News Writing Pitfalls to Avoid

News writing is not for the faint of heart. The legwork, attention to detail, and fact-checking it requires could easily intimidate a fledgling writer with a weak commitment to the craft. A journalist also has to contend with daily deadlines, resource persons who may have their own agenda, and editors whose interrogations never seem to end.

Yet, many a courageous soul has ventured into the field for good reason: the fulfillment that comes from having written a piece that affects national policy, moves markets, or opens discussions on social issues is unparalleled. The lengthy process of writing a news article that may take up only a fourth of a page —or less — in a newspaper or magazine may not make sense to some, but the high of having written something relevant, timely, and impactful is something that one does not easily forget.

Writers who are committed to learning news writing will have already learned its technical aspects, such as the prioritization of information—also known as the inverted pyramid – and the prioritization of news sources (first-hand tops the list, official documents are a close second). But technicalities are only one part of it. Many writers overlook the importance of integrity in news writing. Credibility is established by constantly upholding moral standards and avoiding pitfalls such as these:

Plagiarism. Claiming other people’s work as your own spells “d-e-a-t-h s-e-n-t-e-n-c-e” in the news industry. In some news outfits, plagiarism means immediate termination for the plagiarist. Since it is basically another form of stealing, it is the worst offense one could commit in a profession that treats credibility, trustworthiness, and reliability as its currency. Avoiding this is easy: give credit where it is due. Depending on the topic you are tackling, your news story will rely on what authorities in relevant fields say about it. Properly attributing quotes and insights not only eliminates plagiarism, it also strengthens the article.

Lazy writing. Sometimes, copy lands on the editor’s desk that is so dense that the only way to make it readable is to completely rewrite it. Often, the piece is the result of laziness on the part of the reporter who makes no effort to understand the information at hand or thinks that including unfiltered, technical explanations in the article would suffice. The usual excuse is, "that's what the interviewee said," and “people who know the industry would understand what it is about." But these are justifications for sloppy work that no one would read. If the writers do not understand what they're writing about, how can they expect the readers to get it?

Using words to impress rather than to communicate.  Writers sometimes think that the best way to showcase their skills is to sprinkle sophisticated words on their pieces. This tends to backfire because big words, particularly misused ones, could end up confusing the readers. Readers—and editors—appreciate articles that convey information in clear, simple language, partly because it moves the focus away from the writer and to the story. And if the writer is judged on the basis of language use, the verdict could only be a favorable one for the person whose byline appears with an easy read.  

Manipulating facts to fit a preferred angle. Getting facts to fit an angle that a writer wants to present is a hole that even some veteran journalists fall into. When a writer lets the angle shape the facts instead of the other way around, motivations are questioned, and suspicions that he or she is “on the take” at times arise. If malice is suspected, it could even lead to a libel case.

There is a difference between manipulating facts to fit an angle and angling an article on the basis of information derived from multiple interviews and supporting documents. The former implies that the writer only looks for information that would fit a version of the story he or she wants to tell, while the latter entails keeping an open mind and getting as many sides of the story as possible into the article. 

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I have 15 years of journalistic experience, both as a reporter and an editor. I've written on politics, trade, business, commodities, travel, and entertainment. I've edited for newspapers, magazines and books. I also do translation work. Online portfolio at jenneegrace.blogspot.com. Currently, I'm on a break from the rat race to pursue my Master's degree in Regional Integration.

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