A news story is the standard format that journalists employ for producing the texts they publish in the media. In contrast to feature narratives or subjective reviews and editorials, the news story aims to give a direct, succinct, and fact-based account, but instead the news story does political work and gives orientation in a complex world (Schudson 1982). This difference causes problems not only for storytellers but also for news researchers.
The news story is an invention that responded to commercial necessities. When news wire services emerged around the middle of the nineteenth century, they needed to sell the same stories to newspapers with competing party alignments. Neutral and brief factual stories were less likely to offend partisan sensibilities. The first news stories of this sort probably appeared from the New York Associated Press, forerunner of the Associated Press (AP), which served both Republican and Democrat-leaning newspapers.
Since then news agencies such as Reuters and Agence France-Presse have influenced practices for news story writing. Many newspapers or agencies have their own stylebooks that guide the practice of news writing, including the best-known AP Stylebook (updated annually by the AP).
Elements Of Practice
Journalists consider themselves news people. Interviewing, note taking, and research are daily duties, whether they work in a television newsroom full time or for a small local newspaper freelance. Among the accidents, games, press conferences, scandals, and other incoming occurrences, they decide which are worth telling in a news story (Molotch & Lester 1974). From an idealistic point of view, journalism practice involves what reporters and editors call “checking a story out” with a “nose for news.” They also come up with their own story ideas and initiate investigations.
From their notebook, they try to tell an interesting story. The usual task is to produce a short, informative report, which itself limits the range of storytelling elements possible. Journalists have developed routines for checking and quoting sources and composing what editors consider a good news story (Mencher 1983).
One standard for the story is to begin with a summary lead sentence. Here the technical means of distribution may have constricted the roots of news story practice. Newspaper editors had always clipped stories from other sources to republish, but telegraphy formalized the sharing of news (Barnhurst & Nerone 2002). In the lore of journalism, putting the summary first was a safeguard in case the telegraph lines did not function correctly. The lead might have resulted from such organizational imperatives, but not all media scholars accept the popular explanation (Pöttker 2005).
Another standard is to choose the most important facts of a story. Other information then follows in descending order. Journalists display their analytical competence by answering the five Ws (and one H): Who did What, Where, When, and Why (and How)? The standard of presenting facts in priority order produces a form called the inverted pyramid. Journalism handbooks say the form allows editors to shorten stories quickly by cutting from the end of a text, following another organizational imperative to fit copy into limited space.
When producing a story, journalists keep in mind several reference groups, including editors, co-workers, outside sources, colleagues at other media, politicians, interest groups, friends, family members, and a generalized audience (Darnton 1975).
Journalists also adjust the news story to fit the intended medium. Different narrative structures and forms have emerged in print, broadcast, and interactive media. Journalists consider radio, for example, a fleeting medium consumed as a background, and so they write in short sentences and accept some repetition, especially for names and numbers. For newspapers, in contrast, journalists may write in a more elaborate style, but they tolerate less redundancy because they know the reader (unlike a radio listener) can consult the text a second time. Newspaper journalists write to accommodate pictures and graphics, and television journalists also integrate moving pictures with audio. Studies reveal a gap between pictures and text on television (Griffin 1992), with video images reverting to symbolic pictures such as politicians shaking hands.
Internet journalists work in a multimedia setting, which can combine elements of all previous media on the computer screen. Hypertext allows individual users to follow links to find background or related information online. The inverted pyramid model makes less sense in the online story, but research has not yet documented the impact of the Internet on the form and practice of the news story (Weischenberg 2001).
Specific topics of journalism emphasize different aspects of the news story. Sports journalists working live on TV or radio, for instance, narrate the play-by-play or chronicle of an event, but those reporting for print media tend to write a next-day story, with more explanation. Arts topics call for formats that integrate subjective judgments into otherwise fact-based reports about performances or events.
Writing the news story thus involves creating a text genre that follows standards (objectivity, summary leads, inverted pyramid, and the like), attends to different constituencies, and adapts to the medium and the topic at hand. Journalists consider the resulting stories neutral and professional. News agencies see these qualities as desirable for attracting and retaining customers, especially small-town newspapers. The resulting journalism aims to focus mainly on information rather than interpretation.
Research Theory And Method
The news story is one of the main objects of journalism and communication study. News stories are central to how news workers interact, how the gatekeeper works, and how newsrooms function, among other aspects of journalism practice. News stories are the product of news selection decisions and manifest news judgments. Most journalists do not reflect on these factors or values, but instead follow the routines that have become habit through the process of professional socialization.
A key issue for producing news stories is truth. Press freedom protects the media from direct influence of the state over the news they can offer the public. Walter Lippmann’s book Public opinion (1991) made it clear that news and truth are not the same. The media present only those occurrences chosen according to established criteria, and how journalists reformat and present them depends on work routines. In the process, media workers construct realities, and their work matters to the degree that it influences public perceptions.
Because of that influence, journalists bear a responsibility toward society. The objectivity norm of professional journalism is an ideal to encourage journalists to minimize the gap between news and truth (Schudson 2001). They achieve a symbolic objectivity by following such routines as using neutral expressions, presenting opposing positions and actors, and making quotations from others distinct from their own voice or prose. These markers of objectivity lend authority to their output (Zelizer 1990).
A central element of journalism ethics is to draw a clear distinction between fact and fiction. A journalist writing a news story above all does not invent facts. A further, formal separation divides fact from opinion. Officially, opinion appears on pages and in locations designated for such expressions. The forms for presenting news stories thus reinforce the emphasis on information in the standard news story.
Since its emergence in the early twentieth century, critics have objected to information journalism as shallow, lacking in context, and omitting background information. In the US, a key moment of such criticism occurred during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, when journalists issued news stories that reported the statements of a powerful US congressman and the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee he chaired, without expressing judgments against the resulting tyranny.
In reaction to such failures of the standard news story, US journalists have increasingly infused news stories with analysis and interpretation, and the resulting form has grown consistently longer (Barnhurst & Mutz 1997). During the last quarter of the twentieth century, cultural critics also engaged in a sustained critique of objectivity, and journalists began to abandon the term in favor of the phrase fairness and balance.
Another influence on the production of news stories is the rise of public relations (PR), which emerged along with twentieth-century mass media as corporations tried to influence public perceptions.
Journalists have little time to do thorough reporting, a limitation that PR practitioners use as an opening to provide information prepackaged to imitate the standard patterns of the news story. Although both spheres are interdependent, the balance between journalism and PR is constantly shifting. Journalists generally consider the influence of PR a growing, serious threat to their own independence and standing, which depend on audiences believing their news stories cover any corporation without favor.
Other commercial trends in the media have also influenced news story writing. The founding and growth of private commercial TV stations in Europe threw into sharp relief a hybrid form of news, which combines information and entertainment and bridges the divide between serious and light media fare. Examples of new, mixed news stories combine public affairs reporting with other practices, such as public service or advocacy. Hybrid news stories shift the practice of journalism toward production of so-called “news you can use.”
The news story today has to fulfill two functions at once: to maintain its close connection to reality and to appeal to the media recipient as an entertaining genre. Journalists call these the hard and soft news functions of stories, which may be fundamentally at odds. Not all occurrences can be entertaining, and so a core of hard stories remains for news storytellers to tell.
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