Reflecting on Hard News

Form follows function in the profession of journalism. An article will be written in hard news format if the function is to convey facts quickly and easily. Hard news aims to convey facts to the public in a short period of time and unbiased manner. The article Bayswater Level Crossing Removals On Hold was written in a hard news format to provide a balanced and easy to understand update to City of Knox residents on Bayswater level crossing removal plans.

New Zealand journalist Murray Masterton said the ‘big six’ news values are impact, proximity, prominence, conflict, unusualness and human interest. A hard news story will be considered “newsworthy” if it has at least one of Masterton’s values. I considered an article on level crossing removals in Bayswater newsworthy to Knox residents because the issue has “proximity” (Bayswater is in Knox), conflict exists between the State Government and local council and level crossings are currently prominent in the media.

Hard news is focussed on answering the questions “who, what, when, where, why and how”. News As It Happens author Stephen Lamble says these questions are signposts which “direct” and “guide” hard news writing. I struggled to answer all questions in the introductory paragraph without it becoming convoluted. I decided to only answer the questions “who” and “what” in the introduction to hook the reader and keep the sentence short and easy to follow.  I believe the questions “where” and “when” are answered in the second paragraph and “why” in the third. When reflecting on the hard news writing process, I realised the question “how” may be answered later in an article. I believe spreading the answers to “who, what, when, where, why and how” across several opening paragraphs works well in the case of this article because the story is angled toward what was said over a period of time.

The intended publication for my article on Bayswater level crossings is the Knox Leader. The intended audience is local residents to Bayswater and Knox. It is possible to investigate stories in greater depth and spend more time ensuring fairness, accuracy and balance is achieved when writing for a weekly newspaper. But recent cuts to newsroom staff has meant newspaper journalists may be pressured by time limits. Fewer staff means each journalist must write a larger number of stories during the week.

Hard news stories are most often written in the form of an inverted pyramid. This can be considered a “recipe” for writing hard news. The most newsworthy information is provided first in this format.

An introduction begins the inverted pyramid. Lamble said the introduction should “encapsulate” the main news value and at least what happened, who was involved and where. The introduction and each paragraph following should be 25 words or less. Information with the weakest news values is written near the end of an article. The article Bayswater Level Crossing Removals On Hold follows the conventions of the inverted pyramid form. I believed Councillor Darren Pearce’s statements were most newsworthy because they indicated conflict, prominence and proximity. Hence, the news angle is focussed on his comments. Lamble said the aim of the inverted pyramid structure is to “build interest” and “ensure clarity”.

Stories following the inverted pyramid style are beneficial to readers in a hurry. Only part of a hard news article may be read but most of the story can be understood. Paragraphs make sense alone and can be cut from the story without hindering clarity. This approach allows the article to be reduced easily.

Hard news writers use words economically and efficiently.  An active voice opposed to a passive one contributes to the pace and dynamic style of an article. Active voice assists in holding the readers attention.

Hard news writing aims for objectivity. But some may say objectivity is an unachievable and unattainable idea in journalism. Journalist Wilfred Burchett exemplifies the difficulty of achieving objectively. Burchett was embedded in Vietnamese forces in the Vietnam War. His ability to report objectively was clouded because he openly declared himself against the invasion of democracy in Vietnam and experienced the war solely from the Vietnamese side.

It is philosophically impossible to be completely objective because personal backgrounds and experiences create subconscious biases. Any bias, even if subconscious, limits a journalists ability to report objectively. Burchett witnessed the devastation capitalism caused during the Great Depression and bombing in Hiroshima. His past negative capitalist experiences may have influenced his reportage of the Vietnam War. On reflection, I have realised my own subconscious biasses may have prevented my article from achieving objectivity. I have aimed to provide a fair and balanced report by interviewing opposing sources, but I may have subconsciously favoured Councillor Darren Pearce because I live in his electorate.

Hard news stories use representative sources to provide information. Non-representative sources may be used when writing ‘soft’ news or human interest stories. I have used only representative sources in the article Bayswater Level Crossing Removals On Hold to ensure it follows hard news conventions. I attended the March 28 Knox City Council meeting. The Bayswater level crossing removals were discussed for a significant time. Councillor Darren Pearce spoke passionately. I have used councillors as sources because they represent Knox residents.

Mayor Peter Lockwood is an important source for stories in Knox because he is a figure of authority and holds influence in the position of mayor. I spoke to Cr Lockwood on the phone after the State Government announced the first 17 level crossings to be removed. I believe it is important to quote Councillor Adam Gill as he is the local member for Bayswater and representative of Bayswater residents. Knox Sustainable Transport Planner Melissa Sparrow represents the council transport department. I called Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan’s office but I was not able to speak to Ms Allan personally. I interviewed her Media Liaison Officer Bob Neilson on the phone.

Balance is an underlying philosophy of journalism. Equally representing both sides to the story and eliminating adjectives assists in achieving a balanced article. I quoted sources from both sides of the Bayswater story in an attempt to achieve balance. Quotes from Bob Neilson balance Councillor Darren Pearce’s antagonistic statements.

Hard news stories may be effective in presenting facts quickly and easily, but flounder when context, emotion, atmosphere and colour is required to enhance a story. Soft news serves to convey these “human-interest” elements. RMIT University lecturer Josie Vine said emotion and atmosphere are as much a part of reality as facts. Hard news struggles to convey a part of reality because it misses context, emotion, atmosphere and colour.

The “social media revolution” has impacted hard news. Social media has increased the need for hard news to be fast paced, interesting, concise and captivating. Stories must grab the readers attention immediately in the online world because readers have more choices of news to read. The 24 hour online news cycle has sped up the production of hard news. Journalists are pressured to break and publish stories online faster than their competitors. One may argue this fast pace has hindered the quality of journalism. Do journalists have time to reflect on whether fairness, balance and accuracy has been achieved? Hard news conventions help journalists remain fair, accurate and balanced.

All hard news writing conventions exist to allow stories to be easily and quickly understood and facts to be presented in an unbiased manner.


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