NEWS WRITING SERIES #2: What Is A News Story?
In the first segment of this series, we discussed “The Meaning Of Journalism.” Click on the title to read that post if you haven’t done so before continuing with this one. In this segment, we examine the meaning of news/news story.
To write effectively and correctly, we need to understand the type of story or article we intend to write. In this session, we, therefore, break down the meaning of news and news story via the key terms of our definition as we did for the term, journalism, in the last session.
WHAT IS A NEWS STORY?
To the layman, news is information about events that have just happened or are still happening that is disseminated for public consumption. However, not all events that happen should make it into the news. In other words, professional newsmen have some means for choosing what to report as news. Some of these means were pointed out in the post, “Tips for News Gathering.” In addition, there are standards for reporting news. It is not usually presented in the way you would tell your friend a story. There are dos and don’ts involved. By looking at the definition of a news story, the limitations of the layman’s understanding of news become clear.
A news story is a timely, accurate and objective account of the day’s events written to inform and guide members of the public on simple and significant matters.
We shall now examine the key words in the definition of a news story to enhance understanding of the term and of news itself.
Timely: A news story is a fresh account of an event. It brings new information to the receivers. This is why news stories are reported as contemporaneously as possible with the events or issues they are based on. The degree of contemporaneity of news reports in the print media is less than that in the broadcast and new media because the last two can report live. Whatever the media though, a news story is considered stale when it is reported late and the receivers have already got the information from other media.
Accurate: A news story is expected to contain truthful information with correct factual details. It has been said that a reporter may have excuses for submitting his report late but he has no excuse for getting it wrong. Thus, story details like names of people, places and organisations; figures (addresses, age, the number of victims of a wreck or crime, sums of money, time of occurrence of events and duration); the exact words of sources or interpretations of what they said all need to be verified before publication.
In 2003, the New York Times faced a deeply embarrassing incident, the likes of which it had hardly experienced in its then 152 years of existence. A staff reporter for the paper was forced to resign after it was discovered that he had been committing journalistic fraud.
The reporter, Jayson Blair, 27, misled readers and Times colleagues with dispatches that purported to be from Maryland, Texas and other states, when often he was far away, in New York. He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.
And he used these techniques to write falsely about emotionally charged events in recent history…. (New York Times)
While Blair’s case was one of intentional deception, inaccurate reports resulting from the journalist’s carelessness are seriously frowned on too. This is why journalists are taught not to assume but to check/verify everything. Accuracy in news writing is not hard to achieve, particularly in this digital age where there are search engines and tons of references and other resources to confirm information with online. If journalists turned in accurate reports when they had to physically visit the library and meet or call a variety of sources for verification, how much more should they now that the internet has made communication and access to information easier.
Not only do inaccurate reports hurt the credibility/career prospects of the journalist involved, they stain the image of his employers and the media in general. They can also result in lawsuits which can lead to the payment of millions in damages.
Objective: A news story is not expected to convey the reporter’s opinions. Breaking this rule is called editorialisation. The story should disseminate facts and strictly attributed opinions from sources. This is why the late American journalist, Lester Markel, once remarked to his colleagues that, “What you see is news, what you know is background, what you feel is opinion.” That is another way of saying, “stick to the facts” – what you actually observed, and not how you feel about it.
In gathering the opinions of others for his news story, the reporter is expected to be fair to all the sides involved in the event or issue covered and give them equal representation if possible. This is in line with the principle of balance in news writing.
The use of ambiguous sources, like a source from the presidency, is discouraged except there is a need to protect the source. This is because the use of vague sources can serve as an avenue for the reporter to input his own views into the story. The standard is to properly identify the source, which implies adding his/her full name, title, occupation and any other personal detail that is relevant to the story.
Account: As stated earlier, not everything that happens qualifies to be news. A news story is the report of what has happened as presented by professionally trained journalists or others who have acquired the required competencies on the job. Thus, it is not the event itself that is the news, it is the story written about the event. Therefore, as we saw in the post, “The Meaning of Journalism,” in the course of their training, reporters are taught the criteria for determining newsworthiness which help to decide what events or issues to cover. These criteria also assist them in carefully weighing what to include and not include in their stories.
Inform: To inform is to acquaint with happenings around and beyond one’s environment. A news story helps to keep people updated on what is going on far and near. Members of the public are neither trained to gather all the information they need nor do they have the time to do so. So reporters, whose business it is to do so, survey what is going on in their immediate vicinity and beyond and distil what they gathered into comprehensible accounts for members of the public.
Guide: Members of the public need the news for decision-making. Sometimes, the information from the news can save their lives or prevent great loss. For instance, weather reports can prevent people from leaving home and getting trapped in storms. Business news can help people decide whether to buy or sell the stocks of some companies. And political news can familiarise citizens with candidates for office so they can choose who to vote for.
Public: News is for the public and so should be of public interest. In other words, reporters search for what members of the public can relate to and benefit from. That is why the personal life and activities of individuals should not make news except they are exceptional – unusually interesting or inspirational. The private lives of individuals can also become of public interest if they are engaged in criminal conduct, which means they can harm other people or defraud the state, for instance.
As seen under the explanation for the word, “Account,” there are guidelines reporters use in choosing the stories to write about that will appeal to the public.
- Find two definitions of news or news story and explain the key words in them.
- Give three of your own examples of how news stories can guide members of the public.
- From what you learnt in the course, “Reporting,” supply and explain five criteria for determining newsworthiness.
I hope you have learnt a lot in this post and the other one in this series so far. The series will continue with a look at the two major types of news, hard and soft news, to point out their similarities and differences.
Meanwhile, check the related post embedded below that discusses straight news reporting, the traditional way of reporting news that produces hard news stories.
Also take time to do the exercise in this post and the previous one and send me your reactions/questions via the Comments section.
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