What someone writes down and hands to the editor of a paper is called copy. The writing itself is much less important than the gathering of facts. News means what actually happened, what people did or said, not what they might have done –and the reporter must learn first of all to get the facts straight and to make up the report from facts and not from opinions and guesses.
Finding the Facts
A few experiences will impress any reporter with the important of accuracy and completeness. Any newspaperman soon learns to get people identified and names spelled correctly. If the story comes to him as a rumor, it can’t be used unless he is able to tract it down to reliable sources. Honest journalism is primarily a habit of looking first and last for facts.
Putting the Facts in Order: the Lead Sentence
In arranging the facts you have gathered, there is one simple rule about news stories. The opening sentence, called the lead (pronounced leed) should carry the most important part of the news story. From it the rest of the story tapers down in importance like an inverted pyramid. The lead sentence or paragraph should cover briefly who did what, when, how and why ? The paragraph that follows can fill in the details, in descending order of importance. Good news copy, therefore, is so written that the editor can’ cut away everything except the lead and yet have a brief but complete news statement.
Thus the story is told three times: telegraphically in the headlines, summarily but precisely in the lead, and as elaborately as importance and space allow in the following paragraphs. Your information should contain in itself enough drama to hold the reader’s attention. If it doesn’t it probably isn’t news. Remember the inverted pyramid !
When is Doubt, Leave it out
“I don’t care if it is a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, a whole story, or an entire series of stories: when in doubt, leave it out”
These were the standing orders of he Editors of Washington post to two young journalist : Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. It was the tenacity and accuracy of these two reporters that lead to the uncovering of injustice and criminal conspiracy by many officials in the U.S Government in the early 70s.
To challenge the reputation and honesty of that powerful government required the strictest accuracy of facts as well as responsibilities in protecting the identity of their informants. One mistake and their newspaper would have been ridiculed; one breach of trust and their sources would have dried up; one slip-up and many innocent persons would have been seriously hurt.
Every fact had to be checked and double checked. The story could not go into print on the basic of one source alone, however accurately quoted. “Get two more sources” their boss would say. There had to be at least a prima facie case; reputations, careers, if not lives were at stake.
Before running a story the reporters would contact the person or agency likely to be affected and say : “The following story will appear in tomorrow’s paper, sir; can we have your reaction ?” They would then read the news story as it was about to appear in the paper. The person’s reaction would then be printed together with the story. Fair enough.
A book and cinema preserve for history the courage, perseverance and fair play of these two newspapermen and the message:
‘When in doubt, leave it out’