You own whatever you submit to a publication. Whether a story, photo or artwork, it's automatically copyrighted to you. Think of it as your bicycle (if you own one). It's a piece of property that belongs to you. If someone wants to use it, they have to have your permission.
Conversely--and this is important--if the publication wants to use copyrighted material, it must have written permission from the "owner". Let's say you see a photo that you want to use. In the corner of the photo it says, "Copyright, 1998, Time Magazine". So, you say, I'll just use it and put a credit line under it to show it comes from Time. Sorry. Would you take someone's bike for a day without them knowing? No, you have to ask permission and receive it in writing (email is adequate).
On a related issue that recently came up: Once you submit your story to editors, they have the right to edit it, cut it in half or even not use it. However, courtesy in publishing is important. A good editor will be aware of the sensitivities of the writer and discuss any changes that are more than routine. Dialogue between writers and editors is a key ingredient in the recipe for story excellence.
A favorite expression of children is "Who says?" Big sister tells you that you have to go to bed: "Who says?"
Now, as an old editor, I find myself using that expression over and over when reviewing stories with writers.
Certain facts are widely agreed upon (a cloudless sky is blue). Some facts are indisputable if writers have seen something with their own eyes (the goal was scored with the left foot) or heard with their own ears ("I am going to resign as Chief Bottle Washer tomorrow").
Otherwise we need to use something called "attribution" when we are passing along information that we don't know about first hand or if it is not common knowledge.
Somewhere in our sentence--often at the end--we need to tell where the material came from: according to the publicity person...it was stated in a communique...according to a report by the Physicians Against Nuclear War...the World Fact Book reports in its 1996 edition...
Attribution is especially vital in political stories. The left wing seldom will agree that the sky is blue if the right wing says it is, and vice versa.
The point is that writers cannot make it seem as though they are God and know all things. If they learned something or read about it somewhere, they need to let the reader in on the source.
Attribution isn't necessarily needed in every sentence, otherwise the story will read like a bumpy road. All that is required is a little red flag when necessary to distinguish what the writer knows from what she or he has found out from somewhere or from someone else.
One last point: Attribution is also needed for historic references as well as current information. When you reel off a three-paragraph summary of the exploits of Alexander the Great, you need to cite a
source at least once. Unless you were there!
When I was growing up, I would occasionally ask my father what a word meant or how it was spelled. His answer always was the same: "Look it up." The easy way for both of us would have been for him to just tell me. The easy way isn't always the best way.
The issue this relates to is accuracy. Why do we make errors in spelling, in people's names, in numbers, in titles or historical references? Usually the cause is laziness, haste, carelessness or guesswork on our part.
An editor once suggested to me that, after I re-read a story I write or edit, I should go back through the story and just look at each fact to satisfy myself that it is correct. The burden should be on the writer, but the last stop for a story is the editor, so both parties have a stake in accuracy.
Sometimes we are given wrong information. How do we know? All we can do is be skeptical and push the sources of information: "Are you sure of that?" "How do you know that?" We even have to be questioning of what we read. Just because it's written doesn't mean it's true.
The best sources for doublechecking are the dictionary and reference books. Also, there's nothing wrong with a reporter calling back someone who previously was interviewed and checking a fact.
To err is human. By the same token nothing turns off a reader more than frequent, unnecessary errors. So, when in doubt, look it up!
Ranking only slightly behind accuracy in importance is fairness. A story that is written in a biased way is sure to turn off most readers--even those who agree with the slant.
It would be simple to suggest that a story with two sides should have an equal amount of words or quotations devoted to each. That's often referred to as balance. However, most stories have more than two sides. And so rather than counting words, the best way is to give all sides their due as fairly as possible while telling the full story.
This requires discipline on the part of the writer. It means pushing aside your own viewpoints and reflecting the views of the key persons or constituencies in your story.
A column or opinion piece is somewhat different, because its role is to reflect the views of the writer. But even in that case fairness dictates that a summary of what the opposing opinion or opinions are should be included. Disagreeing with the opinions of another doesn't mean you can't respect their opinions or their right to think differently than you.
A writer should try to put herself or himself in other peoples' position; try to understand their perspective without adopting it. Writing stories with that approach is an important discipline. Putting yourself in their shoes prevents you from putting your foot in your mouth.
When you peel away all the layers, you'll find that the chief characteristic of a good journalist is fire in the belly. In short: passion.
They are passionate about issues that affect people. They care about their audience. They feel deeply about the need to present the truth as well as they can determine it. They want to provide timely, relevant information that people need to know or have the right to know. In some situations they see themselves as educators. That means at times they must entertain, guide and provoke.
A Buddhist monk was once invited to lunch in the private dining room of an American news magazine. For 45 minutes various business and news executives described the numbers of people they had deployed in each of their areas of responsibility and what they did. Finally it came time for the monk to speak, and he said simply, "Yes, but why do you do it?"
That is the central question in any craft or profession. The answer has to be that you care deeply.
Recently I read a profile of a California editor. In the article he described listening to a speech by Gregory Favre, then president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Here's what the California editor said: "Gregory was in tears, because he was talking about how much he loved newspapers and what we do. I remember watching him that day and having tears well up in my eyes, too, because I thought that's just exactly how I feel about this business. I love it."
These are crusty newspaper veterans. The crust is on the outside; the fire is on the inside.
Where information comes from is sometimes more important to the reader than the information itself.
Therefore we should always be sure to attribute the source of information in our stories. The reader needs to know where you received your quotations or statements of fact: From a book, from an authoritative person, from a political person who might have a liberal or conservative bias, from an interested party (spokesman for a company or special-interest group), an involved bystander?
Some of what you write may be commonly known and therefore needs no attribution, such as: "The Earth is round" or "King Hussein of Jordan died in 1999." Some may be known to you, because you witnessed it. You don't have to say, "The goal was scored with a low kick, according to the referee."
If you think the reader may wonder about the source of a piece of information, don't hesitate to say from where you learned it. Generally attribution is used when the information appears in the story: "The weather will be sunny and warm for the next five days, according to Finland's Weather Bureau."
Occasionally credits are run at the end of a story, particularly when tidbits are scattered throughout the story or come from multiple sources: "Some of the material in this story came from Reuters and Associated Press dispatches". If a second writer provides some help, it should be acknowledged: "Deepika Pereira contributed to this story."
Providing the source--or what is generally called attribution--lends authority, perspective, insight and credibility for readers--according to what they have told me through the years.
ONE-MINUTE TUTORIAL…on Issues (#7)
General Electric coined the memorable advertising line:
“Progress is our most important product”.
Variations of the theme have been expounded by other businesses
(“Service is our most important product”) and by educators (“Children
are…). In the publishing field, I
would use the word “credibility”.
Credibility is our most important product.
Believe me, it’s the most important aspect.
Why should you believe me? That’s
the rub. Credibility, or believability, has to be earned.
It is earned over time and consists of numerous attributes.
Among them are accuracy, being informative, fairness, being caring,
consistency, being responsive and dependability.
ONE-MINUTE TUTORIAL…on Issues (#8)
The freedom to publish carries with it a need to be responsible.
* Certain words that are considered vulgar should be avoided.
* Descriptions of tragedies don't have to include every gory detail.
* Personal feelings should be set aside when commenting on people or institutions.
* A story never should be written that might knowingly put a person or persons in danger.
Responsibility also should be exercised in reporting and photo-taking.
* Identify yourself and the organization you are representing.
* Avoid doing stories about organizations or groups you are affiliated with (exceptions would be your country or your religion). If
need be, state the affiliation in your story.
* Never lie, cheat, eavesdrop steal in news gathering. Preposterous? The pressure to "get the story" sometimes can trigger
* Never accept a gift of any substance from the subject of a story (a cup of tea certainly is permissible).
It's important for journalists to be squeaky clean in the carrying out of their duties, because failure to do so washes off on the credibility of the
ONE-MINUTE TUTORIAL…on Issues (#9)
Many books discuss the subject of objectivity, and most of them come to the same conclusion: Objectivity is impossible for a journalist to attain.
Well, we could also say it is impossible to be honest all the time or to be accurate all the time.
They miss the point. Objectivity is what a journalist should be striving for in the coverage of news (I will explore subjectivity in the next
tutorial). Objectivity is a discipline. It requires training along with checks and balances that generally are provided by fellow journalists, by
editors and by reader input.
A simple personal experience. In my early days of reporting I covered the Boston Celtics basketball team. On my days off my wife and I occasionally
would attend a game, partly to keep up with my beat and partly because she enjoyed the sport. At crucial moments, especially in the last minutes, the
crowd would be on its feet hollering and screaming. I would be sitting there. Sometimes someone nearby would say, "What's the matter with you?"
There was nothing the matter with me.
I was concentrating on who was covering whom; what strategy was being carried out; whether any of the players was limping or seeming to be
overtired; what the time on the clock was; who on the bench was taking off a jacket getting ready to enter the game; etc.
It would be the same for a reporter covering Parliament or a local council meeting: You are concentrating on the business at hand on both sides of the
aisle or wherever else something is going on. And you are alert to any unexpected development.
Again, objectivity is a discipline. Reporters are trained or train themselves to become acquainted with all facets of a story.
Think of yourself as having a ringside seat on the unfolding of a small segment of history, no matter what kind of story you cover. Your only
objective is to see and hear what's transpiring and convey your observations as fairly as possible.. If it's a highly-charged, two-sided story and you
do your job well, both sides probably will be mad at you.
ONE-MINUTE TUTORIAL…on Issues (#10)
The opposite of objectivity is subjectivity.
Generally subjectivity is found in columns, editorials and entertainment or
product reviews. It reflects the opinion of the writer or, in the case of
an editorial, the position of an organization or group.
What confuses the reader is when opinion is entwined in
what might appear
to be a news story or when opinion is found in the same place as news
Most good websites will either create a section called
commentary or the like. If not, the articles themselves are labeled
From the writer viewpoint, it's easy to write opinion. You
just write what
you think. However, it can become boring. Who cares what you think?
Therefore, the best read opinion pieces are well thought out, well written and well researched.
Even the best writers can flop when they fail to do
research on their
topic. Indeed, their position is strengthened if they at least allude to
the opposing points of view. It is a signal that the writer has considered other views before arriving at an opinion.
Thus, tone is important when writing opinion. Those who
is, express their views in a pompous way--tend to have fewer readers; those
who differ without downgrading are more successful.
Opinions should be made sharply and clearly but not with a
ONE-MINUTE TUTORIAL…on Issues (#11)
Squeezed between objectivity and subjectivity is a concept called "analysis" or "news analysis".
Analysis involves an explanation of an issue. While it avoids opinion or taking sides, analysis interprets an issue--or some part of an issue--based
on facts most everyone would agree on (example: War is repugnant). Its purpose is to take a complicated subject and make it more understandable to
An analysis is the closest cousin in journalism to an essay. Good ones stay with a central point or theme, have a clear opening statement, followed by
explanation and a conclusion. If news stories have 5 W's and an H (who, what, when, where, why and how), then an analysis has one W (why?).
A subject for an analysis, based on a news development, might be the digital divide. When technology companies decided to donate large sums of money to
a United Nations project aimed at improving the plight of computer have-nots, a follow-up analysis could have been done on why that step was
The purpose of such an analysis would be to discuss the involvement of the companies but not gloss over the fact that in some circles these
contributions may have been met with disapproval. What is generally accepted as fact and not an opinion is that there is a digital divide
It takes some sophistication to write an analysis, because the writer is called on to answer a basic question: What is the meaning of the news
If I were to write an analysis of analyses, I would say: The answer to the question (what is the meaning?) is not arrived at by smoking a pipe or
looking out over the ocean. It requires a knowledge base to draw on. You aren't born with that knowledge. To obtain it entails research work,
generally known as reporting. That's the truth; it's not an opinion.