In-Depth Analysis of Journalistic Integrity

IndyMedia analyzes how the corporate media, assumed to be “objective”, spins a basic student protest over a visit by George W. Bush into a “violent, angry, confrontational, irresponsible, chaotic, anonymous, difficult, rowdy crowd,” etc etc. The raw footage reveals a very different story than the edited, corporate media version (via KATU).

For example, the protesters are falsely accused of “endangering the reporter” so that the cameras can cut away, rather than allow the protesters’ message to be heard through a live feed on television. The reporter is never in danger, and the only volatile “event” to be documented is the message being chanted repeatedly by the crowd, which is comprised of children, adults, and the elderly — no one is in danger until a homophobic Bush supporter enters the chanting crowd to punch an openly gay man. The police don’t prevent this hate crime; one of the “anarchic” protesters stops and diffuses it. And that’s just one tactic the corporate media uses to “radicalize” dissenting voices and render them “anarchic” or too irrational to be heard — these voices express anti-capitalistic sentiments, and in essence, condemn corporate media for selling out their principles and integrity and promoting capitalistic values.

Out the window goes journalism principle number 5:

It must serve as an independent monitor of power

Journalism has an unusual capacity to serve as watchdog over those whose power and position most affect citizens. The Founders recognized this to be a rampart against despotism when they ensured an independent press; courts have affirmed it; citizens rely on it. As journalists, we have an obligation to protect this watchdog freedom by not demeaning it in frivolous use or exploiting it for commercial gain.




The Nine Princples of Journalism

Rich Media, Poor Democracy — How Puff Pieces Fill Our Lives


A Statement of Purpose

After extended examination by journalists themselves of the character of journalism at the end of the twentieth century, we offer this common understanding of what defines our work. The central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society.

This encompasses myriad roles–helping define community, creating common language and common knowledge, identifying a community’s goals, heros and villains, and pushing people beyond complacency. This purpose also involves other requirements, such as being entertaining, serving as watchdog and offering voice to the voiceless.

Over time journalists have developed nine core principles to meet the task. They comprise what might be described as the theory of journalism:

1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth

Democracy depends on citizens having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful context. Journalism does not pursue truth in an absolute or philosophical sense, but it can–and must–pursue it in a practical sense. This “journalistic truth” is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation. Journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information. Even in a world of expanding voices, accuracy is the foundation upon which everything else is built–context, interpretation, comment, criticism, analysis and debate. The truth, over time, emerges from this forum. As citizens encounter an ever greater flow of data, they have more need–not less–for identifiable sources dedicated to verifying that information and putting it in context.

2. Its first loyalty is to citizens

While news organizations answer to many constituencies, including advertisers and shareholders, the journalists in those organizations must maintain allegiance to citizens and the larger public interest above any other if they are to provide the news without fear or favor. This commitment to citizens first is the basis of a news organization’s credibility, the implied covenant that tells the audience the coverage is not slanted for friends or advertisers. Commitment to citizens also means journalism should present a representative picture of all constituent groups in society. Ignoring certain citizens has the effect of disenfranchising them. The theory underlying the modern news industry has been the belief that credibility builds a broad and loyal audience, and that economic success follows in turn. In that regard, the business people in a news organization also must nurture–not exploit–their allegiance to the audience ahead of other considerations.

3. Its essence is a discipline of verification

Journalists rely on a professional discipline for verifying information. When the concept of objectivity originally evolved, it did not imply that journalists are free of bias. It called, rather, for a consistent method of testing information–a transparent approach to evidence–precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work. The method is objective, not the journalist. Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment, all signal such standards. This discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction or entertainment. But the need for professional method is not always fully recognized or refined. While journalism has developed various techniques for determining facts, for instance, it has done less to develop a system for testing the reliability of journalistic interpretation.

4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover

Independence is an underlying requirement of journalism, a cornerstone of its reliability. Independence of spirit and mind, rather than neutrality, is the principle journalists must keep in focus. While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform–not their devotion to a certain group or outcome. In our independence, however, we must avoid any tendency to stray into arrogance, elitism, isolation or nihilism.

5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power

Journalism has an unusual capacity to serve as watchdog over those whose power and position most affect citizens. The Founders recognized this to be a rampart against despotism when they ensured an independent press; courts have affirmed it; citizens rely on it. As journalists, we have an obligation to protect this watchdog freedom by not demeaning it in frivolous use or exploiting it for commercial gain.

6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise

The news media are the common carriers of public discussion, and this responsibility forms a basis for our special privileges. This discussion serves society best when it is informed by facts rather than prejudice and supposition. It also should strive to fairly represent the varied viewpoints and interests in society, and to place them in context rather than highlight only the conflicting fringes of debate. Accuracy and truthfulness require that as framers of the public discussion we not neglect the points of common ground where problem solving occurs.

7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant

Journalism is storytelling with a purpose. It should do more than gather an audience or catalogue the important. For its own survival, it must balance what readers know they want with what they cannot anticipate but need. In short, it must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant. The effectiveness of a piece of journalism is measured both by how much a work engages its audience and enlightens it. This means journalists must continually ask what information has most value to citizens and in what form. While journalism should reach beyond such topics as government and public safety, a journalism overwhelmed by trivia and false significance ultimately engenders a trivial society.

8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional

Keeping news in proportion and not leaving important things out are also cornerstones of truthfulness. Journalism is a form of cartography: it creates a map for citizens to navigate society. Inflating events for sensation, neglecting others, stereotyping or being disproportionately negative all make a less reliable map. The map also should include news of all our communities, not just those with attractive demographics. This is best achieved by newsrooms with a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. The map is only an analogy; proportion and comprehensiveness are subjective, yet their elusiveness does not lessen their significance.

9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience

Every journalist must have a personal sense of ethics and responsibility–a moral compass. Each of us must be willing, if fairness and accuracy require, to voice differences with our colleagues, whether in the newsroom or the executive suite. News organizations do well to nurture this independence by encouraging individuals to speak their minds. This stimulates the intellectual diversity necessary to understand and accurately cover an increasingly diverse society. It is this diversity of minds and voices, not just numbers, that matters.

–From The Project for Excellence in Journalism is a research organization that specializes in using empirical methods to evaluate and study the performance of the press. It is non partisan, non ideological and non political.


A Lede Should …

Singer and founder of WITNESS, Peter Gabriel, explains why he is a proponent of citizen journalism, opening with a revealing anecdote (CAUTION:  Contains graphic scenes).



* contain the essence of the story. What is this story about, thematically, and why should we care? Think of the lede as Part Two of the headline.

* Communicate the key information. Journalistic tradition would classify this data under “the five W’s and one H”: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. This system is useful to the writing of any story, but a lede that contains all these points will often be overwrought – “St. Penelope’s Boys’ School Chancellor Bob Tompkins presented his resignation to Senate on Wednesday due to allegations of chronic alcoholism made by Head Boy Mike Foss during last January’s intramural Debating Club championship”.

A snappy summary or a teaser is more likely to draw the reader in – “St. Penelope’s Bob Tompkins finally kicked the chancellorship habit on Wednesday, after months of rumours about his private life.” The details come in the next few paragraphs. This approach highlights the priorities of the story and makes for better writing.

* Capture the imagination. A lede should raise questions, not just provide information. Otherwise we might be content with the factoid and stop reading. The Why of those five W’s is always more complex than can be spelled out in a paragraph. If your lede opens a window onto the complexities, we’ll feel challenged instead of patronized.

* Set mood and tone. Ledes can be intimate or cold, tragic or hilarious, hard-hitting or celebratory. One of these choices will be right for your story, and a mismatch might be deadly.

* Point the way towards an interpretation, without insulting the reader’s intelligence. Whatever you put first in the story will determine how we read the rest of it. “St. Penelope’s long-time leader was driven out of office this week” will frame a very different story than “The scandal-ridden reign of Bob Tompkins finally crash-landed on Wednesday.”

* Be appropriate to the audience. Your lede might contain a different idea if your publication is geared primarily towards science students, or towards gays and lesbians, than if it’s a general-audience newspaper – eg., “The chemistry department lost a strong advocate Wednesday when Chancellor Bob Tompkins resigned his post,” or, “Bob Tompkins resigned on Wednesday, to the pleasure of campus queers who considered the former chancellor an apologist for St. Penelope’s anti-gay policies.”

* Be as concise as possible. Don’t stall the reader with peripheral elements – “On Wednesday, at the third Senate meeting this year, the chancellor of St. Penelope’s, Bob Tompkins, rose to present his resignation.” Instead, make the lede an active, dynamic agent.

* Use short and simple sentences. Mainstream journalism prescribes a maximum 25 to 30 words for a lede. You can loosen it up a bit, but make sure your lede maintains its momentum.


SUMMARY LEDE: tries to cram as much of the “five W’s and an H” into a single sentence as possible. It is also known as the standard lede, and is used for standard inverted-pyramid news. Eg., “Jean Chrétien intends to fight urban poverty by rounding up all the drug dealers in Canada and locking them in small steel boxes, the prime minister told the Alberta Chamber of Commerce in a campaign speech in Red Deer last night.”

SINGLE-ITEM LEDE: concentrates on just one or two of these elements for a bigger punch. E.g., “Jean Chrétien has warned the nation’s drug dealers they won’t breathe easy if he’s re-elected.”

QUOTE LEDE: uses a dramatic quotation, usually from one of your sources, to launch the story. This should be used sparingly, and only when the quote is fantastic. Often paraphrasing the quote, as in the first example above, will be more effective — most people do not speak in soundbites. E.g., “‘I say we stick those evil satanist negro child-abuser pushers where the sun don’t shine.’”

“A red-faced Jean Chrétien shouted these words to the Alberta Chamber of Commerce last night, justifying his plan to “lock all the drug dealers in Canada in tiny metal boxes and throw away the keys.’”

CARTRIDGE LEDE: uses one word or short phrase as a teaser for the rest of the lede. This usually seems gimmicky and, again, should be used sparingly. E.g., “Sardine tins.

“That’s what Jean Chrétien intends to use to contain the drug problem and cure urban ills.”

QUESTION LEDE: poses a question to the reader, which the story proceeds to answer. Occasionally the source of an amusing riddle, but more often confusing and counterproductive to the average news story. E.g., “How can we prevent crime, solve urban poverty and stimulate the steel industry all at the same time?

“Jean Chrétien’s answer might disturb some Canadians.”

(or, alternatively, “Has Jean Chrétien finally lost it?”)

ANALOGY LEDE: makes a comparison between the issue or event at hand and something more familiar. Usually the fruit of inspiration, this kind of lede either works or it doesn’t. E.g., “Civil libertarians fear that Jean Chrétien’s prescription for drug abuse could make the War Measures Act look lax.”

A popular type of analogy lede is the Janus-faced lede, in which you look back into the past and/or forward into the future for comparison with the event or issue in question.

DISTINCTIVE INCIDENT, PICTURE OR CONTRAST LEDE: uses an anecdote or image, or contrasting images, to illustrate the point of the story. Often brings in a human element, and gives the story personality, specificity and colour. A good way to improve stilted news style, and to highlight ironies.

E.g., “While Jean Chrétien addressed them last night, the members of the Alberta Chamber of Commerce finished off their dinner wines and started in on dessert cocktails. Some enjoyed fine cigars or puffed on long cigarettes as they smiled at the prime minister’s words.

“And when Chrétien promised to lock up every last drug dealer in the nation, the assembled tobacco company execs and beer wholesalers rose to their feet to applaud.”

This kind of lede requires a bit more space to stretch out in. In one draft of this paper, for example, I tried to write a lede using “real characters” to depict the economic benefits drug dealing can bring to depressed neighbourhoods, contrasted with Chrétien’s righteousness. But it took so much room it would have had to be a feature. Also, if overused or overdone, this style of writing can become precious or sentimental.

COSMIC LEDE: I’m only telling you about this one so you can make sure you don’t use it. A cosmic lede makes some grand sweeping statement about an issue (or about life itself) as a way of introducing the subject. It’s a pretentious, lazy way to write, particularly endemic to bad arts writing. The only way I can imagine this sort of lede working is as parody.

Bad e.g., “When politicians talk about drugs, the subject stirs many emotions and conjures up competing ideas of good and evil.”

Better e.g., “When politicians talk about drugs, you sometimes have to wonder if they’re stoned.”


* The lede doesn’t have to be the first thing you write. In fact, wrestling with a lede can either prevent you from getting the story done on time or misguide you in how you slant the story. If a lede doesn’t trip off your typewriter, wait until you’ve finished the core of the story, figure out an angle, then try again.

* Meetings, speeches, demonstrations, news conferences and the like are usually not news. The decisions or issues raised at them are news, and that’s what should appear in your lede.

* The first part of your story does not have to correspond to the chronological first event. Start with the point, then fill in the background.

* Make sure you attribute opinions in your lede. But don’t clutter the lede with over-identification — use either the name or the job title, and then use the other label in the next reference to clarify the attribution. (Lede: “Jean Chrétien said today…” Second sentence: “The prime minister told businessmen that…”) Alternatively, use a general attribution, like “civil libertarians” above, but make sure you name specific groups or persons in the next couple of paragraphs.

* If at all possible, avoid using the full name of an organization in your lede, particularly if it’s a long one. Bureaucratic nomenclature slows down the sentence and turns off the reader. Paraphrase it so the “Alberta Chamber of Commerce, Red Deer Branch” becomes “a group of Red Deer businessmen.” And again, give the full name later.

* As well, never use an acronym or short form in a lede or headline, unless it’s a household word like “U.S.” or “CBC”. Introduce acronyms only in the body of the story. (NB: The acronym for your student government is not a household word, even if you print it ten times an issue and use it all the time in the household.)

Quick Questions to Consider

Hard news stories

Hard news stories are factual and answer the questions; who, what, where, when, why and how.

Hard news stories are written so that readers get the important information as quickly as possible.

The headline provides a brief summary of the story. Important facts are contained in the lead paragraph(s). Details are presented in descending order of importance in the remaining paragraphs.

Find a hard news story. Read it carefully.

Answer the following questions about your news story.

  • Who is the reporter?

  • What is the source of the story?

  • Other than those mentioned in the story, who does the story affect?

  • How do you think the reporter got the information needed to write the story?

  • Does the reporter tell both sides of the story? How?

  • Do you think the story is fair? Why?

  • Should the reporter do a follow up on the story? Why? Why not?

  • What is the best quote in the story? Why do you think so?

  • On the whole, how would you evaluate this story?

Make a chart like the one below. Complete your chart by showing where the information was found in the story.

Headline Lead Other Paragraphs

Writing Your Lede

Taken from Newsroom Training, written by Steve Buttry for Writing Resources:

You need a crisp lede and a strong focus to keep the reader going. These techniques, compiled by Steve Buttry, Writing Coach, Omaha World-Herald, can help strengthen your story, especially the critical top few paragraphs. (June, 2002)

Writing Your Lede

Your lede sets the pace for your story. A brief, breezy lede invites the reader into a story with the promise of a lively pace. A ponderous lede invites the reader to move to the next story, in which case it doesn’t matter how long or how good the rest of your story is.

  • Start early.
    As you’re reporting, think about the lede. Are you observing an exchange that might provide a scene the lede? Did you just hear the fact that belongs in the lede? Don’t lock in on one lede so that you miss a better one that comes up. Use the reporting process as an audition for potential ledes. Write them down as they occur to you, either in your notebook or on the screen.
  • Write as you report.
    After your first interview or two, start writing. You may not have your lede yet, but starting to write gets your mind into the story earlier. Keep writing after subsequent interviews. Write each time as though this is the story. You may write two or three ledes before you’re finished with the story. But have you hurt your story if your seventh paragraph, or your 15th, has as much polish as your lede?
  • Avoid the blank screen.
    Too many writers spend too long laboring over the lede before they get started writing. If you don’t have a good idea for a lede, write a simple declarative sentence and get on with the story: “The School Board meeting discussed education Monday.” Yes, it’s dull. No, you’d never turn that in. But it may get you started and keep you from wasting time staring at the blank screen. Writing the story may help you find your lede. Then you go back and write the better lede.
  • Use story elements.
    Decide which is the strongest element in your story: plot, character, setting, conflict, theme. Your lede should focus on the strongest element. Or perhaps the lede should highlight the intersection of two elements: a character in conflict, perhaps. If plot is the strongest element, beware of starting at the beginning. Newspaper readers and editors may not read long enough to find out how it comes out. Consider starting at the climax, or at least at a critical moment that establishes the conflict.
  • Don’t forget the basics.
    If you’re stuck for a lede, ask which of the five W’s or How is the most important question for this story.
  • Expand on the basics.
    Maybe your lede lies not in one of the five W’s, but in a related question: How much? So what? What next? Why not? Who benefits? Who’s hurt?
  • Write without your notes.
    This is a helpful technique for your whole first draft, but it’s especially helpful in writing the lede. Notes can be a distraction. Go back to them later when you’re checking facts.
  • Get to the point.
    If you use an anecdotal or scene-setting lede that delays your explanation of the underlying issue, introduce or at least allude to the issue in your lede.
  • Entice the reader.
    Don’t treat your lede as a suitcase into which you will cram as much as you can fit. Regard it more like a g-string, brief and enticing. If your lede captures the essence of your story in a few words, the reader will read on to learn the facts. You don’t need them all in the lede. A long lede shows a lack of confidence, like you don’t believe I’ll read the whole story so you have to tell me as much as you can as fast as you can.

Strengthening Your Lede

Once you’ve finished the story, go back and strengthen your lede, even if it’s good and especially if it’s long.

  • Challenge every word.
    However long your lede is, consider whether it could be shorter. If it’s longer than 30 words, it’s almost definitely too long. A lede that long has to flow smoothly to work, and few ledes that long flow smoothly. Try writing a lede of 10 words or fewer. Maybe you can’t for this story, but it’s always good to try. Especially if your lede is more than 20 words, challenge each piece of the lede and ask whether that actually has to be in your very first paragraph.
  • Challenge the verbs.
    Are you using the strongest appropriate verb? Is it in active voice? Never use a form of the verb “to be” in your lede without trying some alternatives. Sometimes it’s the only accurate verb, but see if a stronger verb works. Challenge other weak verbs, such as have, do and get.
  • Avoid vague phrases.
    If your lede starts with (or uses) vague phrases such as there are or it is, see if you can rewrite it with strong, specific subjects and verbs.
  • Keep it simple.
    Ask whether you’re trying to tell too much in your lede. Are you answering all the 5 W’s, when a couple could wait till the second graf? Don’t try to cram everything into your lede.
  • Make one point.
    Does your lede have multiple points? If so, perhaps you haven’t decided what the story truly is about. Decide which point is most important and write a lede that makes just that point.
  • Remember the news.
    Does your lede get right to the news? Does it emphasize the news?
  • Stamp out punctuation.
    Many of the best ledes have one piece of punctuation, a period. Regard multiple commas or dashes as red flags. See if you can write a smoother sentence with just one comma or none. If you have lots of punctuation in the lede, read it aloud so you can hear whether it’s choppy or whether it flows smoothly.
  • Minimize attribution.
    Attribution lengthens a lede, as well as weakening it. Can you state something as a fact, rather than hedging it with attribution? If not, do you need to bolster your reporting, so you can write more authoritatively?
  • Subtract numbers.
    If you use any numbers in your lede, their impact must be strong and their meaning and relationship must be immediately evident. If the reader has to stop and ponder the numbers, they don’t belong in the lede. (They may not even belong in the story, but in a graphic). Rarely could you justify using more than two numbers in a lede.
  • Challenge prepositions and conjunctions.
    Identify each prepositional phrase in the lede and consider whether the information it adds is worth the words it adds. Can it be replaced with a single adjective or adverb? If your lede contains and, or or but, consider whether you’re introducing another element that you should save for the second paragraph.
  • Challenge adjectives and adverbs.
    Consider whether the lede would be stronger without each of the adjectives adverbs. What do they add? Can you eliminate them by using more specific (and stronger) nouns or verbs?
  • Challenge phrases.
    Can you eliminate a phrase without hurting the lede? Can you replace a phrase with a single word?
  • Write an alternative lede.
    Write a shorter lede and evaluate the two side by side. Or write a lede taking another approach. Don’t accept a long lede without testing it against a shorter lede.
  • One hedge is plenty.
    If you’ve hedged the central statement of your lede, with a “may” or “might,” do you really need to hedge again by attributing it? Consider whether you can write a stronger statement in the first place. Or at least consider whether you can make the hedged statement without attribution.
  • Don’t sweat the details.
    An important detail might strengthen your lede, but many details bog down a lede. Tighten your lede by cutting details that can wait until later in the story. Rarely do you need both a person’s name and identification in the lede. If the name is not immediately recognizable to the reader, just use the identification in the lede. Or if the person is in the story as Everyman, just use the name and tell the reader later who he is.
  • Don’t get lost in process.
    On many beats, particularly government and court beats, reporters must learn and understand lots of processes. Sometimes the reporter loses perspective and thinks the process is as important to readers as it is to sources. Readers care most about results. If your lede focuses on process, or includes some process details, consider whether it would be stronger focusing on results.
  • Try to make fun of your lede.
    Did you write any obvious statements that will draw a “duh!” from the reader? Do you have any awkward juxtapositions or double entendres? If you know a smart-ass colleague who makes fun of such stories in the paper, enlist his aid by asking him to read your story in advance. If something does get by him, at least you know he won’t be the one making fun this time.
  • Focus on reader impact.
    Does your lede tell the reader why this story is important to her? If not, should it?
  • Say what is, not what isn’t.
    Sometimes you have to tell the reader what isn’t, but usually you should tell the reader what is. If your lede has a not or a never, consider whether you can recast to say what is.
  • Punch quickly.
    Examine the first few words of your lede. Are they strong? Do they get to the point immediately? Can you open with key words that immediately identify what the story is about?
  • Close with a kick.
    Examine the last few words of your lede. Are they strong? Do they carry the reader right into the next paragraph.

–Taken from Newsroom Training, written by Steve Buttry for Writing Resources.


Hard News Vs. Soft News

Taken from Media Awareness Network:

Hard News Vs. Soft News

News stories are basically divided into two types: hard news and soft news. Hard new generally refers to up-to-the-minute news and events that are reported immediately, while soft news is background information or human-interest stories.

Politics, war, economics and crime used to be considered hard news, while arts, entertainment and lifestyles were considered soft news.

But increasingly, the lines are beginning to blur. Is a story about the private life of a politician “politics” or “entertainment”? Is an article about the importance of investing early for retirement a “business” story or a “lifestyle” story? Judging solely on subject matter, it can be difficult to tell.

One difference between hard and soft news is the tone of presentation. A hard news story takes a factual approach: What happened? Who was involved? Where and when did it happen? Why?

A soft news story tries instead to entertain or advise the reader. You may have come across newspaper or TV stories that promise “news you can use.” Examples might be tips on how to stretch properly before exercising, or what to look for when buying a new computer.

Knowing the difference between hard and soft news helps you develop a sense of how news is covered, and what sorts of stories different news media tend to publish or broadcast. This can be important when you want to write articles or influence the media yourself.

© 2008 Media Awareness Network