Journalism and Journalistic Writing
Why is it that mass media outlets feature particular news stories prominently while others receive little, if any, coverage? Although every outlet is different, mass media gatekeepers have traditionally relied on some predictable values to evaluate the newsworthiness of a story. Their decision might impact how the story is covered, including how many resources are spent following the story, and how prominently the story is featured.
In the present era of audience fragmentation, individual audience members increasingly choose what kind of news content they receive, yet traditional news values often still govern how deeply a news story permeates a community. In 1973, Gatlung and Ruge developed one of the first models of news values. Shoemaker el al. followed up in 1987 with a similar model. Both offer a useful framework for understanding how gatekeepers evaluate potential news stories.
Gatlung and Ruge, 1973
- Relevance - How relevant is a news story to the audience in question? For example, a California earthquake is almost always more relevant to a West Coast audience than to an audience in Calcutta.
- Timeliness - How recently did the event unfold? Timing is of the utmost importance in today’s 24 hour news cycle. Recent events, or events in the making, are most likely to lead the news.
- Simplification - Stories that can be easily simplified or summarized are likely to be featured more prominently than stories that are convoluted or difficult to understand.
- Predictability - Certain events, such as elections, major sporting events, astrological events, and legal decisions, happen on a predictable schedule. As the event draws closer, it typically gains news value.
- Unexpectedness - On the other hand, events like natural disasters, accidents, or crimes are completely unpredictable. These events are also likely to have significant news value.
- Continuity - Some events, such as war, elections, protests, and strikes, require continuing coverage. These events are likely to remain in the news for a long time, although not always as the lead story.
- Composition - Editors have to keep in mind the big picture—the sum of all content in their media outlet. For this reason, an editor might select soft human interest stories to balance out other hard hitting, investigative journalism.
- Elite People - Certain individuals, like politicians, entertainers, and athletes, are considered, by virtue of their status, more newsworthy. If someone throws a shoe at an everyday person, it’s probably not news. If someone throws a shoe at the President of the United States, it will likely be in the news for weeks.
- Elite Countries - Famine, drought, and national disasters are more likely to draw attention if they are happening in “First World” countries than if they are happening in developing countries.
- Negativity - Generally speaking, editors deem bad news more newsworthy than good news.
Shoemaimker et al., 1987
- Timeliness - Shoemaker et al. also recognize timeliness as a critical news value.
- Proximity - Similar to Gatlung and Ruge’s “Relevance.” The closer an event takes place to the intended audience, the more important it is. This is why huge local or regional stories might not make the national news.
- Importance, impact, or consequence - How many people will the event impact? Issues like global warming issues have become big news in recent years precisely because environmental changes affect the entire planet.
- Interest - Does the story have any special human interest? For example, the inspirational story of a person overcoming large odds to reach her goal appeals to a fundamental human interest.
- Conflict or Controversy - Similar to Gatlung and Ruge’s “Negativity.” Editors generally deem conflict more newsworthy than peace.
- Sensationalism - Sensational stories tend to make the front pages more than the everyday.
- Prominence - Similar to Gatlung and Ruge’s “Elite People.” The actions of prominent people are much more likely to make the news than non-public figures.
- Novelty, oddity, or the unusual - Strange stories are likely to find their way into the news. Dog bites man—no story. Man bites dog—story.
Every news outlet has a different protocol for selecting which stories to run, but some traditional values often determine the “newsworthiness” of a story. The more of these news values a story satisfies, the more likely you are to see it prominently featured in mass media outlets.
Campbell, Vincent. Information Age Journalism: Journalism in an International Context. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006. 117-123.
Fleming, Carole, et al. An Introduction to Journalism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2006. 4-26.
Associated Press Style
Associated Press style provides guidelines for news writing. Many newspapers, magazines and public relations offices across the United States use AP style. Although some publications such as the New York Times have developed their own style guidelines, a basic knowledge of AP style is considered essential to those who want to work in print journalism.
This Web page is intended to provide an introduction to AP style and a summary of some AP style rules; however, the Associated Press Stylebook includes more than 5,000 entries – far more than can be covered here. For a complete guide to AP style, writers should consult the most recent edition of the Associated Press Stylebook or visit the AP Stylebook website.
The content of newspapers and other mass media is typically the result of many different writers and editors working together. AP style provides consistent guidelines for such publications in terms of grammar, spelling, punctuation and language usage. Some guiding principles behind AP style are:
AP style also aims to avoid stereotypes and unintentionally offensive language.
Common Style Guidelines
The Associated Press Stylebook provides an A-Z guide to issues such as capitalization, abbreviation, punctuation, spelling, numerals and many other questions of language usage. What follows are summaries of some of the most common style rules.
abbreviations and acronyms
Some widely known abbreviations are required in certain situations, while others are acceptable but not required in some contexts. For example, Dr., Gov., Lt. Gov., Mr., Mrs., Rep., the Rev. and Sen. are required before a person’s full name when they occur outside a direct quotation. Other acronyms and abbreviations are acceptable but not required (i.e. FBI, CIA, GOP). The context should govern such decisions.
As a general rule, though, you should avoid what the Associated Press Stylebook calls “alphabet soup.” Consult the Associated Press Stylebook for specific cases.
For numbered addresses, always use figures. Abbreviate Ave., Blvd., and St. and directional cues when used with a numbered address. Always spell out other words such as alley, drive and road. If the street name or directional cue is used without a numbered address, it should be capitalized and spelled out. If a street name is a number, spell out First through Ninth and use figures for 10th and higher. Here are some examples of correctly formatted addresses: 101 N. Grant St., Northwestern Avenue, South Ninth Street, 102 S. 10th St., 605 Woodside Drive.
For ages, always use figures. If the age is used as an adjective or as a substitute for a noun, then it should be hyphenated. Don’t use apostrophes when describing an age range. Examples: A 21-year-old student. The student is 21 years old. The girl, 8, has a brother, 11. The contest is for 18-year-olds. He is in his 20s.
books, periodicals, reference works, and other types of compositions
Use quotation marks around the titles of books, songs, television shows, computer games, poems, lectures, speeches and works of art. Examples: Author Porter Shreve read from his new book, “When the White House Was Ours.” They sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the game.
Do not use quotations around the names of magazine, newspapers, the Bible or books that are catalogues of reference materials. Examples: The Washington Post first reported the story. He reads the Bible every morning.
Do not underline or italicize any of the above.
dates, months, years, days of the week
For dates and years, use figures. Do not use st, nd, rd, or th with dates. Always capitalize months. Spell out the month unless it is used with a date. When used with a date, abbreviate only the following months: Jan., Feb., Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov. and Dec.
Commas are not necessary if only a year and month are given, but commas should be used to set off a year if the date, month and year are given. Use the letter s but not an apostrophe after the figures when expressing decades or centuries. Do, however, use an apostrophe before figures expressing a decade if numerals are left out. Examples: Classes begin Aug. 25. Purdue University was founded May 6, 1869. The semester begins in January. The 1800s. The ’90s.
If you refer to an event that occurred the day prior to when the article will appear, do not use the word yesterday. Instead, use the day of the week. Capitalize days of the week, but do not abbreviate. If an event occurs more than seven days before or after the current date, use the month and a figure.
Newspapers use datelines when the information for a story is obtained outside the paper’s hometown or general area of service. Datelines appear at the beginning of stories and include the name of the city in all capital letters, usually followed the state or territory in which the city is located. The Associated Press Stylebook lists 30 U.S. cities that do not need to be followed by the name of a state. See states and cities below. Examples:
- DENVER – The Democratic National Convention began...
- ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Republican National Convention began...
- YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – President Bush spoke to a group...
When writing about height, weight or other dimensions, use figures and spell out words such as feet, miles, etc. Examples: She is 5-foot-3. He wrote with a 2-inch pencil.
Use figures for any distances over 10. For any distances below 10, spell out the distance. Examples: My flight covered 1,113 miles. The Airport Runway is five miles long.
Always use a person’s first and last name the first time they are mentioned in a story. Only use last names on second reference. Do not use courtesy titles such as Mr., Mrs., Miss or Ms. unless they are part of a direct quotation or are needed to differentiate between people who have the same last name.
Never begin a sentence with a figure, except for sentences that begin with a year. Examples: Two hundred freshmen attended. Five actors took the stage. 1776 was an important year.
Use roman numerals to describe wars and to show sequences for people. Examples: World War II, Pope John Paul II, Elizabeth II.
For ordinal numbers, spell out first through ninth and use figures for 10th and above when describing order in time or location. Examples: Second base, 10th in a row. Some ordinal numbers, such as those indicating political or geographic order, should use figures in all cases. Examples: 3rd District Court, 9th ward.
For cardinal numbers, consult individual entries in the Associated Press Stylebook. If no usage is specified, spell out numbers below 10 and use figures for numbers 10 and above. Example: The man had five children and 11 grandchildren.
When referring to money, use numerals. For cents or amounts of $1 million or more, spell the words cents, million, billion, trillion etc. Examples: $26.52, $100,200, $8 million, 6 cents.
Use a single space after a period.
Do not use commas before a conjunction in a simple series. Example: In art class, they learned that red, yellow and blue are primary colors. His brothers are Tom, Joe, Frank and Pete.
Commas and periods go within quotation marks. Example: “I did nothing wrong,” he said. She said, “Let’s go to the Purdue game.”
states and cities
When the name of a state stands alone in a sentence, spell it out. When the name of a city and state are used together, the name of the state should be abbreviated (except for Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Ohio, Texas and Utah). States should also be abbreviated when used as part of a short-form political affiliation. Examples: He came from Lafayette, Ind. The peace accord was signed in Dayton, Ohio. The wildfire began in California and moved east toward Carson City, Nev.
State abbreviations in AP style differ from the two-letter ZIP code abbreviations. Here is how each state is abbreviated in AP style:
AP style does not require the name of a state to accompany the names of the following 30 cities:
|Cities Not Requiring State Names|
|Chicago||Salt Lake City|
The exact time when an event has occurred or will occur is unnecessary for most stories. Of course, there are occasions when the time of day is important. In such cases, use figures, but spell out noon and midnight. Use a colon to separate hours from minutes, but do not use :00. Examples: 1 p.m., 3:30 a.m.
Generally, capitalize formal titles when they appear before a person’s name, but lowercase titles if they are informal, appear without a person’s name, follow a person’s name or are set off before a name by commas. Also, lowercase adjectives that designate the status of a title. If a title is long, place it after the person’s name, or set it off with commas before the person’s name. Examples: President Bush; President-elect Obama; Sen. Harry Reid; Evan Bayh, a senator from Indiana; the senior senator from Indiana, Dick Lugar; former President George H.W. Bush; Paul Schneider, deputy secretary of homeland security.
Here are the correct spelling and capitalization rules for some common technological terms:
- BlackBerry, BlackBerrys
- eBay Inc. (use EBay Inc. when the word begins a sentence)
- Google, Googling, Googled
- iPad, iPhone, iPod (use IPad, IPhone, or IPod when the word begins a sentence)
- social media
- the Net
- Twitter, tweet, tweeted, retweet
- World Wide Web, website (see the AP's tweet about the change), Web page
The same First Amendment freedoms that allow U.S. media outlets to publish without fear of government interference also make it nearly impossible to impose a standard of ethics or professional protocol for journalists. No organization exists to certify journalists, and likewise, no uniform system exists for penalizing unethical behavior.
Nonetheless, professionals in the field generally take great pride and responsibility in their roles, and organizations such as the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists offer thorough and useful guidelines for ethical conduct.
Generally, ethical concerns in the media can be grouped into a few broad categories. The following points synthesize and summarize some important ethical concerns proposed by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.
- Check the accuracy of information from all sources to avoid error.
- Subjects of news stories should always have the opportunity to respond to any allegations of wrongdoing.
- When mistakes are made, they must be corrected – fully and quickly.
- Headlines, news teases and promotional material, including photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations, should never misrepresent, oversimplify, or highlight incidents out of context.
Treatment of Sources
- Identify sources whenever possible so that the public has as much information possible to determine the sources’ reliability.
- Always keep any promises made in return for the source’s cooperation.
- Only guarantee a source’s anonymity when the source insists upon it, when he or she provides vital information, when there is no other way to obtain that information, and when the source is knowledgeable and reliable.
- Strive to quote sources accurately and in the proper context.
- Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled, and not misrepresent fact or context.
- Distinguish news from advertising and avoid hybrids that blur the two.
- Examine your own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
- Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.
- Support the open exchange of views, even views you might find repugnant.
- Never knowingly introduce false information into material intended for publication or broadcast.
- Never alter photo, video, or image content.
- Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information, except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public.
- Use of any non-traditional methods of gathering information should be explained as part of the story.
- Rely on the most up-to-date and accurate research when gathering facts for a story.
- Never plagiarize.
- Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage, especially children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
- Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
- Understand that private people have a greater expectation of privacy than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention.
- Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
- Be cautious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
Avoiding Conflicts of Interest
- Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
- Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
- Always refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment.
- Avoid secondary employment, political involvement, public office, or service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
- Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
- Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests.
- Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money.
There is no standard for ethical journalistic practice, but two widely regarded organizations, The Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists, offer useful and time-tested guidelines. When in doubt, always confer with a trusted colleague or supervisor.
“The Associated Press Statement of News Values and Principles.” www.ap.org 16 Feb 2006. http://www.ap.org/newsvalues/index.html.
“Society of Professional Journalists: Code of Ethics.” www.spj.org 18 Dec 2008. http://spj.org/ethicscode.asp.
The Inverted Pyramid Structure
For decades, the “inverted pyramid” structure has been a mainstay of traditional mass media writing. Following this structure, the “base” of the pyramid—the most fundamental facts—appear at the top of the story, in the lead paragraph. Non-essential information appears in the following paragraphs, or “nut” graphs, in order of importance.
While some media writers are critical of the inverted pyramid structure, it remains one of the most widely used and time tested structures in mass media writing.
Essential information generally refers to the oft-cited “Five Ws” of journalism: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. A successful lead paragraph communicates, on a basic level, the essential facts of who did what, when, where, and why.
The “nut” graphs that follow contain additional details, quotes from sources, statistics, background, or other information. These are added to the article in order of importance, so that the least important items are at the bottom.
The inverted pyramid structure is the product of an old media technology—the telegraph. When news outlets would telegraph information over the wires, it made sense to use the inverted pyramid because the most vital information in the story was transmitted first. In the event of a lost connection, whoever received the story could still print the essential facts.
The inverted pyramid structure also benefits editors. If an editor needs to cut an article, they can simply cut from the bottom. If their reporter was writing in the reliable inverted pyramid structure, the most essential information would remain at the top.
Some in the media critique the inverted pyramid for being artless, and certainly, it is not right for every news story, as it removes a great detail of autonomy from the reporter. Others link inverted pyramid style to the decline in newspaper readership, arguing that, by giving away the ending first, the structure goes against the very fundamentals of narrative. Some scholars have theorized that the inverted pyramid structure might actually be more difficult for readers to understand.
With the emergence of online news writing, the inverted pyramid structure is not as prominent as it once was. In the online format, where editors are no longer bound by column inches, an article’s length is more flexible. Similarly, online journalism is increasingly influenced by the presence of bloggers, who typically eschew traditional news writing structure.
The inverted pyramid structure simply means placing the most fundamental information in the lead paragraph of the story, and then arranging the remaining details, from most important to least important, in the following nut graphs. Although there are critics of the inverted pyramid style, it remains a widely used approach to mass media news writing.
Scanlan, Chip. “Writing from the Top Down: Pros and Cons of the Inverted Pyramid.” www.poynter.org. 18 Dec 2008.
How to Write a Lead
The lead, or opening paragraph, is the most important part of a news story. With so many sources of information – newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and the Internet – audiences simply are not willing to read beyond the first paragraph (and even sentence) of a story unless it grabs their interest. A good lead does just that. It gives readers the most important information in a clear, concise and interesting manner. It also establishes the voice and direction of an article.
Tips for Writing a Lead
- The Five W’s and H: Before writing a lead, decide which aspect of the story – who, what, when, where, why, how – is most important. You should emphasize those aspects in your lead. Wait to explain less important aspects until the second or third sentence.
- Conflict: Good stories have conflict. So do many good leads.
- Specificity: Though you are essentially summarizing information in most leads, try to be specific as possible. If your lead is too broad, it won’t be informative or interesting.
- Brevity: Readers want to know why the story matters to them and they won’t wait long for the answer. Leads are often one sentence, sometimes two. Generally, they are 25 to 30 words and should rarely be more than 40. This is somewhat arbitrary, but it’s important – especially for young journalists – to learn how to deliver information concisely. See the OWL’s page on concise writing for specific tips. The Paramedic Method is also good for writing concisely.
- Active sentences: Strong verbs will make your lead lively and interesting. Passive constructions, on the other hand, can sound dull and leave out important information, such as the person or thing that caused the action. Incomplete reporting is often a source of passive leads.
- Audience and context: Take into account what your reader already knows. Remember that in today’s media culture, most readers become aware of breaking news as it happens. If you’re writing for a print publication the next day, your lead should do more than merely regurgitate yesterday’s news.
- Honesty: A lead is an implicit promise to your readers. You must be able to deliver what you promise in your lead.
What to Avoid
- Flowery language: Many beginning writers make the mistake of overusing adverbs and adjectives in their leads. Concentrate instead on using strong verbs and nouns.
- Unnecessary words or phrases: Watch out for unintentional redundancy. For example, 2 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, or very unique. You can’t afford to waste space in a news story, especially in the lead. Avoid clutter and cut right to the heart of the story.
- Formulaic leads: Because a lot of news writing is done on deadline, the temptation to write tired leads is strong. Resist it. Readers want information, but they also want to be entertained. Your lead must sound genuine, not merely mechanical.
- It: Most editors frown on leads that begin with the word it because it is not precise and disorients the reader.
Types of Leads
Summary lead: This is perhaps the most traditional lead in news writing. It is often used for breaking news. A story about a city council vote might use this “just the facts” approach. Straight news leads tend to provide answers to the most important three or four of the Five W’s and H. Historically this type of lead has been used to convey who, what, when and where. But in today’s fast-paced media atmosphere, a straightforward recitation of who, what, when and where can sound stale by the time a newspaper hits the stands. Some newspapers are adjusting to this reality by posting breaking news online as it happens and filling the print edition with more evaluative and analytical stories focused on why and how. Leads should reflect this.
Anecdotal lead: Sometimes, beginning a story with a quick anecdote can draw in readers. The anecdote must be interesting and must closely illustrate the article’s broader point. If you use this approach, specificity and concrete detail are essential and the broader significance of the anecdote should be explained within the first few sentences following the lead.
Other types of leads: A large number of other approaches exist, and writers should not feel boxed in by formulas. That said, beginning writers can abuse certain kinds of leads. These include leads that begin with a question or direct quotation and those that make a direct appeal using the word you. While such leads might be appropriate in some circumstances, use them sparsely and cautiously.
County administrator faces ouster
By Tony Cook for The Cincinnati Post, Jan. 14, 2005
Commentary: This lead addresses the traditional who, what and when. If this information had been reported on TV or radio the day before, this lead might not be a good one for the print edition of the newspaper; however, if the reporter had an exclusive or posted this information online as soon as it became available, then this lead would make sense. Note that it is brief (15 words) and uses an active sentence construction.
Lobbyists flout disclosure rules in talks with commissioners
By Tony Cook and Michael Mishak for the Las Vegas Sun, July 13, 2008
Commentary: This lead is more representative of the less timely, more analytical approach that some newspapers are taking in their print editions. It covers who, what and when, but also why it matters to readers. Again, it uses active verbs, it is specific (170 occasions) and it is brief (35 words).
Tri-staters tell stories of the devastating tsunami
By Tony Cook for The Cincinnati Post, Jan. 8, 2005
Commentary: This article is a local angle on the devastating tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in 2005. As a result of the massive death toll and worldwide impact, most readers would have been inundated with basic information about the tsunami. Given that context, this lead uses an unexpected image to capture the reader’s attention and prepare them for a new take on the tsunami. Again, it is brief (23 words).
Same lobbyist for courts, shorter term, more money
By Tony Cook for the Las Vegas Sun, June 29, 2008
Commentary: Question leads can be useful in grabbing attention, but they are rarely as effective as other types of leads in terms of clearly and concisely providing the main point of a story. In this case, the second paragraph must carry a lot of the weight that would normally be handled in the lead.