By David Flin
It happens all the time. Authors try to write about how news reporting happens, and they get it badly wrong. They’ll sometimes go into some detail, and anyone with any experience of the trade finds it painful to read. They get the attitudes wrong, they get procedures wrong, they get the priorities wrong. They’ll even get the jobs confused. They’ll refer to presenters as reporters; they’ll not understand the difference between an editor and a sub-editor, and, worst of all, they’ll have reporters not know the difference between report and commentary.
Many alternate histories present aspects of the timeline through the format of newspaper articles or television news programmes reporting on an event. The verisimilitude of these can be variable.
To be fair, reporters often behave in a myriad of ways that confound and confuse anyone trying to present a clear picture of what they do, so any presentation of what they do is going to be covered in caveats. However, with that in mind, here are a few guidelines.
Deadlines. Unless you’ve been in the trade, you’ve no idea how crucial deadlines are. Everything revolves around meeting deadline. If a story misses the deadline, a TV news programme would have a couple of minutes of dead air, or a newspaper will have a blank, white space where the story should have been.
Deadlines dominate everything. There is no excuse for missing a deadline, and no-one is interested in explanations. Computer mishaps, family emergencies, personal injury. No-one cares. The press is a devouring monster that consumes everything that can be fed into its gaping maw, and moments later, it needs feeding again.
Journalists and editors are always under time pressure, and the pace is relentless.
Writing Because meeting deadlines is important, journalists have to be able to produce the required number of words in the specified time. Writer’s block is just not allowed. It’s also important to get it right first time. A reporter will know the house style inside-out. They’ll also be able to plan the layout of a story in their head.
The other factor is that a reporter has to be able to convey a story clearly and easily. Clever phrasing that demonstrates one’s facility with both vocabulary and structural nuances, such as this sentence, are contra-indicated. Keep it plain and simple. The purpose is to communicate, not to show-off. Apart from the house style guide, the bible of reporters is The Complete Plain Words, by Sir Ernest Gowers. If you want to write like a reporter, it’s an essential book.
Format of news stories If I see one more pseudo news story in a timeline that doesn’t follow the format news stories actually take, I shall scream. It’s a simple format, and one designed to convey the story effectively. It’s a format that has been tried and tested over the centuries, so there is no excuse for anyone to ever get it wrong.
You start with a headline, which gives the story in a brief phrase. If we use as an example a famous story from the Bible, we might have:
“God evicts Adam and Eve.”
The next part is the standfirst. This is a brief sentence summarising the story. Taking our example, we might have: “God announces that Adam and Eve will be evicted from the Garden of Eden because they broke the rules on eating fruit.”
Then there is the first paragraph. This tells the story again, but with the basic details. “Earlier this morning, God announced that, following the breaking of the rules on fruit consumption, Adam and Eve had been summarily evicted from the Garden of Eden. He said that there would be no appeal against the decision, which had already been enacted.”
Then the story is told again, this time with all the details and quotes. You might have a quote from the Snake: “They brought it on themselves. The rules were clear enough, although I’m not sure why the rule was there. I guess He had His reasons.”
Then you have some analysis and speculation about possible impacts, and the story is finished off with peripheral information.
The reason for doing it this way was that when articles needed to be a certain length in order to fit the space available, it was just a matter of cutting the bottom when there was less space available than originally planned.
Woodward and Bernstein In their heart of hearts, most reporters want to be the next Woodward and Bernstein. They know they won’t be, that they’ll be limited to stories of no great significance, read once and forgotten, but they live in hope of the Big Story.
Job descriptions Reporters, editors, sub-editors, presenters. They’re called different things because they do different jobs.
Reporters get the information and put a story together. They interview people, check the quotes, check the facts, and ensure that the story is accurate and written well.
Editors decide what stories need doing, who is to do the story, where it goes in the order, how much space it gets, how much can be spent on it, and ensure that it is delivered in time. The Editor is responsible for the content, and if there is any problem with the content, it’s the Editor who is the one in the dock. Editors are under a lot of stress and pressure, and tend to be short and blunt. There’s never enough time to do everything, there’s never enough money, and they get blamed for everything that goes wrong. A patient Editor is almost a contradiction in terms.
A sub-editor is not a deputy editor, filling in for the editor when the editor isn’t around. The sub-editor handles the headlines of a story. The headline is vitally important to a story, and writing headlines is a specialised skill.
A presenter is the reliable, trustworthy face who reads the lines and looks as they’ve got a clue what’s going on. Perhaps I should point out that I’m not a presenter. They also often interview people on-screen, and this requires some dexterity of thought. Knowing when to press in on a point, when to switch tack, when an answer side-steps the question, and being able to do this without pause or deviation or hesitation.
It’s a myth-print The job of a reporter is to get the story. No more, no less. How they do it depends on their particular talents. Some are persistent, some charming, some know the answers before asking the questions, some use money or threats or whatever comes to hand. They may be cynical, argumentative, or enthusiastic. But, whatever else they might be, they won’t have any sympathy with anyone who complains about writer’s block.