By: HERBERT VEGO
ANO ang balita?
What’s the news?
This was the question that a journalism class asked me to lecture about in a workshop last summer. I wish to share excerpts of that lecture to as many readers as possible.
Whether in the vernacular or in English, the above is the instinctive question we ask – or are asked – each time we meet another person. We take this to mean that we are all interested in, to quote Mr. Webster, “any information about a recent event in a particular area” – which is what the word news means.
I remember that many, many years ago after I had enrolled in a four-year course (AB-Journalism) at Manuel L. Quezon University (MLQU) in Manila, a short, aging, bald and bespectacled man in polo barong sauntered into our News Writing classroom and broke the old “news.”
“Class, I am Professor Angel Anden,” he announced to a seemingly inattentive audience.
“I discovered Imelda Romualdez,” he added.
Who would not have paid attention? He had “discovered” Imelda Romualdez Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines. Gee, here was no ordinary professor. We waited with baited breath for his next words.
“I was then walking on Aduana Street sometime in 1950 when I met this pretty young lady,” he narrated. “I was then editor of the defunct This Week magazine, and I was looking for the next cover girl. So I gallantly approached her with a proposal. Would she like to be on the cover of the magazine? She said yes, adding that it was her dream to be famous.”
To make the long story short, the cover story on Imelda in This Week caught the attention of then Manila Mayor Arsenio H. Lacson, who sponsored her bid for the title Miss Manila. She won not only the title but eventually the heart of then Senator Ferdinand Marcos.
Anden (now deceased) took the whole hour elaborating on Imelda, who had already become the hottest newsmaker and a part of Philippine history “because of me”.
“You see,” he concluded the day’s lecture. “By looking for news to write, you, too, could make a dream come true – if not your own, somebody else’s. Anywhere you go, as I did – north, east, west or south – there’s a material waiting to be written.”
There was stress in the manner he mentioned the four points of the compass: North, East, West or South. What a coincidence! The combined first letters of the four directions just happens to form the acronym NEWS.
To a journalist, relaying the news to newspaper readers hardly differs from the verbal answer we get whenever we ask, “What’s the news?” Like the verbal news bearer, the news writer begins by summarizing what it’s all about, as in, “Well, the news is that, at last, our bachelor President has found a fiancée.”
On the other hand, certain titans of journalism believe that subjectivity is unavoidable because it’s in the nature of the journalist. Henry Luce, the late founder of Time, once said, “Show me a man who thinks he’s objective and I’ll show you a man who’s deceiving himself.”
An editor may either unknowingly accept for publication propaganda passed off as legitimate story or knowingly collude with propagandists and public relations men. Their press releases are often jokingly referred to as “praise releases.”
A news story must always be as objective as possible, carrying nothing but straight facts. The news writer is completely impartial. If there is more than one side to the story, he covers them all. He does not use "I" and "me" unless he is quoting informants and interviewees whose statements could spruce up an otherwise dull story with.
In the past, news writers did not reveal their by-line preceding the lead, unless their stories are subjective or highly opinionated. A by-line – say, “By Juan de Cruz” – identifies the news writer, which could either be his true name or his assumed pen name. Today, however, it is no longer uncommon to see a by-line under each news headline. Starting in the United States in the 1920s, newspapers have been practicing beat reporting, where each reporter is assigned to a regular field.
News writing follows a basic form of delivery – the inverted pyramid, which begins with the most important or the heaviest information and moves down to the least important at the bottom. This format allows the editor to cut the story due to space limitation, or the reader to quit reading without losing the vital details.
The lead – referring to the first paragraph or two – summarizes the whole story in as few words as possible. The conventional or orthodox lead consists of all or most of the five Ws and one H. The Ws answer the questions Who, What, When, Where and Why. The H is for How.
Think about how you tell a story to your friends. You might say: “You’ll never believe who I just saw!” Then you might go on to tell the story of where the couple was, what they were doing, and why it’s scandalous. We all want to hear about people – and that’s what news is about. All of this information ought to be in the first two paragraphs. Anything after that is background to the story.
Let me give an example straight from an actual writing experience of a greenhorn. I was standing by the editorial office of the Daily Express one evening in 1971 – no way to hide the year --when entertainment editor Romeo Arceo asked me to cover a collision of two cars. Movie stars Nora Aunor and Tirso Cruz III were in one of the cars. I caught up with the victims at Sta. Teresita Hospital but they were still at the emergency room and could not be interviewed. So I had to interview eyewitnesses instead.
I can no longer remember how I did the lead, but it was something like this:
“Film and recording stars Nora Aunor and Tirso Cruz III sustained serious injuries in a car accident on Hemady St., Quezon City 6 pm yesterday. Their Toyota Corolla turned into an ‘accordion’ after colliding with another car driven by a lawyer who was avoiding a crossing dog.”
I knew it was a well-written lead that led the readers to visualize the people, the place, and the event that had unfolded. And so early on the day the newspaper hit the streets, I reported to the office, where editor Arceo was waiting. I thought he would pat me on the back for the scoop.
However, he complained that a reader had called up to complain.
“Why did you compare Nora’s car to an accordion?” the editor asked.
“I saw the wreckage,” I answered. “That was how their car looked.”
He nodded and added, “The guy who called is an executive of Toyota.”
Fortunately for the paper, the car executive did not make good his threat to pull out his ads.