Newspaper work is an exacting profession, because things a journalist has done do not count. Like a hen he must lay an entirely new egg every day. From an address by ARTHUR BRISBANE at Columbia University, New York.
As many changes have come in recent years in country journalism as in any other line of human endeavor. The pronoun “we” has been banished from the editorial and news columns, and the “slop” and “hog wash ” known as “puffs”that is, fulsome compliment and paid-for flatteryhas become obsolete. From an editorial in the Fulton (Mo.) Gazette.
The three notes of modern reporting are clarity, terseness, objectivity. The news writer of today aims to tell a story that shall be absolutely intelligible, even to minds below the averagesince everybody reads; to economize space to the last degree, and to keep himself, his prejudices, preferences, opinions, out of the story altogether. From an editorial in the St. Louis Republic.
The news writer is the agent of the paper that employs him. As such, in a wider sense he is the agent of the public, which relies on the newspaper to keep it informed of the day’s happenings. The story is the all-important thing; the reader as a rule cares nothing about who wrote it or what the writer thinks of it. The viewpoint of the news writer must be that of the unprejudiced, but alert, observer. He must approach his story with a mind open to the facts and he must record the facts unvarnished by his own preferences and opinions. Comment on the news of the day is the function of the editorial columns. It has no place in the news story. The writer who willfully injects his own likes and dislikes into the story breaks faith with his employer, whose space he is using, and with the public that buys the paper.
The ideal news story, apart from questions of style, has these qualities :
1. It is written without prejudice. It is fair, both in spirit and in detail.
2. It is written from an impersonal, objective viewpoint.
3. It is written in good taste.
4. It has originality.
In writing your story remember always that it will be read not merely by a circle of men and women of your own tastes and opinions, but by per-sons of all classes, of all races, of dozens of different shades of religious and political belief. The daily press is the popular university. Protestant, Catholic and Jew look to it for information; it sets the standard of English for the masses; for many it is the only reading. The tremendous influence of the press imposes an obligation on the news writer. His story must be simple and direct, so that all can understand; more important still, it must be fair.
Approach every story in a spirit of open-mindedness, remembering that nearly every question has two or more sides. Tell the facts and let the reader draw his own conclusions. Tell all the facts essential to a clear understanding of the story. A story may be true in detail and yet work an in-justice by omission. Let your story be fair in detail and in the impression it leaves.
Even aside from the ethical obligation, business reasons demand fairness. No paper can afford to offend a large group of readers by a slighting reference to a race or a religious sect. Call the races by their right names. Words such as ” Dago ” are forbidden by fairness, by good taste and by business policy.
Before making a damaging statement about a person, be sure you have legal evidence in which there is no loophole. Hesitate even then go to the city editor for instruction. If you are a correspondent, let your office know the facts all the facts. Bear in mind that homicide is not necessarily murder. There is grave danger, no matter how convincing the evidence may appear to be, in calling a person a murderer before he has been so branded by the courts. If he is acquitted he has ground for a libel suit against the newspaper that has charged him with crime.
News writing is objective to the last degree, in the sense that the writer is not allowed to ” editorialize.” He must leave himself out of the story. True, he may give it, in his way of telling the facts, a certain individuality and power, but he is not permitted to cross the border line between the strict presentation of news and the editorial. Only writers whose stories are signed are allowed to use the capital I. They are the exceptions in modern news-paper making. The average news writer, however brilliant his work, receives only the commendation of his fellows. It is for this he strives, and the satisfaction that comes of work well done, rather than for public recognition. Always in the middle of things, close to history in the making, and that is one of the fascinations of the “game “ the newspaper man must yet remain in the background. The story is the big, the vital thing. In it, for the time being, he is willing to sink his personality.
The age of personal journalism in its old sense has passed.. In the new era the writer’s personality counts for just as much, or more, but he must use it wholly as an instrument belonging to his news-paper and the public. It is not meant by this that he must work always by rule and line, but that he must refrain from coloring his story with his personal prejudices and opinions. Even the ” we ” of the editorial columns is fast being discarded for a more impersonal form. Most city newspapers now avoid it altogether and the same tendency is seen in the more enterprising country journals. It is still used in a large number of papers published in the rural districts, both editorially and in the news sections, but these are gossipy neighbor-hood chronicles rather than newspapers in the mod-ern understanding of the word.
Impersonal writing does not consist alone in the omission of ” we ” and ” I.” Avoid generalities that are likely to imply approval or disapproval on the part of the writer. If Smith was killed by a neighbor, tell when and where and how he was killed. Don’t generalize by saying, ” A dastardly crime was committed.” If your story is pathetic it is not necessary to tell the reader so. Let him find it out from the simple, human facts. In de-scribing a pretty girl, don’t stop with saying she is pretty ; tell how she is pretty tell the color of her hair and eyes.
Strive always to be specific. With this in mind you are not likely to stray far from the impersonal.
Cultivate good taste in news writing, as in all kinds of writing. Your story is read by the woman in the home as well as by the man on the street. Leave out all revolting details and think twice be-fore you use a word or an expression of doubtful propriety. Good taste distinguishes the story writ-ten carefully, with its possible effect on the reader’s sensibilities in mind, from the story that runs recklessly into paths avoided in conversation.
Never use cheap slang. One kind of slang, that which is clean-cut and expressive, without taint of vulgarity, may afford a legitimate short-cut in news writing as in speech. An expression of this type, if it persists in the language, ultimately finds a place in the dictionary. It is the other kind of slang, the vulgar or silly, against which the news writer must be on his guard.
Horrible details are not wanted by the well-edited newspaper. Leave out the three buckets of blood. The word ” blood ” in itself brings an unpleasant picture before the reader and may shock a person of delicate sensibilities. Most newspapers caution their writers against its overuse.
Certain things are glossed over in our daily speech. This is true in ever greater degree of the newspapers. Horace Greeley said that what Providence permitted to happen he wasn’t too proud to report. That is not the working principle of the modern newspaper, which omits some things and edits others. The moral obligation of the news-paper to its readers, as well as good taste, demands the pruning down of some classes of news. ” All the News That’s Fit to Print ” implies this obligation.
It is poor taste to attempt facetiousness in re-porting a death. Never call a body a ” stiff.” Puns on the names of persons, unless they are peculiarly apt or are justified by special circumstances, are to be avoided. The same rule applies to exaggerated dialect put in an offensive manner and to nicknames of the races. These instances further illustrate the need of fairness and sanity in the writer’s viewpoint. Common sense is an excellent guide in many of the delicate little problems of this kind that crop up daily in every newspaper office.
Originality is the quality that gives a news story distinction. Rules may aid, but the power to make a story original must come largely from the writer himself. Many writers can put facts together into a coherent whole. The highest re-wards are reserved for those who can tell old facts in a new way.
The main secret of original news writing lies in keeping the impression fresh. Everything interests the new reporter. As he gains familiarity with the work, there is danger that his viewpoint will become jaded. Especially if he is covering the same run of news day after day must he fight against this tendency to fall into a rut. The newspaper has no use for the man in a rut. The reporter who becomes cynical loses the news writer’s best asset, the power to feel the pathos or the injustice or the humor of the thing he is writing about. If he him-self cannot feel his story he is not likely to impress the reader with it.
The newspaper workshop, unlike any other, must create something different every day, although human nature, from which it gets its raw materials, remains the same through the ages. There is no variation from one day to another in the basic themes of the news, but there is an endless variation in the local color, in the shadings of motive, in all the details that go to make one story different from all others. Take the story of death in a tenement house fire. There is the outline, the basic fact, of stories without number; yet each story, told with its wealth of human, moving detail, has the power to affect the reader as if the theme itself were absolutely new. A dozen houses in the same block look alike from the outside; yet the life that each conceals is different from the life in all the others.
Here, then, is need for originality in the writing of news. If the reporter’s outlook is cynical he is likely to overlook the human side of the story for the lifeless skeleton of commonplace facts. His story may be mechanically correct, but it has no power of appeal. Without distorting a single fact, in plain, everyday words, the news writer may tell a story of human suffering that will rouse his readers to generous response. This he may do, not by editorial comment, but by putting the facts in the most effective, which is usually the simplest, manner. Editorial comment in such a story would weaken the effect. The facts, properly told, are enough.
One word of caution perhaps should be given : In looking for the feature do not descend to the trivial. To return to an illustration just used, don’t write the lead of your fire story on the rescue of the family cat and overlook the fact that human lives were lost. Originality does not consist in straining after a feature at the expense of the vital things in a story. Triviality comes with cynicism. The power to be truly original, to put life into a story based on a commonplace theme, comes with the broad, human sympathy that results from keeping the impression ever fresh.