=121. Inaccuracy and Dullness
If the reporter has written a strong
lead for his story, he need have small worry about what shall follow,
which usually is little more than a simple narration of events in
chronological order, with interspersions of explanation or description.
If a wise choice and arrangement has been made in the organization of
details, the part of the story following the lead will all but tell
itself. The reporter's care now must be to maintain the interest he has
developed in the lead and to regard the accuracy of succeeding
statements. There are just two crimes of which a newspaper man may be
guilty,--inaccuracy and dullness. And the greater of these is
When a reporter is publishing a choice bit of scandal
or a remarkable instance of disregarded duty, it is an easy thing, for
the sake of making the story a good one, or for lack of complete
information, to draw on the imagination or to jump too readily at
conclusions, and so present as facts not only what may be untrue, but
what often later proves entirely false. The ease of the thing is argued
by the frequency with which it is done. Such a reporter does a threefold
harm: he compels his paper to humiliate itself later by publishing the
truth; he causes the public to lose confidence in his journal; and he
does irreparable injury to unknown, innocent persons. The day following
the Eastland disaster in 1915, one Chicago paper ran the list of dead
up to eighteen hundred. A week later the same paper was forced to put
the number at less than nine hundred. A rival publication in the same
city kept its estimate consistently in the neighborhood of nine
hundred, with the resultant effect to-day of increased public confidence
in its statements. In another city of the Middle West judgment for
$10,000 has recently been granted a complainant because one of the city
staff made a rash statement about the plaintiff's "illicit love." The
reporter was discharged, of course, but that did not repair the damage
or reimburse the paper.
=123. Law of Libel
Every newspaper man, as a matter of business,
should know the law of libel. It varies somewhat in different states,
but the following brief summary may be taken as a working basis until
the reporter can gain an opportunity to study it in his own state. In
the first place, the law holds responsible not only the owners of the
journal, but the publisher, the editor, the writer of the offending
article, and even any persons selling the paper, provided it can be
proved that they were aware of the matter contained in the publication.
What constitutes libel is equally far-reaching. It is any published
matter that tends to disgrace or degrade a person generally, or to
subject him to public distrust, ridicule, or contempt. Any written
article that implies or may be generally understood to imply reproach,
dishonesty, scandal, or ridicule of or against a person, or which tends
to subject such a person to social disgrace, public distrust, hatred,
ridicule, or contempt, is libelous. Even the use in an article of
ironical or sarcastic terms indicating scorn or contempt is libelous,
because such expressions are calculated to injure the persons of whom
they are spoken. And if an article contains several expressions, each of
which is libelous, each may be a separate cause for legal action. Nor is
it a defense to prove that such rumors were current, that such
statements were previously published, or even that the writer did not
intend the remarks to do injury. If it can be proved that the article
has done injury, the writer and his paper are guilty of libel and must
pay damages in accordance with the enormity of the offense.
=124. Avoidance of Libel
When it becomes necessary to make a
statement about a person that may be unpleasing to him, the writer
should give the name of the one making the charge or assertion, or else
avoid making a specific charge by inserting it is alleged, it is
rumored, it is charged, or some such limiting phrase. Note the
following story of the arrest of two shop-girls and how skilfully the
reporter avoids charging them with theft:
=CHARGE TWO WITH SHOPLIFTING=
Edna K. Whitter and Minnie Jensen, saleswomen in a
New Haven store, are under arrest charged with
The former is said to have confessed after goods
valued at more than $1,000 were found in her room.
She is said to have implicated Miss Jensen, who
denies the charge.
Desire to dress elaborately is alleged to have
caused the young women to steal. Miss Jensen is the
daughter of a farmer. Investigations by detectives,
it is said, may result in more arrests....
Whenever possible, it is well to avoid it is said, it is rumored. A
story reads more convincingly when the reporter's authority is given.
And the statement of the authority places the responsibility where it
One word further about the Eastland disaster and
loss of public confidence resulting from exaggerated stories. Upon the
news article itself there is a very definite effect of such
exaggeration,--that mere extravagance of statement often defeats its own
end. It is of first importance in writing that one's statements command
the confidence of the reader. If a reporter writes that the wreck he has
just visited was the greatest in the history of railroading, or the
bride the most beautiful ever joined in the bonds of holy wedlock before
a hymeneal altar, or the flames the most lurid that ever lit a midnight
sky, the reader merely snickers and turns to a story he can believe.
The value of understatement cannot be overestimated. Probably the
majority of the people of the United States are suspicious anyway of the
truth of what they read in the newspapers. Hence, if one must sin on the
side of accurate valuation of news, let him err in favor of
understatement rather than exaggeration. Then when he is forced by
actual facts to resort to huge figures, his readers will believe him.
Such a policy, consistently adhered to, will always win favor for a
paper and a reporter. And that the best papers have learned this is
proved by the fact that they no longer tolerate inaccuracy of statement
or unverified information in their columns.
=126. "Editorializing."=--One other caution must be given in the cause
of accuracy, that of the necessity of presenting news from an unbiased
standpoint, of eliminating as far as possible the personal equation,--in
other words, of avoiding "editorializing." The news columns are the
place for the colorless presentation of news. No attempt is, or should
be, made there to influence public opinion. That function is reserved
for the editorial columns, and the reporter must be careful not to let
his personal views color the articles he writes. The following story was
written for a small Wisconsin paper by a rabid political reporter:
=THOMAS MORRIS IN TOWN=
Thomas Morris, lieutenant governor of this state and
candidate for the United States senate, was in
Appleton this morning and spent the day in Outagamie
county shaking hands with those who would. But few
would shake. He wanted to speak while here, but the
enlightened citizens of this city were right in not
letting him. Peter Tubits was his chief pilot
through the county.
Needless to say, this story was not printed.
=127. Newspaper Policies
Even though it may seem--and in a measure
is--in contradiction to what has just been said about accuracy and
editorializing, it is nevertheless necessary before passing the subject
to comment on the necessity of a reporter's observing a paper's
editorial policies,--to say, in other words, that all news is not
unbiased. For instance, if a newspaper is undertaking a crusade against
midwives or pawnshops or certain political leaders, it gives those
institutions or those persons little or no credit for the good they
accomplish, nor does it feature impartially in its news articles their
good and bad acts. Yet such institutions or persons must have
accomplished much good to arrive at the rank or position they now hold,
and must continue to be of service to retain their standing. The
following story, which appeared in a paper crusading against pawnshops
and pistol carrying, is an illustration of what is meant by biased news:
=JILTED, ENDS LIFE WITH A GUN=
Israel Weilman was in love. Three months ago the
girl told him she would not marry him. Last night
Weilman left his quarters at 875 Banker Street and
went to the home of Rebecca Schussman, 904 South
Pueblo Avenue, where his room-mate and cousin, David
Isaacs, was calling.
"Here are the keys to the room," he told his cousin,
"I will not be home to-night."
Then Weilman departed. A few minutes later a shot
was heard in the alley back of the Schussman home.
They found Weilman dead with a bullet wound through
his heart. Beside him was a new "American bulldog"
revolver, retailing for $1.50. In his pocket was a
ticket of sale from the Angsgewitz pawnshop. The
profit on this style of weapon is about 25 cents.
=128. Observing a Paper's Policies
It is necessary, therefore, to
modify the preceding statements about unbiased news. Those assertions
express the millennial dream, colorless news, that American journalism
is always approaching as an ideal, but has not yet reached. From the
same Associated Press dispatch a Georgia and a Pennsylvania daily can
produce stories respectively of success and dissension in the Democratic
party. From the same cable bulletin a Milwaukee and a New York paper can
obtain German victory and English repulse of repeated Teutonic attacks.
Not only can, but do. It is only fair to the would-be reporter,
therefore, to tell him that at times in his journalistic career he may
be permitted to see snow only through a motorist's yellow goggles. The
modern newspaper is a business organization run for the profit or power
of the owners, with the additional motive in the background of possible
social uplift,--social uplift as the owners see it. They determine a
paper's policies, and a reporter must learn and observe those policies
if he expects to succeed.
=129. Following Commands
Observance of this injunction is
particularly valuable in stories relating to political and civic
measures. If one is on a paper with Republican affiliations, one may be
forced to hear and report a G. O. P. governor's speech with an
elephant's ears and trumpet,--or with a moose's ears and voice if the
journal is Progressive. It makes no difference what the reporter's
personal feeling or party preferences may be. On such papers he must
follow precisely the commands of the managing editor or the city editor
and must feature sympathetically or severely what they request. Usually
an intelligent sympathy with the general policy of the paper is
sufficient for a reporter, no matter how conscientious. It is only
rarely that he is trammeled with being forced to write contrary to his
convictions. But at those times when such commands are given, he must
see and write as requested or seek another position.
=130. Consistency of Policy
On the other hand, suppose in policies
affecting the official standing of a newspaper every reporter saw and
presented events from his own distorted angle. How consistent would a
modern newspaper be? And how long could it hold the respect or patronage
of its readers?
Next in importance to accuracy comes interest. A
story must be interesting to be read. Every paragraph must be clear. Its
relation to every other paragraph must be evident, and the story as a
whole must be presented so that it may be understood and enjoyed by the
reader with as small expenditure of mental effort as possible. Ideas
that are connected in thought, either by virtue of their sequence in
time or for other reasons, must be kept together, and ideas that are
separated in thought must be kept apart. If the story is one covering
considerable length of time, care must be taken to keep the different
incidents separated in point of time so that the reader may understand
readily the relation of the different events to each other. The tenses
of the verbs, too, must be kept consistent, logical. One cannot shift at
will from past time to the present, and vice versa. If the story is a
follow-up of an event that occurred before to-day and has been written
up before, the body of the story should contain a sufficient summary of
the preceding events to make the details readily clear to all
readers,--even though the lead may already have included a connecting
link. The summary of events in the lead must necessarily have been
brief; the review in the body of the story may be presented at greater
A valuable aid in gaining clearness is a proper
regard for coherence, for obtaining which there are four ways within a
story: (1) by arrangement of the facts and statements in a natural
sequence of ideas; (2) by use of pronouns; (3) by repetition; and (4) by
use of relation words, phrases, and clauses. Discussion has already been
given, in Chapter VIII, on the organization of material, of the
necessity of logical arrangement of the story. If one has made a proper
grouping there, one will have taken the first step, and the surest,
toward adequate coherence. Of the three remaining methods, probably the
greatest newspaper men are strongest in their use of pronouns, such as
these, those, that, them, etc. They also avail themselves freely
of a skillful repetition of words,--the third method, which stands
almost, but not quite equal to the use of pronouns in effectiveness and
frequency. The following fire story exhibits a happy repetition of words
for holding the ideas in easy sequence. Note in it the skillful
repetition of firemen, fire, whiskey, building, casks,
=$750,000 WORTH OF WHISKEY BURNS=
Firemen had to fight a canal full of blazing whiskey
here to-day when a fire broke out in the building of
the Distillery Company, Ltd. Twelve thousand casks
of liquor were stored in the building. The
conflagration spread rapidly and the explosion of
the casks released the whiskey, which made a burning
stream of the canal.
Firemen pumped water from the bottom of the canal
and played it on the blazing surface. The loss is
estimated at $750,000.
=133. Relation Words
In other kinds of writing there is a tendency to
use relation words, phrases, and clauses freely between sentences and
paragraphs. But in news writing the paucity of such expressions for
subconnection--moreover, finally, on the other hand, in the next
place, now that we have mentioned the cause of the divorce--is
noteworthy. Editors and the news-reading public demand that the ideas
follow each other so closely and that the style be so compressed in
thought that there shall be small need of connectives between sentences.
It is this demand, plus a desire for emphasis, that is responsible for the
so-called bing-bing-bing style of writing, of which the following is a
After killing Mrs. Benton, Wallace, and the Weston
boy, Carlton set fire to the Lewis "love bungalow."
The wounded were unable to care for themselves. They
narrowly escaped death in the burning building.
Arrival of rescuing parties attracted by the fire
alone saved their lives.
A hatchet was the weapon used by Carlton.
The slayer escaped after the wholesale murder. He is
thought to be headed for Chicago. A posse under
command of Sheriff Bauer of Spring Green is hunting
The story of the terrible tragedy enacted in the
Lewis "love bungalow," where for some years the
celebrated sculptor and the former Mrs. Cross had
been living in open defiance of the
conventionalities, was a gruesome one as it came to
Carlton is twenty-eight years old. He is married.
His wife lived with him at the Lewis home. He had
been employed by Lewis for six months. He was
formerly employed by John Z. Hobart, proprietor of
Hobart's restaurant. He is five feet eight inches
tall, of medium build and light in color.
What caused the trouble or the fury of Carlton is
Who first fell is not known.
What is known of the tragedy is this:
Shortly after noon to-day villagers in the little
village of Spring Valley, where the Lewis bungalow
is and always has been something of a mystery as
well as a wonder to the residents, saw smoke coming
from the "love bungalow" on the hills. Villagers ran
to the place. The fire department responded to the
The bungalow was rapidly being consumed. Some one
entered the house. It was a shambles. Mrs. Benton
was found dead. Wallace was dead. Both had been
literally chopped to pieces by the infuriated negro.
The bungalow was barricaded before entrance was
forced. After the dead had been discovered the
wounded were found. They were dragged out. The
conscious told disjointed stories of the tragedy and
of the awful fury that seemed to possess Carlton,
The latter was not to be found. He was at first
thought to have taken to the hills. Later it was
thought he might be hiding in the underground root
cellar but no search lights were available.
Men with guns surrounded the house.
The negro will be lynched if he is found, it was
thought this afternoon.
 Chicago American.
=134. Bing-Bing-Bing Style
On the whole, this bing-bing-bing style of
writing cannot be commended. Its value in rapid narrative, where
excitement prevails and the reader's emotions are greatly aroused, is
evident. But the style, indulged in too freely, produces a fitful,
choppy effect that is not good. The sentences should be longer and more
varied in construction. Examination of the preceding illustration shows
that it has only three words or phrases used for subconnection, and only
four complex sentences.
Next to clearness in holding the interest of the
reader comes emphasis, which may be had by avoidance of vague literary
phrasing, by a due regard for tone in the story, and by condensation of
expression. The first two overlap, since the whole tone of a story may
easily be destroyed by an affectation of literary phraseology. These
two, therefore, may be considered together.
=136. Vague Literary Phrasing
Many cub reporters feel, when they
begin to write, that they must express themselves in a literary style,
and to gain that style they affect sonorous, grandiloquent phrases that
sound well but mean little. In nine cases out of ten these phrases are
the inventions of others and meant much as used in their original
connection. But as adopted now by a novice, they are vague, only hazily
expressive, lacking in that sharp precision necessary for forceful
presentation of news.
It is this vagueness of expression that as often as not
destroys the tone of the story. One may be aiming at portraying the
dignity and simplicity of a wedding or the unmarred happiness of the
occasion, but if one attempts to equal the joy of the event with the
bigness of his words, one will produce upon the reader an effect of
revulsion rather than interest. An ignorant, but well-meaning, reporter
on an Eastern weekly concluded a wedding story with the following
After the union of Miss Petty and Mr. Meydam in the
holy bonds of wedlock, the beautiful bride and
handsome groom and all the knights and ladies
present repaired to the dining-room, where a
bounteous supper interspersed with mirth and song
awaited them. After which they tripped the light
fantastic toe until the wee small hours of the
morning, when all repaired to their beds of rest and
wrapt themselves in the arms of Morpheus.
This selection happens to be a conglomeration mainly of worn-out
expressions current in literature for the past two or three centuries.
But any use of phrases too large or too emotional for the thought to be
conveyed will result in an equally dismal failure. All the words,
phrases, and ideas in the following are the writer's own, but the effect
is practically the same as in the preceding story:
The scene and the occasion were both inspiring. The
music was furnished by the birds, which were at
their best on this bridal day. A meadowlark called
to his mate across the lake, asking if he might come
and join her. A brown thrush in a tree on the hill
near by sent forth across the water a carol full of
love and melody such as a Beethoven or a Chopin
would strive in vain to imitate. The hills were
dressed in their prettiest robes of green. The water
was quiet. Nature was at her best. And the bride and
groom, both in tastiness of dress and in spirits,
were in harmony with nature.
The writer, too, in striving after a definite tone must be equally
apprehensive of unintended suggestions caused by an unfortunate
closeness of unrelated ideas. This fault was illustrated in a story by
an Iowa reporter who wrote that "Lon Stegle took Mrs. Humphrey and a
load of hogs to Santo Monday," and of an unwitting Pennsylvania humorist
who said, "Audry Richardson, while visiting his sweetheart in Freedonia
last Sunday sprained his arm severely and won't be able to use it for
ten days or two weeks." If the tone of the story is meant to be
dignified, unintended humor may make the presentation absurd.
=138. Varied Sentence Length
The story tone is greatly affected also
by the length of the sentences. If one's sentences are unnecessarily
long, the effect will be heavy and tiresome. If they are markedly short,
the result will be a monotonous, choppy, jolting effect, like a flat
wheel on a street-car. The bing-bing-bing style just discussed is an
illustration of the latter. The writer should aim at a happy medium,
with simple constructions and a tendency toward shorter sentences than
in other kinds of writing. Twenty words make a good average sentence
length. It is necessary to remember that one's stories are read not only
by the literati, but by the uneducated as well. One must make one's
style, therefore, so fluent, so easy, that a man with a speaking
vocabulary of five hundred words can read and enjoy all one writes.
The value of condensation of expression need not
be discussed at length here as it is taken up fully in the next chapter.
Suffice it to say now, however, that a diffuse style is never forceful.
The reporter must condense his ideas into the smallest space possible.
Often that space is designated by the city editor when the reporter, on
his return to the office, asks for instructions, and nearly always it is
only about half enough. But he must follow directions to the letter. Woe
to the novice who presents a thousand words, or even six hundred, when
the city editor calls for five hundred. Sometimes, however, he will
find that the city editor has allotted him more space than he can
easily fill. In such a case, let him give length by introducing
additional details. Mere words will not suffice. They do not make a
=140. Final Test of a Story
The two cares for the reporter, then, in
writing the body of the story are accuracy and interest. Accuracy is
worth most, and is attained by strict adherence to truth, with plenty of
proof for the truth in case it is questioned after publication. Interest
may be had by making all statements clear, coherent, forceful. But there
is no precise form or method by which accuracy and interest may be
obtained. The reporter is given unlimited range in selecting,
organizing, and writing his news. He may follow or disregard at will the
standard types of other newspaper men's stories, which should be taken
as models only, never as laws. For the final test of the goodness of a
story is its effect upon the reader. If it attains the desired result
without conforming to the patterns given by other writers, it will
become a new pattern for itself and for similar stories. Get accuracy
and interest, then, no matter what the method.
Next: The Paragraph
Previous: The Lead