Local newspapers and trash-sniffing bears: How audience-centric journalism works

Whenever I travel, I tend to grab a copy of the local newspaper to see what matters to the readers of that area. In the larger metro areas, you get a lot of the same types of things: crime, governmental wrangling, national news, international news and big-time sports. Over the years, I also noted a trend of unfortunate similarities among regional papers because most of them are now owned by a single company, Gannett. Thus, you get a lot of “USA TODAY NETWORK – (FILL IN YOUR STATE HERE)” bylines on stories that have a general local feel, but lack a clear connection to the specific town or city in which the paper lives.

Still, a number of true “local” papers exist in various parts of various states, including mine. When my in-laws used to live in a place called Beecher, Wisconsin, we would often visit them and a stop at a gas station along the way gave me a chance to sample the local press. The one vivid memory I had was during a spring trip “up north” at a time of heightened international tensions, some sort of congressional shriek-fest and a lot of worries about an upcoming state election.

The front page story on the local paper? Six tips on how to keep bears emerging from hibernation from getting into your trash.

I couldn’t find a single story on Obama or Europe or even our state legislature on the front page. It was about the local fishing forecast, a festival at a local church and, of course, the bear thing. The publishers of those papers were local folks, writing about local things that mattered to local citizens.

Sure, things like peace in the Middle East and who was likely to do what in the U.S. Senate mattered to those people in a broader sense, but the local press figured (probably rightly) that people who read their paper would have gotten that stuff from CNN or FOX or some big-news website. They didn’t have a reason to rehash that stuff. On the other hand, it was a pretty safe bet that Anderson Cooper or Sean Hannity wasn’t going to run a series on how deer were in heat and thus leading to more car accidents on Highway 141 (a real concern around these parts).

Here are a couple local papers I grabbed on the way to work:

Newspapers

Top story: How local bridge work isn’t going to hurt the fishing in the area. Other stories? The building of a new assisted living community, how the local schools are doing in state tests/budgets, local zoning laws and an upcoming Oktoberfest walk/run.

I’m not going to endorse or admonish the writing quality or design approach on either of these publications, but I will tell you that I’d bet a dollar to a dime that the content matters to the area readers. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I live in Omro, a city of about 3,300, and my wife desperately wants to raise chickens in our yard for reasons past my understanding. She’s always keeping an eye on zoning changes that might allow for this. I pray that this never happens.)

The big take away here is that you need to know what matters most to your readers and then provide content that meets the needs of those readers. It might seem “unimportant” to cover things like this, especially when other people you know are writing about political unrest in Russia or North Korea’s missile program.

However, if you ever walked out to your trash and saw a 300-pound black bear pawing through your garbage, you’d probably want to know how to keep that from happening again.

Put your copy on a diet and give it a haircut: How to fix sentences that are too long and too heavy.

Consider this sentence from a sports story that ran Thursday:

Eyebrows were raised when Francona picked Bauer instead of Kluber, and the eccentric right-hander, perhaps best known for slicing a pinkie open while repairing a drone during last year’s postseason and bleeding all over the mound in Toronto, delivered a performance that started October just right for the Indians.

And this one from a news story about the sentencing of a defendant:

Geyser and Anissa Weier, both 15, were 12 when they were charged as adults after telling detectives they plotted to kill their friend Payton Leutner to placate Slender Man, an internet boogeyman they said would kill them or their families if they didn’t carry out the act.

And this one from a crime story:

Murphy of Milwaukee is charged with two counts each of fleeing and eluding, causing great bodily harm, two counts each of hit-and-run, great bodily harm, two counts of driving with a suspended license, causing great bodily harm, two counts of resisting an officer, causing injury, and car theft.

And this lead on a bankruptcy story:

In a busy day in Bankruptcy Court Tuesday, the UW Oshkosh Foundation filed a legal action against the University of Wisconsin System, won preliminary permission to pay out $500,000 between now and the end of the year and expressed confidence that 1,200 pages of documentation it filed with the court would keep endowed and other restricted funds away from creditors.

The common thread is that each of these sentences is too long and too heavy. Each one is a minimum of 47 words and lead is a whopping 60 words. Information of value exists in each of these sentences, but it is almost impossible to extract it from the writing itself.

The concept of “length” and “weight” are important in journalistic writing. Depending on your area of the field, what constitutes too long will vary. Broadcasters write in the shortest sentences (8-15 words usually) while text-based publications like newspapers and news websites run about 20-24 for body copy sentences and 25-35 words for leads. Magazine writers can go longer, but usually that’s for effect, using the length of a sentence to create pace or set a mood. In the sentences above, the length creates confusion and buries crucial concepts deep in the verbiage.

Weight, however, is primarily based on feel, word choice and sentence content. In counting length, the word “I” and the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” each counts as one. Obviously, in terms of adding to the complexity of the sentence, these words are not equal. In addition, the weight of a sentence can increase dramatically when a writer stuffs too many facts, numbers or concepts into a single story, thus weighing down the reader with information. Heavier sentences feel unwieldy and can leave a reader confused.

Here are three tips to identify problems like these and keep your writing lighter and and tighter when it comes to weight and length:

  1. One sentence, one concept: The reason you should start with a noun-verb/noun-verb-object structure and build outward is that you remain focused on the core principles that matter in the sentence. Each sentence should have a main assertion or a key message that you capture in the NVO core. Just like every paragraph in an inverted pyramid story should build upon and reflect the lead, every element you add to a sentence should build upon and reflect that NVO core. When you try to do too much with one sentence, you end up with sentences like the one you saw above. If you have multiple concepts, pull each one out and see if it can stand on its own as a single sentence. It’s better to have several shorter, easier-to-digest sentences than one long one that no one can get through.
  2. Read it out loud: One of the best tricks you can use to find grammar problems, structure problems and length/weight problems is to read the sentence aloud. If the sentence flows smoothly off your lips and clearly tells the story, you’re fine. If the sentence makes your tongue feel like it’s falling down a flight of stairs, you need to work on it. When it comes to length and weight, take a normal, human breath (not like the Titanic is going under and you’re trying to survive) and read the sentence out loud. If you get to the end and your chest starts feeling tight and you’re running out of air, it needs a trim. If you run out of air before you hit the end, you definitely need to go back through this and give it another look.
  3. Edit for your audience: In a lot of cases, we write from the perspective of journalists and other experts in the fields we cover. That’s where jargon, overly specific content and other problems tend to emerge. After you write something, go back and read it from the perspective of your audience. For example, if you wrote a story for your college newspaper about a student injured in an accident, you might include the phrase, “Smith was transported to a nearby medical facility for treatment of injuries sustained in the crash.” Does that sound like anything you would ever say? Have you ever gotten seriously hurt and yelled to a friend, “Hey Bobby! I need you transport me to a nearby medical facility!” Probably not. “Taken to a hospital” works a little better.
    In the court story above, the listing of the charges could be better handled in a simple breakout box where the author would list them out in bullet points. The lead on the bankruptcy should be two sentences, with a more generic explanation of the documentation in the lead if it needed to stay there. Also, you can get rid of throwaway terms like “in a busy day” or “the eccentric right-hander.” In each sentence, ask yourself if you are telling your readers what they need to know in the best way possible. If so, leave it alone. If not, make it so.

 

3 reasons Twitter moving to 280 characters won’t help journalists communicate more effectively (Or, “Filak-ism: Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should)

(Once again proving that just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should do it.)

Before I wrote my first book for SAGE, I sketched out a handful of “Rules of the Road” that had to apply to ALL journalism. That ratty piece of hotel stationary with fading black ink on it sits in front of me every day at work, a reminder of the core principles of what matters most in this field.

When Twitter announced the other day that it was taking a trial run at doubling its character limit, I hated it, specifically because it violated several of those “Rules,” specifically:

  • Right tool for the right job
  • Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should
  • Audience (and timeliness) matter most

In other words, Twitter could make it so tweets are 914,292 characters each, but that won’t make them any better or more helpful to readers, thus negating the value of the tool.

Here are three reasons why Twitter’s move to 280-character isn’t a great idea and/or why you should still shoot for that 140 limit:

  1. Noun-Verb-Object tells the best story: One of the biggest problems students have in transitioning from other forms of writing to media writing is learning to write tightly. One of the biggest reasons for that is their lack of strong sentence structure. In both books, we talk about the idea of starting with the noun-verb-object approach to a sentence and then building outward from that. Twitter, in its 140-character perfection, forces you to do that if you want to get your point across. When a sentence lacks a concrete noun or a vigorous verb, the writer must slather on adjectives and adverbs to get a point across. That makes for longer, weaker, lousier sentences.
  2. The Homeowner Theory on the Accumulation of Stuff: The more space you have, the more worthless crap you will accumulate.
    My first “grown-up job” had me moving 500 miles across the country and as such, they included a nice perk: A moving service. I packed everything in my studio apartment and had it ready for what I expected would be a full day of moving guys coming in and out of my place. The three movers walked in, looked around and started to laugh. “Is this it?” My total accumulation of goods didn’t even cover the back wall of the truck.
    The next move was from a two-bedroom apartment to our first house. The house had a giant rec room, where I dreamily envisioned adding a pool table and giant entertainment center. At the time, however, all we had to put in there was the beige velour floral couch I bought off a guy’s dead aunt for $50. We put the couch in that room and started laughing uncontrollably. It was this tiny speck of furniture in this giant room. We eventually bought a sectional and a pool table.
    Each move meant a bigger place and more crap. No matter what we thought we were doing, we kept adding more and more stuff. Thus the point: If you have extra space, you’re going to fill it with a lot of stuff you probably don’t need. If you are like our friends who live in tiny big-city apartments, you know you need to maximize space and get rid of stuff you don’t really need.
    Its true of space in a home, time in your day and characters in your tweet. If you are limited to 140, you’ll make the most of it. If you get 280, you’ll fill that space as well. Eventually, 280 also will seem too small because you keep cramming extra stuff in there and you get used to the larger size. It’s like knowing you’re gaining weight and that it’s not good but instead of trying to exercise more, you just buy bigger pants.
  3. It fails to demonstrate audience centricity: Look at the explanations that people have offered for this switch to 280:

    The idea of extending the length of Twitter posts has been contentious internally, batted around among product groups that are trying to find ways to persuade people to use the service more frequently. At 328 million users, Twitter has been criticized for its inability to attract more people. Investors have grown nervous, as that slowing of user growth has affected the company’s revenue.

    “We understand since many of you have been tweeting for years, there may be an emotional attachment to 140 characters,” the company said.

    As a result, Twitter said, if rules around characters are loosened, English-speaking users — who tend to use more characters in tweets — will also hit character limits less frequently. That may, in turn, lead English-speaking users to post more regularly.

    So, in short, Twitter is looking at this as a way to get more people sending more tweets as part of a profit motive and people who got used to the 140 characters are essentially just “emotional” in their concerns. Notice what’s missing here: The focus on people who RECEIVE information on twitter, a.k.a. the audience.
    The value of any tool you use in media writing is how well it does in reaching your audience members and providing them relevant, useful and interesting information. Nothing about the increase of the characters focuses on how much better the tweets will be or how the audience will be best served. The reason? It won’t, primarily for the reasons outlined in Points 1 and 2.

In the end, this might be tilting against windmills and everything will be fine. However, keep in mind this is just a “test” of the new limit so if you get to play with it, don’t get too attached. After all, once you get used to 280, it’s going to be hard to fit into that 140-character space.

 

Student media: The aftermath of Harvey and lessons learned (Part II)

Editor’s Note: This is the second piece from my interview with a couple members of the Rice University’s student newspaper, the Rice Thresher, about their experiences and coverage of Hurricane Harvey.

Emily and Anna_colAnna Ta, a sophomore from Spring, Texas, and Emily Abdow, a junior from Ellicott City, Maryland, are the paper’s news editors and coordinated their coverage as they also braced for the impact of the storm. Once the storm had finished dumping 50 inches of water in the area, and “the whole shock wore off” (to quote Emily), they had to pour a ton of resources into telling the story even as the city of Houston remained under water.

Here are a few of their recent stories in the aftermath of the hurricane:

Late last week, they were nice enough to share some thoughts on what they did, why they did it and what they learned in covering one of the country’s largest natural disasters. (One fix to note from the last post is that the students’ newsroom was NOT damaged by the flooding, but they couldn’t use it to coordinate coverage because flooding made it too dangerous to get there. That’s on me.)

Today we look at what happens when the national media moves on to a newer hurricane and you are still there, looking into what all of this means to your readers. In addition, Emily and Anna were nice enough to do some reflecting on what they learned (and wanted to share with other students) through this experience.

As always, the errors are mine, not the students, so please contact me with any necessary changes or fixes.

Major news stories bring out major news outlets that create major coverage. Once the big bang is done, they tend to leave and move on to the next big thing.

In some cases, critics refer to this as “helicopter journalism,” in which the media fly in, drop down, gather some stuff and fly out. My favorite reference to being on the ground in spirit only was the term “toe tap datelines,” which meant the source did most of the work from the comfort of a newsroom, but showed up on the scene long enough to gather a few details and add an exotic dateline to the front of a story.

In this case, it’s a bit hard to blame the media in some ways for leaving, as they had another hurricane to cover, but it still leaves the question, “What happens when the bright lights go out and the big names go home?”

In the case of Hurricane Harvey, the staff of the Rice Thresher has more stories to tell about clean up, recovery and how students are trying to return to “normalcy,” if such a thing is possible.

“This upcoming issue we have three stories about Harvey,” co-news editor  Emily Abdow said. “One is focusing on the students at Rice whose off-campus apartments were flooded and who have been trying to be students while dealing with the stress of finding a place to live. Another is focusing on all the scheduling conflicts which have arisen as students try to re-plan social events they’d invested a lot of time and money into organizing. A third is about how the Rice Harvey Action Team, which organizes volunteers to go out into the community, is being handed off to a student organization by the administration.”

The stories focus on topics of interest to the audience: Students and their environment. They also show that even as the national news is closing off its coverage with “And now, the recovery begins…” the local journalists know people are still affected by this storm in ways that haven’t been dealt with.

“As the media and the campus moves on, we recognize that even though you can drive through the streets now, all those people were affected aren’t magically going to get completely better,” co-news editor Anna Ta said. “We’re covering those in the Rice community as they have to simultaneously get back into school/work while trying to figure out living/transportation/etc. in the aftermath.”

Even as they continue coverage of Harvey, both editors said they know it can’t be “all hurricane, all the time.”

“We’ve definitely got a few more Harvey related stories planned for future weeks, and I think one or two a week will serve as a reminder that our community, including students and staff, are still dealing with the aftermath without driving people up the wall with endless coverage,” Abdow said.

“It’s a mix, and we’re hoping that will allow us to cover Rice as comprehensively as possible,” Ta added.

In terms of their own experiences with this, the students had a few thoughts they were willing to share with the readers who might find themselves covering a giant story

Emily Abdow:

One of my biggest takeaways from the hurricane is to never forget to be a reporter. At first, because I was such a part of the story, I almost forgot that my role is also to tell the story. Another takeaway is that college journalists have a unique perspective that no other major media outlet has. The Washington Post covered how the Rice University football team finally returned home after being unable to fly into Houston from Australia during the Hurricane.

On campus, we have the ability to talk to those students and tell their stories in a way no one else can. Even though my Facebook feed was inundated with coverage, we had the ability to add something unique, the student perspective. That brings me to my last takeaway: there are so many angles and sides to a story. Harvey was one event – albeit a very major one – but there are so many stories that we can tell about all the people who were part of it and we are continuing to tell those stories.

Anna Ta:

I guess, even when everyone and everything else stops – classes, events, work – you have to keep going as a student journalist. Don’t get swept up in the same kind of coverage everyone else is providing. Tell the stories only you can from the angles that matter to your community.

 

To continue following the coverage on Harvey and all other things Rice, visit the Thresher here.

Five “hurricane stories” you can write if it’s not even raining on your campus

When I worked in Mizzou at the Columbia Missourian, we would have our 3 p.m. editorial budget meetings each day where people from all of the desks of the paper would discuss the next day’s issue. Most of the content was local, as our reporters (students) scoured the area for whatever was happening within the confines of Boone County. However, we also had a wire/national editor who was responsible for pitching pieces that AP pushed out that day.

Every time a natural disaster would hit some part of the world, we always had the same conversation. The wire editor (a student) would pitch the story about it: “Hurricane (whatever one) just hit land (wherever it hit land). Officials say you have (whatever amount of damage and deaths). The senior member of our staff (a faculty member with decades of professional and educational experience) would always respond the same way: “When it starts raining on Cherry Street, let me know and we’ll run it.”

Her point was that until we had a local angle on something like that, our audience was likely to get news of the event elsewhere and that our job was to stick to stuff in our area. It was a bit deflating for the student wire editors, but the point remains a good one: You need to serve your audience, and in most cases, that’s going to be something local.

With that in mind, here are five basic “hurricane-related stories” you can dig into if your campus isn’t cleaning up from Harvey or in the path of Irma:

LOCAL ASSISTANCE EFFORTS: This is among the easiest stories to do as a localization, in that the urge to help people who are hurt is a natural one. You can look to your school itself to see if it’s taking donations of food, money or other needed items to send to the victims of the hurricanes. You can also look to see if any student groups are doing anything of a similar nature. Fraternities and sororities often have national offices that can coordinate larger efforts among their member chapters, especially if they have chapters on campuses in the path of the storm. Look at any student organization that is usually doing some sort of “help-based” initiative like working with Habitat for Humanity or doing Alternative Spring Breaks, as they might have a plan to head to the area and assist in the recovery efforts.

LOCAL CONNECTIONS: Another smart localization opportunity comes from finding local people who have connections with the area of the disaster. Students in some cases live in those areas but are going to school on your campus. (During Hurricane Katrina, it turned out my TA for the newsroom lived in the path of the storm and still had tons of family down there. She actually watched her home wash away on CNN.) You might have faculty who have colleagues working in that area or students with friends attending schools affected by the disaster. Put out the Bat Signal on your various social media channels and see if you can find people willing to tell you what has happened to their friends and family and if they are planning to do anything in response to this. (After she got back from helping her family work through the aftermath of Katrina, Kim did a “first-person, as-told-to” piece that won several awards and helped her sort through her experience.)

YOU GOT A PLAN?: Not every campus will experience a hurricane, but most spots in this country have their own types of disasters that need a plan. You don’t want to hear this from your campus administration:

Some places deal with tornadoes, while other places deal with earthquakes. Some places get frozen  while other places get scorched. What plans are in place for your campus when the disaster du jour hits? How often does the campus review these plans and how much effort does the administration make in letting students know about them?

 

ARE YOU COVERED? Much of the discussion after a disaster is how how can people recover from it. From friends and former colleagues in the area, I’m hearing about how “wind coverage” isn’t the same as “water coverage” or “flood coverage” when it comes to insurance. Most people I knew in college were lucky enough to think about getting any kind of coverage for any kind of disaster, ranging from a tornado hitting their apartment complex to a roommate who escaped under the cover of night with their laptop.

Renters insurance is always an interesting topic in terms of cost and value. It’s also worth a look into seeing what kinds of coverage kids who live in dorms have. So, if a pipe explodes in the dorm, some idiot with a homemade waffle iron burns down half of Smith hall or the “there’s no way a tornado hits us” proclamation turns out to be false, how safe is their stuff? Some places have limitations on how much money they’ll cover or what can be replaced. Clothing, in particular can be a costly thing:

Look into what mechanisms are in place to help people recover if something bad happens in your area or what precautions they should take in terms of insuring their stuff to make recovery more possible.

 

A SHARED EXPERIENCE: I have never lived through a hurricane or an earthquake, but I once experienced a tornado running nearby. The two-inch-thick galvanized-glass windows in my apartment were bowing in and it was one of the first times I really wondered why I moved into a “tornado alley” area.

Many people in your area might not know what the disaster actually FEELS like in terms of the actual event, the devastation, the losses and the recovery. However, some people in your area might have lived through a similar disaster to the one you are covering, so go talk to them. You can learn a lot from watching CNN and hearing Wolf Blitzer use the word “devastating” in all of its iterations, but having a person known to your community explain what it’s like wading through chest-deep water in her living room has a completely different feel. Again, reach out and see who is available and what they can share.

Many other stories matter and will pop up through brainstorming, so if you think of something worth noting, feel free to chip in on the comment list below.

And for those of you in the area of Harvey, Irma and whatever the heck is behind Irma, please be safe. We need you.

“Smart Brevity”

Politico co-founder and Axios Media CEO Jim VandeHei just explained what made his brand of journalism successful in an 85-word blog post, reinforcing his motto of “smart brevity.” Here are a couple highlights we can all learn from:

 

  • Obsess about your reader/viewer/listener. Their addiction/appreciation equals long-term biz success.

  • Related to first one: Never do stupid tricks for clicks or ad dollars. Short-term high but long-term buzz kill for biz/consumers.

 

These two items are at the core of everything we talk about at the front of the books: The audience matters most. If you don’t know for whom you are writing, you aren’t going to be able to help them or make them want to seek you out as a source of information.

In addition, the reason VandeHei and his crew can write so tightly is because they have a strong working knowledge of the topics on which they write. I can always spot the student with the least confidence in his/her writing when we review stuff in class because that person always has the longest and most complicated sentences. The people who know what they are talking about? They can boil it down to the noun-verb-object in nothing flat. Even if you aren’t in a reporting class, you have to “report” enough (read, ask questions, bother people etc.) to have a good grip on the topic. That will improve your writing.

 

 

  • If you don’t know with precision what your company is doing broadly, and what you are doing personally, run. Clarity of purpose is 🔑.

 

This is more about making the company successful, but it falls nicely in with our discussion of writing. One of the hardest shifts we have to make in learning to write for the media is from the long, descriptive-filled sentences of English, sociology and history papers to the noun-verb-object, bang-it-out structure we use in our field. After years of writing one way, it can feel frustrating to strip a sentence down to its core.

The reason we need to do this is to give people what they need to know quickly and simply. That’s our purpose.

And after taking four times the word count to explain half of what VandeHei had to say, I’ll end here for the sake of “smart brevity.”

 

When reporting crime feels criminal

The idea of “stupid criminal stories” is as much a staple of the crime beat as first-graders doing hand-print turkeys for Thanksgiving is for the education beat. Readers can seemingly never get enough of this kind of stuff, whether it’s the man arrested on suspicion of smuggling monkeys in his pants or the woman who showed up for her drunken driving court appearance drunk. Cranking out these stories is simple, as the leads tend to write themselves and they drive traffic to your site from all over the world.

However, as we talk about in the book, there is an ethical standard we ascribe to as journalists and within that standard is a call for empathy. Hunter Pauli took a hard look at his work in this piece, recalling the saga of “Dickface,” a low-level criminal in Butte, Montana with an unfortunate facial tattoo. The question he asks is a good one: What the heck are we doing here and why are we doing it?

We should be thankful small places in America are safe enough to not always need a daily update on last night’s mistakes, but instead we blow small crimes out of proportion and ruin people’s lives for pennies, all while missing the big picture.

The question, “What am I doing and why am I doing it?” is at the core of the critical thinking we preach here. Keep it in mind the next time you read about a guy who tries to rob a store with a banana (and then eats it instead).

Guest Blogging: Context Counts (or when an airline cuts flights)

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, we are fortunate to have Jessica Sparks, an experienced journalist and assistant professor at Savannah State University to discuss the importance of context in journalism. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.

In the first few weeks of my entry level course in media writing, I introduce students to three specific values the media has traditionally held- fairness, diversity and context. Without these three pieces, we become Rush Limbaugh- pick apart the facts to support your opinion and forget all those pesky statements that completely oppose it.

Context, to me, is one value many novice journalists tend to forget. There are two possible explanations for this: They know the context, but forget to include it in the story so the audience can see the information they way they saw it; or they didn’t ask enough questions to really understand the information given to them and therefore don’t have enough context to explain it thoroughly.

In class, I often pose this question to my students:

An airline announces it will cut half of all its flights from a mid-size airport near your media outlet. Is this news?

Without posing follow-up questions for context, you cannot definitively say yes or no.

As Vince points out in his book “Dynamics of Media Writing,” a good story applies to a mass audience- it’s interesting, timely and informative. In addition, it has at least some of those characteristics (conflict, impact, proximity, prominence, novelty).

For this example, most students picture an airline such as Delta cutting hundreds of flights, which could affect thousands of travelers and hundreds of jobs. Yes, that is news.

However, what if it’s a regional airline that flies twice a month with a 20-person plane? The announcement isn’t nearly as newsworthy as the aforementioned scenario, and it might not be worth a full report.

During my “Back to the Newsroom” fellowship with the Wall Street Journal, I was placed on The Numbers blog team. My job, essentially, was to identify data that would intrigue an audience and build visual elements to accompany short blog posts about that data. One of the most memorable of these pieces for me was “More kids born outside of marriage, but fewer teen births.”

In terms of context, this story stuck out to me because the numbers provided by the Census Bureau pointed to a traditional generational process. As the world has changed, so has the core family experience. This headline pushes that agenda.

However, the statistics still showed, the majority of new mothers were married when birthing their first child.

That’s context. The headline grabs the reader, but the story must still make clear that the data is showing a possible trend- not a rule. There’s not rule from this data saying children will be born out of wedlock. All it’s saying is that there is a possible trend emerging through the numbers.

What can you do to make sure you have the context around each fact, number and quote?

  1. Make sure you understand it yourself. Don’t write about something you don’t understand, and don’t feel silly asking a question of a source because you think it will make you look dumb. Sources would prefer you get the story right. (Though, you should do your best to come prepared and knowledgeable.)
  2. Continually ask yourself if you are misleading your audience. Are you choosing to omit information because it contradicts something else in your story? Don’t. It’s better to write that there was some confusing detail than to seem opaque in your reporting process.
  3. Read it out loud to yourself. Sometimes hearing the fact instead of reading it forces you to notice missing- yet important- details.

Mr. Scott beamed them to a hospital (or why jargon is killing our writing)

Some of you reading the “Dynamics of Media Writing” will go into the news business, where you will end up digging through press releases, trying to find information of interest to your audience. Others of you will go into public relations or marketing and spend time writing press releases and other material intended to pique the curiosity of the news media.

Regardless of which side of the release you are on, good writing and clear communication matter, which is why you need to do your best to eliminate jargon, also known as “cop-speak” or “industry-speak” or just B.S.

Let’s start with the release writers. You need to keep your audience in mind. In most cases, you aren’t filing a formal report, but rather an explanation of what happened in a way that makes sense to people not in your field. One of the best ways to see if you are doing this is to read your work and ask if it sounds like anything you would ever say to another human being outside of work. Consider some of these taken from actual press releases:

“The deputy made contact with an adult female in the vehicle.”

“Hey Jimmy, how was your date last night?”
“Excellent! I made contact with the adult female in her vehicle. I then escorted her to a local alcohol-provision establishment!”

“The body was located in the area of a flowing well which is adjacent to the road West of Kutz Road.”

Well, that really cleared things up…

As reported in our recent earnings briefing, IBM continues to rebalance its workforce to meet the changing requirements of its clients, and to pioneer new, high value segments of the IT industry,

“How was work today, honey?”
“Not too good. I got rebalanced…”

As a PR professional, honesty and transparency remain core values for you. Jargon muddies the water and makes you look like a weasel. Say what you mean and say it to the best of your ability.

The same is true for news writers. When jargon slips into the releases you use to tell anxious readers what company will be cutting jobs or how bad the fire was at the local restaurant, you need to cut through those thickets of verbiage and let reality shine through. This is particularly important when it comes to phrasing that makes no sense. Consider this stuff taken from releases that often weaves its way into stories:

[The fire] was determined to be electrical in nature.

As opposed to what? Electrical in spirit? Did it go to fire college, hoping to be a forest fire, but it couldn’t pass botany, so it went with what it always knew it needed to be: An electrical fire.

He was transported to a nearby medical facility.

First, unless something like this was happening, no he wasn’t…

Second, would you ever say that to somebody if you got hurt? “Mom, I think I broke my ankle! I need you to transport me to a nearby medical facility!”

“Two armed gunmen entered the store…”

Do unarmed gunmen just carry pistols in their mouths? 

A leader of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals told a group of University of Wisconsin students Thursday that abstaining from meat cannot only alleviate global hunger but is also healthier and can save innocent animals from unnecessary suffering.

As opposed to all those guilty animals and that necessary suffering?

When it comes to writing for any branch of the media, go back through your piece and see if you are overwriting, using jargon or in some other way making a mess of things through word choice. Simplify and clarify are the watch words of a nice, clean edit.

Cliffhanger questions are for “Game of Thrones,” not journalism

The goal of good writing is to make sure you answer the questions your readers have. At the very least, you don’t want to create questions and then leave them unanswered. CNN’s report on the latest poling numbers for President Trump does exactly that:

Washington (CNN) Only 36% of Americans approve of President Donald Trump’s performance in the Oval Office, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll has found.

That gives Trump the lowest approval rating at the six-month mark of any president in 70 years, ABC News reports.

As the story goes on, I kept waiting for the answer of, “Why 70 years ago?” Did they only start doing polling like this 70 years ago? Was there a guttural level of unique hatred for Truman or Eisenhower at one of their six-month marks? How close was the closest guy to this number for Trump? Or as Sunshine would say:

I kept reading and kept looking, but no dice. As the story wore on, CNN seemed less interested in answering the questions I had about that record-breaking low and more interested in pelting me with as many numbers as possible. It was like CNN kept loading up a bratzooka with percentages and firing them into the story:

In the end, I went elsewhere to find the answers, namely the ABC story CNN references. To be fair to CNN, the video did cover some of the items I wanted to know, but as a journalist you a) can’t assume the audience is going to look at the video and the text, even if you set it to autoplay and b) you don’t want to force readers to look elsewhere for answers.

This is especially true if it’s your fault they have the questions in the first place.