The Rules Of Journalism


Earlier, I talked about the rules of journalism.  That your stories need to be timely.  That they have to be fact checked.  That they have to be unbiased.  Other rules are not to fall in love with your own work and, of course, to always quote your sources.  At one time or another, I broke all of these rules.  I’m going to give you examples of the rules, how I broke them and what should be done in the same situation. 

 1.  Timely news stories.  This was something that I couldn’t get through my head for the longest time.  An example of how I broke this rule was that a lawyer in our town was caught dealing drugs to kids.  He was arrested and put in jail, a bond set.  That was as much as we knew with our sources.  My job was to call the police department, find out as much as I could about the current situation and then write a story about it.  I had a two hour time span to do this. 

 My story came out with the usual “who, what, when, where and how,” that is standard in newspaper writing.  But it wasn’t timely.  The man was arrested on a Friday, but the time I got the assignment it was Sunday and our paper was going to press on Monday and coming out on Wednesday.   Nearly a week after the arrest.   My story, that detailed the arrest that was made a week prior was not timely. 

 The editor got the story and changed the first line.  Instead of talking about the nearly week old arrest, he described the man sitting in jail, as of the date we wrote the story, and waiting for a bond hearing.  It brought the story up to date for the readers who would be getting the paper 6 days after the arrest was made.  Not only that, but it also made the story more interesting. 

 High school journalism taught me about putting everything  in the first sentence that was relevant to the story because, as my teacher said, “people have the attention span of gnats.”  But as I moved on in my journalism career, I saw that while the specifics are crucial to the story and should be in the first paragraph, they do not have to be all crammed into the first sentence.  The purpose of the article should be to catch the attention of the readers and get them to read. 

 When writing any type of article for publication, look to how it affects the here and now for people.  People are not going to want to read an article in which the events are old news.  Bring it right to the current time frame and people will be more interested as it is up to date and providing them with real news. 

 You never see a story about something that happened weeks, months or even years ago without the most current update to the situation being discussed in the first paragraph.   A relatively recent example was the story that broke on the kidnapping and murder of Adam Walsh.  When this occurred nearly 30 years ago, it was big news.  But as horrific as this crime was, you only saw an article about it when something new developed in the case.  The most recent was the police closing the case and naming the likely murderer, who died in prison for another crime.  That was news that was timely and was included in the headline and first paragraph of the story, as well as subsequent paragraphs.  The story went back in time and then retold the kidnapping and murder of the child. 

 A good way to be timely in your news stories is to create a backwards timeline.  Think of the last occurrence in the case and then work backwards from there.  Always keep your articles up to date for your readers so that they can relate to them in the now. 

 2.  Fact checked.  Another rule I broke had more of a serious impact.  My editor told me about a car accident where a young man who lived in our town was hurt and in the hospital.  He told me to call the hospital and find out his condition.  I was busy doing something else and time lapsed.  I did try to call the hospital, but could not get through to anyone who knew anything about the case.  I did not try to employ any strategies to check my facts and wrote the story as if the boy was still in the hospital and recovering from a car accident. 

 This was a huge mistake because the boy died.  And when a woman called up to complain about how we wrote such an article that was inaccurate and most likely painful for the parents to read, I got called out on the carpet.  I told the editor part of the truth and that was that I could not get anyone to verify any part of the story.  I was in trouble, but not for long.  He admonished with the old saying “remember, if your mother says she loves you, check it out.”  After that episode, I always made sure that I checked my facts before handing anything  in for print. 

 There were several ways that I could have gotten the information that I wanted.  I could have called neighbors and asked them the condition of the boy.  I could have told the nursing station that I was a relative.  I could have asked for his room at the switch board.  If there was no room, I would have known that there was something wrong.  I could have asked a nurse which funeral home he was going to because I wanted to send flowers, presuming that he was dead.  In short, I could have done my homework and exhausted all efforts to find out what I needed to know for that article, even calling relatives of the boy.  But I took the lazy way out and paid the consequences. 

 At the very least, if I didn’t want to resort to trickery to get the story, I could have told the truth from my perspective and that was that the boy’s condition was unknown. 

 Always check your facts.  Verify them and get someone to go on record, if possible.  You do not have to name names, although you should be able to give the title of the person who told you the information.  If I had found out the information about this boy, for example, I would have written that a hospital spokesperson who declined to be identified provided the information.  The more you get involved in writing, the easier it is to acquire sources who will be able to give you the facts as they are. 

 In addition to checking your facts, be sure to get everyone’s name spelled correctly, as well as their titles, when you are quoting someone or writing about someone.   At another meeting, I referred to one of the trustees of the town by his nickname.  Although it was obvious that it was a nickname, I never followed up with him to ask his real name.  My editor caught it, put his real first name, the nickname in quotes, and his last name in the paper. 

 Checking your facts may seem time consuming, but it is essential for good journalism.  Once you start writing inaccurate accounts, spelling people’s names wrong and providing the public with false information, not only your own credibility will suffer, but the credibility of the newspaper as well.  I was lucky as my editor gave me a second chance.

 3.  Unbiased.  As a human being, it can be difficult to write from an unbiased perspective, but this is good journalism.  Today, much journalism is biased to one side or the other and this is becoming more acceptable in the industry.   But consider both Fox News and MSNBC.  One is biased towards the right and the other the left - do you rely on either of them to tell you the news from an unbiased perspective?  And what does that say about their journalism tactics?   It causes most people to distrust them.  While one of these 24 hour news channels may be saying what you want to hear,  you still want the facts so that you can make up your own mind.   Good journalism presents the facts in an article and then allows the reader to form their own opinion. 

 This is easier said than done.  I’ve broken this rule several times throughout the years.  But it’s bad journalism.  One time I covered a zoning board meeting where an elderly couple complained about their property being messed up by the village after a rezoning that the village agreed to in order to accommodate a big builder.  From my perspective, it looked like two David’s going after a bunch of Goliaths.  And I wrote the article from my perspective.  This went over well with the couple who were interested in getting their property restored, but it didn’t go over well with my editor who, although printing the story, told me to get facts from both sides, and he emphasized “both sides” at the next meeting.  I just interviewed the couple after the meeting and not the planning commissioners.   It was biased journalism. 

 Fortunately, it worked out for the couple whose property was damaged and they got the village to repair the property.  But regardless of the outcome,  I still wrote a piece of biased journalism.  Although the couple was happy, the zoning board was not.  Those who gave me tips and information stopped doing so. 

 While I’m not saying that anyone should sell out to get a source in journalism, you do need to print both sides of the story, regardless of how you feel.  Do not attach yourself to your sources so that you become their crusader.  It is not your job to be judge and jury - you simply have to present the facts to the readers.   You are not on one side or another - that is why the press is called the Fourth Estate.  They are a separate entity that does not take sides. 

 Again, this is easier said than done.  But it can be accomplished if you remember to give the same amount of time to both sides in a controversy for any article and keep your distance from all sources.  Never put yourself in a position where you are writing slanted articles so that you can procure the favor of one side or another.  You are a professional who wants,  as Joe Friday on Dragnet used to say,  “just the facts.” 

 As a human being, you naturally want to help right a wrong, but this is not your job as a reporter.  If you feel strongly about a situation, become an activist.  Using your position as a journalist to sway the public is not what good journalism is about.  Being unbiased will add to your credibility as a journalist, as well as the creditably for the media for whom you write. 

 Other rules of journalism include not to fall in love with your own writing and to quote your sources. You cannot just write an article and not quote anyone or refer to a source of information.  You are reporting news.  You should always have an “according to” or a quote from a source when you are writing news. 

 When you are writing features, such a s travel article or an article about an event that comes to town, you have more leeway when it comes to using your own perspective.  You can give feature articles a bit of panache by writing your own impression, but you still need to quote others who are either natives, experts or organizers when you write a piece of feature journalism. 

 For example, if you go to Africa and have to report on conditions in Kenya, you can write of your own impression, but also need to quote those who live there or are working there in order to give your article some credence.  It is more important that you give the perspective of others in your features than your own.  You can make your writing more descriptive, but it should still be in the third person and about other people instead of yourself.  There are exceptions to this rule.  War correspondents will often write journal like articles about what they are seeing.  This type of correspondent journalism, however, is not what you will most likely be doing when you start out in the field.  Those journalist who write such compelling pieces got their start writing news stories. 

 Part of your job as a journalist is to acquire sources.  You want to be friendly to them and thank them for their information.  In some cases, such as those where they can lose their job or worse if they go on the record, you should protect them.  The more sources trust you, the more information they will give you. 

 Do you pay a source for information?  Not unless you plan on working for the National Enquirer or one of the similar tabloids.  Good journalists do not pay for information.  The reason that tabloids get the “inside story” a great deal of the time is because they pay for information.  This backfires on them because they are often tricked by fake sources who will provide them with false information just to make a few dollars.   Paying for information is very unprofessional and can ruin your credibility as a journalist.  Take a look at the National Enquirer - do you really trust what they tell you?    Compare them to the Wall Street Journal - a paper that has not changed its format since inception.  Which would you most likely believe? 

 Another rule is that you do not fall in love with your work.  Later, we will discuss copy editors and their jobs.  Some journalists go on to be copy editors as well as editors of papers.  They will often change your articles without you knowing it.  There have been times, especially when I was first starting out, that I looked at an article and saw my name in the byline but the changes made it impossible to recognize as my own.  Needless to say, I found this to be very disappointing.  It felt a bit like cheating in that the article was not my own and had my name on it.  It hurt my feelings as well.  But I soon got used to it.   Although  I rarely have anything changed today, it happened quite frequently when I began in the field of journalism.  My editor soon got used to my writing style and I soon got used to what he wanted.  But it still stung. 

 If you are going to be a journalist, you are going to need some thick skin.  If you cannot take criticism of your writing, you are in the wrong field.  My writing gets criticized all of the time, by other colleagues as well as readers.  In the beginning, my editor criticized my writing.  I was a bit thin skinned when I began in this field, but soon learned to roll with the punches.  If you are going to be overly sensitive about your writing, you  seriously need to look for another job other than journalism.

 Do not be surprised if you break a few of the rules of journalism along the way - it happens.  Be sure to learn from your mistakes and do not make them again as you navigate your way through the world of journalism.


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