Basic Tools Of News Writing BY SOLOMON ASHA

In Breaking News, Columnists, Education, National News, Opinion, Politics, Reports

BEING A TEXT OF A CAPACITY BUILDING TRAINING PAPER PRESENTED BY SOLOMON E. ASHA, SA MEDIA TO GOVERNOR BEN AYADE, AT A WORKSHOP ORGANIZED BY CrossRiverWatch FOR THEIR REPORTERS, OWNERS OF ONLINE MEDIA PLATFORMS AND THEIR REPORTERS, ON THE TOPIC: ‘BASIC TOOLS OF NEWS WRITING’, HELD AT THE MINI CONFERENCE ROOM OF THE CrossRiverWatch CORPORATE HEADQUARTERS, MARIAN ROAD BY RABANA ROUNDABOUT, CALABAR ON SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 7, 2015.

Solomon Asha
Solomon Asha

INTRODUCTION:

 

I want to extend my sincere gratitude to the Publisher/Editor-In-Chief and staff of the CrossRiverWatch, for finding me fit to train the upcoming generation who are presently active in the business of the “New Media” popularly referred to as the “online or social media”, on the important topic, “the fundamentals of news writing, in the other word, basic tools of news writing.

The irrefutable and immutable fact that the future of the 21st century and beyond lies with the new media, and certainly not with the traditional media cannot be over-flogged, bearing in mind that the new media can reach a global audience just by a snap of the finger, and instantaneously attracting a global reaction within few minutes of sending out the news or information.

It is a reality that we are moving forward and not backward in the field of journalism. It is also true that journalism appreciates appropriate innovations as well as moves with the changing tides, but does not forget the beautiful and long lasting things and the order of the past which helped in making the profession respected globally as the undisputable fourth Estate of the Realm. These basic order, direction and lay down procedure of news writing, if dropped on the premise of moving with time, then it will amount to destroying the very foundation of the profession, which will reduce news writing to mere prose writing.

SOURCING, GATHERING AND WRITING OF NEWS:

Before a journalist or a newspaper publishes those stories in the newspaper, magazine, online platform or broadcast a news item in the radio and television, or YouTube, a lot of work, energy and time is put into sourcing, gathering and piecing together of the information into coherent and readable news item.

Take note that while some news line or angle take just few hours, a day or two to obtain information from all sides involved, others take six months a year and more than a year or two to get at all the facts.

In all, don’t rush to the press or to publish on your online platform without satisfying your conscience that you have done a thorough job and that there will be no unnecessary legal tussle arising from your report because of your carelessness or the urge to get a byline.

For example, you are required to cover activities of a drug cartel, cover a hotel infested with legions of commercial sex workers, how are you to behave as well as go about obtaining your story from such dangerous dens/cartels and brothel?

WHAT IS NEWS?

The current word, ‘news’ is said to be traced to late middle age English of the 14thcentury. It is also a plural form of the adjective ‘new’, or ‘new thing’, which is said to have been transformed to ‘news’ in English by the help of French word, ‘nouveau’ which in its plural feminine form becomes ‘nouvelles’, meaning, ‘news’. Then, the English equivalent of news was ‘tidings’.

According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, News is simply a report of recent events, previously unknown information or something having a specified influence or effect.

News is reported through the newspapers, news magazines, radio/television, websites platforms/YouTube and other media.

In journalism, it is normally stated that “when dog bites man, it is not news, but when man bites dog, it is news”. This simply tells us what constitute news. News is therefore simply the unusual.

For example, it is a normal and natural thing that a dog bites a man and as a reporter you decide to report or publish that a dog bite a man in a banner headline, you just succeeded in shooting yourself in the foot because nobody will buy that paper or read that your online news, or take you serious.

However when you have a banner headline in your online platform that reads, “man 65 chops off a dog’s leg with his teeth”, it is news and many will want to read to know what happened because it is unusual for a man to bite a dog.

Note however that the usual can become unusual when a particular dog became a loose cannon going from place to place and may have bitten over a hundred victims before being gun down by the Police.

Again, when a man provides feeding allowance for his wife, it is not news, but when he decides to have intercourse with her in public, in broad day light, it is news worthy, because it is unusual.

There are so many other examples directing us to what constitute news, you might have heard the popular saying among journalists that it is news when it bleeds. News consists of the following elements:

IMPACT:

By impact, we mean the number of persons affected in the incident, the number of policemen demoted and the number of Naval boats sunk by enemy soldiers etc. The impact of any story is dependent upon the number of victims or beneficiaries involved, among others.

PROXIMITY:

It is a normal thing with humans that we are more concerned with what is closer to us more than what is a far distance from us. For example, 250 persons died in a plane crash in Nigeria, and another 450 died also in a plane crash in the United States, it is certain that the plane crash in Nigeria will receive a front page position among Nigerian newspapers ahead of the USA plane crash.

TIMELINESS:

The fresher any news the better. Hard news that comes few minutes or an hour to the deadline is better appreciated than big news that happened a week or more ago.

PROMINENCE:

Members of the public care more about what happens to or with a President of a country, a celebrity in any field etc than what happens to an ordinary man on the street.

NOVELTY:

The unusual, bizarre, and once in a life time event has more news value than an everyday occurrence. The more bizarre and unusual the information, the more news worthy it is.

For example, if aliens from other planets popularly referred to as Unidentified Flying Objects (UFO), cruise in their saucer-shape aircraft, and hover around Calabar before landing at Marian road by IBB road, and emerge with their green, bulky eyes and big heads, it will certainly be the screaming headline of all the major newspapers and the online media.

CONFLICTS:

Wars, crimes, sex and political scandals, etc constitute major sources of our daily news.

RELEVANCE:

The story which is reported must be the one that has great effect on the reader or viewership.

USEFULNESS:

News items are reported or grouped according to some specialized areas such as sports, politics, info tech, business, tourism/leisure, lifestyle among others to give the readers what they need.

HUMAN INTEREST:

A human interest story is worth reporting. A young boy who manufactured an helicopter, a rural man who withstood poverty etc are stories that will also be interesting to the public even if they do not meet our other criteria for news.

THE KERNELS OF NEWS WRITING:

ACCURACY:

A story lacking in accuracy though very creative and compelling is as worthless as a used tissue paper because a story that is untrue erodes public confidence on such media platform. The public deserves the right to receive unbiased and accurate information from the media to help them make informed decisions in an election, concerning government policy on education, health, welfare, among other issues.

An inaccurate and misleading news report concerning a government policy and programme can cause social unrest and social disobedience against a government, leading to a breakdown of law and order in the society. Accuracy of a news item is non-negotiable in the media industry. It is unethical, unprofessional and suicidal to mislead and misinform.

BREVITY:

Your news story should go straight to the point, ensuring that each word performs a job. Avoid repetition and beating around the bush in news reporting. The most important facts should be brought to the lead, the second and third paragraphs, forming an inverted pyramid.

CLARITY:

To ensure clarity in your news story, you must first understand your subject, that is, the subject you are writing on so you don’t leave any doubt in the minds of members of the public. Carefully sift through the materials you had gathered to obtain the basics facts that you can use in the lead; trying as much as possible to avoid jargon.

OBJECTIVITY AND FAIRNESS TO ALL INVOLVED IN YOUR STORY/REPORTAGE:

Though the question of objectivity is a controversial one in the field of journalism, it is professionally and ethically mandatory that a reporter should be objective and fair to all concerned in the report.

The reporter’s duty is to find out or go for the truth and report it as it is not minding who is involved. It is possible for the reporter to be fair to all by recognizing his own personal biases but consciously reflect the views of all concerned no matter how hurting and uncomfortable the facts, but equally and consciously avoiding the use of inflammatory, abusive and degrading words.

As a reporter, you have the absolute and moral obligation to ensure your report is balanced and fair to all sides. For example, an informant provided documents to you showing a shoddy transaction worth billions of naira involving a top member of a management team of a company, what do you do?

Do you just rush to publish your story or do you take the pain to get to the person alleged to have been involved in such scam, and also carry out your own personal independent investigations? You must as a necessity hear the other person or the story will lack fairness and cannot be said to be balanced.

WHAT IS OBJECTIVE REPORTING?

In a paper presented by the Managing Editor, Northern Operations, The Nation Newspaper, Yusuf Alli on “ objective reporting: panacea for free and fair election”, he quoted Tony Rogers to have stated that “objectivity means that when covering hard news, reporters don’t convey their own feelings, biases or prejudices in their stories. They accomplish this by writing stories using a language that is neutral and avoids characterizing people or institutions in ways good or bad.

Similarly, Wikipedia maintains that journalistic objectivity can refer to fairness, disinterestedness, factuality and non partisanship, but most often encompasses all of these qualities.

Journalistic objectivity is when a journalist is not on either side of the argument. It is when the facts and only the facts are reported for what they are.

In the case of objectivity, I personally belong to the school of thought that posits that it is impossible to be completely objective, as even the mere selection of a particular word over the other clearly indicates subjectivity. Your judgment enters the story by the selection of such words.

BASIC TOOLS TO USE WHILE WRITING A LEAD:

It is professionally correct that every news story must contain what is traditionally known in journalism as the “five Ws and one H”. It is true that all of these may not be covered in the lead, but could come into the story along the line.

They are:

WHO- are the people that are involved in the news story?
WHAT-is it that happened?
WHEN-did it happen?
WHERE-did it take place?
WHY-did the event take place, the cause? and
HOW-did it happened?

However, bear in mind that the two most important of the six elements are HOW and WHAT.

THE GATEKEEPER:

All journalists play the role of a gatekeeper by deciding what goes into the newspaper, the various pages, TV and Radio, magazine and online platforms. The roving reporter is the first gatekeeper and down to the last man, editor or the editor-in-chief.

THE LEAD:

The lead is the first word, sentence and paragraph of a news story; that can some time make up of two or three paragraphs. The lead must be written in such a way to attract the attention of readers, wet their appetite to read on to the end as you tell most of the story in it. A novel for instance leads the reader to a climax; on the other hand, news story leads the reader from the climax to the less important, making news story writing to be in the shape of an inverted pyramid.

The lead should be short and not more than 35 words; while avoiding starting with date, time day or place. It is normally most appropriate for the reporter to place his/her emphasis on the action words of who or what.

Make sure that from the first paragraph to the end, there is smooth transition from one paragraph to the next.

HEADLINE:

Headlines are short, punchy and attractive. They draw the attention of prospective readers to the story. A headline is always written in active voice, in present tense, which emphasizes ‘now’, ‘current’ and not something in the past.

STEER CLEAR OF FALLACIES:

Hasty generalization: is a conclusion anchored on insufficient evidence. Example, deaths from flooding have doubled in the past four years in Calabar, therefore more resident of Calabar are dying from flooding than ever.

Non Sequitur (Latin word for “does not follow”) is a conclusion that does not follow logically from preceding statements or hinges on irrelevant data. Example, “the man loves hanging around women, therefore he will be excellent in bed”. This is a fallacious statement because hanging around women has no connection to how a man performs in bed.

Circular Reasoning: is restating the conclusion in different language instead of supporting it with evidence. Example, “non members of ACROJ should not be allowed to come to ACROJ office because ACROJ office should be for ACROJ members only”.

Faulty Cause and Effect Reasoning: faulty assumption that because the second event follows the first, the first is the cause of the second. It leaps to an unjustified conclusion, just like the non sequitur. Example, “since Agba Jalingo established CrossRiverWatch three years ago and ushered in different online platforms in Cross River, there has been unrestrained exposure of activities of politicians in the state by these platforms, so Jalingo should be blamed.

Either…Or Fallacy: Is the suggestion that only two alternatives exist, when in actual sense, there are more. Example, “either the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) brings back Stephen Keshi as Coach or Nigeria will not make it to 2018 World Cup”. The fact is that Nigeria can still make it to the world cup without Stephen Keshi.

False Analogy: Is the false assumption that because two things are alike in one sense or aspect, they must be alike in all other qualities. Example, “if the world has achieved marvellous breakthrough in the manufacturing of weapons of mass destruction, the world should equally be able to find permanent cure to all diseases plighting mankind”.

The truth is that both the breakthrough in the manufacturing of weapons of mass destruction and the inability to provide permanent cure to all diseases in the world are scientific challenges, but are quite different.

ARGUMENTUM AD BACULUM (APPEAL TO FORCE):

This argument is based on threat of force or punishment to compel the other person to accept your views by exposing the consequences of not doing so or attempting to go on with his or their position/demand.

Example, “Mallam Adamu emphatically stated that the federal government should not listen to those agitating for the state of Biafra because they lack the capacity to withstand the firing power of the rest of the country”.

This is a conclusion that is derived purely from an appeal to coercion/force and not the attempt to address the actual demands of the Biafra agitators.

ARGUMENTUM AD HOMINNEM (ARGUEMENT TO THE MAN):

Argument/news story that attacks opponent instead of focusing on the argument that will prove the truth of the conclusion.

This fallacy is sub-divided into:

Abusive: Attacking the defects/character of the opponent rather than faulting his position. Example, “Effiong is deformed in his eye and left leg and is a drop out from the University, he lacks the credentials to write a book to be taken serious.

Circumstantial: This argument compels an opponent to accept the other person’s view by exposing the circumstances of the person. Example, “the Chairman of ACROJ, Mr. Iwara’s, fourth generation backward were all Christians and Mr. Iwara himself is a devoted Christian, so he has no right to condemn the activities of some clergymen, whether they are good or bad because they are his spiritual leaders.

Tu Quogue (You Also): this is a situation where the accused or his apologists respond by accusing his accusers of also being involved in wrongdoing. Example, Mr. Agba Jalingo writes, “Investigations and several eye witnesses confirmed that in the past, Professor Unelisu has been involved severally in rape cases, hence he has been a serial rapist. Professor Unelisu’s apologists responded by stating, “Jalingo how much was paid to you to destroy your brother? You are writing all these rubbish because you have been paid to do so”.

This is a fallacious respond which simply avoided the main issue of rape by alleging that the investigator has been given bribe to have written what he wrote.

Poisoning the Wells: Here, the conclusion of an opponent’s position is rejected on the basis that it is derived from his interest and not on reason or evidence. Example, “Solomon Asha has written several articles and news stories supporting the call for an enhanced salary structure (Special Media Salary Structure) for media workers of all categories because he is a journalist”.

Here the writer did not prove that journalists are well paid, so do not deserve a higher paid, rather claimed that such support is coming from Mr. Asha because he is a journalist.

Other fallacies which reporters must try to avoid while writing their news stories include, Argumentum ad Ignorantiam (Argument from Ignorance), Argumentum Ad Misericordiam ( Appeal to pity or sympathy), Argumentum Ad Verecundiam (Appeal to Authority), Argumentum Ad Populum (Appeal to the People or Bandwagon), Ignorantio Elenchi (Irrelevant Conclusion), Attacking a Straw man, Fallacies of Ambiguity (Equivocation, Amphiboly, Accent) etc.

CONCLUSION:

The new media as already stated has several advantages over the traditional media. Practitioners of the New Media however have an enormous responsibility to adhere to the already established principles and order inherited from the traditional media.

Practitioners of the new media have an advantage of reaching billions of audience globally at the click of their computer/laptop/smart phone icon, “SEND” button. They equally have a greater burden and moral obligation to make sure that they report not just the truth, because a wider and educated global audience instantaneously judge what is put online, but also that their stories must be objective, fair/balanced, clear, brief/punchy, flowing with language, builds social harmony/cohesion rather than incite crises, etc.

Thank you.

Solomon Asha is the SA Media to Governor Ayade. Until his appointment, he was the Editor of CrossRiverWatch.

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