By RICK DUNHAM
Global Business Journalism co-director
No matter how good a writer you are, you cannot be a good journalist without a solid grounding in journalism basics. After 35 years in journalism and a decade in journalism education, I have boiled down the basics to 10 essential traits. Here they are:
Journalism is nothing without a solid bedrock of truth. Your writing must be accurate. But accuracy is not enough: Your stories must be true. If you accurately report an untrue or misleading statement, you are doing a disservice to your audience.
Make sure your audience understands clearly what you are saying. The words you use should convey the meaning you intend. Be specific. Use active voice. Put numbers into context – particularly large numbers. Avoid long, disjointed sentences shackled with confusing dependent clauses.
Make sure you have included all of the most important and relevant details. Make sure you placed the main facts of the story into context. Don't just report on "what's new" – mention "what's next" or "why." Don't include irrelevant and unimportant details. But make sure you have not misled you audience through omission.
4. Compelling storytelling
You are competing for your audience's attention in a cluttered information world. Readers are easily distracted, especially when they are consuming your story on a mobile device. To keep their attention, your story must be better than good. There is no substitute for compelling storytelling. Hook the reader from the first sentence. Demonstrate quickly why the story is interesting and important. Make sure that fresh information and strong details are at the top of the story. All of your quotations should add value. The story should move briskly. Every sentence should enrich the reader's experience.
5. Tight writing
As Strunk and White wrote more than a century ago, "Omit needless words." Be concise. Keep your sentences short. Keep your first paragraph short (usually under 35 words). Avoid superfluous adverbs and adjectives. When in doubt, leave it out. But remember this: Tight writing does not mean leaving out important details or analytical points. It means trimming the merely ordinary to leave more room for the extraordinary.
Use the right word to convey the right meaning. Avoid vague verbs such as "to have," "to be," "to do" or "to get" when you can be more specific. Avoid over-general words such as "some" or "many" or "a lot." If you have trouble with precise word choice, you need to expand your English vocabulary.
You always want a time peg for your news story. On breaking news, that's easy: News is happening now and I am writing about it. But news features and enterprise projects should be timely now. You might "peg" your story to an anniversary date, an upcoming event or the release of a book or movie. Always be able to answer this question: "Why is this story of interest to my audience right now?"
8. Fairness, balance and responsibility
Ethics are a core value of journalism. Your stories, even opinion pieces, should be fair. You should provide context for breaking news. Multiple points of view should be considered, although you have no obligation to give equal space to everyone. The "target" of a critical story should be given an opportunity to respond before publication. Fairness sometimes includes truth-telling and fact-checking. It is your responsibility to report the truth, not to repeat the assertions of powerful people.
9. Transparency and honesty
You must be straight with your audience if you expect them to trust you. Don't steal material from others. Properly attribute all material (facts and quotations) that you found on other platforms. Avoid conflicts of interest. Never take money or gifts in exchange for writing a story (or not writing a story).
10. Real reporting
Don't expect to write a complete report if you have not done some first-hand reporting. A pandemic is not an excuse: You owe it to your readers to gather facts yourself. Don't just repeat what you saw in a report or a press release. Don't "curate" the best work of other journalists. In the old days, engaged in what old-timers called "shoe-leather reporting." Today, you might be wearing slippers in your home office. But get to work and do some real reporting!
Rick Dunham is co-director of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University and is author of the journalism textbook Multimedia Reporting (Springer, 2020). He is working on a new textbook, English News Writing for a Global Audience, which will include this tip sheet.