NEWS WRITING SERIES #3: Hard and Soft News (Similarities and Differences)
This segment examines hard news and soft news – the two major types of news. This lesson is necessitated by the confusion that young reporters often face about how to cover different events and the type of stories to submit on them. With the detailed explanation in this article, you will be equipped to appropriately cover events based on their nature and what they offer the public. And you will be in a position to write stories in the right format to fit those events.
WHAT IS HARD NEWS?
Hard news is information about significant events and issues which members of the public must get from the news media to function properly in society. It is news that addresses crucial subjects like the economy, education, major crime and public health. Without such information, people feel adrift and disoriented.
Take the matter of the Naira redesign by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). There were uncertainties concerning the deadline for the acceptance of old Naira notes in the affected denominations as legal tender. No one wanted to have those old notes in his possession after the expiration of the deadline for depositing them with the banks. At the same time, people were worried about the possibility of running out of cash in view of the scarcity of the redesigned notes and the near impossibility of buying certain important items (like food stuff sold by illiterate women) via mobile money transfers. It was thus incumbent on the news media to update the public with information about any postponement of deadlines and arrangements made by the CBN with banks to ease the sufferings of the people.
Due to the seriousness of the matters it covers, hard news is written in straight news format. It gives the receiver the pertinent information without suspense and gimmicks. It puts the information it conveys in the simplest language possible to avoid confusion and ensure comprehension by those with minimum education. It also cuts out the fat from the story and delivers the bones and lean meat.
As earlier stated, hard news is usually composed in the straight news or objective reporting format. That requires using the inverted pyramid order. This is the traditional method for writing news which, because of its simplicity, has been likened to the work of a mason who lays block upon block with mortar in between to build a wall. No exhibition of writing flair or creativity is required. Rather, a strict adherence to the tried and tested sequence to deliver the news as quickly as possible to the public without any mystification of the facts and viewpoints therein.
The features of hard news will be further clarified when it is compared with soft news later in this post. Meanwhile, let’s take a look at soft news.
WHAT IS SOFT NEWS?
Soft news is information about interesting events and issues which the news media provide for the entertainment of the public. Soft news refers to stories the media provide to update those highly interested in the issues covered but largely for the enjoyment of the majority of the receivers. In other words, most people will not consider those matters crucial to their wellbeing nor will they be endangered by not receiving the information.
Examples of soft news will be celebrity hook-ups and breakups, concerts, galas, charity fundraisers and human interest stories. Recall the stories about Nollywood actor Yul Edochie in the past one or two years. The public was interested in his marital issues – his revelation of welcoming a son with a second wife, an actress who had been a friend of the family; his first wife’s negative reactions to his polygamy; the ‘reconciliation’ with his first wife; the death of his first son and public reactions to it, many linking it to his polygamy. These are soft news stories that provide relaxation and diversion to people. They do not add or subtract from their basic welfare.
Due to their predominantly entertainment purpose, soft news stories are written in a feature style. That means that the reporter is not bound to present the story in a particular order. He is not obliged to tell the story immediately. He can use introductory material like anecdotes, background material that puts the current event/issue in context, an arresting quotation from someone in the story or a related famous quote, before launching into his account. He draws on his creative prowess to blend the pieces of the story and extraneous material he chooses to include into a coherent and satisfying whole.
The foregoing is the reason writing a soft news story has been likened to the work of a sculptor, decorator or artist who uses various materials like wood, fabrics and paint to create the replica of someone or something. Different artists work in different ways and arrive at different results according to their talents and exposure. There is no hard and fast rule for the steps they must follow and the elements they must combine to achieve their desired results. What each artist is concerned with is creating an aesthetic work that people will find appealing, not following a strict routine to produce a work that is similar to that of others.
We shall now outline the similarities and differences between hard news and soft news.
1. Give five examples of events/issues that require hard news treatment.
2. Give five examples of events/issues that require soft news treatment.
(Your answers should be limited to Nsukka and its environs.)
SIMILARITIES BETWEEN HARD NEWS AND SOFT NEWS
Since both categories are essentially news, they share the following characteristics.
1. They provide information: They apprise people of happenings from far and near.
2. They are timely: They concern recent events, although slight tardiness in soft news writing is more excusable than in hard news writing due to the diverse angles from which soft news stories can be approached which can help to maintain their freshness.
3. They are based on news values: They must qualify to be news by meeting the criteria for determining newsworthiness like significance, oddity, prominence, proximity and conflict. However, the news values for hard news often differ from those for soft news.
4. They should be factual/accurate: All news must be real, not fabricated or concocted from falsehoods and the reporter’s imagination.
5. They are expected to be objective: However, the standard of objectivity for hard news is higher than that for soft news.
6. Both are expected to cover the 5Ws and H: Every news story must answer the questions in the 5Ws and H, also called news elements – Who, What, Where, When, Why and How – of the story to the extent that is possible.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN HARD NEWS AND SOFT NEWS
1. Soft news provides entertainment: Although soft news provides information like hard news, its emphasis is on information that is entertaining – stories that take people’s minds away from the stresses of daily life.
2. Soft news is usually based on oddity and prominence: Of the three news values that a news story must have one of, while hard news is usually based on significance/impact/consequence, soft news usually arises from the exceptional nature of the story and the social status of the people involved. This explains why stories on issues like a girl with Down’s syndrome becoming a model or a business mogul celebrating his birthday are presented as soft news. However, if the birthday celebration is held like a formal event and prominent people make significant pronouncements during it, it would require hard news treatment for that aspect while the wining and dining that follows will call for soft news treatment.
3. Soft news can be less timely than hard news: This is because the emphasis in soft news writing is whether the story is interesting, not whether it has just happened.
4. Soft news is not bound to be presented in the inverted pyramid order: In other words, it must not go straight to the point. Unlike a hard news writer who uses a summary lead to give the essence of the story and elaborates on the important aspects of the story in succeeding paragraphs, a soft news writer can choose to tease the receivers at first and withhold the essence of the story till later. He can present his story in any order he wishes. Therefore, the soft news story is more challenging to write and displays the craftsmanship of the reporter more than the hard news story which follows a prescribed order.
The figures below show the inverted pyramid order, which is often used for writing hard news and the pyramid order, which is a regular order for story telling and thus, can be employed in soft news writing.
As Figure 1 shows, the inverted pyramid order starts with a summary lead incorporating some or all of the 5Ws and H. This is followed by a bridge that provides the circumstances surrounding the lead. The succeeding paragraphs, where the body of the story begins, supply further explanation of what was put in the lead. Next come background information and secondary material as part of the body. However, the background information can come before this point if its delay will hamper understanding of the information provided earlier. The story usually ends with minor details.
On the other hand, the pyramid structure of story writing as seen in Figure 2 starts with minor details in the lead. The body of the story is often chronological narration interwoven with background, examples, anecdotes, quotations and other relevant material. The story ends with the climax. This is just an example of the orders that can be used to compose a soft news story.
5. Soft news can be couched in less simple language than hard news: Therefore, “You do not purchase when you can buy” applies mostly to hard news writing. In order to entertain, soft news uses flowery language and other literary devices that would not be welcome in hard news writing.
6. Soft news stories are usually longer than hard news stories: Soft news adds more descriptive and background details than hard news. A soft news story may include what those present wore, the jokes cracked by people at the high table, the food and drinks served and music played (information which the hard news writer usually disregards).
7. Soft news stories usually have endings unlike hard news stories: The latter have no endings, just minor details in the last paragraph which if removed will neither affect the essence nor comprehension of the story. But a soft news story can have a carefully crafted ending. This is because the story often needs to be read in full to be understood as the writer weaves it in such a manner that excising one part causes the rest to unravel and become meaningless. For instance, the writer may choose to go back to an idea introduced in the first paragraph at the end for emphasis or to complete the thought.
8. Soft news can be less objective than hard news: While both types of stories generally require journalists to report facts and the views of other people who matter to the stories they write, the flexibility of writing style in soft news writing means that certain topics can be approached in a personal and subjective manner. For example, a reporter’s coverage of a relative’s wedding or funeral. But this must be done in a manner that readers find relatable, not in a way that will alienate them from the story.
1. Read the two stories below and point out the differences between them based on what you learnt in this segment.
This segment of our series has explained what hard news and soft news are and pointed out the similarities and differences between them. The next segment will present the rules or guidelines for writing news stories.
Carefully do the exercises in this segment and the previous ones if you want their contents to be ingrained in your mind. And send me your impressions and questions via the Comments section below.
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