The hallmarks of journalistic writing are:
- Simplicity and Brevity
- Objectivity and Factual
- Fairness and Balance
- Inverted Pyramid
Expand the options below to learn more about these features.
Journalists should write with simplicity--in such a way that audiences can easily understand the content without having to read it multiple times. The goal is to break down even the most complex concepts, and write them in our own words so that everyone “gets it.”
Writing with brevity (short and to the point) helps create simplicity. The longer a sentence is, the more difficult it is to understand. Also, audiences don’t like long paragraphs because they look too overwhelming to read. Journalists therefore strive to keep sentences shorter than 20 words, and paragraphs no more than 2-3 sentences, in general. Some paragraphs are only one sentence long, which if fine.
Example of a wordy sentence full of redundancies:
The musicians’ future plans for their recording studio would require their studio executives to totally demolish and completely rebuild the facility at a cost of five million dollars, which is something the studio president, an elderly divorced woman named Myra Curtis, vehemently refused to do.
Sentence revised for simplicity and brevity:
The musician’s plans for their recording studio would require executives to rebuild it for $5 million, which President Myra Curtis refuses.
Another way to achieve simplicity is by writing in the active voice, which simply means using this format: subject, verb, direct object. For example:
- Passive Voice: The article was written by Murray.
- Active Voice: Murray wrote the article.
Passive voice sentences are avoided because they are longer, more difficult to understand, and sometimes make it unclear as to whom did what. That can be particularly problematic in journalism because it’s our jobs to make it clear to audiences who is responsible (whether good or bad) for the events of the story.
Precision means that each word should be used as it was intended by its original “dictionary” meaning. Meanings often evolve over time, but in journalistic writing, we stay true to the book. There should also be no slang or abbreviations.
Here are a couple of examples: “cop” and “kid.”
A cop is a slang term for a police officer, and a kid is, by definition, a baby goat.
Journalists should therefore not use them unless for their intended meanings. When in doubt, look it up: a dictionary is a journalist’s best friend.
Objectivity means the absence of personal opinion. A journalist’s writing should be based on facts, observations, and interviews with expert sources, or those knowledgeable of the issue. Write in third person (he, she, they), not first person (I, me, my, our, we), to stay removed from the story in order to be fully objective. Don’t write about what you think, believe, or feel, but what you see and hear. The only opinions which should be included are the sources’ opinions, and you must attribute all opinions properly so that readers know who said what.
Journalists avoid adjectives and adverbs because they tend to insert opinion. Instead, writers should opt for specific nouns and active verbs that best illustrate the facts.
Example of not staying objective:
Cassidy Martin is so intelligent and talented that she will definitely become a success after graduation.
Intelligent and talented are adjectives – not facts. They are purely subjective terms. What one person considers intelligent or talented is not necessarily true for another person. Also, “she will definitely become a success” is not a factual statement because there is no way of predicting that. Instead, a journalist would focus on the facts, and let the reader form his own opinion.
Example of objective writing:
Because Cassidy Martin has held a 4.0 GPA throughout high school and won five national awards for her artistry, her classmates and teachers voted her “Most Likely to Succeed.”
Every element of the sentence is now verifiable and factual, with no opinions.
Another way writers convey important elements of a story is through sources. We interview people with knowledge of a story so that they can share their opinions and experiences as they relate to the story topic. For example:
Lauren Thames, a counselor at Martin’s school, said, “Cassidy is such an intelligent and talented student that we have no doubt she will become a huge success.”
You want to interview sources who are knowledgeable about the story, and include their comments, either as direct or indirect quotes. The key is to properly attribute their comments so that readers know who said what.
Fairness and balance are achieved by ensuring that both sides of a story are addressed and receive equal coverage. Some stories even have more than two sides! Journalists should never take one person’s version of events at face value. Sometimes, of course, a source on the other side of a story will either refuse to be interviewed, or won’t return phone calls. Once a reporter has given every source ample time to respond, he can move on with the story. However, he must include a disclaimer in the story, such as:
Repeated calls to Jonathan Windsor were not returned, or Jonathan Windsor declined to be interviewed for this story, or When contacted for this story, Jonathan Windsor replied, “No comment.”
Whichever statement you use, it musts be accurate. By including a disclaimer, you are letting readers know that you made every effort to achieve balance and fairness in the story. Based on that information, the reader will formulate his own opinion as to the source’s motivation for not responding.
Journalistic writing is most often written in a format called the Inverted Pyramid, which arranges the information in descending order of importance, or newsworthiness.
The most important information should come first, such as the Who, What, When, Where, and How. The important details of the story should follow. After this, other general information should be included.
In summary, here are tips to remember:
- Use short, simple words that most will understand
- Use short sentences and short paragraphs
- Eliminate unnecessary words that create redundancy
- Use active voice sentences
- State facts, NOT opinions
- Do NOT stereotype: sexism, ageism, racism, etc.
- Arrange information from most important to least important