ABCs of Journalism
Brief description / proposed nutgraph
Order of information
An article should have a beginning, a middle and an end.
Keep important information toward the top. Readers should immediately
understand what the focus of the article is and why it matters.
Keep sub-stories together. Summarize sub-stories in the nutgraph, and keep the
sub-stories themselves together in the rest of the body. Do not use the pyramid
Elements of the story should flow together. Ideally, each paragraph should
transition smoothly and logically into the next by drawing connections between
ideas and events.
List relevant hyperlinks at the bottom. As necessary for the reader’s full
understanding of an issue, include online sources and websites where readers can
find more information relevant to the article.
As a general rule, concise paragraphs promote readability. However, too many one-
sentence paragraphs in a row lead to choppy, distracting writing.
The goal is to convey as
much information as possible to the reader, without losing their attention.
Keep sentences as short as possible. The average news article sentence is 18 words.
Almost every article will need to include a “nutgraph”: a paragraph that includes a basic
outline of the topics to be discussed in the article. If the nutgraph is not the first paragraph
of the article, it should be included as close to the top as possible. The nutgraph is crucial
for letting readers know what they can expect out of your article.
Remember that readers’ attention span on the web is short. You must balance the need to
include crucial information with keeping articles as brief as possible. Keep the main
focus of your article in mind as you choose which information to include and avoid
pursuing tangents. Referring back to your nutgraph can be a useful way to keep your
articles succinct. If the information you are considering does not relate directly to the
plan you mapped out in the nutgraph, you should probably not include it in the article.
Remember that you can sometimes write follow-up or related articles if there are bigger
topics that you would like to pursue, and you can always link to further information at the
end of the article.
Another place to put supplemental information or details is a sidebar, which could take
the form of a mini-sub-article. Sidebars can include excerpts from documents you
consulted in the article, graphics showing statistics, longer narratives about or profiles of
individuals at the center of the article, and in-depth looks at specific-but-tangential topics
touched upon or related to the article.
Words are powerful. Do not abuse or waste them.
Avoid filler words. When describing a certain viewpoint, type of individual or
other entity, try to minimize political jargon, excessive adverbs and flowery
descriptive terms that are not actually informative and can editorialize the article.
Beware of so-called “weasel words,” like “many,” “some,” “often” etc., which
tend to be baseless in fact and meaningless to the reader (e.g. “many people enjoy
vanilla, but many others prefer chocolate”). It is often necessary to use these
terms, but they must be applied with caution, and never to manipulate readers’
Avoid using the passive voice. In the active voice, the subject performs the
action expressed in the verb. In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon by
some other agent or by something unnamed. Passive voice can obscure the
relationship between subject, verb, and object and makes difficult assigning or
discerning responsibility for an action.
Passive Voice: At least 11 Palestinians were killed and more than 135 were
injured Monday in five attacks by Israeli military aircraft on Palestinian
militant targets in the Gaza Strip.
Active Voice: Israeli forces, firing from military aircraft, killed at least 11
Palestinians in five separate attacks on targets in the Gaza Strip.
Information from your various interview subjects will invariably differ. Your job includes
negotiating these differences to get at the truth. For subjective or questionable claims,
simply repeating the statements of each source as if each viewpoint were equally valid
(“he said, she said”) does not constitute responsible journalism.
Test all claims and arguments against evidence
All verifiable facts should be verified. If there is competing evidence, report this fact
along with relevant information about the quality and biases of the various sources.
Claims that are inconsistent with or contradict solid evidence should not be left
unchallenged in the narrative or in people’s quotes. In most instances, such claims
should be left out, unless one of the goals of the article is to debunk a common belief,
prevent public misinformation, or expose the motivations of people making the claims. In
those cases, include the dubious statement but expose it as false or unsubstantiated in the
narrative by including context or placing it alongside the counter-claim or evidence that
Similarly, do not expect that the reader will accept a true claim on face value. Back up
credible statements or views with supporting evidence.
Use sources only on areas of expertise
When determining which parts of interview transcripts to include or whose voice to use
to convey each piece of information, consider the proper role in the story for each type of
source and avoid allowing sources to convey information they are not in a position to be
truly knowledgeable about.
Ex. You are writing a story about cuts to childcare subsidies for mothers on
public assistance. In general, you will want to use interviews with people
directly affected by the policy (mothers on public assistance) to convey
personal stories to the reader about what life is like on public assistance.
Since advocates work with hundreds of mothers likely to be affected by the
policy change, they can be used to put personal stories into a broader
context. Independent analysts provide another layer of context based on
more objective study. You would not want to quote a mother giving statistics
on how much each person on public assistance stands to lose from the
policy, unless that mother also happens to be a researcher. Likewise, you
would not want to quote an analyst on how it feels to leave a child in
substandard daycare, unless the analyst has had that experience.
How about giving out some sources?, and have people write a nutgraph + a headline