It’s the start of a new term in journalism courses across the country, and journalism lecturers will once again be spending the first few weeks helping students to ‘unlearn’ a habit they acquire at school: the impulse to use multiple synonyms instead of the word “said”*.
It’s not their fault. At school pupils are encouraged to extend their vocabulary when writing. Using “said” repetitively is seen as limited or uncreative, and pupils are told to find other words to add variety. “Stated”, “uttered”, and “commented” are just three words that journalism tutors will be striking out in the coming weeks.
But these synonyms are rarely used in journalism. To find out just how rarely they are used — and what the exceptions are — I looked at a sample of the 10 most recent news stories from three outlets: the BBC, Daily Mail/MailOnline, and BuzzFeed (30 in total).
Until recently a journalism trainer in the UK could safely berate a trainee for Writing Headlines Where Every Word Began With A Capital.
It is a style of headline writing common in US publications, but non-existent in the UK, where newspapers have traditionally fit into one of two camps: the SHOUTY SHOUTY REDTOPS and the broadsheets who Only make the first letter uppercase unless there’s a proper noun.
(The mid-markets, as might be expected, took the best of both worlds, reserving shouting for the front pages and lower case for the inside pages).
So a journalism trainee who Wrote Like This had likely never paid much attention to newspapers, or only when they appeared in Hollywood films.
Or perhaps they just read Guido Fawkes, who, for whatever reason appears to have followed the Hollywood style of headline writing:
I’ve been updating a newsroom policy guide for a project some of my students will be working on, with a particular section on objectivity and impartiality. As this has coincided with the debate on fact-checking stirred by the New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane, I thought I would reproduce the guidelines here, and invite comments on whether you think it hits the right note:
Do not write stories that give equal weight to each ‘side’ of an argument if the evidence behind each side of the argument is not equal. Doing so misrepresents the balance of opinions or facts. Your obligation is to those facts, not to the different camps whose claims may be false.
Do not simply report the assertions of different camps. As a journalist your responsibility is to check those assertions. If someone misrepresents the facts, do not simply say someone else disagrees, make a statement along the lines of “However, the actual wording of the report…” or “The official statistics do not support her argument” or “Research into X contradict this.” And of course, link to that evidence and keep a copy for yourself (which is where transparency comes in).
Lazy reporting of assertions without evidence is called the ‘View From Nowhere’ – you can read Jay Rosen’s Q&A or the Wikipedia entry, which includes this useful explanation:
“A journalist who strives for objectivity may fail to exclude popular and/or widespread untrue claims and beliefs from the set of true facts. A journalist who has done this has taken The View From Nowhere. This harms the audience by allowing them to draw conclusions from a set of data that includes untrue possiblities. It can create confusion where none would otherwise exist.”
Impartiality is dependent on objectivity. It is not (as subjects of your stories may argue) giving equal coverage to all sides, but rather promising to tell the story based on objective evidence rather than based on your own bias or prejudice. All journalists will have opinions and preconceived ideas of what a story might be, but an impartial journalist is prepared to change those opinions, and change the angle of the story. In the process they might challenge strongly-held biases of the society they report on – but that’s your job.
The concept of objectivity comes from the sciences, and this provides a useful guideline: scientists don’t sit between two camps and repeat assertions without evaluating them. They identify a claim (hypothesis) and gather the evidence behind it – both primary and secondary.
Claims may, however, already be in the public domain and attracting a lot of attention and support. In those situations reporting should be open about the information the journalist does not have. For example:
“His office, however, were unable to direct us to the evidence quoted”, or
“As the report is yet to be published, it is not possible to evaluate the accuracy of these claims”, or
“When pushed, X could not provide any documentation to back up her claims”.
Time was when a journalist could learn one or two writing styles and stick with them.
They might command enormous respect for being the best at what they did. But sometimes, when that journalist moved to another employer, their style became incongruous.
And they couldn’t change.
This is the style challenge, and it’s one that has become increasingly demanding for journalists in an online age. Because not only must they be able to adapt their style for different types of reporting; not only must they be able to adapt for different brands; not only must they be able to adapt their style within different brands across multiple media; but they must also be able to adapt their style within a single medium, across multiple platforms: Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Flickr, YouTube, or anywhere else that their audiences gather.
Immersion and language
Style is a fundamental skill in journalism. It is difficult to teach, because it relies on an individual immersing themselves in media, and doing so in a way that goes beyond each message to the medium itself.
This is why journalism tutors urge their students so strongly to read as many newspapers as they can; to watch the news and listen to it, obsessively.
Without immersion it is difficult to speak any language.
Now. Some people do immerse themselves and have a handle on current affairs. That’s useful, but not the point. Some do it and gain an understanding of institutions and audiences (that one is left-leaning; this one is conservative with a small c, etc.). This is also useful, but also not the point.
The point is about how each institution addresses each audience, and when.
Despite journalists and editors often having an intuitive understanding of this difference in print or broadcast, over the last decade they’ve often demonstrated an inability to apply the same principles when it comes to publishing online.
And so we’ve had shovelware: organisations republishing print articles online without any changes.
We’ve had opinion columns published as blogs because ‘blogs are all about opinion’.
And we’ve had journalists treating Twitter as just another newswire to throw out headlines.
This is like a person’s first attempt at a radio broadcast where they begin by addressing “Hey all you out there” as if they’re a Balearic DJ.
Good journalists should know better.
Style serves communication
Among many other things a good journalism or media degree should teach not just the practical skills of journalism but an intellectual understanding of communication, and by extension, style.
Because style is, at its base, about communication. It is about register: understanding what tone to adopt based on who you are talking to, what you are talking about, the relationship you seek to engender, and the history behind that.
As communication channels and tools proliferate, we probably need to pay more attention to that.
Journalists are being asked to adapt their skills from print to video; from formal articles to informal blog posts; from Facebook Page updates to tweets.
They are having to learn new styles of liveblogging, audio slideshows, mapping and apps; to operate within the formal restrictions of XML or SEO.
For freelance journalists commissioning briefs increasingly ask for that flexibility even within the same piece of work, offering an extra payments for an online version, a structured version, a podcast, and so on.
These requests are often quite basic – requiring a list of links for an online version, for example – but as content management systems become more sophisticated, those conditions will become more stringent: supplying an XML file with data on a product being reviewed, for example, or a version optimised for search.
What complicates things further is that, for many of these platforms, we are inventing the language as we speak it.
For those new to the platform, it can be intimidating. But for those who invest time in gaining experience, it is an enormous opportunity. Because those who master the style of a blog, or Facebook, or Twitter, or addressing a particular group on Flickr, or a YouTube community, put themselves in an incredible position, building networks that a small magazine publisher would die for.
That’s why style is so important – now more than ever, and in the future more than now.
Time was when a journalist could learn one or two writing styles and stick with them. They might command enormous respect for being the best at what they did. But sometimes, when that journalist moved to another employer, their style became incongruous. And they couldn’t change.
This is the style challenge, and it’s one that has become increasingly demanding for journalists in an online age.
Because not only must they be able to adapt their style for different types of reporting; not only must they be able to adapt for different brands; not only must they be able to adapt their style within different brands across multiple media; but they must also be able to adapt their style within a single medium, across multiple platforms: Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Flickr, YouTube, or anywhere else that their audiences gather. Continue reading →