We Can Do Better: The Overlooked Importance of Professional Journalism


The Web is a galaxy of information that is rapidly expanding. Blogs and online magazines are helping shape the future of this Information Age that we live in. Those of us who read, write and design blogs and online magazines possess extraordinary power and potential. How will we choose to use it?

If you use your website to publish news, events, opinions or interviews, you should familiarize yourself with the basics of journalism. These tools can help us develop and share information that is exciting, intelligent, and responsible. They can provide guidance and support as you pursue a career or hobby writing online.

Newsstand2 in We Can Do Better: The Overlooked Importance of Professional Journalism

This article is accompanied by examples of photojournalism, which is the practice of communicating news through photographs. The above photo of a 1940′s newsstand in New York City was taken by photojournalist Ruth Orkin

We, designers, go on all day about the usability of our WordPress layouts and the readability of our typography, but all of those things have been considered in vain if our writing is poorly spelled, riddled with inaccuracies, or based on second-hand assumptions that will leave our audience misled, confused, or worse. Even if you’re just casually writing about why you personally love/hate the iPad (for example), you can do so in a truthful way (truthful to your own opinions and truthful to the information you are discussing).

Whether or not you strive to produce writing that you consider journalism is not all that important. What is important is that no matter what writing genre you specialize in, you have a responsibility to your readers to publish high quality writing that is truthful, accurate, and readable. Oh, and this applies to your professional Twitter stream and Facebook updates, too. All of these elements have a reflection on you and your brand.

Trained professional journalists spend years studying the complex techniques and thorny philosophical values that define the trade of journalism, so don’t expect to receive a Master’s degree from Columbia by the end of this article. What this piece can serve as is a crash course designed to introduce concepts that will improve your writing, pique your interest, and instill a sense of respect for the fundamentals of a noble profession.

What is Journalism?

The most familiar function of journalism is ‘hard news’ reporting you’ll see on the front page of the New York Times or the Washington Post. But journalistic writing also extends to editorial writing, cultural reviews, interviews, and more.

According to The Elements of Journalism (written by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel), “Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” Journalism is the pursuit of truth, accuracy and fairness in the telling of a story. Journalists serve and inform their audience by investigating and reporting on news, trends, issues, and events. Much like designers, journalists pride themselves on a duty provide their audience with useful, high-quality content.

What’s the difference between Journalism and Blogging?

CNN.com delivers journalism. Your cousin’s homemade Twilight fan fiction site, on the other hand, is a blog. However, somewhere in between lies a hotly debated grey area.

So can blogs be journalism? According to NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, “They can be, sometimes.”  How can you tell the difference? Depends on who you ask. Rosen himself is both journalist and blogger (he runs PressThink, a weblog about journalism and the press). In his essay ‘Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over’, Rosen decides that the sometimes indiscernible difference between these two forms of writing is less important than the implications of massive shifts of power in the media. Rosen acknowledges what Tom Curley (Chief Executive of the Associated Press) called “a huge shift in the ‘balance of power’ in our world, from the content providers to the content consumers.” What does that mean for those of us in a position to take advantage of our newfound power?

It means we should move forward with a spirit of responsibility and immense excitement. We live in a revolutionary time when just about anyone with access to a computer can make his or her writing available to an enormous international audience with the click of a button. As Web designers and online writers who are experienced with the Web, the potential of our medium is tremendous.

Journalistic Tools for Bloggers

Paris in We Can Do Better: The Overlooked Importance of Professional Journalism

This photo comes from a series chronicling Paris street dancers practicing dance styles including breakdancing and capoeira. This photo, by Denis Darcazq, was acknowledged by photojournalism foundation World Press Photo in 2007

Write Compelling Leads

A ‘lead’ is the first sentence of an article. The lead is your first and best chance to compel the reader to stick around and read more. A sentence that is humorous, provocative, or curious can be extremely engaging.

To learn more about captiving leads, you can’t beat the literary titans of fiction. One classic first sentence comes from Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis: “Gregor Samsa woke from uneasy dreams one morning to find himself changed into a giant bug.” Who wouldn’t want to know what happens next?

Use the Active Voice

The active voice is much more compelling than the passive voice.  To say ‘I am designing the website’ is a clearer and more powerful statement than ‘the website is being designed by me.’ According to The Elements of Style, “The habitual use of the active voice… makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind.”

London in We Can Do Better: The Overlooked Importance of Professional Journalism

Twins are held up to watch Princess Margaret pass by in London on Armistice Day, 1951. Photo by Ruth Orkin

Write in Positive Terms

Describe things in terms of what they are instead of what they aren’t. Instead of saying that a painter ‘doesn’t use a lot of color,’ say that she ‘uses a limited palette.’

Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar

It should go without saying, but it doesn’t: proper spelling and grammar are necessary if you want to be taken seriously. Writing that is descriptive, informative, and properly written speaks volumes about credibility and professionalism. It can be a baffling experience to visit a popular design blog and read a post that’s riddled with spelling errors and awkward, incomplete sentences.

Spell-check your documents, have a friend proofread them, and take the time to do it right. It’s understandable that bloggers who write in their second language might have some inaccuracies, but over time, those inaccuracies can degrade the quality of a brand.

For an invaluable resource on the subject, pick up The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. The tips and tools you read in that book will reverberate inside your head for the rest of your writing career.

Verification

Journalism’s “essence is a discipline of verification” (The Elements of Journalism). “Rather than publishing another news outlet’s scoop, journalists have tended to require one of their reporters to call a source to confirm it first.”

Let’s say you’re writing about breaking technology news that you read about on another blogger’s site. Unless they’ve shared their sources, you probably don’t know where that blogger received their information (and it was likely to have been copied and pasted from yet another blog). If you want to make a commitment to accuracy, you can always take the extra two minutes to pick up the phone or write an email to the company releasing the product. Ask them to verify your facts, because otherwise you can’t be sure that they’re facts at all.

The Web can be a scandalous and salacious place. False rumors of a celebrity’s death will occasionally spread like wildfire on Twitter. These kinds of events can be distasteful and even disturbing. Now that we’re all casual news reporters through social media, it’s important to verify the things we hear before passing them along. Obviously, independent bloggers don’t have the same obligations that a newspaper reporter has, but it’s beneficial to stay aware of these issues.

Red-sandstone1 in We Can Do Better: The Overlooked Importance of Professional Journalism

Hikers walk along the wildly-colored Danxia Landform at a geopark in Zhangye, China. This photo is one of Life.com’s Photos of the Year for 2009. Photo by Han Chuanhao/Xinhua/Landov

Originality

Do your own work. Be unique. Generate fresh concepts that will engage your readers. Try not to imitate the work of others more than is necessary and never steal or plagiarize. Need images, ideas, or reference for your next project? Try the library instead of Google Images and Wikipedia (an especially perilous resource due to the questionable quality of much of its contents). You’ll be helping to make the Internet a richer and more diverse place instead of recycling or regurgitating. Sharing your reputable information sources will add credibility to your work.

Interviews

The interview is a popular feature on design blogs. Interviewing is an art of its own, and when it’s done right, it can be very fun and it can yield surprising results (who doesn’t love a valuable business insight or a shocking revelation?).

“A reporter who begins an interview without the proper preparation is like a student taking a final exam without studying” (News Reporting and Writing, The Missouri Group). Before your conversation with John Q. Celebrity, you need to do thorough research and you need to write good questions. Read everything you can find about your subject and his career. When he can’t recall the title of the sculpture he made in 1997 and you remind him that it was called ‘Pretentious Masterpiece,’ it shows that you’re on the ball.

Write questions that will inspire unique answers. If you waste the entire interview asking banal questions that are easily available to the public (i.e. “Where did you go to college?”), you’re liable to walk away with an interview that’s going to put your audience to sleep. Worse yet, if your interview subject is someone who is interviewed several times a week, he or she might be irritated by the basic questions and the evidence that you didn’t do much research. Now you face the possibility of your interview subject growing cold, responding with disinterested answers, or cutting the interview short.

Once you’ve done great research and written compelling questions, you can relax and enter the interview with an inquisitive spirit. Buy a mini tape recorder and make sure you never begin an interview with dull batteries in it. Don’t be afraid to deviate from your well-researched questions if a more urgent question arises in your mind. Remember that you’re having a conversation with another human being — not just an article subject — and they want to engage with you. When the piece is completed and transcribed, the tone of your discussion will spring forth from your printed words.

Direct Quotations

Whether you’re transcribing your recorded interview or quoting an article, it is of utmost importance that every quote you write is entirely accurate. Changing a single word can change the entire meaning of a statement. In some situations, these kinds of mistakes can lead to anger, charges of libel, and even lawsuits.

A while back, a well-known Web designer expressed his displeasure over Twitter when someone re-tweeted one of his tweets, but changed part of his statement from “it’s disappointing” to “it’s pathetic.” The person on the other end of that exchange had altered the entire tone of that original tweet with the change of just one word. Pathetic is a much more severe word than disappointing, and the Web designer was irritated.

When you are writing a direct quote, make sure it is written verbatim. Verbatim means ‘in exactly the same words that were used originally.’ Punctuation can change the meaning of a statement, too.

Babe in We Can Do Better: The Overlooked Importance of Professional Journalism

This Pulitzer Prize-winning photo portrays aging baseball great Babe Ruth receiving thunderous applause at Yankee Stadium in 1948. An image like this is a good example of why journalism legend Dan Rather once wrote, “It’s disheartening for anyone in my line of work to be reminded that sometimes one picture is, indeed, worth ten thousand words.”

Ethical Writing

In journalism, the philosophical and ethical boundaries of reporting are matters of great importance and pride.

So what does ethical writing mean for bloggers? Well, if you’re writing a simple ‘how to’ tutorial, ethics might not be involved at all. But what if your tutorial passively encourages readers to use a product that’s manufactured by a company whose business practices are disreputable or inhumane? Sometimes there are ethical implications where we least expect them.

Ethics are a matter of personal opinion. These matters are complex and open to interpretation. But few things are more important to you and your brand than your standards and principles.

Is it ethical to write paid ‘sponsored’ blog posts where you’re paid to write and publish a review of a product? It’s one thing to feature advertisements like Google AdWords in your sidebar, but when advertising merges with your content in the form of an entire post that you were paid to write, that’s a different story. Some sponsorship programs don’t ‘force’ bloggers to write favorable reviews, but oddly enough, you’ll be hard pressed to find a sponsored blog post that is harshly critical of its subject. That’s because if you’re being paid, you’re biased. That’s the bottom line.

Make your money from your ideas, designs, and creativity — not sponsored blog posts. No one wants to see a glorified advertisement tucked in amongst your real content. Besides, sponsored blog posts just look tacky.

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