5 IMPORTANT REASONS YOU SHOULD ADHERE TO JOURNALISM STYLE WHEN WRITING FOR THE MEDIA
What is journalism style?
Style in writing refers to the way language is used in terms of grammar, word usage and mechanics (spelling, punctuation, capitalisation and abbreviation). Journalism style refers to the way journalists use language which may differ from the way people in other professions do. For example, lawyers freely use archaic and hi-falutin language while accountants use lots of figures. Journalists, on the other hand, use today’s language in easy-to-understand constructions that keep numerals to a minimum. They write in a way that appeals to most people and try to keep people at the centre of their stories This is called highlighting human interest.
In school, journalists learn about this style and on the job, the rules that guide its application are available to them in their organisation’s Stylebook. Even school publications like The Record, the University of Nigeria Mass Communication Department’s newspaper, have such style guides.
Examples of journalism style rules
• Use of a particular language variant in spelling and word choice: A newspaper based in Nigeria could insist on the use of British English. So its staff and contributors will spell neighbour, not the American form, neighbor. They would use the word tap, not faucet and bonnet, not hood.
• Determination of what figures are spelt out and which are typed in numerals: The Record, for instance, directs that one digit numbers (0 – 9) be spelt out while higher figures (10 and above) be written in numerals. Thus, a story can tell us about a nine-year-old boy and a 30-year-old man.
• Avoidance of double titles in a particular reference to an individual. A news medium can choose to steer clear of the Nigerian practice of affixing several titles to a news maker’s name (Chief, Dr, Prophet) and choose the cap he or she wears most, say the professional title, to address them with. At one or more points later in the story, the reporter can add that the person is also this and that.
• To ensure gender-sensitivity in writing (the use of language that treats the other gender fairly) and prevent sex-based discrimination, some publications ban the use of gendered nouns and use gender-neutral ones instead. Workforce replaces manpower and first-year students replace freshmen. Gender-specific nouns like actress, prophetess and comedienne are dropped. Every affected person is addressed as actor, prophet and comedian.
To see more examples of style rules, check out The Record Style Guide and The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook (both linked at end of post). AP is regarded as the arbiter of style in journalism and its stylebook serves as a more or less universal reference on journalism style rules.
5 important reasons you should adhere to journalism style when writing for the media
Five important reasons why it is advisable to adhere to journalism style in general and the style of the particular medium you’re writing for can be seen under the following 5 Cs.
1. Competitiveness: The chances of your report or article being considered for publication are increased when your writing conforms to the required style. Publishing houses are inundated with the writings of their regular and aspiring contributors. Those who cannot follow style rules are likely to have their works discarded.
2. Correctness: Adhering to the rules of style will reduce the chances of turning in incorrect copy that is riddled with language errors.
3. Comprehensibility: A style-tailored piece will be easier to understand because journalism emphasises simplicity at its heart. Journalists usually write for the mass media whose patrons are not limited to graduates and the elite. News stories, for instance, are couched in the simplest language possible, hence the maxim, “Do not purchase when you can buy” in news writing.
4. Contemporaneity: Since language is dynamic and style books are revised to reflect that, following the rules ensure that the writer employs current and updated usage, rather than outdated usage, which in some cases now elicit offensive associations and could attract sanctions against the journalists and their media organisations.
5. Consistency: Adhering to style rules gives one’s writing a consistent and professional look, rather than when one writes haphazardly. Imagine how untidy it looks when writers use indiscriminate devices to emphasise ideas or terms in the body of their work, like CAPS, boldface lettering and italics, rather than using just one of these. Think of how confusing it is too when writers keep switching the order of names of people in their stories because they don’t understand that the proper thing to do is stick to one order, say the Christian order as in Edith U. Ohaja, where you start with the first name and end with the surname.
TAKEAWAY: Learn about journalism style and familiarise yourself with the stylebook of the publication you will be writing for.
Ekwelie, S. A. (2005). A master style guide. Lagos, Nigeria: John Letterman.
Ohaja, E. U. (2015). Prescriptions for election coverage in Nigeria: Focus on gender-sensitive reporting. Review of Communication and Media Studies. 1(2), 1-9.