Journalistic writing usually aims to achieve two main goals: to engage and to inform. How it achieves these may depend entirely on its house style, as every publication has its own sense of identity, and on its readership.
A good way to get an idea of different journalistic styles is to compare news articles covering the same story from different publications. You may find variations in the type of language structures and vocabulary used.
Particularly note how different publications can be more or less formal, and how they make efforts (or no efforts) to appear neutral. You may also find the publication’s identity affects the choice of story topics and the way different stories are approached.
The styles used by different publications are as varied as the personalities of their ideal readers, so it is essential to study a publication’s style to write in a way that fits their needs. This always starts with reading the publication itself and practising writing your own articles to fit.
Matters of style in grammar, vocabulary, formatting, and punctuation are typically closely dictated within journalism. You may see a publication using deviations from typical styles, but these deviations will be laid out and consistent for that publication. This is illustrated by the flexible use of grammar seen in writing headlines, which may be quite different to everyday English but should be the same throughout all a publication’s material.
A useful starting point when writing journalism is to ask whether the writing is personal or impersonal. The question of perspective can inform a style. An article in the first person immediately tells us it is likely to be subjective. A first-person account offers the opportunity for editorial comment (the writer can offer their own thoughts on the topic) and gives the writer the opportunity to become an actor in the story.
Such writing is common in Comment or Opinion columns, where a journalist interprets the meaning of events, rather than merely reporting them. It is also found in travel writing and long-form interviews, where the journalist’s opinion of the environment and the subject are used to add context.
Otherwise, journalistic pieces are likely to be in the third person perspective voice, to give an essentially neutral report of events. The third person in journalism can still become subjective depending on the way information is presented, however, and may include adjectives that promote a certain viewpoint, without actively stating personal support. Consider the difference between the following three styles:
- When the House voted against the latest bill, it made me furious– they don’t know how it affects the working man! (first person, opinion-based)
- The House voted against the latest bill, angering some, as it has been perceived that the views of ordinary working men have not been taken into account. (third person, neutral and assigning opinion with the passive, avoiding agreeing with the viewpoint)
- The House voted against the latest bill without consulting working men, an act of disregard that is now stirring anger. (third person, demonstrating opinion by actively reporting the viewpoint as fact, with a negative label)
As well as establishing a viewpoint, particular care must be given to how formal journalistic writing is. Some publications expect colloquial, friendly language, while others aim for more academic English. This does not necessarily relate to how neutral the text is. Informal phrases that do not necessarily convey opinion can still be used to report objectively:
- The House voted the latest bill down, causing trouble as some people claim no one’s listening to the workers. (third person, neutral and with a less formal style, avoiding assigning the viewpoint)
Such informal language could be seen to be more subjective if perceived to treat a serious subject lightly, but otherwise, it is a case of meeting readers’ expectations.
To write for a specific publication, you must therefore not only consider its style but also its readership’s tastes. Many publications have guidelines for positions on a range of topics, which can affect what you can and cannot write.
This may relate to specific vocabulary that is restricted or encouraged, and to specific topics that are restricted or encouraged.
As a final point, despite the variations in style and potential bias, journalism is always expected to demonstrate the highest quality writing. Publications typically have a hierarchy of editors to avoid mistakes.
As journalism is always public-facing, and expected to be widely read, mistakes can be damaging for a publication, and can cause readers to focus on the quality of the writing instead of the issue being discussed. Even informal or smaller publications hold the quality of writing to a high standard, within the framework their house style has established.
The British tabloids, for example, are often held as a lower grade of writing, but if you read them carefully you will see that though the language may be colloquial and simple, it is carefully designed to suit its purpose.
Beyond the dual principles of writing for an audience and keeping a publication’s style in mind, journalism is a very broad field that can be highly specialised.
If it is a particular interest of yours, it is wise to seek additional training specifically in journalism, which will cover best practices not just in writing but in the practical areas that would inform research and, consequently, what you can write about.