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The Five Major Rules of Journalistic Writing

If you're just starting out in the journalism major, you probably aren't familiar with the five major rules of journalistic writing. These are the golden rules; the ones that will follow you throughout your time in school and continue into your career. In fact, you probably won't get rid of them until long after you retire.

These laws are so ingrained in the curriculum of journalism students that they aren't easily forgotten or pushed aside. Break one, and you could be facing serious consequences. Some students have been expelled from their colleges, removed from their universities, or fired from their newspaper staff rooms for stepping out of line.

Why? Because journalism is a career that influences an amazing amount of people. Anything that's written can be taken seriously, and that puts a lot of pressure on both the writer and the publication to get it right. Professionally speaking, it would be wrong to break these rules. And, sometimes, it can even prove to be a legal issue.


1. Don't Plagiarize

You've probably heard this since elementary school, whether you intended to study journalism or not. Plagiarizing is a one-way ticket out of college, and a very easy way to face civil charges. In the real world, you can be sued for using someone else's work without giving credit to the original writer. In college, you can be given a zero or thrown out altogether.

It's easy not to plagiarize, as long as you know how to make proper citations. Both MLA format and APA format provide an outline for these citations, and most professors will describe what they're looking for when you begin their class.


2. Do the Footwork

If you make up your stories, it's going to come back to haunt you. Most infamous for breaking this rule was a man named Stephen Glass. Now known as the king of lies, Glass would fabricate his stories, sources, and information. He was fired amidst a hurricane of bad publicity when the story came out, destroying his reputation and his career.

If you're not willing to do the footwork, you shouldn't go into journalism. It might seem easy to make things up, when it's just for a college class. And maybe you can even get away with it. But it's a very nasty habit, and it leads down a slippery slope.


3. Use Exact Quotes

The easiest way to get hauled into court for slander or libel is to take a quote out of context and publish it. Journalists are responsible for recording their own interviews. Some choose to write their notes in shorthand; others use an audio device. Either one is just fine, as long as the text is accurate. There are some men and women who, when interviewed, will be picky about specific words and phrases. It's a very serious offense to misquote somebody, especially when it has implications that harm their reputation.


4. Avoid Anonymous Sources

This rule isn't quite as black and white. If you can avoid using an anonymous source, you should. Sometimes, this means being firm during interviews and insisting that your subject goes on the record. If they refuse, you may have to live without their content.

If the piece can't be run without the information they've provided, and they insist on remaining anonymous for safety reasons, you can usually make an exception. However, you'll have to find another way to verify the story. Running with a single, anonymous source isn't very credible, and likely won't be believed by readers.

When it comes down to it, the position of your anonymous source is the most important part of the problem. If what they say could have them fired or harmed, you can explain this information in the story, adding a bit of credibility to the piece. You'll need to speak to your professor or editor specifically, should you ever come across this issue.


5. Remain Neutral

The cardinal rule of writing news story is that you need to remain neutral. Yes, you can present information that leans toward one side. You can offer quotes that lean toward one side. But you have to draw the line at speculation. And you also have to make an attempt to get information from the other side of the spectrum. For example, when writing a story that implicates a political figure in a scandal, you should always call for a comment. If the figure refuses to comment, you can run the story as it is.

If these rules come across as imposing and nerve-wracking, they are. Being a journalist is a power and a privilege, and with those comes the responsibility to share real, credible news. Keep these in mind as you work your way through school, and your writing will be better than ever.



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