News Writing by Anna McKane (second edition, 2014)
Review by Gary Hudson, Senior Lecturer in Broadcast Journalism, Staffordshire University
The first edition of this news writing guide paid due homage to its forebears and was a long overdue update of well-established practice.
Eight years on and the second edition should be even more welcome. Such is the pace of change that eight years and several reprints later the first version had not worn as well as the works of the great exponents of the craft, Keith Waterhouse and Harold Evans.
The author acknowledges this: the first edition spoke about events that people might hear about first in a local paper; nowadays it will be on Facebook, Twitter or a blog. She suggests this has not fundamentally changed the way news is written. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.
The basics – or should that be the clichés – are all included: the inverted pyramid, the ‘all the rest is advertising’ quote (attributed here to William Randolph Hearst) and our old friends Galtung and Ruge. The chapters on Accuracy and Getting it Right, Choosing the Right Words and Writing for Clarity are must-reads for any journalism student, and therein lie the book’s strengths.
But the claim in the publisher’s blurb that this edition is ‘fully updated to account for the role of online journalism’ is not followed through.
Neither the glossary nor a particularly sparse index include search engine optimisation. There are a few pars on the topic in the chapter about headlines, but hardly enough to take the reader beyond the blindingly obvious and certainly not a comprehensive guide to this essential skill for web writers.
The assertion on the back cover that the essentials of using smartphone images are covered is also wide of the mark. One might ask why a book on writing needs to cover the use of pictures, and there’s the rub. This isn’t really a book about news writing at all. It’s a book about newspaper writing updated to include aspects of the way traditional news outlets write for the web.
It does not cover the wide and occasionally very different range of news writing skills used by broadcasters. There is no mention of writing for radio, except a nod to the BBC College of Journalism website under Further Reading. The absence of TV writing skills is therefore no surprise, but it means the craft of writing to pictures, ways of introducing interviews and actuality and how and when to use a piece to camera are ignored. The glossary is particularly misleading in giving only the newspaper definition of a ‘wrap’ as a round-up from different sources, rather than the widespread use of the term for a radio package.
There is plenty to commend this book to students on NCTJ courses. For those following the traditional pathway into the declining mainstream, it has useful exercises and discussion points at the end of chapters. There are strong examples of how to cover breaking news stories, and easily understood guidance on constructing longer news reports.
Most of the examples come from the British press, including at least one piece of advice crediting a News of the World reporter, which I fear would not impress most of the young would-be journalists I know, who have been horrified by the phone-hacking scandal.
So it surely cannot be an isolated attempt to garner an international audience that leads to the reference to a ‘full point’ in the grammar section. In Britain, we’re told, headlines do not take full points. I understand that they don’t take full stops either.
News Writing by Anna McKane (2nd edtn) Sage ISBN 978-1-4462-5630-5 ISBN-10:1446256308 ISBN-13: 978-1446256305 192 pages £21.59