Basic Principles of News Writing
Note: Content of this page authored by Chris Ulicne
Basic Principles of News Writing
This blog provides tips for writing news stories, including style and ethics pointers. An entire textbook could be written on this subject, and several have been, this site is just a simple overview that gives enough information for a new reporter, or even a more seasoned one, to improve their writing and other journalism skills.
1. Lead Writing
Since readers may not have time to read an entire article, the lead of a story, typically the first full paragraph, should contain all pertinent information in the article. By reading the lead paragraph the reader should find the basic who, what, where, when of a story. In short, if the audience does not have the time to read every article in its entirety, the lead will give them a summary of the story. This goes along with the inverted pyramid model of an article, in which the most important information comes first, with the body of the article providing more detailed facts and analysis as well as secondary facts that may be cut out if necessary. A lead may begin with a snappy intro to capture the reader’s attention, but a simple opening providing basic facts can be just as effective. Don’t write a lead paragraph as you would write an introductory paragraph to an essay. There are differences in style and content. Here is an example of a typical lead:
- Research your article subject as well as the person you are going to interview beforehand so you can be prepared. Thorough research isn’t required but a basic knowledge of whatever topic you are writing about will show that you are professional and competent. The interview will run much more smoothly and the subject will be more willing to provide information if he/she thinks you are well informed. In addition, by knowing more about your source, you will be better prepared to come up with additional questions during the interview.
- Contact your source as soon as possible and, if at all possible, try to arrange to meet with them in person. If this is not possible, a phone interview is most desirable since email communication can be problematic. Interviewing a subject online can cause misunderstandings. It also means that the interviewer cannot come up with additional questions during the interview. The last problem of course is that your source may simply ignore an email, while a phone call or personal meeting is harder to dismiss.
- Always take notes but be sure to stay attentive to your source during the interview. This can be tricky so try to use a tape recorder, which means you can get accurate quotes without looking down at your steno pad and writing furiously throughout the interview.
Using quotes is one of the most important and essential parts of news writing. It is important not to simply tell the reader what has happened, but to illuminate the facts by providing quotes from multiple sources, including witnesses and experts on the subject of your article.
Balance your quotes so they are not all one-sided. If the majority of a crowd loved a particular performance make sure to show this through quotes, but it is also important to find that representative voice of the minority of people who hated the show.
Don’t quote facts, simply state them. If it is known that the national deficit is 4 billion dollars, it’s unnecessary to quote the secretary of the treasury when he mentions this in a speech.
Keep quotes in context. Don’t misrepresent your sources. For obvious ethical reasons, don’t pick and choose pieces of what a source says in an interview to create your own story. It is your job as a journalist to provide the clearest and most accurate story possible.
- Don’t introduce your quotes by summarizing them.
Ex. Presidential nominee John Smith is elated at the chance to be president. “I’m thrilled to be nominated,” said Smith.
- Do use quotes to illuminate the information provided beforehand.
Ex. The big oil company defends its monumental profits. “We do not create the high price of oil, the laws of supply and demand determine those prices,” said Joe Oilman, CEO of Big Oil.
- Remember to introduce your sources - correct example - “I’m not going to resign,” said secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld; don’t assume that the reader will know who you are talking about, even if it is a public official.
4. AP Style
The Associated Press provides an entire manual on this subject, so obviously I can’t go through every style point here; these are a few examples of commonly made mistakes:
The meeting will be held at 8 PM.
- When writing out times, use a.m. and p.m. - not that they are lowercased and have periods.
“I’m really happy that finals will be over soon,” said Sophomore Amy Smart.
- Don’t capitalize school years - freshman, sophomore, junior or senior.
The political science department will be having a barbecue for new majors, according to department chair Dr. Michael Moore.
- The title Dr. is not used in AP style.
Seton Hill’s commencement will be held Sunday, May 15th.
- When writing dates, use only numerals, don’t add “th,” “nd,” or “st”. Also, don’t write out the numbers, such as third or first.
The pharmaceutical company held a conference with Physician Joe Miller.
- Don’t capitalize job titles.
Punctuation for Quotes:
Incorrect - “I really enjoyed myself at the concert.” Said Greensburg resident John Doe.
Correct - “I really enjoyed myself at the concert,” said Greensburg resident John Doe.
Style Guide - Provides a comprehensive A-Z list of media writing tips and style guidelines from a professor at Middle Tennessee State University.
The headline of a story needs to capture the attention of a reader as well as to reveal the substance of the article. Typically the first thing readers do when they pick up a newspaper is scan the headlines. The headline of a news story needs to be concise, specific and informative. It also needs to be in the present tense and contain active verbs. No periods come at the end of a headline and only the first word and any proper nouns should be capitalized. Semicolons and commas may be used. When placing a quote in a headline use single quotes instead of double quotes.
President held meeting
(Too vague and in the past tense)
President Smith addresses Congressional panel about gas prices
Church helped by service group
(Don’t use passive verbs)
Service club contributes time to local church
Man is arrested on drunken driving charges
(Don’t use “To be” verbs)
Man arrested on drunken driving charges
Headline Help - This link provides a detailed analysis of headline writing with a long list of Do’s and Don’ts.
This is a loaded topic but there are some basic principles to adhere to. These links provide you with basic tips as well as case studies and articles.
Society of Professional Journalists - The Society of Professional Journalists provides an ethics manual as well as links to ethics case studies and journalism ethics news.
Pointers from Poynter - A great site with tips, case studies and articles. Especially useful are the “Guiding Principles” and “10 Questions for Ethical Decisions.”
Core Values - Gives 6 core values for credible online journalism.
Student Press and Free Speech - Link to page with almost 30 stories some dealing with censorship and legal cases. Interesting articles dealing with the tenuous nature of free speech in student press.
Legal Issues - The Student Press Law Center provides legal advice and assistance to student publications in the realm of freedom of speech and the press.