From May through June 2020, the analytical platform VoxUkraine and the Center of Journalism of the Kyiv School of Economics were teaching employees of the Accounting Chamber, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Economic Development, State Customs Service and State Fiscal Service to cooperate with the media. Based on the results of 15 hours of lectures and trainings, experienced editors Liudmyla Smolyar and Otar Dovzhenko have prepared a series of practical materials for anyone who wants to establish a warm relationship with journalists.
Most materials in media are created by professional journalists and editors. They select facts and comments, analyze events and ask questions, draw conclusions and make forecasts. It is often difficult for representatives of the government agencies, who want to deliver important facts or opinions to their audiences, to get through their filters. This article will discuss two formats of media materials that the media are most willing to accept from civil servants: news and columns. These formats are opposite — the news informs the fact and gives readers knowledge, and the column conveys the message and helps to form an attitude to events or phenomena.
Compared to other journalistic genres, there are clear requirements for news: they must be accurate, reliable, relevant, balanced, and so on. By violating these requirements, journalists risk damaging their reputation or even suing. It is useful for government officials to know the main requirements of the news: considering them, they can become more attractive, useful and understandable to journalists. And if fitting into the rigid framework of news journalism is not your option, then formulate your thoughts, ideas or views into a column.
How to turn a fact into a news
Not every event or information is news. The news should tell about something new and something that happened today. The news must be relevant, meet the current needs of the audience of a particular media, and be close to the audience in terms of culture, geography, economy, history, etc. For example, regional media will always report on local news first and only then on national news: the closer one is more important. News is interesting or unexpected information, as well as information related to famous places, people, institutions, etc.
Journalists have a stable set of standards, according to which they create news. Every news should be:
- Prompt – it should be communicated to the audience as soon as possible once all the facts are clarified and verified;
- Balanced – it is necessary to give the floor to all parties of the conflict and to present their positions impartially;
- Reliable – the source of each fact and the author of each opinion, appraisal or quotation that is in the text should be named;
- Exact – all facts, figures, names must be verified;
- Facts separately, comments separately – opinions and appraisals of the author or other people cannot be given as facts;
- Complete – it should contain all the needed facts and comments for the audience to understand it;
- Simple – written in human language, understandable to all readers / viewers / listeners.
If you offer editors a text that does not meet these standards, do not be surprised when the material is rejected or published with significant changes.
The news should be built on the principle of an inverted pyramid: the more important and relevant the information, the closer to the beginning of the text it is located. The most important and recent one at the beginning, the least important and older at the end.
The components of a news are a headline, a lead, a link to the source, a few quotes, relevant details and the background. These components, in accordance with the principle of the inverted pyramid, are arranged in exactly this order. The headline is a core of the news in one short sentence. This sentence usually has both a subject and a predicate, so it shows who did what. For example, “Oil fell by 7% in a week” (while “Cheap oil” or “Rapid reduction of prices” are bad headlines for the news). The headline should awake reader’s interest, but at the same time it cannot be manipulative, that is it cannot contain information that is not actually in the text. Also, the title should not be clickable: one that abuses the reader’s attention with emotional and evaluative words like “incredible”, “huge”, “shock”, “catastrophe” (figuratively) and so on.
The lead is a sentence with the most important details of the news, which have not yet been mentioned in a headline. Sometimes the combination of a headline and a lead can encourage you to read the news entirety, because the facts mentioned there are paradoxical, unexpected, etc.
The source must be reliable and specific, i.e. clearly state where the information came from (for example, not “informed by the Ministry of Finance”, but “told at a press conference by such representative of the Ministry of Finance”). Referring to an anonymous source is always risky for the media: if the information turns out to be false, there will be no harm for the unnamed source, but the media will lose the trust of readers.
Quotes in the news should be meaningful, accurate and complement the rest of the text, not duplicate it. Each quote should indicate who said it, when and under what circumstances. Do not be surprised if only a few sentences are quoted from your words in the news, this format does not provide for more.
Important details in the news are usually the answers to the when, where, how and why questions of what has happened. If you need to report a large amount of numbers in this part, it is better to design them as infographics, so it will be easier for readers to perceive.
The background should contain information that helps the reader understand the news – explanations, context, events that led to it, and so on. For example, numbers need a context: alone they do not make it understandable for a reader (“oil has fallen in price by 7%”, is it a little or a lot?), so they need to be compared with numbers, for instance, for the same period last year or of other countries.
The news should help people make decisions: to take or not to take an umbrella in the morning, to sell or to buy dollars, to become an entrepreneur or to remain an employee, etc. Therefore, they should be written in simple and clear language, avoiding the official jargon, long sentences, incomprehensible numbers and terms. More advice on this can be found in the text “How to effectively cooperate with media.”
Reports from official agencies often do not resemble news: their headlines are long, vague and do not contain key facts, the text begins with the background, and the main information is at the end. Therefore, journalists have to seek the main point in official messages and reshape these messages to their format, rewriting texts of official style in clear ones. This requires time, awareness of the topic and motivation, that journalists do not always have. If the message of the state institution is closer to the news format, it will make life easier for all participants of the process: journalists will have a content, and civil servants — mentions in the media.
Also, remember that
- The media filters the news based on the perception of the target audience’s interests. For example, a car magazine is unlikely to publish news from the field of botany, and a journal of culture would not inform about the strengthening of the hryvnia, because in the first case readers probably want to read about cars, not botany, and in the second — about culture, not economy. So do not expect to get in the news of many different media. This is impossible and not needed.
- The news can reach several media outlets if it is reported by a news agency. The media (as well as embassies, government agencies, large and medium-sized enterprises, etc.) are subscribed to news agencies. It is convenient for journalists to use them, because it saves the effort of searching for content and, by law, disclaims responsibility for the content of the publication.
- Journalists receive a lot of press releases during the day and cannot cover all of them. So if you want your press release to be noticed, formulate the topic of the letter as clearly and meaningfully as possible.
- Refusing to comment is a losing position. They will write about you, but without your participation. A refusal to comment spoils the image: it calls into question the competence and desire to help the citizens who you work for.
How to turn thoughts into a column
Columns are detailed and reasoned statements about what a person wants to (has enough reasoning on a certain topic and motivation) and can (has enough competence or experience) say. In contrast to news, columns are subjective, in them you can share emotions, give appraisals, use figurative language, in order to suggest your ideas and convince the reader. Columns are of interest to readers because they help not only to learn about events (enough news for this), but also to understand how events can affect life and how they should be treated. The column is like a personal conversation with the reader.
Usually, the media is interested in civil servants writing columns for them. After all, representatives of official institutions are well acquainted with the field in which they work; understand the logic of decision making and can explain it; bring up topics that are interesting and important at least to a part of the audience. However, it is important to clearly distinguish when you are acting as a representative of a formal institution (and therefore must remain within the scope of your competence) and when you are sharing your thoughts, impressions or experiences as an average person. For completely subjective, lyrical posts that do not relate to your work, it is better to use social media 🙂
For a column to have an impact on readers, it must be
- Focused, that is, dedicated to only one specific topic. This topic should be formulated at the beginning of the text and reminded of at the end.
- Reasoned. The point supported by arguments is more convincing and has more potential for discussion. When making certain arguments, make sure that there are no fallacies or manipulations among them: their use might harm the karma.
- Provide examples. Real-life examples, stories about specific people and events make the text vivid and help to hold the readers’ attention.
- Concise. The longer the text, the less likely it is to be read to the end. If any words, phrases or sentences can be removed from the text without compromising the content, it is worth doing.
- Catchy, that is, one that attracts attention. To do this, first of all you need to formulate an interesting, clear and concise title. It should drop out a hint to a reader at how and why this text concerns him/her. There can be no abbreviations or professional jargon in the headline. Even if it seems that this abbreviation or this term is known to all.
- Clear. Imagine a person who does not understand the specificities of your work, does not know the official business vocabulary and has no specialized education in your field. If you want to give your opinion to such a person, write as simple as possible. Use common words, explain terms, interpret abbreviations. Give examples and comparisons. Put all this in short sentences.
- Original. To do this, at least avoid stock phrases, such as “and who are the judges”, “time will tell”, “who is to blame and what to do” and so on. The end of the text, although not everyone reads it, should also be creative. Preferably, that a person reflects for some time on the topic once finished reading.
- Reader-oriented. That is, one that takes into account the interests and needs of the audience of the media, in which you plan to publish it.
Different editorial offices have different requirements for columns. Please, clarify them before submitting your text. Ask the editor if your photo is required, and in what format. If the editors choose the photo of the author of the column by themselves, but any photo does not suit you, ask to agree it before the publication. Remember that the title is always at the discretion of the editors, so there is no point in arguing that your version has been changed.
If the media you sent the column to denied in publication, try reaching someone else. But do not send one column to several media outlets at once, if the same text is published by two or more media, editors may suspect plagiarism or sponsored work.
Some media have a “Blogs” section instead of traditional columns. The materials that are published there are the same columns, but they are usually edited less carefully (or not edited at all), and the authors can not count on a fee. Some online media take posts from social media and publish them (with or without the permission of the author) in the “Blogs” section. This is not always beneficial for the author, because the post in a social media can be emotional, incomplete or simply not carefully edited. If your social media post, a speech at a conference, the text of any speech, etc. has been published or is desired to be published in the section of blogs or columns, offer the editors a compromise: to polish and supplement the text, bringing it to the full-fledged column format. A neat and complete publication is always more convincing and makes a better impression on the intelligent reader.
Based on lectures by Nina Kuryata, Ruslan Chornyi and Dmytro Koshovyi
This material was prepared under the Budget Watchdog project with the support of the German Government’s project “Good Financial Governance in Public Finance III”, implemented by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH.
The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations