GETTING IT RIGHT
A list of some errors made this week, and how they should be fixed
1. Write carefully. Think about what you’re writing. Get the facts right! A simple choice of the wrong word can result in a serious mistake.
“The Chinese government has boosted its military presence in Tibetan regions to guard against unrest during today’s 50th anniversary of Tibetan Uprising Day…”
It was the 50th anniversary of “the start of the 1959 revolt.” “Tibetan Uprising Day” is merely the name given later to the anniversary.
“What began as an effort by thousands of Tibetans to protect the Dalai Lama against a rumored Chinese military abduction plot eventually ended in defeat, and his forced exile to India.”
He fled into exile by choice, to avoid arrest and perhaps worse. The Chinese did not send him into exile. He was under duress, but “forced exile” is not precisely accurate.
“Tibetans have been seeking a greater degree of independence since the People’s Liberation Army invaded the region in 1950…”
A country is either independent or it’s not. It’s like being pregnant. A country can have greater or lesser autonomy, which is different from independence.
“The Chinese government has increased security measures in Tibetan regions across western China to prevent any riots on the 50th anniversary…”
The government wanted to prevent public displays of any kind: peaceful sit-ins, demonstrations, protests, unrest – not just “riots.”
“The Chinese government has increased security measures in Tibetan regions across western China today to prevent any unrest on the 50th anniversary of the failed 1959 Tibetan uprising.”
The security measures weren’t increased “today.” An operation this extensive takes several days. They were increased “for today’s anniversary.”
“This is the first time the Chinese government has acknowledged an official clampdown on Tibetan regions since the 1959 uprising.”
It’s the most detailed acknowledgement this week, not since 1959.
“Today marks the 50th anniversary of the date a Tibetan revolt was suppressed by the People’s Liberation Army in 1959.”
It’s the anniversary of the date the uprising began, not the date it was suppressed.
2. Don’t start a lede with the time element.
“In a speech today, The Dalai Lama accused China of a “brutal crackdown” on the Tibetan people…”
3. In most cases (in print writing), don’t start a sentence with the attribution. Give the reader the news first.
Bad: “According to FREELAND.org, “the value of the illegal wildlife trade is estimated at US$10-20 billion annually by some experts”.
Better: “The value of the illegal wildlife trade is estimated at US$10-20 billion annually by some experts,” according to FREELAND.org, an anti-trafficking group.
4. Correct English: How to indicate that someone was quoted.
“…trying to collude with their agents in Tibet,” China Daily, China’s official English-language newspaper, quoted him as saying.
5. Correct English: Nouns and pronouns have to match. A government, for example, is an “it,” not a “they.”
Wrong: “The Chinese government’s position is that the Tibetan people have a lot to thank them for because they claim to have improved the Tibetans’ standard of living…”
Correct: “The Chinese government’s position is that the Tibetan people have a lot to thank it for because it claims to have improved the Tibetans’ standard of living…”
6. Correct English. Be careful how you write attributions.
“The Chinese government acknowledged that security forces have increased patrols in central Tibet…according to the State news media reports.”
The acknowledgment wasn’t from the government “according to” the media, the acknowledgment came from the media themselves, speaking for the government.
7. Keep it simple. Avoid unnecessary words. Cut long, complicated sentences into shorter ones.
Bad: “The Dalai Lama has today given a speech accusing China of a “brutal crackdown…”
Better: “The Dalai Lama today accused China of…”
Bad: “She believed if the skin supplier can be taken out of the trade structure, it can affect the supply chain greatly and could take enormous amount of resource and time for the network to operate once again as the suppliers identified in her findings were in this business for over 20 years.”
Better: “Skin suppliers – some of whom have sold tiger pelts for more than 20 years – are key to the trade, Wong said. If taken out of the supply chain, they would be hard to replace.”
In writing, shorter is always better, and this is especially true in news writing, where time, space and the audience’s attention are all limited. But it takes care and careful editing to say things concisely and clearly. As the American writer Mark Twain once told a friend: “I wrote you a long letter because I didn’t have time to write you a short one.”
8. Avoid repetition and redundancy. It’s confusing, and annoying.
“The Dalai Lama no longer calls for independence, but does call for greater autonomy for the Tibetan people. He says he advocates genuine autonomy for all ethnic Tibetan areas of China, not secession.”
The first and second sentences say essentially the same thing. Don’t waste space telling readers what you’ve already told them. It only confuses them.
“This action turned into a revolt against Chinese rule, which the PLA suppressed. The People’s Liberation Army suppressed the uprising and the Dalai Lama fled into exile in India, where he has remained ever since.”
Blind copying of the fact sheet resulted in the same phrase being repeated twice in a row.
“Within two hours after the store’s opening, more than 9000 people had entered the new store and most of them were given limited-edition gifts from the store.”
Better: “Within two hours after the store’s opening, more than 9000 people had entered and most of them were given limited-edition gifts.”
The story was all about the new Apple store. It’s not necessary to keep repeating “the store.” The reader knows which store you’re referring to.
9. Avoid using introductory or summary sentences, rather than getting to the point of the story:
Bad lede: Kevin Drew gave a talk today about news reporting and writing before journalism students at Hong Kong University
Better lede: The strength of a journalist’s reporting heavily influences the quality of news writing, Kevin Drew told a group of graduate journalism students this morning at the University of Hong Kong.
Remember, the fact that someone gave a talk is not news. People give talks all the time. (If a dog bites a man, it’s not news. if the MTR runs on time, it’s not news.) The news is what the person SAID that’s important or interesting to you and me.
10. Failing to adequately support the lede. Remember the 4-part structure.
Lede: The strength of a journalist’s reporting heavily influences the quality of news writing, Kevin Drew told a group of graduate journalism students this morning at the University of Hong Kong.
2nd graf: Kevin Drew is a professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre who recently left full-time daily journalism to teach. He likes to play basketball.
The paragraphs immediately following the lede are supposed to support, explain and amplify it. Launching immediately into background, unless that background is necessary for the understanding of the story, is bad writing. In the above case, stopping to tell about Kevin’s background is not important at this point in the story, and just gets in the way of the narrative.
The strength of a journalist’s reporting heavily influences the quality of news writing, Kevin Drew told a group of graduate journalism students this morning at The University of Hong Kong.
Revised 2nd graf: “I know the quality of my writing will suffer and be greatly limited if I do a poor job of reporting a story,” said Drew, who was greeted by cheers and whistles from the gathering of more than 60 students.
11. Correct English: putting periods rather than commas at the end of quotes that are followed by attribution
Bad: “I know the quality of my writing will suffer and be greatly limited if I do a poor job of reporting a story.” He said.
Good: “I know the quality of my writing will suffer and be greatly limited if I do a poor job of reporting a story,” he said.
12. Slipping away from colorful observation to impose your opinion:
Born in Kabul, Hossaini grew up in Iran. He began to work with Afghan refugees through work with a charity group. Their miserable lives touched him so much that he turned to photography to create a daily record.
It’s not up to you, the reporter, to decide if people’s lives are miserable or not. And you don’t ever know what’s in another person’s mind. You can attribute this to Hossaini, however: HE SAID THAT the misery he saw touched him so much that he turned to photography to create a daily record.
13. Getting lost in jargon:
Bad: According to the Development Bureau, the plan was included in 2007 under the Ten Major Infrastructure Projects. Since then, the government has invited public engagement in the first two stages spanning four years.
Better: The government formalized plans to build in the northeast New Territories in 2007, and has since invited public feedback.