Author:
Nathan McIntire
Subject:
Journalism
Material Type:
Textbook
Level:
Community College / Lower Division
Tags:
License:
Public Domain Dedication
Language:
English

Beginning Journalism

Beginning Journalism

Overview

This online educational resource is designed to provide students with an introduction to the field of journalism in a society that expects immediate, accurate and useful information. The goal of this resource is to prepare students to become practicing journalists and to increase media literacy even among those who do not intend to pursue journalism as a career. 

Chapter 1: Newsworthiness and the Journalist's Job

Internet Freedom Fellows Press Conference at UN

"Internet Freedom Fellows Press Conference at UN" by US Mission Geneva is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Who decides what counts as "news?" The answer may surprise you. Because built into journalism is a series of assumptions, perspectives and practices that color what makes something newsworthy, and some stories you may think don't deserve to be covered are very important to others. Ultimately, it's the journalist's job to use their judgment, experience and knowledge to determine what they think will be of interest to their readers, and since audience can be measured immediately in the digital era, we can get a very good idea of what's important to people in real time.

In this chapter we'll explore the different elements that tend to be interesting to people and look at what being a journalist actually looks like in a newsroom. 

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Chapter 2: Story Structure and Lead Writing

The lead, sometimes spelled lede, is the first sentence of a news story. One sentence sounds simple, but to write a good lead, a journalist has to capture all the most important information in that single sentence. Because in news writing, we never use suspense to draw out the excitement of the story. We always tell people, immediately, what happened. 

The lead is the point of the common visualization of journalistic story structure known as the inverted pyramid. The inverted pyramid describes how a typical news story is organized: from the most important information to the least.

"Inverted pyramid in comprehensive form" by Christopher Schwartz is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

“Inverted pyramid in comprehensive form” by Christopher Schwartz is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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Chapter 3: Journalistic Ethics

Rupert Murdoch - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2009

"Rupert Murdoch - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2009" by World Economic Forum is licensed under CCBY-NC-SA 2.0.

Where do you go to get a journalism license? Is there a badge I can wear that makes me a journalist? Do I become a journalist by graduating from journalism school?

One cool thing about journalism in the digital era is that literally anyone can do it. Social media and blogging platforms allow us to publish ourselves, and by doing so, we enjoy the same rights under the First Amendment that a reporter from the New York Times counts on.

So what distinguishes professional journalists, then? Ethics. A system of rules and principles used to guide the subjective decisions we're making as we go out into the world and try to report back what's happening. If anyone can be a reporter, we need to distinguish ourselves as pros through ethical practices that increase trust in us from our readers. A nonprofit organization called the Society of Professional Journalists publishes they system they recommend, and newsrooms all over the country follow it.

Reading:

Watch:

  • "Murdoch's Scandal" by PBS Frontline - March 27, 2012
    • Case study: What ethical principles from the SPJ Code of Ethics did News Corp. journalists violate?

 

Chapter 4: Public Relations, Press Conferences and Press Releases

President Trump & the First Lady's Trip to Europe

"President Trump & the First Lady's Trip to Europe" by The White House is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Sometimes we find the story, and sometimes the story comes to us. There is an entire profession dedicated to pitching, spinning, distracting and sometimes helping reporters publish stories. This week we'll talk about public relations and the methods used by PR pros to persuade reporters. Among them are press releases—written documents meant to attract or affect news coverage—and press conferences, the events used by companies, politicians and others to generate publicity.

A key thing to note this week is that the mission of the reporter does not always align with the mission of the people trying to get us to write about them. Skepticism is always warranted when powerful people and institutions are trying to generate news coverage.

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Chapter 5: Interviewing

A journalists interviewing voters at the Parliamentary elections - Kigali, 16 September 2013

"A journalists interviewing voters at the Parliamentary elections - Kigali, 16 September 2013" by Paul Kagame is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Journalists get information in a variety of ways, but the primary method is simply talking to people. Getting people to talk, and talk about what we want them to talk about, can be harder than it seems. And there are different types of journalistic interviews. Are we confronting a politician? That calls for a much different approach than discussing the intimate details of someone's life for a profile story. 

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Watch:

Dean Baquet Interviews Jay-Z

 

Case study: What about Baquet's interviewing approach got Jay-Z to open up?

Chapter 6: Feature Writing

Pulitzer Prizes website screenshot

So far we've looked at news structure, breaking down timely stories into the components of who, what, when, where and why. This is an important way to organize information when it's new and developing, but what about stories that don't have that same immediacy?

Feature writing is a broad category of journalistic writing that takes a more creative approach, using storytelling and narrative devices you may remember from your English classes to draw the reader in. Feature writers might use mystery, foreshadowing, scene recreation or flashbacks to transport readers into the story. The goal is to engage the reader with emotion and details instead of mere newness. This means there are fewer rules to feature writing, but that doesn't mean features are easy to do.

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*Reference: For examples of excellent longform feature writing, the Pulitzer Prizes provides free access to the nominees and prizewinners in its Feature Writing category going back many decades.

Chapter 7: Anonymous Sourcing

Prison Bars

"Prison Bars" by mikecogh is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Did you know that if you want to protect an anonymous source and keep a promise to keep their identity confidential, you might have to go to jail? Did you know many reporters, including some working for the most prestigious outlets in the country, have chosen prison over testifying about the identity of their sources?

Anonymous sourcing poses a challenging dilemma for reporters: on one hand, we want to tell readers exactly where we got our information to build trust, but on the other, some stories simply can't be told without confidentiality. Want to report on the CIA? Good luck getting a spy on the record to talk about what they do. They could go to jail and lose their job just for speaking to the press. 

Now we'll dive into anonymous sourcing and try to determine when it's justifiable to withhold the identity of your source from readers.

Reading: 

Watch:

Chapter 8: Investigative Journalism

Harvey Weinstein, Chairman, The Weinstein Company

"Harvey Weinstein, Chairman, The Weinstein Company" by Thomas Hawk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

For decades, the Watergate story was still the crown jewel of American journalism. Reporting from Washington Post reporters, after all, helped bring down a corrupt president. A few years ago, another seminal story showed the power of investigative journalism. Two reporters from the New York Times, Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, and a reporter for the New Yorker, Ronan Farrow, wrote a series of stories exposing the immensely powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein as a sexual predator. The story kickstarted the #MeToo movement and led to a reckoning around the world about sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.

Journalism did that. Journalists, based on dogged reporting from courageous reporters constantly being threatened with lawsuits (and followed by private detectives!) published a series of stories that changed the world. In this chapter we'll look at how that story was reported and published and examine how anonymous sourcing played a critical role in finally holding a very powerful man accountable for his monstrous behavior.

Reading:

"Sexual Misconduct Claims Trail A Hollywood Mogul", by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, The New York Times. First link - Oct. 6, 2017

Watch:

Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey On the Weinstein Story, New York TImes TimesTalks, Sept. 25 2019

 

 

Chapter 9: Public Records and Public Meetings

Stuart Strachan, Senior Archivist, National Archives, examines files from the Prime Minister's Department (1980)

"Stuart Strachan, Senior Archivist, National Archives, examines files from the Prime Minister's Department (1980)" by Archives New Zealand is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Documents! Precious documents!

Some of the most important, impactful reporting has been done through public records. The concept behind public records laws is simple: any governmental agency spends taxpayer money and, therefore, must open up its books to the public. This means that reporters (and anyone else!) can get their hands on a tremendous amount of newsworthy information just by asking governmental institutions to fork it over.

In this chapter we'll look at two key public records laws that allow California journalists to examine what politicians are doing and expose corruption. In most cases, all they have to do is ask. And sue. Lots of suing.

Public institutions (like college and university boards) are also required to meet in public, talk about business in public, and invite the public to attend! 

If you've ever been to a city council meeting, you know that few members of the public actually take advantage of this right. Sucks for democracy, but a great opportunity for reporters. By simply showing up to meetings, listening, and talking to people, reporters get tons of newsworthy stories that would probably otherwise go unnoticed.

Reading:

Chapter 10: Headlines

9/11 Headlines

"9/11 Headlines" by thisfeministrox is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Headlines are arguably the most important element in journalistic writing. The headline serves two primary functions in modern online journalism: it summarizes the story, and perhaps more importantly, it's a literal gateway to the story. If readers aren't interested in the headline, they won't click it. If they don't click it, they won't read the story. In this way, a bad headline is a death sentence for a great story!

But good headlines are tricky to write. They must be as concise as possible to fit into finite space, but they also must be intriguing enough to pique a readers' interest. And of course, because this is journalism, they must be accurate. 

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Chapter 11: Opinion in Journalism

 

 

Screenshot of New York Times editorial with headline "A Heartbroken Nation"

For most news outlets, a special section is devoted to opinion and it's usually labeled "Opinion." In that section, ideas and views about the news are debated by experts, pundits, and journalists. This can help readers shape their own perspective, but it can also give the impression that a news outlet is biased.

In this chapter we'll look at the role of opinion in journalism and debate whether true objectivity is possible.

Reading:

Watch:

In 2013, journalist Glenn Greenwald and Bill Keller, the former editor of the New York Times, debated the role that the opinion of the reporter should play in their reporting. Watch their perspectives. Who do you agree with?

Keller's take:

Bill Keller on Adversarial Journalism

Glenn Greenwald's response:

Glenn Greenwald's Rebuttal on Adversarial Journalism

 

 

    Chapter 12: Media Law

    Edward Snowden

    "Edward Snowden" by JeepersMedia is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

    What are we allowed to publish? What can the government legally keep us from publishing? Can we get in trouble for publishing certain things? Can we be sued for being mean? 

    Good news! Because of the First Amendment and court interpretations of it over the last two centuries, journalists in the U.S. enjoy extensive freedom. With limited exceptions that we'll talk about, we can publish whatever we want, even highly classified information stolen from the government. But once we publish, there are things we could have to worry about. Purposefully publishing something false (which no good reporter would do!) could lead to a costly defamation lawsuit, and we have to be careful reporting private information about people that has no real public benefit.

    Prior Restraints

    In 2010, a website called Wikileaks started publishing classified information leaked to it by an Army private named Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning. Manning was arrested, charged and convicted of violating the Espionage Act and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Had President Obama not commuted her sentence, she would still be in jail. 

    Manning's case represents a critical distinction to understand in the publication of classified information: in all but the most extreme cases, the press cannot be stopped from publishing stories on classified material and no reporter has ever been successfully prosecuted for doing so after the fact. But the leaker, the person who passes classified info to journalists, is very much in danger of prosecution.

    The reason the press is free to publish most things is because the Supreme Court has put restrictions on the government's ability to obtain prior restaints--court orders preventing publication of material. Prior restraints are a form of governmental censorship, and the courts have found that most of the time they violate the First Amendment. 

    The most important Supreme Court decision on prior restraints came in the Pentagon Papers case, when the court ruled that the New York Times could not be legally barred from publishing a secret government study about the Vietnam War.

    Reading:

    Listen:

    The podcast "Reveal" from the Center for Investigative Reporting explored the Pentagon Papers case in depth. Listen to the episode here:

    Watch:

    In 2010, a website called Wikileaks started publishing classified information leaked to it by an Army private named Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning. Manning was arrested, charged and convicted of violating the Espionage Act and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Had President Obama not commuted her sentence, she would still be in jail. 

    Manning's case represents a critical distinction to understand in the publication of classified information: in almost all cases, the press cannot be stopped from publishing stories on classified material and no reporter has ever been successfully prosecuted for doing so after the fact. But the leaker, the person who passes classified info to journalists, is very much in danger of prosecution.

    Defamation and Privacy Law

    We've gone over the good news about the First Amendment: under most circumstances, the government can't stop us from saying or publishing what we want. However, there can be consequences to publishing after the fact. Defamation law, for example, allows for people to sue publishers who print false information that damages their reputation. And privacy law protects us from having private information published about ourselves without consent. 

    It's important for journalists to understand what kinds of reporting can potentially get us sued. But more good news: as long as we're following strong ethical practices, we likely don't have to worry about ending up in court.

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    Case Study: Palin vs. New York Times

    In February 2022, a high profile defamation case concluded involving a well known politician suing the biggest newspaper in the world. In Sarah Palin v. The New York Times, Palin alleged she was libeled by an opinion column published in the Times that suggested a connection between a political ad her campaign ran and a mass shooting. The suit is a useful case study in defamation law and how the "actual malice" standard is used to determine fault in a lawsuit filed by a public figure against a news operation.

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