After hearing about Facebook’s attempts to reduce the amount of misinformation being spread over its servers, coupled with my university classes in hard-news writing, I’ve decided to come up with my own set of ethical and stylistic standards that must be met in order to be officially legit journalism, in my view.
The biggest problem to me with news I see in today’s markets, is that it has become far too mixed with material that would, in traditional newspapers of my era, be limited only to the editorial page. “OP-ED” (opinion/editorial) has crept into the voice of what used to be “hard news” that answered the who-what-when-where questions.
The following is a set of rules that seek to establish firmer boundaries between opinion and legit journalism. In fact, this very list (and arguably, my entire blog), is editorial and does not masquerade as a hard news source.
If at any point in reading these, you think, “well, that just takes the artistic style right out of it,” then you’ve stumbled upon the crux of the issue.
As a hard-news journalist, you are not an interpreter. Your opinion about something is absolutely irrelevant. Your journalistic interest is to style your writing as embellishless as possible. You are not putting your heart out there. You are not making an impassioned plea for justice, to seek empathy, or to raise pitchforks with like-minded citizens. Your job is not to confirm, propose, establish, or link possible connections to gain sympathy from readers. If that /is/ your job, then you are not a hard-news journalist. You may be a feature writer, a reviewer, a commentator, a talking head — but you are not a hard news journalist and cannot reasonably expect people to consider you one.
You are writing hard news, which includes things like, “The mayor gave a speech on Thursday about the e-cigarette ban, according to official press releases,” or, “Judges awarded J’Kondriq Steinerandanopolous the first-place trophy at the fourth-annual Swindontown Spelling Bee held at London Elementary on Monday.” Your writing is stilted, direct, and confirmed by genuine, cited, external sources.
1. No reporting opinions, nor opinions of sources, as the focus of an article.
You may need to revisit high school English and reading comprehension to distinguish between “opinion” or “fact” based sentences.
Think of the difference between movie reviews or scoring on darts.
Describing something as joyful, poorly-lighted, or sloppy, is opinion, because the description is subject to agreement or disagreement by the reader. You are not trying to engage readers, nor are you trying to evoke a response from them about you, your article, or your publication.
Describing something as six feet high, 43 years old, having happened on Avenue H, on Tuesday, or as-stated-by a source, is factual; it is not person-interpreted and research can be conducted by any given other person verify the measurement, age, location, date, source, etc.
Other examples of opinion words and phrases include:
would, could, should
According to whose standards of shock, outrage, or should can be reported without bias? Don’t even try it. Oh, you think something “could” impact x, y, and z? Explain that in detail, but in an editorial separate from the news, not in the article you’re writing.
2. Avoid adverbs, “loaded” phrasing, and buzzwordy terms if if they aren’t directly relevant.
An adverb can be a word with an -ly suffix, such as finally or lavishly. Those are interpretations that do not belong in your article, because they frame the opinion for the reader, without the reader’s consent.
A loaded question in an interview would be, “At what time last night did you stop beating your children?” for which the only valid answer according to the question is a time, rather than a defense that one did not even start (or stop) beating one’s children.
A loaded statement could include “probably” or other presumptions that couldn’t be proven, such as “The enraged assailant dove toward officers before being killed by crossfire,” because the attitude of the assailant can’t be confirmed by the only authoritative source (which is the assailant) since they’re dead. You are not interpreting, nor reporting on interpretations.
Buzzwording is the inclusion of descriptors that have no business being there in terms of relevance to the story. You’re not attempting to ensnare the attention of the largest number of people to be empathetic or outraged as possible; you’re reporting on concrete details that are relevant.
“Legal Mexican immigrant to the US, dishonorably discharged from the US Army, and gay widowed mother of two, Syndyy Houpskurt, who lives on food stamps, won the decathlon on Wednesday, according to Olympic officials,” is buzzworded, because the athlete’s civil service, military branch, progeny, marital status, sexual preferences, and income are irrelevant to winning the race.
If you’re writing about the humanity of the person, then you’re thinking of feature writing, not hard news. The hard news of this is, “Olympic officials announce Syndyy Houpskurt of the United States as winner of the decathlon.”
A descriptor of this nature, such as the citizenship of the athlete could be relevant due to the official relationship to nation-of-origin within the Games, however, or such as a person whose unique abilities permits them to enter the Special Olympics, and that the ability mentioned is relevant toward qualifying them to enter.
Mentioning that a person involved in a robbery is black, for instance, is buzzwording. Noting that a man with ties to the mob and identified on a beach by his hairy chest is Italian, that a person who was awarded tenure at a prestigious university is rich and white, or that the person charged with disturbing the peace by screaming plane noises is a member of the Air Force, is all buzzwording.
3. Statements of the absoluteness of a future event must be avoided.
As a journalist, you are not a prophet. Even things which could be reasonably ascertained to happen rain-or-shine, must be phrased as a description of the past or present as if the plausibility of their cancellation were genuine, and according to whom.
“The parade will be held downtown on Avenue G on Tuesday at 6am, according to Dixon,” should instead be,
“The parade is scheduled for a 6am start, downtown on Avenue G on Tuesday, according to Dixon,” but not,
“The blasphemous parade is foolishly scheduled to start way too early at 6am Tuesday, on the worst street our city has to offer, Avenue G, according to our psycho of a mayor.”
“The president will give a formal address regarding the issue on Wednesday, sources say,” should be,
“The president is planning to give a formal address on the issue on Wednesday, White House source Ed Grimley confirms,” but not,
“Our most annoying president yet is planning to ramble incoherently about the total non-issue on Wednesday, White House lackey Ed ‘Sharts-his-britches’ Grimley blabbered last night.”
Don’t use phrases like could, would, should, or jeopardize. If something is jeopardized, then the dust hasn’t settled yet, and information about that is, at best, tentative and unreliable. You’re reporting things that did happen, that can be verified; not whether something is “up in the air” or on uncertainties. Report on certainties. Let the reader construct their own uncertainties, instead of injecting your own uncertainty into the news. If something could, should, or would happen, then it hasn’t yet, and you’re foretelling the future like no credible news source can, else you’re just editorializing.
4. Uncounted or unnumbered mass nouns are completely disallowed.
Phrasing like senate democrats, gang members, and Californians which do not specify how many and which in particular, are outlawed.
Specify directly how many persons are involved, up front, and maintain their distinction apart from groups to which they could be associated, and avoid associating any groups with them where possible.
If you have 30 citizens of Vermont who have gone on strike, do not say, “Vermont citizens go on strike,” but say how many, of which city or neighborhood, or for which company. It is not your role to generalize the citizens so that the largest possible number of readers could empathize or disagree with them.
If Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alakska, have co-authored a bill to be introduced, do not say “Senate Republicans Propose Bill,” say, “Senators Shelby of Alabama and Murkowski of Alaska co-author bill.”
If the number of people involved is infeasible to list uniquely, maintain the distinction of their number apart from association of other groups. Even if your readership is arguable mostly golfers, specify which people are doing the thing, saying it, etc.
5. Do not interpret documents, nor quote interpretations of documents.
Sentences and phrasing like, “the law would allow farmers to shoot anyone they like,” must be prevented. If a bill says something that seems like it could be open to abuse, directly quote the specific phrasing of the actual bill language, and allow the reader to interpret it uniquely.
The main problem with the quotation of interpretation, is that in order for the writer to remain objectively neutral, then a counterargument must also be quoted, but what constitutes an appropriate counterargument is itself, opinion.
6. If your sources insist on anonymity, then you have no sources.
You must be able to prove you are not making it up, or that the writer of the article is not using their own knowledge as the source and simply claiming “anonymous” in place of their own knowledge.
If you believe the source’s remarks are really really really necessary to report, investigate the claim and find a source who is willing to be cited to confirm it, and then use that cited source as the source, rather than the original.
If you still are unable to cite a specific source directly even between numerous sources that all insist on anonymity, then don’t report it. If it absolutely must must must be reported on, in violation of ethical treatment of people, pets or property, then readers of journalism are not the audience for it — higher-ranking authorities, a district attorney, a police officer writing a report, a crime tip-line, etc, are the appropriate demographic for your story. You are not a credible distributor of that information, and it is not your role to news report on anonymous tips. You absolutely must cite your sources, by name, period.
6. Information gained from hacks or leaks is not valid, even if the hacker is quoted directly.
The information that comes from a source that has a conflict of interest, or was gained through deceit, is by nature, deceitful, and must not be reported — the falsification of authority to access the information results in the plausible falsification of the data retrieved.
In like manner that, if police officers cannot break into your house in order to obtain evidence without a warrant, then you are not allowed to report information gained from the hacking or unofficial leak of data, because it was not procured officially.
7. Do not interpret a source’s words without that source’s consent of the interpretation.
If you’re reporting an interview with a source and including what you and they say back and forth, great. If you’re reporting an interview with what someone says, and then how you respond, without recording their response to your interpretation, then your talents are more suited for the paper route position, rather than the writing.
You are not reacting. You are not the voice of those who aren’t heard often enough. You are not seeing the story from your eyes, or any other delineated swath of the population. You do not draw conclusions that go unchecked without the satisfaction that the source you’re remarking upon has with your final copy.
If you encounter any source that claims to be news, but does not abide by these standards, it is my editorial proposal you have encountered a source that is excessively opinion-based, buzzworded, propagandized, reactionary, loaded, or judgmental, whose ethics for newswriting have been breached, and, like the hacker information from rule 6, can’t be reasonably considered accurate.