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Quality

I’ve long been a believer in the power of Citizen Journalism, but I’ve never seen myself as any kind of expert or leader in the field.  One of the things missing in the field has been a definitive primer on quality in Citizen Journalism.  No one has written one yet, so I’ve decided to write one myself even without credentials.  Given the topic, why not?

The concept of quality rarely comes up in connection with Citizen Journalism.  It appears that the movement seems to believe that such an emphasis is elitist, inviting judgment and criticism. I argue that if Citizen Journalism is to empower people, it means that the otherwise disconnected and disenfranchised speak truth to power.  A small amount of training and attention to detail makes the craft more accessible and much harder for power to ignore.  That’s the payoff.  I further believe that nearly anyone with enough drive can learn to do this if they want.  Quality is never the exclusive property of the elite.

What is quality in Citizen Journalism?  It’s about the same as in any writing. There are some sites that offer many tips and good practices that are worth reading, linked to here.  They are often contradictory and play to different agendas, so it’s hard to sort out.  Here is my opinion of what makes good writing, but a good reporter’s first job is to do a little research and decide what makes sense to them.

I’ll start with a scenario: Boron Chemicals wants a new truck transfer station in the Douglas neighborhood, and the process requires “community input”.

The Five Ws: Who, what, when, where, and why.  Every useful article has to answer these questions.  They are what your writing is about and the reason why it should be read.  You may find a checklist of these items useful to organize your thinking, but that may seem dry and dull.  No matter what, read your stuff over when you’re done to make sure you answer these questions.

Who?  Boron Chemicals and the residents of Douglas.  What?  A meeting billed as a “Listening Session”.  When?  Last Tuesday night.  Where?  The VFW.  Why?  It is required by the City’s permit process.  Specific details are essential.

Active Voice: This one trips people up a lot.  Avoid sentences like “Boron Chemical is planning …” in favor of “Boron Chemical plans to”.  A general guide is to scan your work afterward for “ing” endings, and if they are paired with a “be” verb – is, are, and the like – you should change it to a form that stresses action.

Meat First: This is also called the “inverted pyramid” of journalism.  State what the article is about and what the reader needs to know in the first paragraph so that the reader knows why they should read it.  The details of how it all went down have the same context that the participants have when you do it right, putting the reader in the scene.  In this example, the meat is the meeting and as many of the Five Ws as you can put into place.

Do your Homework: Your job is to provide context for people who need to know something but weren’t in on the situation.  Why do they want this transfer station?  Why this location?  Details like this can make the article write itself.

Let the Participants Talk: You’re not going to be objective because you never see everything.   You can be a blank slate that those who are speaking, whether in power or on the outside, get to say their piece.  Some people will advise you to be objective, some will not, so this is controversial.  I say that if you give voice to everyone equally you’ll do about as well as you can.

Put the Reader in the Middle: If you’re afraid that your work will get boring, use the situation to spice it up.  “The room was hot and uncomfortable, but as the residents took the microphone the temperature went higher still.”  This may cross the line into purple prose if you aren’t careful, so stay with observations and gut feelings.  Keep it real, and never assume motives.

Unity: Once you’ve stated what the piece is about, stay with it.  No extra stuff, no matter how good it seems.  It’s that simple.

Edit in a Different Format: If you write it on a screen in a quiet room, print it out to edit in a noisy place like a coffee shop.  Change up your situation and mood and make sure it still works.

Is there more?  I’m sure there is.  If you have something to add, please comment below even if you think I’m way off base.  Quality writing is empowering, and if Citizen Journalism is going to live up to the promise we can all stand a little criticism to make our work better.

12 thoughts on “Quality

  1. I’ve decided to take up the cause of the passive voice. There are three reasons for my decision: 1) No one seems to identify it correctly. 2) Strictly speaking, passive constructions aren’t grammatically wrong. 3) Passives are useful. [incidentally, I didn’t use any passives there]

    I agree, “Boron is planning … ” is unnecessarily wordy and weak, but it is not a passive. A passive construction occurs when a logical subject is demoted into an object. The passive form is “The site is being built by Boron.”
    If you’re going to tell people they shouldn’t do something, be clear what they shouldn’t do.

  2. Bruce:

    What you’re telling me is that my writing coach is wrong. Well … that isn’t setting well with me, but I’m going to take some time and dig into it because you tend to know language and useage.

    But we both agree that that what I presented is incorrect. Passives, as you describe them, are useful, but harder to scan quickly – what I should have emphasized is that people tend to scan articles and yank out highlights, which is why short, active sentences work well. That is, the last sentence doesn’t work. Whatever.

    This was my first pass at this – if anyone wants me to go further with it I see a big edit. I must explain WHY certain forms are better than others, and ideally check the labels properly. OK? 🙂

  3. Wabbitoid,
    I doubt your writing coach misled you. Active voice is almost always better, especially in journalism. You simply didn’t present an example of a grammatically passive sentence.

    Where and when is passive better is the harder sell – again not germane to your piece, but to my campaign. It has to do with emphasis and stylistic variety. Occasionally, the logical subject is unnecessary, trivial or otherwise deserving of being in the background. Consider scientific experiments. Presumably, the experimenter [subject] is controlling all the conditions – the experimenter gives a dose of candy to the children as a reward. Consider the children, candy, reward and experimenter. Pushing “the experimenter” logical subject into the background allows the changing, important actions to be given the emphasis of a grammatical subject.

    Pretending this useful form is just wrong is normative poppycock.

  4. Bruce:

    The word “wrong” is the big issue here. There is a time and a place for nearly everything. In the context of journalism, subject-verb-object in short, punchy sentences is easier to digest quickly. You give a context where a different construction is more accurate, and I accept that. I’ve written a few patents and used that construction heavily myself (though it hurts my brain after a while).

    I wish I had taken on the whole subject differently, but I’ll let my errors stand with these comments attached for posterity. This is one of these things where perspective makes all the difference, so setting that up appropriately would make my effort more accurate without stepping all over your situation. You are right, but the topic requires better explanation than I or anyone else usually gives the subject.

    For the rest of you, Bruce probably knows more about Eastern European languages (Slavic plus German) than anyone else I’ve ever met. I hope you can see why I’m not going to argue with him about language and usage in general. 🙂 He’s always got a good point to make on the subject.

  5. I know we keep finding work for you to do, but a comprehensive guide that you EDIT as people make suggestions would be a really useful addition to the web.

  6. I think you really need to say a lot more about “setting the scene”. That went by pretty quickly, and I’m not sure what you mean.

  7. Jim: This sounds like something that might get me some work. Perhaps it’s worth doing – I was surprised to find how little there is on style guides for citizen journalists – or how much difference of opinion there is on we writing.
    Annalise: I’ll get into that later, I think. The idea is to put the reader into the moment so that they can better make up their own mind. Read the post on Unity and you’ll see how a writer’s job is one of editing the world, so it does require more explanation.

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