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How to write a piece of journalism for WikiTribune

Pete Young, a WikiTribune early adopter with a lifetime of journalism experience at The New York Times and Bloomberg thought this short guide to how to write journalism might help other community members get over any fears they may have about writing for us. Following these guidelines will certainly help get your copy up faster. See also: How to Add an Existing Story; the Style Guide; the Ethics Statement; and the Science Reporting Guidelines

I’m grateful to Pete for his significant contribution to the early days of this project.

A WikiTribune guide to writing journalism for publication

Thank you for your willingness to be part of WikiTribune and sharing your knowledge and talents. We need you.

Don’t be put off by what you may have seen about journalists in the movies or on TV. It’s not a science or a practice restricted to a priestly few. It’s not a tough guy with a press card in his hatband grabbing the phone and saying, “Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite!”

Journalism is simply a method of gathering, organizing and understanding information. It is a skill that requires precision and a dedication to truth. The more you use it, the better you will become.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

NEWS TELLS A STORY

News is new.

It hasn’t been reported before.

News is true.

If it isn’t true, it isn’t news.

News is not a rumor.

Names make news.

Trump says … Pope Benedict orders … Lady Gaga discloses …

(News has verbs.)

News answers the question, “Why?”

News happens someplace.

News involves time (today, yesterday, tomorrow).

News is perishable. Old news isn’t as important as new news.

News doesn’t need adjectives and adverbs to tell the story.

The best news writing doesn’t shout. It uses cool, neutral language.

There are many ways to write a story. What follows are not rules, but guidelines. Here is a good way to structure a straight news story:

CHECKLIST: WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHY, WHEN, HOW

The basic information you need can be remembered in the shorthand formula “5Ws and an H.”

Who: Who is this story about?

What: What’s going on?

Where: Where did this take place?

When: When did this take place or when will it occur?

Why: Why did this happen. Why should I (the reader) care? What difference does it make?

How: Explain the process, the rationale, the events leading to what happened.

These are the fundamental questions every story needs to answer.

WRITE THE HEADLINE FIRST

Writing the headline first helps you focus your thoughts and distill things to their essence. Pick the most important information for your headline. A headline is by definition short. A good rule of thumb is 60 characters. That means you must get to the point quickly. Headlines are always written in the present tense. If in doubt about how to start, ask yourself: “What’s the surprise?” [Pro tip: on WikiTribune you can go back and improve the headline later]

THE FIRST PARAGRAPH

The opening paragraph of a story is called the lead (rhymes with need). It is a summary of the most important information. The “lede” should contain at least two of the 5Ws and H. It is often best to start with the subject first. A good lead is typically one sentence of 25 to 30 words.

THE SECOND PARAGRAPH

The second paragraph supports the lead by spelling out important details. More elements of the 5Ws that didn’t make it into the first paragraph often go here.

THE THIRD PARAGRAPH

A quote brings a story to life. Readers want to hear from someone directly involved. A good quote doesn’t restate the lead. A quote can be a great way to answer the questions “How?” or “Why?” Be sure to include the context or circumstances of the quote (“said in a statement,” said in an interview,” said in a Twitter post”).

THE FOURTH PARAGRAPH

The fourth paragraph of a story is called the “nut graph,” or sometimes the “cosmic graf.” A good nut graph puts the news in context. It explains the significance of the story, why the story matters, what impact it has, what’s at stake, who’s affected, whether this is a one-off event or part of something bigger.

SHOW, DON’T TELL

Showing information allows readers to make up their own minds. Facts, figures and examples provide proof. The secret to showing, versus telling, is to be specific.

Not:     “Irma, one of the worst hurricanes ever recorded, bore down on Puerto Rico”

Rather: “Irma, with the strongest winds of any Atlantic storm since 2005, bore down on Puerto Rico”

SIZE AND SCOPE

The biggest, the smallest, the first, the last: Try to incorporate a sense of scale. Be specific.

“the biggest annual increase since 2012”

“Costco, the biggest retailer in the U.S.”

“the largest earthworm ever recorded in the U.K.”

“the smallest increase in six months”

DISTINGUISH BETWEEN ASSERTIONS AND FACTS

A fact is indisputably true and can be proven in an objective, measurable way.

An assertion is a statement of belief without evidence.

Fact:

The cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world.

It is against the law to drive over the speed limit.

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865 by John Wilkes Booth.

Assertion:

America is the freest country on Earth.

It’s legal to drive over the speed limit as long as you are driving safely.

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865 to keep slaves from getting the vote.

Both facts and assertions are different from opinion, which is a view, a judgment or an appraisal about a particular matter.

Be skeptical. The difference between a fact and an assertion is verification, evidence and confirmation of truth.

Upon hearing an assertion, the smart journalist will ask: “Says who?”

Which brings us to ….

ATTRIBUTION

As a general rule, events or activities that a writer witnesses do not require attribution. Everything else does.

What you can see: Demonstrators marched down Fifth Avenue calling for the release of imprisoned Muslim cleric Omar Abdel-Rahma. (You could see the people on the street. You saw the signs they carried and heard what they said.)

What requires attribution: Thousands of demonstrators marched … (Generally speaking, we’re not equipped nor qualified to estimate the size of a crowd. Ask for an official estimate from police or civil authorities and attribute the information.)

Information you obtain second-hand, criticism, statements about controversial issues and opinions all must be attributed.

QUOTATIONS

Photo by Mona Eendra on Unsplash

Quotations are someone’s exact words. Always. Use only the exact words within quotation marks

This rule is inviolable.

What if someone uses bad grammar? Don’t change it.
What about adding a word to clarify the quotation? Use the quotation, then say what the speaker was referring to outside the quotes. “xxx,’ said Jones, referring to the streetlight. Or: asked about the streetlight, Jones said, “xxxx”.

If the quotation is really unclear, don’t use it.

REPORTING SUGGESTIONS

The three most important things about journalism are accuracy, accuracy and accuracy.

Credibility is the most important measure of your work. Trust, once lost, is hard to regain. The credibility of your writing reflects on everything and everyone associated with WikiTribune.

When you speak to someone, ask them to spell their names. Repeat it back. Did they say “b” or “d”? “S” or “f”? Better yet, ask if they have a card, or get them to print their names in your notebook.

Take notes and record interviews. Take a picture of what you are reporting about. Photograph documents. Editors will ask to see proof of any sources you cite.

Verifying the facts is at the core of journalism.

WRITING SUGGESTIONS

Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences

Use active voice.

In active voice, the subject performs the action stated by the verb.  In passive voice sentences, the subject is acted upon by the verb.

Tom painted the house. (active)
The house was painted by Tom. (passive)

The dog bit the boy. (active)

The boy was bitten by the dog. (passive)

Use terms ordinary people can understand. Use real-life examples where possible:

  • A fire of 12 acres is hard to visualize if you’re not a farmer. Twelve acres is about the area of the Tower of London
  • 1,000 feet high is about as tall as the Eiffel Tower
  • Sixty square miles is about the size of Washington, D.C. Sixty square kilometers is about the size of Manhattan
  • One floor in a skyscraper is generally 10 feet (3 meters). So, a seven-story building is about 70 feet (21 meters).
  • The shortest distance between London and Paris is 344 kilometers (214 miles.) So, if something is about 150 kilometers away, it’s about half the distance between London and Paris.“More than 126,000 homes in the Houston area were damaged after Hurricane Harvey. Debris from the storm is estimated to fill space equivalent to 25 college football stadiums and take months to haul away.” (NPR)

Identify accurately and completely

Use the full name of every person or organization the first time they’re mentioned in the story. Use last names on second reference.

Capitalize titles before a name; don’t capitalize after a name:

  • London Mayor Sadiq Khan
  • Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London.

Skip honorifics.

We don’t use Mr., Mrs., Ms., except in a quotation.
Not: Mr. Smith said he was feeling fine. Instead: Smith said he was feeling fine.
But “’I think Mr. Jones should reconsider his position,’” Smith said.

Use said. Nothing else.

Smith said. The senator said. Said the woman.

It’s not about you.

A good reporter is invisible to the reader. There’s no need to say things like “told this reporter.”

SOURCES

We name sources whenever possible.

What is said to a reporter is on the record unless otherwise agreed upon ahead of time.

There is no need to ask, “Can I quote you?”

“Off the record” means you cannot publish the information you receive. Avoid agreeing to this.

“On background” [or unattributable] means you agree to shield the identity of a source. Try to avoid agreeing to this.

A named source is always preferable to an unnamed one.

In the rare instance where we agree to use an unnamed source, you are expected to disclose the name of the source to your editors.

As with the rest of WikiTribune you are welcome to EDIT this or suggest changes or discuss in TALK.

Ends/PSY/PGB-October 29, 2017

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History for Project "How to write a piece of journalism for WikiTribune"

  1. Thomas Cummins typo
  2. Paul Ralph added relevant see also's
  3. Pete Young Changed author's name to just Pete Young, no MI
  4. Fiona Apps Approving minor edit
  5. Gaz Shaw ‘of’ inserted between mayor London
  6. Holly Brockwell Adding images
  7. Linh Nguyen fixed formatting
  8. Peter Bale Categories
  9. Peter Bale Created and edited.
  10. Peter Bale Created and edited.

How to write a piece of journalism for WikiTribune

Talk about this Project

  1. I’ve seen a few people ask about how to reconcile “News answers why” and “news is true”, as well as the difficulty of drawing the line between synthesizing existing facts and posting assertions/derivations.

    An article format I intend to try with my own stories (I am currently waiting to speak with Wikitribune staff about whether this is appropriate) is to have the article broken into sections.

    Essentially, the article begins with, “What are our facts? (Citations). So this first section lists off the various sources the journalist used, and what pieces of data the journalist took from them. Think of these like truth variables (X, Y, Z, etc.,) in discrete logic (if you’re familiar).

    The second section is, “Laying the groundwork”. This takes all of the facts gathered, and it analyzes them in a few different ways. You figure out how each one works as a variable on its own, and rigorously analyze whether each source is truthful on its own. If two facts conflict, you need to either decide on which one is more-likely to be true, or write an article which can acknowledge either scenario. This is where you make a “list of assumptions” (facts as we know them) which will form the basis of the rest of the article. Both of these first two sections will probably be pretty short.

    The third section is “Proving (testing) the foundation”. Take all of the assumptions you have as-is, and compare them against as much real-world information as you can find that would refute them if they weren’t true. If you’re claiming that Teddy Roosevelt got shot in the lung during a speech, for instance, look up the symptoms of a shot to the lung. When you discover he didn’t cough up blood during his speech (historically, this was how he determined he had not, in fact, been shot in the lung) you have reason to question your sources. The goal in this section is to flip that logic; show your readers that if any one of your assertions was NOT true, there would be some evidence (so, as example, if you are asserting Roosevelt was not shot in the lung, you could present that he did not cough up blood as evidence of its truth).

    The final section is “Narrative conclusion”. This is where you bring your own, personal understanding of how the world works into the situation. Try to spot and mention any assumptions or underlying worldly understanding you are using (identifying such assumptions and challenging them is the topic of my planned articles). Readers need to be informed that this section is “the news as I (the writer) understands it”. This is where you take the facts, synthesize them with all of the other news you’ve heard, and try to draw conclusions about how this story fits into the larger narrative of the world.

    I hope this format helps! Even if you decide not to use it in full, hopefully the ideas from it will assist in rigorous journalism.

    1. I think this is very important for story development but I believer readers would lose interest very quickly. Perhaps this could be done behind the scenes so to speak, so all those who are contributing will have this information for reference but the actual article is more concise.

      1. While I appreciate the need for something to be ‘punchy’ and attention-grabbing, I don’t want us to sacrifice clarity and logical consistence in our reporting for those goals. That, I think, is a big part of the problem with modern journalism.

        1. I suppose the best thing to do is try the format out, and see if it really does make for a snore-fest. If so, I’ll try to improve it. Thanks for the feedback, Ben.

  2. I’m trying to understand how much of community-generated journalism is going to be “original” or primary writing, as opposed to simply synthesising information already published on the internet.

    As an example, I might notice that WikiTribune hasn’t yet run an article on a local election result, but my local news outlet has run a story on it, so I know that Mayor Quimby has won reelection. If I write an article saying that he’s won, and possibly using some information from other websites/news sources, I can create something that’s probably ‘true’, and uses accurate sources, but is it really original, or simply repackaging what else is out there?

    If they had more time and the inclination, they could of course go to the election count themselves, get original quotes from candidates, and find other original sources of information… to create a news story that wasn’t derivative, but truly original.

    Which of these models are favoured/appropriate? I think lots of people would be very happy to write the first kind of story, but it takes time & commitment to do the second…

    1. I would second this. The first kind of story is easier but by own personal opinion is that WT would be more robust if community members would be willing to do the second. I don’t think there would be a lack of reporters/writers willing to do the second type either.

  3. How would we go about identifying ourselves? Usually I would say “I’m Mark Wasson writing/researching a story about _____ for ____.” But since I’m not employed bu WT I’m not exactly sure how to go about it.

    Also, I would be worried about someone doing something wrong with WT’s name attached to them. Faux pas aren’t so bad but if someone gets into a shouting match (or worse) with someone else and WT’s name gets thrown out, that could be damaging to the community.

    Any thoughts?

    1. I’m also interested in the answer to this. When I worked for my local paper in Los Angeles, I got a lot more answers from officials when I flashed my press badge around than when I said I was just Joe Bloggs… I wonder if the answer isn’t a bit analogous to “stringers” or freelance journalists who write the story before they know who’s going to publish it?

      1. Right? The potential “power” from saying you’re writing/researching a story for WT, a global media website, far exceeds me saying I’m doing this just to gather info. Being able to point to WT as the outlet you’ll be contributing to also allows people to look into what the outlet is all about as well.

        From my experiences, working for lesser known media outlets means people are even more wary about talking to you. They don’t know what you’re about or if you’re writing for some extreme website that’s going to misuse quotes or just trash them.

  4. I’m not a professional journalist, but while reading these guidelines I read the following: “News answers the question, “Why?”” which IMHO is in contrast with “If it isn’t true, it isn’t news.”

    Example: when a journalist is trying to explain why certain events happen he gives his interpretation of events. His interpretation of events might not be the actual truth.

    Of course it is a different case if the person or organisation who has committed or acted in the reported event explain their view.

    I’m interested to know the opinion in regards tho this though from Professional Journalists.

    1. I read this portion as asking “Why is this news?” Or “Why should people care about this?”

      1. Oh, that might be a correct interpretation. I’m not a native english speaker, but maybe the section needs a different wording IMHO.

        1. The only reason that I thought that is because I am in J-School now, and we just learned that.

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