The Right and Wrong of the Words You Use

At school here, everyone in the Mass Communications and Journalism department is required to take a class called Media Law and Ethics. It is supposed to give us a background about the way courts work and basic mass media law like copyright and libel. Of course this is just a basic class, so we can’t learn absolutely everything there is to know in the field.

Having this reading really opened my eyes to what could be considered unethical writing. As journalists we are told not to put a bias in our writing, even for feature writing. We can elaborate a bit more and really paint a scene, but we can’t show any particular bias in what we say. However, a lot of things can actually cause a bias.

Choosing to include this quote over this quote, keeping this source in the story but not using this one, and even using some sources can lead to some unreliable reporting. Memories aren’t crystal clear, so a source could be lying or exaggerating certain events without even realizing it. It might just be how they remember things happening.

Even journalistic attribution isn’t perfect. Sure we say the name of the person and what qualifies them to comment on the subject, but that isn’t everything. If I were to write a story and use a quote from John Smith, a resident of Hattiesburg, that isn’t much help if there are five men with that name in the city. Basically, reporting isn’t perfect, and a writer has be really careful about what they do and do not include in their stories. You never know when the past can come back to get you.


Outlines Will Save Your Life

Forgive me, for I have sinned. I have never written an outline for any of the stories or articles I have written. Outlining was always my least favorite part growing up and going through public-education English classes. I get it’s useful for some people, but I always ended up changing things from whatever was in my outline. It was all just a waste of time for me.

I might jot down a few short notes that make sense to me and only me, but I have never done a formal outline, which is apparently very helpful when writing and makes your writing better. See, a lot of people like organization. Even people who think in a very disorganized way (myself included) like organization when it comes to writing because it is all just easier to follow and understand. If the story is disorganized,  no one will understand what it is about and lose interest in the story.

So outlines are really good for keeping stories organized, apparently. First, you have to make sure you know what kind of story you are hoping to write, because you can’t outline a short feature story the same way you would a long news story. Then you can figure out what parts of the story are going to go where to make it a coherent story.

I know as I improve my writing it would probably be in my best interest to start outlining my stories instead of just diving in and writing it. It’s just quicker that way, so I like it better, and I rearrange the story as I go along. That’s the wonderful thing about using a computer with cut and paste capabilities. Essentially, if someone wants to be a good writer, they should not follow my example. They should outline.

Magazines: Specialization is Good?

It seems to be the case that magazine writing isn’t much different than writing features for a newspaper. If anything, writing for magazines allows the writer to specialize with their articles.

Interestingly enough, while the journalism field in general is racing away from specialization, the same cannot be said about magazine topics. People are gravitating less toward the general interest magazines and more toward specialized publications that concentrate on topics such as fashion or sports or video games.

Magazine writing allows the author to get more in depth and in detail with their topic than they would be able to with a newspaper because the audience has more of a background with that topic. For instance, a magazine about astronomy can go into a lot of detail about the make up of stars and planets, far beyond what the average person would know.

The great thing about these types of articles is that the write is able to tell more of a story. It’s not so much about spitting out facts and just giving a report of events. It’s about grabbing the interest of the reader and giving them a narrative. People take time when they read magazines. They are more willing to sit down and be given a story than if they were reading a newspaper. Feature writers would actually probably feel more at home writing for magazines in their topic of interest than they would writing for newspapers.  At the very least, it could be another source of income to have in mind for stories.

Storytelling: The Oldest Art Form

This book made an excellent point about the way journalists are trained. We are just told to report the facts and not to put any sort of meaning into our words. We have to stay unbiased. We can’t let our opinion get into our story. It’s all about what happened, not what it means.

But we can’t do that in feature writing. I feel like feature writing picks out things in everyday life and makes them important. The way we make people want to read about these things is to create a story out of it, not just an article. We need to show the meaning behind what is said and make the words have an impact. It’s about showing people what is important, just using a different method.

The reason I originally decided to become a journalist was just because I knew I could write. It was the only thing I liked to do, so I decided to make my major journalism. I didn’t know what else I could do with an ability to write, and I think that’s true for a lot of people. Writers don’t know what to do with ourselves anymore. We can’t go straight to being novelists because we don’t know what will finally get us published. We settle for being journalists because at least we still get to write. And journalists should take a note from these writers.

Don’t just report the facts. Make a story. Make it interesting. What makes you more qualified to tell this story than anyone else? It should be because you can use the words like no one else can. We should practice our storytelling. We should really understand the power of words. I think that is the way to ensure we have better journalists in the world.

Let’s Talk Commentary: Preppy

Why should I care?  This is the question you most explicitly have to answer and make the author feel a need for.

Commentaries are unique, but the writer needs to do them correctly.  First, you need to prepare and have guidelines to follow.

1.  Collect facts, ideas and thoughts that need to be included in your piece.  Set aside time to really focus on them and realize what is important.  Then, compose your outline.

2.  Be curious.  When you write feature stories and articles for magazines, you develop an innate foundation of asking, “Why?”  Curiosity and sensitivity to your subjects life and experiences are an absolute must.

3.  Feel the story.  Don’t let yourself get in the way, but develop emotions about your story and your subject.  If you want your audience to be drawn, you must be overdrawn (just not in your banking account).  Think of Pocahontas when she sings, “Paint with all the colors of the wind.”  I don’t care how old you are, you can’t watch that and not have compassion for Pocahontas and want to smack John Smith in the face. Every word should just flow through you like it does through Pocahontas.

4.  Become best friends with your local barista.  Writing takes time, but commentaries take even more time and energy.  This will most definitely require caffeine.  There are certain people in our realm we don’t want to piss off- our editors and our baristas; they both hold the key to our career.

Think about your different types of commentaries.  Editorials, columns, essays and reviews.  Think about what you’re writing about and which style of commentary that will fit best into.  Then read several examples of that particular style.  Sometimes, the best work is mimicked and gathered from other great works.

Good luck and have an awesome day!

A Little Bias Never Hurt Nobody

News writers are supposed to report the objective facts and let the people make their opinions from there. Inserting our personal opinions into what we are writing is the wrong thing to do hear in America. That is why our newspaper industry is dying while the tiny nation of the United Kingdom has 12 national daily newspapers. Wait, are we the ones doing something wrong?

I think people now like to have a little bit of an opinion in the news writing. With social media, reporters can’t hide behind their bylines anymore. They are really encourage to make it a more interactive process with the reader, and showing the reporter is in fact a real human being. Well, you can’t prove that just from making a Facebook account, because there are plenty of fake ones out there. A bias in writing allows the reader to connect with the writer and the story. They can either agree with what is being said and connect in a positive way to the story, or totally disagree and just feel like this is the dumbest article ever written. Either way, you are able to get an emotional response out of the reader, and that is something that is key to feature writing.

Maybe we should start doing this a little bit. Yes, objective news stories are still important. People deserve a source that isn’t trying to sway them to believe in one thing or the other, but opinionated features would be a great way to really get the reader more interested in the publication and maybe even that particular writer. If I have a response to a writer, I will probably come back for me. I mean, it’s a pretty sound argument, right?

Let’s Just Look At It This Way

I think I’ve mentioned before that as part of my undergrad curriculum I have to do some big Honors thesis that involves a lot of research. I’m noticing a lot of themes from my prospectus writing class overlap with feature writing.

One of the things we are told in my prospectus writing class is to look at a question someone has already answered, and try asking a different question related to that topic. Does that make sense? Basically, you have to look at things from a different angle to find something new. Yes, the guy killed his family, but why? When did the Olympic athlete decide that was what she was going to do with her life? How did men survive the trip across Antarctica? It’s all about asking the right questions when it comes to feature writing.

For personality profiles, don’t just ask questions about what makes the person interesting like their job or whatever their hobby is. Ask about the boring stuff like what coffee they drink in the morning or if they prefer night or morning showers. You never know if that ends up turning into a story. In a travel story, don’t just focus on how where you are is different from where you are from. Anecdotes from the trip might reveal a lot more than you might think. Just try to think of something new to ask.

People are so annoyed because I ask them why a lot of the time. I sound like a toddler, I know. But it’s interesting to see people’s reasoning behind things, and that might factor more into the larger picture than the actual decision that was made. Having some background info always makes the story more well-rounded.

I can’t help but think of that seen from Ratatouille where the restaurant critic orders some perspective, because he hasn’t had any in awhile. Maybe we should all think like that guy, and try to get a little more perspective when writing our stories.

Think of a Nature Documentary

Some people see reporters as like little flies buzzing around a story just bothering people with questions constantly. Apparently that’s not what we are supposed to do.

Basically what Anne Hull said was to be the camera person in a nature documentary. Just sit and watch. Don’t interfere in the action taking place. Even if the gazelle gets mauled by the lion, you just have sit back and let nature take it’s course, and that’s how we should be as reporters.

Just observe the subject in its natural environment. Don’t disrupt the action for anything. Really get on the level of the subject. I’m assuming that if they can end up forgetting you are even there then that is a great success.

To me, this is the hardest part about features. I mean, I know if I were to do a review of some place, I have to get in and experience it. I need to eat at the restaurant on a Saturday dinner service to see how well the staff are under pressure. I have to attend one of the final dress rehearsals of the play, and it would be better if the staff and I weren’t the only ones in the audience to really simulate a performance. I guess I just didn’t realize exactly how involved this process could be. Actually being on the farm as the workers and being in their conditions. Sleeping as much as they do and experiencing their travel. It is really an intense experience.

So, as a journalist, do I just need to say good bye to sleep?

Time To Ask the Hard Questions

Is this really what I want to do? Like, am I even really capable of being in the profession. So far I have to be a wordsmith, a salesperson, and now possibly a psychologist? I really don’t think I’m going to end up getting paid enough for this.

All joking aside, it is becoming obvious to me that being a journalist is something that requires a wide set of skills, and the new skill I know have to pick up is being a successful interrogator. I need to know how to get information out of people using only my words. That’s actually a lot harder than it sounds.

In my limited experience so far, I can already tell that if people don’t want to say something to you, they aren’t going to. Considering most of us probably aren’t police officers, we don’t exactly have the power to make them say anything either. When it comes down to it, interviewing is hard.

Not only are you trying to get information out of someone’s words, but you also have to pay attention to everything else. A communications professor once told me that most of what you say does not even come from the words you are actually saying. Most of what you communicate actually comes out through your body language, so that’s very important to pay attention to. However, that’s rather difficult to do while making sure to take down notes. And then you also have to pay attention to how they say things, like what inflections go where and how long that pause was. Again, you have to do all of this while writing down what they are saying to you and deciding if the next question you had planned to ask them is what you still want to ask or if you should take the interview in a different route. Oh my brain hurts just thinking about all of this.

Interviewing really is a skill that you have to craft, like anything else. To use a recorder or not? How detailed to make the notes. What questions are you going to ask, and how are you going to ask them? Everyone does it differently, so there is no right way. It really is something that has to be practiced. Too bad I’m not really a fan of practicing. The things I do to hopefully have a job one day.

Research, Research, Research

Being an Honors student, I have had my thesis hanging over me since I started college. Now that I’m actually getting into it, I realize I do a lot more research than I gave myself credit for. All journalists actually do a lot of research. I suppose I just never noticed it because it’s not the same as scholarly research.

Scholarly research seems way more in depth and long term. Journalistic research is all about putting the information out there as soon as you find it before it has a chance to change.

Growing up in school, I was never really a fan of having to do any sort of research. Remind me again why I chose this major?

But in all seriousness, research is a very important part of being a journalist. If we ever have to report on facts or demographics, we need to know where they come from so readers don’t think we are making things up. Any sort of fact or figure or opinion given is a product of some research to find the original source of it, and least in straight news writing. I guess opinions can just be the author’s in more of the feature than news stories.

I’ve always heard how you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet because of how easy it is to put false information there. Why am I still hearing about it in college? I guess it’s because a part of me will still believe something on the Internet as long as there is no evidence to counter it. But anyway, journalists do still have to remember this too. Anyone using the Google search bar needs to remember this.

It just sucks to think that I’m really going to have to power through and look for things on the Internet just to get a good story idea. Usually they just come to me so far, but I guess things will be different in the real world.

Looks like I need to learn to love the research. It’s not like it’s going away any time soon.