Journalism 101 by Rodger Martin
Journalism 101: Twenty Ideas to get you started.
Compiled by Rodger Martin, Adjunct Professor of Journalism, Keene State College, advisor to its award-winning newspaper, The Equinox; editor emeritus of The Worcester Review
A journalist makes writing easy for a reader, not easy for himself. You write for others to understand, not yourself. Writing is a skill not a gift. You get better by practicing.
Write in active voice unbiased prose. It’s the story teller’s voice. We enjoyed it as children. We enjoy it as adults. Here is an easy example of the difference between passive voice and active voice I use for my basic journalism course:
Writing for the Media, Journalism 130
Passive Voice Guide Sheet
A. Please check for passive voice problems by journalism students visiting your center. Generally, passive voice is not an acceptable as journalistic style. This is not a grammatical error but a style issue.
B.. In general, passive voice means the subject of the sentence is not acting, but instead is acted upon and all the work is pushed onto the reader. .
Example: The sentence The truck squashed the dog is active voice because the subject truck acts (squashing) upon an object (dog). Good active writing equals good journalism (Good any writing for that matter.)
Example: But the sentence The dog was squashed by the truck is passive voice because the subject dog does not act but receives the action (squashing). The reader can’t imagine what has actually happened in the sentence until he or she reaches the last word and so must go back and re-imagine the entire sentence in the order it occurred. This is lazy writing and equals bad journalism.
C. One detects most passive voice (including false passive) and the only ones you really need to worry about at this by noting the use of any form of the verb to be (was, am, is, are, be, being or been). Often the real action is just to the right of the to be verb (note squashing in the second example). If any of these words cause the kind of passive shift noted above, rewrite the sentence making the subject act. A writer can usually do this simply by reversing the order of the two nouns in the sentence and adjusting the verb to make sense.
Do not make judgments. Tell the story straight and the reader will come to the same conclusion you did.
Attribute everything except common knowledge and remember said is not the only attribution word. Sprinkle in noted, indicated, commented or explained if they fit.
A story records what happened, NOT what you think of what happened.
Make use of transitionals. Good transitionals elevate your story from so-so to excellent. For example, Think of it as guiding a blind person through a garden. You have the eyes, you see everything. It’s easy for you because it’s all inside your head. The reader is not inside your head, therefore your words and transitionals must guide him or her through that garden in order that they see exactly what you see. (You can download lists of transitionals from the internet. Just google transitional words and phrases.)
Writing is a skill not a gift. Words are your tools. Learn to use your toolbox. You iis about what happened.
Proof with your ear. You learned language with your ears, not your eyes. Your ear will tell you when something is wrong. Your eye will tell you why. A journalist doesn’t need to know the technical term of the problem, only to edit it so the problem disappears.
Ask why. Be a skeptic not a cynic. Trust your instinct—70 percent of communication is via body language not words.
Know the rules before you break them.
Don’t be intimidated by technology. It changes every few years anyway.
When your editor makes a suggestion. It is not really a suggestion. Do it.
Find credible sources, quote or paraphrase them. The more credible sources the more credibility your story develops. The key word is “credible.” A propagandist or public relations person is not a credible source. They provide only their client’s point of view.
If something sounds suspect, verify. You are the voice for the community, People look to you for an accurate understanding of events. Don’t sell your audience short. Communities cannot co-exist without accurate information.
Fact check, fact check, fact check. Verify the spelling of names.
Take special care of private information. You never mention a person’s address unless the address is the news. Remember it is against the law in most states to ID a minor. Unless you have written or recorded permission do not do it. (Why do school students get mentioned all the time? Remember those forms you had to bring home for parents ot sign. That was one of them.)
Your word is your bond. If you’re in this business to make a name for yourself, try Hollywood.
News does not follow the clock. It is the joy and curse of the profession. News happens when it happens. You may get exhausted, but you’ll never be bored.
Learn to write a standard summary lead (lede) before you break the rules of: Who did what to whom (or what) when, where, why or how. Leads are usually a 25-35 summary sentence of a news story a reader can scan should time prevent reading the full story. The details then follow in order of importance, not in chronological order. Example: A medivac life-flighted an injured driver to the Dartmouth Medical Center after a one-car accident closed Interstate 93 Northbound in Manchester on Tuesday morning.
Deadlines are just that. The community expects its news at regularly appointed times. They purchase the news so they can stay informed. Late news is useless news. Suck it up or just plain suck.
Eric Poor’s “Working at the Word Factory,” (Hobblebush Books) provides excellent, easy reading for a beginning journalist working at the local level.