always state in the story that the information comes from a news release.
  • 228. 228 - When covering a story based on a news release, you should usually seek reaction from some other source.
  • 229. 229 Chapter 47 Media Conferences, Photo Ops and Media Events No discussion of public relations is complete without mention of news conferences, photo ops and media events. A news conference — also known, for by now obvious reasons, as a press conference or a media conference — is a scheduled meeting between people who are making an announcement and the media. Usually a news conference is a relatively formalized event. An invitation goes out to the media saying there will be a news conference at a given time in a particular place — most often a corporate or government boardroom or a hotel conference room. News releases outlining the announcement and sometimes a media kit containing photos and background materials are handed out at the start of the event. Typically, the chief spokesman for the group making the announcement — be that an elected politician, government official or corporate executive — makes a few remarks. Again, typically, this is followed by an opportunity for the media to ask questions. Normally, facilities are provided for broadcast media staff to properly light and record the events. Often, coffee and snacks are provided. For a number of reasons, however, public relations people who schedule news conferences should exercise caution. The principal problem with this format for making announcements is that while both PR people and their bosses imagine that there will be enormous interest in their announcement, they are almost as often mistaken. Often no reporters, or very few, will attend an announcement of this sort. This results in an awful lot of work for a very limited return. If you are the premier about to call an election or the president of a major automaker about to announce a major new product, you are probably safe to call a news conference. If you are a municipal politician about to announce you are running for alderman, or the president of a small community college announcing a new program of studies, there may be better ways to make your announcement. A second problem with news conferences is that if the media representatives who are attending feel feisty or cranky, you can lose control of the event. Having called reporters together, they will expect an opportunity to question you. Before you organize such an event, you should ask yourself: What questions are they likely to ask me? What harm to my agenda could result from those questions being featured in the media? Another problem is that as soon as you schedule an event, you are in competition with other events for news coverage. In most Canadian cities, only a limited number of TV crews and press photographers are available at any given time. If your hour-long news
  • 230. 230 conference starts just after the fire bells start ringing at the Fire Department, no one at all may come. Often, with all these liabilities, a simple news release is a better option. That way, reporters who are interested can contact you when their schedule permits. Following up news releases with calls to media can pay dividends, as an assignment editor will often hand the phone to an available reporter. If you’re available for an interview art the reporter’s convenience, so much the better. If you are considering holding a news conference, you should first think carefully about how likely it is that the media will actually be interested enough to come out for your event. Even large, well-funded organizations can find news conferences are flops. If you’re in PR, save this idea only for times you are certain the media will attend and cover it. If you go ahead and schedule one, you should not be broken hearted if attendance is poor. And you must do your homework so that all necessary materials — handouts, releases, microphones, slide projectors and coffee pots — are on hand, hooked up and working properly. Nothing looks worse than an on-line demonstration of a new Web site, say, when you can’t get a connection to the Internet. Moreover, you should think about the worst possible questions that could be asked from your point of view and prepare the speaker to answer them. If you do schedule a news conference, you want to provide a media kit — that is, a package (usually enclosed in a colourful folder) that in addition to the news release contains photos, biographical material, technical background sheets, maps, clippings of past news coverage, new story ideas and the like. Media kits are a great idea for occasions when you have an announcement newsworthy enough to get reporters to come to you. They are not suitable for more routine announcements, or even for major developments when the media is already covering an ongoing story. Also think about the ways you can make the visual background more attractive to camera people and photographers. Scheduling a short news conference at a sports game or kids’ party, for example, may work better than doing it in a hotel conference room. If you do so, make sure your invitation to media let’s them know about the opportunity for good images. Finally, if you are planning a news conference, try to schedule it for around 10 a.m. on a weekday, not a Friday. Obviously, if this is an impromptu affair tied to breaking news — a police news conference near the site of a hostage taking, for example — this will not always be possible. But you should have lots of opportunity to control the timing of most news conferences. Around 10 in the morning is the best time because camera crews are more likely to be available, press reporters have time to file their stories for the next
  • 231. 231 day’s paper and broadcast journalists can do a story on the noon news and possibly the evening news as well. Photo ops, short for photo opportunities, are events at which media photographers and cameramen are allowed to take pictures, but no questions are entertained. If you’re a national political leader, a rock star with millions of fans or the leader of a church with mire than a million members, this may work. The rest of us can pretty much forget it. Finally, media events are events designed to provide entertaining or striking visuals that will attract media coverage. They provide an opportunity for your spokespeople to make statements and your news releases to be handed out. Media events can include such things as information picket lines, street demonstrations, street theatre, classroom activities, or people demonstrating skills and activities. It is amazing how effective a small information picket can be at attracting media coverage. Through in a brass sextet of on-strike symphony musicians or a live giraffe and you’re likely to do even better! For small organizations, an informal media event is likely to work better than a formal news conference. But beware, don’t ever schedule a media event and then have your supporters fail to show up. The result will be egg all over your face. Even a disappointing turnout is better than a no-show by your supporters. Summary - News conferences are scheduled meetings between people who are making an announcement and the media. - News conferences can be effective for major announcements, but they can also be a major disappointment. - People and groups contemplating news conferences need to think critically about how interesting their announcement will really be to media. - If a news conference is scheduled, the organizers need to prepare for the worst — this means preparing answers to the most potentially harmful questions. - News conferences are best held at around 10 a.m. on a weekday, which provides an opportunity to be on both the noon and evening news, and in the next morning’s papers. - If you organize a news conference, think visuals as well — and tell media in advance if there are opportunities for striking photos.
  • 232. 232 - Before a news conference, take the time to make sure everything is hooked up and works properly. - Photo ops, short for photo opportunities, are events at which media photographers and cameramen are allowed to take pictures, but no questions are entertained. - The media is unlikely to co-operate with the idea of a photo op for anyone except the most famous politicians, entertainers and religious figures. - Media events include such things as information picket lines, street demonstrations, street theatre, classroom activities, or people showing off skills and activities. - For most groups, media events are likely to attract more media than media conferences. - If you schedule a media event, however, make sure your supporters show up.
  • 234. 234 Glossary of common journalistic terms Ad – Abbreviation for “advertisement.” Advertorial — Advertising copy designed to look like normal editorial copy. Agate – small type used for sports statistics, stock quotations and to measure the depth of advertisements. Angle – How a reporter approaches a story, often a new way of approaching an old story. Art – Photos or illustrations including maps, graphics, charts, etc. Assignment – A reporter’s story for the day; also a reporter’s beat. Attribution – The point in a story at which the source of information is identified. Without attribution, stories lack credibility. Beat – A reporter’s special area of responsibility. As in “the labour beat” or “the police beat.” Blue pencil — the copy editor’s traditional tool for marking passages to be eliminated from copy. While the term is still used, the weapon of choice is nowadays a “delete” key. Body type – The type in which most of the newspaper is set. Broadsheet — A large newspaper format traditionally used by metropolitan dailies, especially "serious" newspapers. Bulldog – An early edition of a newspaper. Bureau – A news organization office remote from the main newsroom, usually at a place where something must be covered on a regular basis. I.e., the City Hall Bureau, the Parliamentary Bureau, the St. Albert Bureau. Bureau chief – The reporter or editor in charge of a bureau. Byline – The line of type that says who wrote a newspaper or magazine story. (Usually placed at the top of the story along with the placeline and the service line.) Canadian Press – Canada’s national wire-service co-operative. Canadian Press style – CP’s approved scheme of spelling, capitalization, abbreviation and honorifics. Caps – Capital letters. Colour — The generous use of adjectives to describe people, places and situations. Column – An opinion piece written by a columnist; a column of type. Column inches – The conventional measurement of length for a newspaper story. An editor usually wants about six column inches, not about 400 words. For some reason, despite the widespread acceptance of the metric system in Canada, column centimetres never seem to have caught on! Convergence — A term used by media owners to describe pooling the work of multiple news outlets, often working in different media. Convergence is often an excuse to get more work out of reporters for the same money or less. Copy – The text of a reporter’s story. Copy editor – a journalist paid to fix errors of style and fact in copy, lay out pages and write headlines. (Known in Britain and Australia as a sub-editor.) Correspondent — A reporter who covers a region away from the news organization’s normal geographic area of coverage. So, for example, a Calgary newspaper might have an Ottawa correspondent. Cutline – A photo caption. Deadline – The last moment at which a story or page may be submitted for publication.
  • 235. 235 Defamation – A libel or slander, a critical or untrue statement that is actionable in civil law. Desker – A copy editor. Desk, the – The collective group of copy editors on a newspaper. (See also the Rim.) When used as “the national desk” or “the city desk,” a particular department of editorial responsibility. Ears – Small boxes at either side of the title plate on a section front, may contain a forecast, circulation figures, or a small ad. Editor – A journalist responsible for editing copy or supervising other journalists. (Editor-in-chief, managing editor, wire editor, copy editor.) Editorial Assistant – A newsroom assistant. Once referred to as copy runners or copyboys. Embedding — A recent term used to describe the placing of a journalist on a semi- permanent basis in the company of a military unit. Embedding serves the purposes of military officers by restricting the ability of journalists to report by restricting their contacts to one side of a conflict. Exclusive – A story that no one else has. Often called a scoop. Fact — A piece of information that can be verified and tested. ‘Fairness and Balance’ — Another way of saying “Objectivity.” (See below.) However, in the late 1990s, this phrase was used by right-wing critics of the press to mean slanted or biased in favour of their views. Feature – A “good read,” usually a softer story not necessarily pegged to a news event. File – To submit one’s story to the Desk for editing and publication. As in, “File no later than 8 p.m.” Files – “With files by Joe Reporter” is a magazine term for crediting a minor contribution to a story that has come into use in many newspapers. A better usage is “with a report from….” Filler – Stories, often inconsequential, that can be used any time to fill space. Flush – A typesetter's term that describes the positioning of text even with the column on the left or right side (flush left and flush right) without paragraph indents. Focus Statement — A statement, usually a single sentence, that sums up the point of your story. Also called a focus sentence. Useful in keeping a writer on track. Folio – The page number and date line on a page. Folio — A small magazine-size format roughly half the size of the tabloid format. Font – A complete set of type in one size and style, originally the box in which lead type was contained. Freebie — A gift given to a journalist in hopes of influencing their coverage. The practice is generally considered unethical. Freelance Writer — someone who freelances, or writes without long-term contractual commitments to a single employer. Journalism also has room for freelance photographers, of course. Gate-Keeping — An academic concept used to describe the ability of large news organizations to determine what is considered to be newsworthy. The Internet has undermined the ability of news organizations and businesses to do this. Graph — A common newsroom abbreviation for paragraph. Hard news – Events requiring coverage that are happening right now.
  • 236. 236 ‘Hey Martha!’ story – A jocular expression for a story that really grabs a reader’s attention. As in, “Hey Martha! Listen to this….” Hoax — A false story that appears to be legitimate news, told so that the teller can realize some sort of gain. Hot type — Type set in old fashioned lead fonts on linotype machines. Hype – A disparaging, slang term for overstating facts to make a story seem more important than it really is. Interview – A face-to-face or telephone conversation with a person quoted in a story. As distinct from facts gleaned from a press release or other document. Inverse pyramid – A way of describing the traditional news story structure, which is a way of writing that puts the most important facts in the lead and less important facts in subsequent paragraphs, to make it possible to cut the story at any point. Jump – The continuation of a story on an inside page. Junket — A free trip given to reporters for the purpose of influencing their coverage. Justification – In typesetting, the practice of making both sides of a column line up in straight lines. Kerning – The space between letters. Kerning can be adjusted to make headlines fit. Kill – To eliminate from copy. Label – A headline with no verb, a mere caption. Lead (also lede) – The first sentence or two in a news story. The “hook” that grabs your readers’ attention. Leak – Any unauthorized release of confidential information. Legman – A reporter who gathers facts, but does not write. Legs – A once-trendy term for a story that has the potential to be of interest over the long term. As in, “this story has legs.” Linotype — An obsolete typesetting system that places lead type on pages. Large, noisy and expensive, these machines have been almost completely replaced by computer typesetting. Localizer – A local version of a national or international story. For example, do any Edmonton hospitals have a SARS containment plan in place? Makeup – The process of placing stories and advertisements on the news page. Masthead – The section, often on the editorial page, that gives information about the paper and its personnel. Media – A popular collective noun for all newspapers and broadcasting operations. Some say the media are, not the media is. Use with caution. Mug shot – A head and shoulders photo. News conference (also press conference, or newser) – An event called by a group or individual to make their views known. News hole — The amount of space in a newspaper available for news stories, as opposed to advertising. News peg – The timely event that can be used to justify a broader story or feature on a topic. News release (also press release or, nowadays, media release) – A document containing material a group or individual wants to make public through the news media. Often a self-serving publicity handout.
  • 237. 237 Newsroom – The room in a newspaper office or broadcasting station where reporters work. (Journalists usually do not have private offices.) Nightside – The nighttime operations of a newspaper. Nut Graph — A paragraph that explains what a feature story is about. The nut graph is usually not in the lead, but near the lead. Obit – An obituary, that is, a journalistic accounting of the life of someone who has died. Usually written soon after the death occurs or is announced. Not to be confused with death notices, sometimes also called obituaries, which are placed in newspapers for a fee by families or friends of the deceased. Objectivity — The notion that a journalistic story should try to fairly present all sides of a story with a degree of emotional detachment. Op-Ed – The page opposite the editorial page, usually reserved for opinion pieces. Opinion — Interpretation of facts, as opposed to the mere recitation of facts. Traditionally, journalists have striven to keep opinion out of hard news. This is easier said than done! Newsworthiness — The quality of being worth reporting in a journalistic medium. News Judgment — The ability of a journalist to determine what is newsworthy, and what is not. Nut graph – The paragraph in a news story that sums up the focus or main point of the story. Pagination — A computerized system that allows copy editors to make up entire pages on a computer screen, writing headlines and editing stories as they work on the page. Well-known pagination software systems in use in the newspaper and magazine industries include QuarkXPress and Adobe PageMaker. Photo opportunity – An event staged for the media at which reporters are not allowed to ask questions. Pica – A unit of measurement used by typographers, about one sixth of an inch. Not to be confused with points, another unit of typographical measurement. Photographs are usually measured in picas, type size in points. Go figure! Placeline – The line of type that says where the events in a story took place. Play – The positioning of a story or photo in the newspaper. As in “good play” or “bad play.” Press Gallery – The group of journalists assigned to cover Parliament or the provincial legislatures. Press Gallery members’ privileges are granted by the Speaker. Public Relations — The practice by companies and individuals of selling “stories” to the media in ways that benefit their clients. Frequently referred to by its initials, PR. Pundit — A supposed expert on a topic who is frequently quoted by the media. For example, former military officers consulted by broadcast networks about wars in faraway places. Put to bed – To complete work on the pages of an edition. Also sometimes called "closing" the edition. Quotes – Statements in quotation marks directly attributed to a person mentioned in a news story. Reaction – The opportunity by interested parties or subjects of criticism to make their views known in a news story.
  • 238. 238 Replate – To make a new version of a page after deadline to add new stories or correct mistakes. Reporter – A journalist who reports on events by writing stories or preparing broadcasts. Rewrite – To write a story a second time to improve a story or cut it to length. Rewrite person - The editor who takes facts over the phone and assembles a story from them. This important job, sadly, has been made obsolete by computer technology to the detriment of journalism. Rim – Collectively, the copy editors of a newspaper. Also, the horseshoe-shaped desk at which they used to sit. Rumour — Information, often newsworthy, and often in widespread circulation, that cannot be verified. Second-day lead – A news lead that tries to advance a story a step farther than the first accounts of an event. Setting up — Writing an explanation that fully identifies every speaker and most important characters in a news story. A quote that doesn’t fully identify a speaker has not been properly set up. Scoop – An exclusive story. Scrum – An informal group of reporters seeking quotes in a public setting, after the rugby formation of the same name. Service line – The line of type that says what news service or newspaper produced the story. Sexy – Of interest to editors and, to a lesser extent, readers, as in, "that's a sexy story, but it doesn't really have much substance." Sidebar – A secondary or subsidiary story. Slant — Bias in the way a story is reported. Slot (or slotman or slotperson) – The person who assigns stories to editors for handling, and decides on which pages they will be placed. Slug – The one-word working title of a story, from the piece of lead type that once served that purpose. Also the computer menu name for the story. Also serves as a noun, as in, "What'd ya slug that story?" Soft news – News that entertains and informs, but is not necessarily pegged to a particular event. Source — The source of a reporter’s information. This term is frequently used to describe a person with whom information originated. Anonymous sources are those who are quoted, but not identified. Also documents from which information is gleaned. Often used to describe people who wish to provide information but who prefer to remain anonymous. Spike – To discard copy. As in, "I had to spike your story." From the days when editors achieved this goal by placing a story on a spike. Spin – A self-serving interpretation of events by public figures. The ability to present opinion as if it were fact. Streeter – A man-in-the-street interview. Stick - Once two inches of hot-metal type, nowadays a column of type in a particular story. As in, “there’s a typo in the second stick.” Stone, the — The plate on which old-fashioned lead type was laid out in preparation for printing; therefore the final point in the typesetting department at which changes could be
  • 239. 239 made to copy. Many older copy editors still talk about editing copy “on the stone,” even though the stone is now a computer screen. Style – A publication’s rules for spelling, abbreviation, capitalization and honorifics. (The list of style points is often compiled in a “stylebook.”) Subject — Not just the topic of a story, this term is often used by journalists to describe the person who they are interviewing. Tabloid — Often abbreviated to tab, a small newspaper format roughly half the size of the traditional broadsheet newspaper. Take – An archaic term for a short piece of paper on which news stories were once filed. Some older editors still refer to stories as being “about three takes long.” Take-out – A British term for a feature. Torque – The same as hype. 30 – A traditional way of marking the end of a newspaper story. Largely obsolete in the computer age in newspapers, but still widely used on news releases. Typo – A typographical error. Video News Release (VNR) — Video clips prepared in the style of broadcast news reports for use by TV stations. The practice is considered more potentially misleading and hence more questionable than traditional print news releases. Web — Not just the World Wide Web, but the name of a variety of press, the Web offset press, used by many newspapers. Wire service – An organization, often a co-operative of news companies, that provides local news for use elsewhere and news from far away for use locally. Wire service style – The “inverse pyramid” style of news writing favoured by wire services.