All Sides Aren't Necessarily Equal, So Don't Write as if They Are
And like Mr. Quick the butcher, don't be bashful about brandishing your expertise.(Third of a Series) Wed., June 26, 2013.
By Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.
After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.
In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.
Here are more of my 50 lessons from 50 years in journalism.
21. Truth isn't always found in the middle.
Too often, journalists practice the misunderstood concept of "objectivity" by quoting two sides in a dispute and letting readers choose the winner. But objectivity really means testing information and letting readers know the results.
And the results don't always fall in the middle. For instance, some scientists challenge global warming, but the vast preponderance doesn't. So an article that quotes one expert on each side is misleading.
One should be scrupulous and always open to new evidence. But if sufficient research shows the evidence seems to lie more in one direction than another, journalists should present the findings proportionately.
22. What we can learn from Mr. Quick the butcher.
My family patronized a small butcher shop owned by Mr. Quick. Dressed in a stained apron, big knife in hand, he'd stand behind the meat case as my parents inquired about the pork chops, the chicken, the cheap cuts of steak. Mr.Quick would offer advice, and my parents usually would take it.
Mr. Quick was offering opinion. But it was opinion based on expertise and experience.
Journalists, I think, have a similar responsibility, not to take political sides or represent partisan points, but to share the fruits of their expertise and evidence-gathering.
Like butchers or pharmacists, journalists sometimes become leading experts on some issue (the Main Street zoning dispute, the governor's race). Withholding their expertise deprives readers of irreplaceable professional analysis.
23a. Always taste the burger.
As an intern at the St. Petersburg Times, I was assigned to cover a new burger franchise in town. I was writing away when the managing editor, Bob Haiman, dropped by to chat.
"How does the burger taste?" he asked.
"I don't know," I replied meekly. "I did the story by phone."
Haiman took a wad of bills from his pocket and threw them at me. "Go buy one," he ordered, "and come back and put in your story what it tastes like."
I ate one, which I reported to be "tangy but tasty."
It was one of the most durable reporting lessons I ever learned.
23b. But don't ride the tricycle.
The late writer and broadcaster Charles Kuralt put it this way:
"The Tricycle Principle is simple: 'When doing a tricycle story, don't ride a tricycle.' The story is about children, dummy, not about you."
Lesson taken: The writer is not the story. The story is the story.
24. We're due for a new blast of new media.
Radio surged in the years after World War I until the even cooler medium of television captured the public after World War II. Only a couple of generations later, we were all getting online.
If history holds, new media never stop coming. The web, dating back to the 1980s, should be looking over its shoulder. Those of us in journalism should be readying ourselves for new breakthroughs.
25. The three qualities of great writing.
We all want to write great stories. But what is "great"?
Breaking big tasks down into parts helps solve problems. I see the path to excellence as following these stages:
First, a great idea. This is the biggest decision in any assignment and needs more attention than we normally give it. A great idea usually results in a great story. A poor idea rarely does. Writers and editors should persevere toward the best available idea, not the first decent one they happen to think of.
Second, great material. This comes from reporting. The more surprising, meaningful and moving your material, the better the story.
Third, great words. Then you have to write as beautifully as possible.
Improving in each of these areas takes writing to higher and higher levels.
26. Something I learned from my daughters.
My daughter Ashli is an actor, exceptionally creative and right-brained. My daughter Amber is a nurse practitioner, exceedingly organized and left-brained.
The lesson: Creativity and craft exist within the same gene pool. As writers, we should work to develop both realms. Most of us lean more in one direction than the other, and we should profit from our strong side.
But perhaps more important, we can make even more progress by developing our weaker side, since we have more room there to grow. If you're left-brained, work on creativity (try visualizing the best possible story you could write). If you're right-brained, practice focusing (for example, make better outlines).
27. There is always something you don't know.
I wrote once about someone who described quitting a job on principle. My story sort of glorified the person. Years later I saw him at a party, and he actually produced a copy of my article. He explained that he had in fact been fired but floated the resigning-on-principle explanation as a cover. I hadn't checked it out carefully enough.
Dig deep. Write with humility. On almost every story, there are things you don't know yet.
28. Resist equivocation.
As a copy editor at the Charlotte Observer, I was drafting a headline once that said something like, "Mayor may run for reelection." Jim Batten, a legendary editor now deceased, walked past and read it over my shoulder.
"Then again, he may not," Batten commented, and drifted away.
Another lesson: Whenever possible, write something substantive ("poor health makes mayor question race") rather than namby-pamby.
29. The ruler trick for editing.
Speaking of copy editing, I learned this lesson a very hard way. I edited and proofread a page that contained an advertisement for color television sets at a local store. They were on sale for $399 or something, but I let the page go through with a terrible typo, reducing the price to, say, $39.
My first editor, Annie Laurie Kinney, responded in that voice editors use when they're ready to flay you alive. Then she showed me the trick of using a straightedge to frame each line of type as you scrutinize it. It keeps the eye from wandering and makes it easier to spot typos and errors. You can do this online by editing each line at the bottom of your screen.
30. "Names is news."
My first day in her newsroom, Mrs. Kinney sat me down for a lecture. "Always remember," she instructed, "that names is news."
I remember. Above all, journalism is about people.
Thursday: On-the-scene reporting rules. And why journalists should be feared.