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ABCs of Journalism

The Query

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

newswriting structure.
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.

Paragraph structure

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.

Sentence structure

Keep sentences as short as possible. The average news article sentence is 18 words.

Nutgraph

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.

Word count

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.

Diction

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’

perception.

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.

Ex.

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.

5.2 Accuracy

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

undercuts it.

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

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