THE OLD TESTAMENT prophet Habakkuk didn’t set out to write a reporter’s primer, but he offers some great advice in his short book. Good journalism can pretty much be summed up by chapter two, verse two: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it” (NIV).
Ignoring the temptation to suggest he foresaw the digital media world with his tablet reference, let me offer three great principles for effective news writing.
Write the vision. In other words, look into things. What have you seen for yourself? In today’s 24/7 news cycle, so much of what passes for “news” is mere rumor, speculation, and hearsay. Writing what someone else says without checking into it isn’t news. It’s not much more than gossipmongering. If in doubt, check it out.
I was heartened by the New York Times’ recent decision to make something of a stand against the click-bait battle of being first to publish something, regardless how flimsy the details. “The Gray Lady” has tightened her guidelines on the use of anonymous sources. Though acknowledging that sometimes this is necessary, it should be “a last resort, for situations in which The Times could not otherwise publish information it considers newsworthy and reliable.”
Raising the bar in this way comes at a price, the editors noted:
We recognize that in today’s hypercompetitive news environment, the tighter guidelines below inevitably mean that we will occasionally be beaten on a story. We have no intention of reducing our urgency in getting news to our readers. But we are prepared to pay the price of losing an occasional scoop in order to protect our precious credibility.
Sometimes finding the truth takes time.
Make it plain. In other words, the old KISS approach—keep it simple, stupid. Do you want people to remember what you said or the way that you said it? News reporting is about providing information so that people can make reasoned responses, choices, and decisions. Yes, it should be compelling, but the goal is education, not merely entertainment.
So let’s not get too clever—or insert ourselves into things too much. There’s a place for individuality and personality, for sure. But when the emphasis becomes “look at me” rather than “look at that with me,” then the focus is misplaced. I’d reference the first series of the hugely popular Serial podcast as getting that balance right, while several similar “immersion” projects strike me as way too self-referential.
Write so that he may run who reads it. It can be helpful to have a reader in mind when you sit down to write, but I’d add that is good to have an idea of the impact you want to have, too. Do you want them just to think, “Oh, that was interesting?” or “Oh my goodness, I must…” The best journalism moves people to action, like the winners of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Having a goal in mind when you write doesn’t mean being manipulative. It means being clear, which also helps you as you write. When you know your intent, you can be focused: good writing is as much about what you don’t say as what you do as you leave out the clutter.
Remember that Luke had a clear goal in mind when he wrote, as did each of the Gospel authors. And, concluding his account, John noted, “If every one of [the things Jesus did] were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25). If in doubt, leave it out.
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