Chapter 28: Writing about politics

In the previous chapter, we discussed some of the ethical issues in reporting on politics and we looked at some of the skills you need to be a good political reporter, especially how to gather information. In this chapter we discuss how to write in an informed way which your readers or listeners can understand. We also look briefly at covering elections

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Politics should be reported in the same way as other news, giving the same thought to the selection, gathering and presentation of facts and opinions.

Story structure

Political stories can be written in the inverted pyramid style. However, because political issues can usually be seen from a number of different viewpoints, political stories are often more complicated to write than a simple report of an event. You need to include factual details of any measure or decision, but also report the different opinions on the issue.

The simplest way of doing this is to start by giving one angle in the intro and first part of the story, then switch to other views later.

However, this approach can be unfair, especially in newspapers where the reader might lose interest before coming to the other comments. The best way to structure a news story to overcome this problem is to include a reference to the other opinions early in your story. You do not have to give them in full at the beginning of your story; you just need to mention them, then you can explain them in more detail further down. (For a full explanation of how news stories can move from the main inverted pyramid structure into a pyramid of pyramids, see Chapter 25: Advanced news writing.

In the following example, we mention the alternative viewpoint of Mr Choo in the fourth paragraph.

The Finance Minister has introduced a bill to tax foreign property investments.

Mr Ben Bali says the tax is an attempt to stop people buying houses if they have no interest in living in this country.

The Bali plan will increase stamp duty on house purchases by 100 percent, but give all residents a full tax rebate on the extra amount.

The plan has been attacked by Opposition Leader Jo Choo, who says it will be difficult and expensive to operate.

The bill was first drawn up in 1987, but was not introduced into Parliament because of a lack of support in the Government ranks.

Mr Bali says the measure now has the support of all Government MPs etc...

In the example above, you would need to return to Mr Choo's comments later in the story, after you have discussed the bill in more detail, explaining how it would affect your readers or listeners.

This structure can also be used for long reports on radio and television. However, for short reports, it does not make sense to change from Bali to Choo, then back to Bali, then back to Choo, all in the space of just six or seven sentences.

 

News first

As with other news stories, you should give the news first, the comment second (as in the example above). The only time you give the comment first is if you are writing a follow-up or reaction story, in which case you refer back to the facts already revealed.

In cases where your intro interprets an event or announcement in different terms - perhaps putting a human face on a political announcement - you should immediately explain it.

In the following example, we give the human interest angle in the intro - the holiday - then explain in the second paragraph why children are getting an extra day off school:

Schoolchildren throughout the country will have an extra day's holiday this year.

This is because the Education Department has made November 1 a day of national stock-taking.

More than 2,000 teachers in primary and secondary schools will be expected to spend the day counting books, pencils, rulers and other equipment.

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The human face

The example above shows the value of putting a human face on what could have been a very boring story about stock-taking.

Most political stories are about people, but many politicians and bureaucrats hide the human face behind the way they talk about issues and events. This is because they are specialists in politics and government, not in communications.

They see things from a different angle, and sometimes concentrate so much on solving a specific problem that they forget how it will appear to ordinary people.

So it is your job to express stories in human terms - what is happening to your readers or listeners where they live, work and play.

For example, if the politicians talk about "urban renewal", get further details and write the story in terms which the people in the areas affected can understand. Compare the stories on the following page. See how the correct version concentrates on how the policy will affect the readers' or listeners' lives, while the wrong version lacks this human face

RIGHT:

Five hundred homes in the National Capital District will be pulled down to make way for a new entertainment centre and shopping arcades.

The demolitions are part of the NCD Commission's urban renewal policy which will affect three areas of the NCD.

More than 300 homes will be pulled down in Boroko to build an entertainment centre. A further 100 homes in Hohola and Gordon will be demolished to build shopping arcades.
WRONG:

The National Capital District Commission has announced an urban renewal policy.

The policy will mean that about 500 houses across the city will be demolished to make way for an entertainment centre and shopping arcades

Politicians and public servants often hide the human face of events and issues behind difficult official language we call jargon. Sometimes they use it to disguise the real meaning of unpleasant facts or decisions. The enemy is no longer "killed", they are "neutralised"; where there used to be "the unemployed", now we have "a pool of reserve labour" - the list is endless. When faced with a complicated idea, do not be tempted to repeat it word-for-word and hope that some of your audience will understand. Your job is to cut through the jargon to show exactly how policies, rules and regulations will affect your readers or listeners. A good dictionary or advice from other journalists is necessary if you are to avoid passing on your own ignorance to your readers or listeners.

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Elections

One of the most important functions of the media in democratic societies is to act as a forum for the discussion of issues, especially during elections. The media also provide platforms for political hopefuls to be judged by the electorate.

It is important, therefore, that in the run-up to an election, you are fair to all sides and do not favour one candidate or party over another. One practical way is to keep a running table of the amount of space or time you give to each party or political group, then adjust their coverage accordingly (see Chapter 57: Fairness).

Balance is best achieved by focusing on issues rather than on personalities. If you give all candidates the chance to discuss the issues, you will get an approximate balance. You should be particularly concerned with issues which will affect your readers or listeners. These include such things as housing, education, health, law and order, transport, agriculture and fisheries.

As well as discussing the issues, you should also try to educate your readers or listeners about the political and electoral process. Whenever you use a story about the forthcoming election, you should ask: "Do I need to put in extra words of explanation?"

For example, you might need an occasional brief explanation of which parties belong to the opposition coalition, or that the Upper House is not due for election for another two years.

There are also basic concepts such as "electoral rolls" and "registration" which need explaining from time to time. Try to combine the explanation in the news story itself, rather than adding it on to the end:

Voters in the Southern Highlands have been warned that they have until Friday to get their names on the electoral roll.

Electoral Commissioner Fred Blani says that only people whose names are listed on the electoral roll will be able to vote in next month's provincial elections.

Election results

When writing news stories in the run-up to an election and during the count, take special care that you give only those features which will be of interest to your readers or listeners without confusing them with unnecessary detail.

You should report the winning party and winners in electorates relevant to your audience, as well as any significant losers (perhaps the defeat of the sitting member).

You should indicate how big the winning margin was, and remember that in many countries the new government does not exist until it is sworn in by the Head of State.

If you are presenting a special edition or programme on election night, you have to plan well in advance. You must make sure you can get results quickly and accurately from reliable sources and prepare material for background features to fill in gaps.

Journalists producing special radio or television programs should invite expert guests on to the show at certain times to break up what could otherwise be a very long and boring program. Try to mix interviews or profiles with up-to-the-minute reports on the latest state of polling or counting, giving regular summaries of the results so far. Many people will tune in during the program just for the latest results. If they do not hear a summary within ten or 15 minutes, they will tune elsewhere or switch off.

Although radio and television have the advantage of being able to present election results faster than newspapers, broadcasters are not able to give such detailed coverage. They can tell their listeners who has won, but radio in particular is not able to present the figures in the form of tables which people can examine for detailed information.

Newspapers, on the other hand, can present all the mass of detail for the readers to absorb slowly, studying the results which particularly interest them and ignoring the others.

Newspapers will usually wish to publish a special results supplement, with all the election results in it. This, too, will need careful planning, especially accurate calculations of how much space the results will need. The rest of the space will need to be given to stories summarising the most interesting and significant results, giving information about people elected for the first time and similar stories. It should also include a table showing the new state of the political parties as a result of the election.

TO SUMMARISE:

Tell your readers or listeners how political decisions will affect their lives

Your job is to report different opinions, not to judge them; be objective

Cultivate a wide range of contacts

Write bright, interesting stories with a human face

Be fair to all sides; this is especially important during election time

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>>go to next chapter

 

 
Index to Chapter 28
  1. Story structure
  2. News first
  3. The human face
  4. Elections
  5. To summarise
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