On Issues


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Issues #1


 “Progress is our most important product.”  Those words became a famous motto used for many years by General Electric.  Adapting the motto to those who publish, you might say, “Fairness is our most important product.”


All sides should be reflected in a story involving a controversial subject.  Another well-known saying is that “there are two sides to every story.”  Unfortunately it is inaccurate, because many issues have more than two sides.  A simple example would be the proper age to get a driver’s license.  Some may say 16, some 17, some 18.  Others might say a license should be available only to those who need to drive at age 16 because of a job.


Even if you are writing a opinion piece, it is a good idea to summarize the positions of others.  Oddly, it helps clarify your viewpoint for the reader.


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Issues #2


The reader deserves to know if a writer has more than a passing interest in a subject.


Surely it would be inappropriate to write a review of a play without telling your readers that you were an actor in the play.  That is called having a “conflict of interest”.


If you are part of an organization that you are writing a story about, you should say so in the story or in an italic line at the end of the story.  Full disclosure when necessary is only being fair to the reader who otherwise would assume you had no connection.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Issues #3


A favorite expression of little children is, “Says who?”  Big sister says, “It’s time to go to bed.”  The child responds, “Says who?”  Actually it’s a pretty smart statement.  The sister doesn’t have the authority to determine bedtime—unless she is told to do so by a parent.


If a reader stops in the middle of the story and thinks, “Says who?”, the writer and editor have failed to do their job properly.  The story needs to state where information comes from.  We call this attribution.


Common knowledge needs no attribution (the sun rises in the East); nor does a description of something you witnessed with your own eyes (the car turned left on Main Street). 


When passing on what we have learned during research or reporting, we should tell where the information came from.  It’s best to include the “Says who?” in the same sentence that contains the information—often at the end.  An easy way is to add a comma and write, “according to…”


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Issues #4


Links are an effective way to give attribution if you are writing for the web.  By enabling a reader to click on a word or set of words to go to a source, you are  “giving credit”. 


Whether the story is on the web or on paper, another common device is to provide a citation at the bottom of the story, saying something like, “Material in this story came from…”  List the sources and page numbers when you can, somewhat as you might do when using footnotes at the end of a report or essay.


Giving credit is not only being honest but it also lends authority to whatever you attribute.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Issues #5


Quotations obviously need to be attributed to whoever said or wrote the words.


If you are using quotations based on an interview, there is no limit to the number of words you can use.  If you are using quotes from another publication, there is a limit.  It’s called fair use.   It’s fair to use a certain amount of direct quotations that have been published elsewhere, but extensive use requires written permission from the publisher. 


Something called copyright laws, which are similar from country to country, protects the original author from having too much of his or her work quoted without permission.


My rule of thumb is that the use of about 50 words of a direct quotation, is fair use.  That, of course, assumes you give credit.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Issues #6


Newspapers and websites sometimes run full texts of important speeches.  The

accompanying story reports some of what is said but not all of it.


Two devices are used in stories to summarize interviews and speeches without

using every word.


One device involves selecting the best quotes.  If it doesn't alter the

meaning of the speaker, some quoted sentences can be shortened.  However, if

words are omitted in the middle or end of a sentence, three periods, known

as ellipses, should be inserted to signal to the reader that part of the

quote has been taken out.


As an example, using the last sentence:  “However…three periods…should be inserted to signal to the reader that part of the quote has been taken out.


A second device is the use of an indirect quotation.  As the writer, you use your own words to summarize what a person said.  This is especially useful when someone says something important but the quote is too long or not too interesting.  When writing indirect quotes, you still need to attribute


Most stories rely on a combination of direct and indirect quotations.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Issues #7


Use of photographs published somewhere else, whether on a website or in print, requires written permission from the “owner”. 


It is not OK to just give credit.  Permission is required in writing.  In fact, you might have to pay a fee. 


When written permission is necessary, email is adequate if the owner agrees.  Be sure to keep a copy in your file.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Issues #8


We all hold up honesty as an ideal.  Some writers occasionally slip up.


The two most dishonest acts in writing are plagiarism and fabrication.


Using someone else's work or words and passing them off as yours is called  plagiarism.  It's a no-no.


Fabrication occurs when you simply make up facts or quotations out of thin air.  One of the worst cases I ever heard of had to do with a quote fromVoltaire, an 18th Century philosopher-writer.  Perhaps you've heard the quote:


"I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it."


Trouble is, he never said it.  Someone made it up and attributed it to Voltaire.  We can defend a person's right to say something we disagree with, but we cannot defend a person who makes up quotes out of thin air.


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Issues #9


Why should the reader believe what we write?  Believability has to be earned.


We earn believability or credibility through accuracy, through documented information, through fairness, through projecting a sense of caring, through consistency and through dependability.  Believability has to be earned over time.


Stories that concern themselves with humans and with major issues that affect people have made a good start.  Still, we need to realize the root of the word “publication”.  It derives from "public".  And credibility in a story derives from being public-oriented.


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Issues #10


Occasionally more than one person works on the reporting and/or writing of a story.  Who gets the credit?  No rulebook exists to provide the answer. 


However, there is what is called the “rule of thumb”.  If two persons do a substantial amount of work on a story, it stands to reason that one might do a little more than the other, but both should get a byline; that is, their names at the top of the story preceded by the word “by”. 


If someone contributes to the reporting, that person should be given credit at the bottom of the story.  Usually the credit line is in italics or in parentheses.


Editors traditionally get no credit. 


                                      Copyright, 2003, MIT Media Laboratory