TABLE OF CONTENTS
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
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
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
So it was my objective, in writing this book, to create a text that addresses these
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
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
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
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
11) Inspiration/Human Interest
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.
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
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.
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.
- 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.
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
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
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
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.
- Journalists typically distinguish between two kinds of news — “hard news” and
- Hard news stories are accounts of events that have just happened or are about to
- 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.
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
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.
“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
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.
- 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.
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
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
ignoring other more important stories. Sometimes they are right. Sometimes they are out
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
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
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
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
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
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-
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?
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…
- 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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
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
- A “nut graph”
- 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
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.
- 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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
Highlight differences — find the fact, like the lipstick pink Cadillac, that makes the
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?
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.
- 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.
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
… 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.
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
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
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.
- 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.
- 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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 Lubbock, Texas,
Has set out
For Pincher Creek.
It's those drat-blamed
81 of ’em
their yearly readin',
roundup, tea party
And ball. …
- 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.
Writing ‘Nut Graphs’
Feature stories need nut graphs for the same reason hard-news stories need summary
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
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
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.
The story then could move naturally to describing the debate over the cutbacks, and their
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-
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.
- Feature stories need nut graphs for the same reason hard-news stories need
- 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.
The concept of attribution is the fundamental building block of the concept of modern
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
Premier Ralph Klein says he will use the Notwithstanding Clause of the Constitution to
prevent same-sex marriages becoming legal in Alberta.
The appointed head of the Metro Health Region says board members – including himself
-- should be elected.
- 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.
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
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
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
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
“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:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.”
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
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).
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
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
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.
- Journalists are usually encouraged to write in the active voice.
- The active voice describes the action, the passive voice describes the recipient of
- 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.
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
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
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.
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
“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.
- 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.
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
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.
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
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,”
At about 4:45 p.m., Chandler said, the door of the trailer popped open and a white bird
“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
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
“We had her out of the boat and into an ambulance in about two minutes after that,”
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
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
- Occasionally, news is better reported in chronological order than in conventional
inverted pyramid style.
- 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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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.
- 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
- 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?
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
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,
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
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
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.
- 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
- Most daily newspapers adopt their country’s predominating wire service style.
- In Canada, the predominating style in newspapers is Canadian Press Style, or CP
- In the United States, the predominating style in newspapers is Associated Press
Style, or AP Style.
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
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.
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.
- 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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 are shown in CP Style as two words, “per cent.”
Two per cent, 12 per cent, 1.3 per cent.
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.
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
Numerals are used, unless Celsius or Fahrenheit are not specified.
5 C, -20 C, eight degrees.
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
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.
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
Similar rules and exceptions apply to U.S. states, all of which may be found in the CP
Abbreviate the titles of legal corporations in their company names. Spell out in
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
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
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
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.
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
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).
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
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.
- The Canadian Press is a news gathering co-operative financed by Canada’s daily
- 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 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!
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
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.
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
course may be to take the advice of the old wire service adage: When in doubt, leave it
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
- 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
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).
- The law of defamation in Canada creates several problems and concerns for
- It is complicated and expensive to defend against defamation suits.
- 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
- 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.
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
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
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
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.
- Treat all threats of defamation suits as if they were complaints.
- 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
- 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.
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
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.
- 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
- 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
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
whatsoever. Again, everyone had better spell out clearly what they think they’re agreeing
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
- 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
- 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.
- Sources of news often want their identities to be kept confidential.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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
The penalties for contempt of court can be quite severe — and are entirely up to the
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
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.
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
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
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.
- 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
- 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
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
- 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.
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.
- 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
- Covering crime and the courts is an area of journalism that has a risk of contempt
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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
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
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.
- 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
- 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.
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?
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.
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
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.
- 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
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
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
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
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
- 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
- Identifying sources in your copy in an appropriate manner.
- Dealing with errors forthrightly and honestly
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.
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.
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
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…”
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,
be prepared for unexpected problems. Never show your lead or reaction until the story is
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
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
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.
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.
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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:
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
Native group protests job discrimination
It would be quite another thing to write:
Dutchman robs city bank
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
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
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
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
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!”
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.
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
Gender specific Gender neutral
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.
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
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,
Since many gay people do not believe they had any choice in the matter, the term sexual
orientation is less controversial than sexual preference.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- There is not much merit in a debate over “political correctness” if you object to
language that attempts to show cultural sensitivity.
- 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
- Another acceptable alternative is same-sex.
- 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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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…”
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
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
- 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!
- 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
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
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
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
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
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?”
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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
- Use a conversational style.
- 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
- 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.
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
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
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
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:
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
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.
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
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
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?”
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
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.
- 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
- In public meetings, focus your lead on concrete actions taken by the body being
- 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
- 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
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
Still, it is worth thinking about how we cover elections, and planning to do better next
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?
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.
- Elections are among the most important stories reporters can be asked to cover in
- 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
- Journalists should not forget what issues concern the voters.
- Elections coverage should provide background and context to the debate and
- 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.
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,
colleagues or acquaintances who can provide insights…. Sharp quotes add colour and
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
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
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
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
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!
Spot news obituaries follow a traditional format. All new journalists should learn this
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.
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.
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
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.
- 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.
- Report the deaths of conventionally newsworthy people — prominent lawyers,
scientists, politicians, medical practitioners, religious and military leaders and the
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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
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.
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
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
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
- Reporters are the public face of the newspaper industry.
- But copy editors are the heart and soul of a good newspaper.
- 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
- The city editor oversees the operations of the city department’s staff and freelance
- Department editors oversee individual departments, such as Sports, Business and
- 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.
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
Writers, Amis wisely advised, should “try to pursue a course between the slipshod and
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
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.
- 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
- Systematic use of language results in clarity of reporting, eliminating confusion
- 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
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.”
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
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.
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 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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
- 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
- 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
- Virtually all newspapers have their own unique typographical style on a few
- Most Canadian daily newspapers use the Canadian Press style as their basic
- Copy editors have a responsibility to know both their own paper’s unique
style points plus the basics of CP Style.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
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
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.
- 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
- 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.
- Previous criminal records.
- Psychiatric situations of an accused.
- Pleadings or the amount of a claim in civil cases.
- Applications to shorten sentences.
- Bail applications.
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
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.
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
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
- 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
Every fact and figure presented by a reporter should be suspected. Consider the
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
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.
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
Consider the following example:
Calgary Mayor Al Duerr Tuesday denounced the waste of taxpayers' money by city
“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
“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.
- 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.
- 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.
o Spelling of names.
o Geographical details.
o Sums and percentages.
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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
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.
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
“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
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
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
“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.”
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
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!
- 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
- Copy editors need to ensure that stories are fair and balanced.
- 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
- Where opinion is expressed, there must be attribution.
- Copy editors should eliminate words that tend to advertise a product or service.
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
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:
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
- 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?
To check, try reading your copy aloud and listening to what you are saying.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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
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.
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
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
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
It’s best to use profanity very rarely. Judged critically, it is seldom newsworthy. When it
is, it should be stated forthrightly.
- 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
- 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.
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
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,
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
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
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
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:
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.
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
- 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
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
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:
A three-line headline would look like this:
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
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
- 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
- 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.)
- 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
- 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
- A Deck, or Deckhead, is a smaller headline usually placed underneath the main
- A Hammerhead is a large one-word display/label head, usually illuminated by a
- 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
- 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.
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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
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
- 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.
- 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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
two miners’ lives
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:
Taliban forces face total defeat in Afghanistan
states as fact something that is really just someone’s
Taliban forces face’ total defeat’ in Afghanistan
Taliban forces face defeat: NATO commander
both make clear the reality of the situation.
Canada is going to the dogs
Harper says Canada going to dogs
Canada viewed as going to dogs
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.
Mayor Brown revealed as forger
could prompt a libel suit after Mayor Brown's trial,
Witness terms Mayor Brown a forger
Likewise, headlines that “convict” people on trial — like stories that do the same thing —
carry the risk of serious contempt of court charges.
Police arrest robber
is in contempt of court before the accused has been
convicted, and thus carries the risk of serious legal
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.
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
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
Negative and tentative headlines are considered bad form
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
Murder trial continues in Court of Queen’s Bench
Better to dig into the story for some telling detail, fact or
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 …
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:
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
to get trial run
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
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
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
Moreover, sometimes headlines are clearer with a split than without one. Copy editors
should not torture the language to avoid split heads.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
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
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 cbc.ca:
Royal buss sparks protocol fuss
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:
for poodle's paws
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
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
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!”
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
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
- 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
Accident victim luck to be alive
… is foolish.
Cold wave linked to temperatures
- 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.
Atomic explosion at Hiroshima brought the end of war as we knew it
- 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:
- Plays on words
- Twisted clichés
- Stories concerning tragic matters deserve reserved headlines.
- Humour should be used with great caution, and attention to the tone of the
- Headlines should not bludgeon readers with the obvious.
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
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,
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
Here’s a three-line headline based on that skeletonized lead:
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
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.
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 …
… or, very short archaic words associated only with headlines, not normal English, for
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
Tories mum on plan to nix gay unions
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?
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
The goal of these 10 questions is to test the headline to see if it does its job properly.
- 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
- 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.
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.
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.
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
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:
- 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
- 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
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
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.
- 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.
- News releases should be written in the traditional hard-news, inverted pyramid
- 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
- 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
- Photos can be a useful addition to a news release.
- If you include a photo, be sure to also include a caption.
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
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
“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
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
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.
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.
- 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
- 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.
- When covering a story based on a news release, you should usually seek reaction
from some other source.
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
conference starts just after the fire bells start ringing at the Fire Department, no one at all
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
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
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
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
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
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.
- 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
- If you organize a news conference, think visuals as well — and tell media in
advance if there are opportunities for striking photos.
- Before a news conference, take the time to make sure everything is hooked up and
- 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
- For most groups, media events are likely to attract more media than media
- If you schedule a media event, however, make sure your supporters show up.
GLOSSARY OF COMMON
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
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
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
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.
Defamation – A libel or slander, a critical or untrue statement that is actionable in civil
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
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
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
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
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.
‘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
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
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
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
News peg – The timely event that can be used to justify a broader story or feature on a
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Reaction – The opportunity by interested parties or subjects of criticism to make their
views known in a news story.
Replate – To make a new version of a page after deadline to add new stories or correct
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
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
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
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
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