Weird Ways of News.

Chapter Five: Manufacture Your Own News.
Snag 'Em and Drag 'Em

Istanbul is one of the world's great cities, home to perhaps 14 million (no one is absolutely certain). Its ancient streets teem with Turks and travelers of incredible variety. Stepping onto the street draws you into a river of roiling humanity, a human current flowing through a delta of wizened side streets that drain into larger thoroughfares. A dizzying assault on your senses leaves you bewildered, attracted helter-skelter to this or that sign or sound or smell, and then pulled relentless on to the next.

Istanbul street.During a visit there a thought jumped my way: this is something like manufacturing a news story.

Time was when news consumers had little competition for their attention. The newspaper reader of 1820 could lean back on his settee, pull off his beaver-felt top hat, and begin a news story: "We are enabled by the politeness of the passengers of the Margaret, from Buenos Aires, to give some further particulars of the recent occurrences in that country." Following that would come perhaps three solid columns of words set in type about the size of the classified advertisements today.
But what else was there for the news addict of almost two hundred years ago to read?

Poor twenty-first century news gatherer! She must compete with a jumble of newspapers, daily and weekly. But that's only a tiny beginning: thousands of magazines, newsletters, and brochures compete for our media time. And books. And flyers. And social media. And junk mail. And cereal boxes. And candy wrappers. That's only the written output. What about the words on air, radio, and television? We watch on average 153 hours of television a month, according to Nielsen ratings. And in the last decade—oh woe!—the internet has multiplied our media options by…who knows how much? In 2011 we could chose from 346 million websites, best guess. Perhaps a modest number for the web, but a lot more than the 14 million of Istanbul. We get up every day to face a vast sea of words, so overwhelming that the only thing we can do is cast a passing pause at a few items that float up momentarily from the snarling currents.

And you thought someone was going to read that article you wrote?

In fact, journalists anticipated the flood some decades ago, and moved away from the kind of lead they'd write in 1820. It was already becoming clear that to entice readers you had to snag 'em and drag 'em.

How? Writers across the millennia have tried various ways to begin a story. Take the ringing exhortation: "Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles, son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures." That's from Homer's Iliad, 800 B.C. Don't you almost feel the Achaeans' pain? It's hard to be that dramatic in a news story, but today's sports writers sometimes rely on Homer-esque exhortations such as, "A thousand Troytown Gladiator fans were in a world of hurt yesterday after a devastating loss against the Greaseville Trojans."

Long after Homer, but still a long time ago, reporters fell into a more informal story-telling style to begin the news. They may have relied on a dramatic headline to attract attention. Then they began writing a narrative:

"Terrible Flood in the West" [Headline]

"On Friday afternoon strong evidence of a freshet was exhibited, and many had their fears excited. The water begin to approach some of the inhabitants of the lower parts of the city."

Today you'd perhaps find such a beginning boring and tedious. "Get to the point!" you might exclaim, if you even got snagged that far. Ironically, while we have personal conversations in narrative form, often beginning with a Homer-like exhortation, we expect a more efficient approach from our news writers. Suppose you're a newsroom intern getting ready for work. Sipping your first diet cola of the morning, you look out the kitchen window to see—OMG!—a motorcyclist crash into a pole while trying to avoid a squirrel crossing the road. You immediately call the Daily Glitch OnLine and report to the chief content editor: "Wow, you'll never believe what I saw today! I guy on a Harley was going down the street when a squirrel jumped right out of a tree. I guess he must have swerved to miss it, and he hit a light pole. I think he was hurt because an ambulance came and picked him up."

Good story! You begin by attracting attention to the significance of what you're going to tell, then rouse curiosity by holding back the ending, and finally adding a comfortable close. I'll bet you had a nice group of listeners around the phone.

But as a reporting intern, you're toast.

The next day you read the Daily Glitch OnLine news story written by a reporter who still has a job:

A local motorcyclist was hospitalized in fair condition Monday after a one-vehicle accident on Acorn Street. According to witnesses, Harlan Lee swerved when a squirrel appeared in his path, and hit a light pole. The pole was undamaged.

So the recipe for creating a news article seems pretty different from the way you'd tell the story yourself. Different and weirdly artificial. Try telling someone that story in the news-speak form above and see if you don't feel silly: "Hi, Kristi! A local motorcyclist was hospitalized in fair condition Monday after a one-vehicle accident." No new friends out of that one.

Why did this strange cat, called the inverted pyramid lead, develop as a way to draw readers or listeners out from the deep sea of messages? We're not sure. It does seem to have mirrored the scientific and technological progress of the nineteenth century when the concept of mass media grew into what we know and love to drown in today. Science and technology try to be efficient, concise, spare. Not a lot of aimless prattle; get to the point, we don't have all day to read the news. Journalists, whose first obligation is—what? If you forgot, see chapter one—responded to changing reader demands by turning stories on their heads, by beginning with the most important information instead of giving a chronological account.

By the end of that century the inverted pyramid for hard news presentation became standard. Today, it may not be used so often, particularly on television, but it's still the approach most familiar to readers.

Familiarity masks the real point that this is truly an artificial way of manufacturing a story. Check out the approach. You begin with a "lead," (sometimes spelled "lede" in journalese), that is, the first sentence. It presents the story's most interesting or important point right away. Some of those fabled "5 Ws and H" (Who, What, When, Where, Why and How, of course) are always part of the lead, though contemporary standards allow them to be sprinkled throughout the first paragraph ("nut graf") or so. Following this lead is what the writer believes is second most important. Then third most important, then fourth, and so on. Stop reading any time, and you'll have the gist of it.

Consider a standard car accident story. Back on track with a new internship at the rival Daily Dew ("We Cover Dixie Like Boiled Grits"), you begin:

Two people were seriously injured in a two-car accident yesterday in Belleville.

Your editor grins. You continue,

Two cars were traveling down Main Avenue yesterday when a light unexpectedly turned yellow, police report. The car behind sped up, but the car in front braked. This caused....

Oopsy. There you are, burnt bread again. You began with an inverted pyramid, but then lapsed back into a narrative, story-telling style. You should have written:

John Retzlaff and Ralph Plum, both of Belleville, were taken by ambulance to KostlyKare Hospital, where both are listed in serious condition. Both cars were seriously damaged in the crash, and one car knocked down a stop sign. According to police, the two cars were traveling down Main Avenue when Plum, traveling in front of Retzlaff, braked for a red light.

A standard inverted pyramid begins with the most important item, and moves systematically moves to the least important. Credible sources, such as the police, do the explaining. News people think they're more likely to snag readers if they offer clean, credible news designed to waste as little of your time as possible. If you'll read a good headline, maybe you'll read the first sentence. If you read the first sentence, maybe you'll read the second, as that one is also pretty important. If you read the second, maybe you'll go on to the third. Pretty soon, whoa! they've dragged you through an entire news story, whether you liked it or not. At least you'll read to the jump. What's more, an editor faced with too little space can safely clip off the bottom without losing the main news. Or so editors used to presume.

What's Your Angle?

We mentioned in the last chapter that journalists deal in facts, usually, interpretations, sometimes, and opinions, never. At least never directly. But the inverted pyramid offers an opportunity for interpretations and even opinion, while never using the forbidden first person singular ("I") or directly calling something good or bad. Let's go back to our accident story. A few more things you ought to know. John Retzlaff happens to be owner of the big foosball manufacturing plant in town and a city council member. Ralph Plum happens to be a high school senior, son of Violet Plum, a physical therapist, and Pete Plum, a construction worker.

Now what's your lead?

"Prominent business leader John Retzlaff was seriously injured Tuesday in a two-car collision on Main Avenue."

Okay, so let's throw more spice into the soup: Retzlaff was listed in good condition, while Plum was listed in critical condition. Would you write,

"A student was seriously injured in a collision with prominent businessman John Retzlaff Tuesday"?

Mmmmaybe. If your view of reality came from your high school newspaper. But you'd probably still go with the prominent-business-leader lead.

We're not done yet. What if both victims were in good condition, but one car hit an electric transformer that knocked out power to the entire city for an hour? Okay, what if no electricity was affected, but the student died? What if…?

The point is that a journalist suggests interpretations, even judgments, by the way he or she fashions an inverted pyramid lead. If you used the old-style narrative lead, you wouldn't be able to offer interpretations or judgments. After that initial exhortation, "Boy, you won't believe what I saw today!" to attract attention to your story, you could actually be more neutral: "Two cars were traveling down Main Avenue Tuesday. One was driven by John Retzlaff, who you might remember owns Jack's Foosball Fantasy here in town, and is on the city council. The other driver was a high school student, Ralph Plum. It appears that Ralph braked for a red light," etc.

Of course, this approach usually takes up more room or air time and doesn't get to the point very quickly for you busy bees out there. So which story would more likely snag you and drag you? Even though it's a moldy 150 years old, most journalists will bet you'll slow down for the inverted pyramid. But because it's not the way we tell stories in real life, you have to learn to write in this style.

Manufacturing the Local News: The SAVE Formula

So here you are, a person with a message, planning a jump into that ocean of media. Looking across to the horizon of messages, occasionally you spot one jump out: "Me, choose me!" "No, look at me!" "Hey, over here!"

Those are the messages you want: the ones that pop out from the ocean. How do they grab your attention? With a compelling lead. Start by using the SAVE formula.
The SAVE formula is designed to save your readers from that media message sea, a life ring that snags them and drags them into your story.

It's easy to remember: Specific; Accurate; active Voice; Energetic verbs.


Generalities are boring. Whether in a novel, a biography, a report, an advertisement, or a news article, we want specifics. If I were to pull two beginnings from a novel, which would you find more fetching?

Bilbo woke up to find himself in a very dark cave. No one seemed to be around.


When Bilbo opened his eyes, he wondered if he had; for it was just as dark as with them shut. No one was anywhere near him. Just imagine his fright! He could hear nothing, see nothing, and he could feel nothing except the stone of the floor.

Probably you're choose the second.

Similarly, a non-fiction biography:

Years ago a boy accidentally set a fire at home.


On February 8, 1919, on a farm five miles west of Stanton, North Dakota, hardly a stone's throw from the Knife River, a seven-year-old named Harold Schafer burned down his parents' house.

A report:

There is a danger in driving in the United States. One could get into an accident.


Since model year 1983, 175 light trucks, vans, and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) have been included in the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) frontal crash tests. In this frontal test, vehicles are crashed at 35 mph such that the entire front impacts against a rigid, fixed barrier.

A published news article:

Many books have been written in the past few years examining stereotypes in our country.


Howard Gardner's best-known book is all about breaking down stereotypes: to show that the boy who can't learn to read is not stupid, that the girl who organizes playground games but sits mum in class might amount to something someday.

An online article:

The U.S. Senate will soon begin discussing finance issues.


Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Republican majority leader, said that the Senate would take up the issue of overhauling campaign finance law, probably starting in late March.

Let's bring this closer to home. Say you're covering the student senate for your school newspaper, the Cougar Call. Having taken notes on the variety of issues discussed, you return to your Macintosh to begin: "The Student Senate met Thursday. A number of issues were discussed. Several votes were taken."
Be honest: would you even read a story that begins this way? In fact, I'll guarantee you three readers:

• Student senators, hoping to see their names in print;

• The principal, fearing comments offensive to parents;

• Your mom, but only to check your spelling and grammar.

Who wouldn't read it? Your brother wouldn't, your sister wouldn't, your friends wouldn't, probably your father wouldn't, and if they wouldn't, how can you expect the public out there to read it?

Maybe we're beating too long on this poor horse, but the point is, you really do see a lot of general leads like this published:

• "The legislature was operating in full swing last week."

• "On Saturday, January 6, 2001, the Glitchville Knights played in the Raucus Rock Invitational Volleyball Tournament in Raucus Rock."

• "The stockholders of the First Bank of Bittyville held their first annual meeting on Monday evening and elected the staff of officers."

These are actual leads from professionally run publications. It took me all of five minutes to find them. Of course I changed the proper names, so the bad examples remain anonymous. I'm not out to embarrass the professionals who could benefit from reading a media writing text. (Maybe I should be?)

I call these "z-leads" leads: zzzzzz. That is, borrrrrring. For starters, let's work on that student senate lead. Specific means you begin with a decision made, a vote taken, a point emphasized, a game won, a theft committed, a fight fought, a driver injured, a president impeached, a student awarded fifty million in the lottery—the possibilities of specific leads are as endless as the possibilities of lazy generalities.

Looking through your student senate notes, you see they did vote on several issues, including a measure to assess students an activity fee of $10 to help pay for spring graduation party poppers. Now there's a lead that might work: not only does it include one of "the big three" hot buttons (sex, money, humor), but it's an elected board using your money in a way some may disagree with (controversy).

So you write:

The student senate Monday voted to assess Bittyville students $10 to help buy graduation party poppers.

Okay, maybe not everyone will read this lead, but chances are good you'll at least get your dad and your sibs to take a look. If you can snag that tough audience, you know some of the masses might be interested.

You could go a little further by throwing in a dependent clause:

In a vote designed to encourage more student participation, the student senate Monday okayed a plan to assess students $10 for graduation party favors.

This lead hopes to snag more readers by adding "why" information. The drawback is that is makes the lead longer. The dependent-clause style news lead is fairly innocent, but it does give the writer the opportunity to indulge in some interpretation. To wit:

In a vote detractors decried as wasteful and silly, the student senate Monday voted to require students to pay $10 for party favors.

Clearly, the writer of the lead above thinks the vote may be misguided, or at least hopes to inject controversy to attract more readers.

It could go the other way:

In a vote designed to attract more students to a festive graduation bash while still keeping the party's cost low, the student senate Monday approved a one-time $10 party fee for favors.

That lead is also thirty-three words, about the upper limit for a newswriter anxious to drag a reader through to the next sentence. Nevertheless, you can pick up any day's news and find beginnings this long, and as interpretive of the facts. Sentences in web-based news are supposed to be shorter, as it's thought more tedious to read on the computer. But a quick check of actual news sites will indicate that while stories themselves may be shorter, sentences are about the same as their print-version sisters.

But broadcast news writers must keep sentences shorter. Most people retain less of what they hear, depending on how much they're paying attention, and they seldom give full attention to broadcast news. Too, they can't go back to review something they missed the first time, given that most of us don't regularly tape daily news programs. News dribbled in shorter bursts attracts more listeners, who are more likely to remember what they are told. Try reading to a friend that last lead example above. Then ask what he or she remembers. It's likely your ever-attentive friend will recall something about a fee for a party at a local college, but will forget the specifics. Too many of them.

TV Dinner.Broadcast news writers often rely on a standard specific lead. But it's more and more assumed that people have the television on, but aren't really paying attention. Usually that assumption is correct. How many of us have the tube on in the background, but don't sit with TV Dinner in hand —oops, '60s again—pizza and diet pop in hand, hanging on the anchor's every word. So broadcast newswriters sometimes revert to the sort of beginning you'd use in talking to your friends: "Hey! Everybody! Listen up, I have story to tell you." Okay, so they don't use those exact words, but the effect is the same:

Remember those great parties from school? Well, now they're going to cost you more.

Hoping they've now snagged your attention away from picking out the pizza's anchovies, the anchorperson may now launch into a more standard lead. Of course, no matter how the facts are parlayed into that beginning, the one thing they must always be is accurate.


Second of our SAVE requirements asks leads to be accurate. Perhaps you think accuracy among news people is a joke. Dave Barry does. The syndicated humorist has noted the news business standard for accuracy guarantees nothing is printed before:

• We personally believe it's true.

• A reliable source (defined as "a source wearing business attire") told us it's true.

• Another newspaper, with a respectable newspaper name such as The Fort Smidling Chronic Truncator, says it's true.

• It's getting late and we need to print something so we can go to the bar.

Funny. But hardly ever the case. Professional news gatherers can't afford to make mistakes, and it's not really because they fear lawsuits or complaints, or even getting fired. Accuracy is critical to two of the legs without which that great table of journalistic integrity would topple: credibility and consistency.


Credibility assures readers and viewers that what you say can be believed. It's hard to maintain, because many Americans are naturally worry warts. Is that really the date of the concert? Can that commission report really be correct? Did the governor really say that? Every time a news report lets slip by a mistake of fact, someone who knows the truth will feel less likely to believe the next time. And he or she will also probably tell a few others: "You know what that Daily Fool'em said today? What a load of hoo-ra. Can't believe anything from them."

This extends even to small mistakes in spelling, grammar, and particularly the spelling or pronunciation of people's names. Readers assume that if the newspeople can't even get the little things right, how can they be relied on to get the big things right? There's even a smug satisfaction in finding a mistake in the "big powerful media." Americans like to tweak authority, and few institutions in the country are more powerful than the Fourth Estate.

Without credibility, a news operation is absolutely useless because it bases its existence on your faith that it presents facts. Without that faith, reporters might as well be making movies, or writing short fiction. Sure, some entertainment-based TV shows and publications work behind a supposed news drapery, but honestly, do you find believable those "TV tabloids" or the actual supermarket tabloids with stories featuring space invaders and psychic miscreants? Darned entertaining. Just not news.


Perhaps as important to the long-term health of a news operation, but less easily recognized, is consistency of fact. False things big and small introduce inconsistency that readers or listeners notice. That notice may be almost subconscious, as when a broadcaster pronounces the name of the hospital CorPORoCare one time, and CORporoCare the second. Or it may be a bit more vexing, as when a shopping center expected to cost $5 million, and later $5.5 million. I recently read a book on the great French explorer of North America, La Verendrye. Except sometimes the author spelled it La Verendye, no r. Which is it? Every time I came to the name, I began to muse: Hm, I thought it was with the r, but maybe I was wrong. Seemed in high school history class we...or was it La Ferendrye? Maybe not the same person. Should I look on the web? Then I'd have to get up.... Meanwhile, the text awaits.

Too many small errors and inconsistencies buzzing about weaken our will to continue, like mosquitoes invading a deck party. So we move on. Sometimes we Mosquito.can't even consciously explain why we quit reading a story; it just seems like too much work to continue. Dunno, just is. Maybe the inconsistencies and small errors conspire to make it uncomfortable to stay, just like those mosquitoes. The last thing a news editor wants you to do is quit reading or watching. Without you, after all, there is no audience, hence no advertising, hence, see Chapter One.


You say you want to shift the blame, evade responsibility? Don't we all, sometimes? You could lie. Not good, gets you into trouble in the long run. Credibility. Consistency. Problem. Maybe you should just admit:
"I broke the window. I was throwing out a 'New Kids on the Block' CD."

This is standard active voice: subject (that would be you), verb (to break; past tense, broke), direct object (window). The other sentence explains how you did it.

Decent of you to come clean, but it sets the blame squarely at your feet. Gets you into trouble here and now.

Actually, you could wiggle out of this whole window mess. Simply switch to passive voice: "The window was broken with a 'New Kids on the Block' CD."

This time the recipient of the action has become the subject. The main verb adds a form of the helping verb "to be" (was). How it was done also is explained. But who performed the action? We don't know. Perpetrator is off the hook. Ask me no questions, I'll tell you no lies.

Passive voice, then, allows the writer to indicate that something was said or done without identifying the person who did the saying or doing. This is not what we want in news writing. News stories emphasize people doing things: approving tax increases, winning elections, opening stores, robbing stores, cutting ribbons, losing volleyball games, building castles in the air, slaying dragons in their lair. People doing things; that's the essence of the news, not just that things are getting done.

While probably 80 percent of good news leads are written in active voice, worthy exceptions can be found. For instance, the sentence above is in the passive voice and probably belongs there. More germane in this case is the action, writing leads, and not the performer, journalists. We could easily change that sentence to active voice: "Journalists probably write 80 percent of leads in active voice, but occasionally they make a worthy exception." Not bad, but doesn't quite emphasize the point. So, exception #1 to writing in active voice:

• when the receiver of the action is more important than the person acting.

A newsy instance of this exception might be the lead, "The mayor was robbed at gunpoint in her office today." Who did the robbing? Don't know. Don't care, at this point. The mayor as victim is clearly more significant, giving passive voice the edge. While this kind of exception is standard operating procedure, the best journalists try to find an active-voiced beginning anyway, such as, "The mayor today expressed shock that a gunman was able to skirt security and rob her in her city-hall office."

Which of the above leads would snag 'n' drag you into the rest of the story? Possibly both, but the active voice still seems more beguiling.

Exception #2:

• when a writer wishes to emphasize accomplishments made by a group.

If five scientists produce a study showing chocolate can prevent hangnails (we can only wish), possibly the writer will emphasize the study and its results, and not the team. This is the standard approach of academic research: "The experiment was planned. The experiment was conducted. Results were obtained. A conclusion was reached." Who did it? Doesn't matter. Authors are listed at the top, but focus is on the results. The popularity of passive voice in academic writing may be one reason you dread term papers that require you to browse the academic journals. Borrrringgg.

Exception #3:

• when a writer wants to waffle.

Waffling is slang for prevaricating; this seems a bit closer to our broken window example. Let's say you're writing about a fight outside a coffee bar. Apparently, caffeine-crazed senior citizens scuffled (shuffled?) with two teen-aged latté slurpers in a bid to force the youngsters to remove the studs from their pierced ears, noses, and lips. Oh, the pathos! Immediate issue at hand, though, is that Earl E. Smith, Sr., hit Davy Jones, Jr., with his cane. Or was it Earl? It may have been John Johnson. Or Karl Woods. All you know is that some hitting was going on. So you write, "During the melee, Jones was hit with a cane." Who did the hitting? Can't say. Gets you off the hook.

That seems innocent enough, but it can be taken to lengths leading to the most serious of consequences. For instance, after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, investigators scoured the paper trail back to Morton Thiokol, the government-contracted manufacturer of the components that failed. Who was responsible for the failure? It was almost impossible to tell from the reports: standard writing style relied on passive voice. "This decision was made." "This was done." "That was implemented." Who was responsible? Passive voice assured that no one could be pinned down for anything.

Energetic Verbs

Verbs act like people: some work day and night like fiends, while others while away the hours without seeing so much as a fragment. Take the verb "to be," for example. In one form or another it toils tirelessly to help us form sentences both written and spoken:

• "He is a Los Angeles resident."

• "She was a pessimist."

• "There are four things to remember about leads."

• "They were the greatest players in school history."

• "The weather tomorrow will be sunny and warm."

Those tired little irregular verb forms serve some people through hours of news writing, story after story, with nary a complaint. How unfair for those li'l guys! English offers one of the world's richest vocabularies, verbs borrowed from all kinds of languages through nearly two millennia of development. Many of these verbs just itch to join a sentence, yet we ignore them again and again, and rely on that tired old "to be": is, are, was, were, will be.

We can easily get by without overusing "to be" at all. Don't believe me? Except for the examples, notice the last two paragraphs give that verb complete rest. You can write whole articles without it, really. Not that the verbs are lazy; it's the writer who's too lazy to look beyond the obvious for a sprightly verb ready to fight for readers' attention.

Beyond that verb, replacements stand ready for others almost as tired. "To walk," for instance. She walked to the store. He walked with her. They walked to the produce section. The clerk walked over to them. Do you know how many verbs we can find to replace walk? Fresh verbs, specific verbs, descriptive verbs. Here's a start: trudge, step, stagger, bounce, pace, proceed, advance, stride, march, stroll, saunter, hike, strut, parade, waddle, traipse, trundle, plod, shamble, stomp, inch, shuffle, stalk, tiptoe, ramble, toddle, trek, bowl along, pad, wend one's way—verbs that still look fresh, ready to take on the news-consuming world, ready to snag 'em and drag 'em.

More to read

Grammar and Word Usage

• William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style. New York: MacMillan.

Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

• James A. Jaska and Michael S. Pritchard, Communication Ethics. Methods of Analysis. 2d ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1994, 167-85.

By the way...

Jump: Newspaper people try to put a number of stories on the same page to attract readers to something that might interest them, several "points of entry." But some stories are too long for one page and have to be continued on another page, or "jumped" to an inside page.

Editors know many readers won't "make the jump," that is, turn to the rest of the story.
Some editors try to counter this quirk of human nature (clinical term, "laziness") by collecting all jumps on the easily accessible back page or by avoiding jumps if possible. Other editors jump everything and scatter the jumps around the section. Why would they do such an annoying thing? One word: advertising. The more pages you turn to—some people do follow jumps—the more advertisements you'll see.

The phenomenon is also seen on websites, which force you to move through several ad-laden links as you read a story. Of course, web designers could put the whole story on one page with internal links, but what fun would that be for the sponsors?

Fourth Estate: Old nickname for the news media. Apparently, dates from at least the early 1800s, with historian Thomas Carlyle, although he himself attributes it to Edmund Burke. That eighteenth-century British politician and philosopher explained that power of society at that time was divided between the three estates of religious authorities, aristocrats and commoners. The new power broker hoping to crash the party were said to be the force of journalism:

"Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite."

More modern interpretations think of the Fourth Estate as democracy's watchdog behind the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.

Automatic F: Old-time journalism professors used to give students an automatic F on any assignment containing a misspelled name. A few of us geezers still do. The most important thing you have as a reader is your own name, and if that's not right, the rest of the story doesn't matter. It could even lead to a lawsuit, although it's usually an innocent error readily corrected, so doesn't get that far.

Used to be the best way to guarantee correct spelling was to look up the name in the telephone directory which, reporters assumed, never made a mistake. And usually that assumption was justified. Whether the online versions do as well today is an open question, although possibilities of corroboration among several sources can help reporters get it right.

Skepticism and the news media: Do we generally believe what the news media tell us, or are we normally skeptical? Many of us answer smugly that we fall into the latter category.

Not so fast. After all, most of what people know about current events comes to them via the news media, and they don't generally question what they read or hear. How can we have it both ways?

International media historian Jacques Kayser related this story: "I once heard, at several minutes' interval, the same man interrupt a credulous talker: 'That's false! Come on, that's one lie too many that you read in the newspaper.' And opposite this skepticism toward the other speaker, this firm affirmation: 'It's true, I assure you. I read it in the newspaper.'"

"Ask me no questions, I'll tell you no lies": Attributed to Oliver Goldsmith, eighteenth-century author, in his comedy She Stoops to Conquer. Actually, according to Bartlett, the correct version is "tell you no fibs." Note that this classic weasel line is written in active voice. Note that the sentence above was written in passive voice. So was the one after that. All clear?

Academic research and writing: Possibly as opposite as can be from newswriting, scholars and researchers purposely emphasize slow leads, passive voice, vague verbs and tentative conclusions. Researchers argue this more accurately reflects the tentative nature of research and, anyway, the articles are designed to be read by specialists vitally interested in the material, and not by the public at large.

Good arguments. Still, most scholarly journals have surprisingly limited circulations—1,000 is high—and academics themselves sometimes will admit they breeze through their journals quickly, stopping only at articles that directly relate to their own research. More academics themselves might be snared by articles written in a more user-friendly manner.