Let's say, for example, we have an announcement about a fund-raising bake sale for a family whose house was destroyed by fire and the announcement ends with the suggestion to, "Come to the bake sale, pick out a delicious pie and show your support for the wonderful Smith family."
Most people would see nothing wrong with this suggestion, but I recoil in horror at the thought of such a thing appearing in the paper. It causes me to awaken in a cold sweat in the middle of the night and cry out in anguish, "How do we know the pie will be delicious?"
The pie could turn out to be quite dreadful. And do we really know these Smith people? They might not be wonderful at all. Anyway, we have no business telling people to go to a bake sale. We should just tell them about it and let them make up their own minds whether or not to go.
No one understands my torment, not the general public, not even my colleagues. After all, people won't hold it against the newspaper if a pie purchased at a bake sale is not delicious.
"That's not the point," I try to explain to anyone who will listen, "If we accept this kind of reporting in a bake sale announcement, that puts us onto the slippery slope of having regular news stories contain material that is not in standard news format. That can only lead to chaos and moral depravity."
Trying to explain what is meant by standard news format causes eyes to glaze over, the way young children react when you try to explain the difference between a hyperboloid and a paraboloid. At the risk of causing glazed eyes, I will try to explain standard news format.
This column, like all commentary, is not in standard news format. Commentary has its own format. It is expected to contain subjective statements and suggestions.
Commentary appears on other pages besides our opinion page. The weekly church page contains commentary. We have an advice column in every issue and two Roosevelt Elementary students write a weekly advice column. The entertainment page that runs on most Thursdays contains commentary in the form of movie reviews, as well as general information.
Sports writing has its own format that differs from standard news format. Sports writers aren't expected to remain objective. They support the local teams and interject colorful comments.
Human interest features deviate from standard news format to also include colorful observations and subjective statements. Appropriate subject matter for human interest features varies from one paper to another and, in the case of the Chronicle Times, from one writer to another. Some writers interject colorful comments in articles on such things as school programs and new businesses, although I personally do not do so.
A common type of filler item is a list of helpful tips, such as how to conserve fuel, how to raise better tomatoes or how to build explosives from household items. This is sort of like commentary but more like a separate category of writing. It's not in standard news format because it contains imperative sentences (do this, do that and so forth) often from unattributed sources.
So when is standard news format used? It is used in articles about government entities (frequently board or council meeting articles), activities of businesses, accidents, arrests, disasters, important community events and promotions of coming events, among other items that are considered the nuts and bolts of news reporting.
Opinions in standard news articles should only be in quotations, for example - "Come to the bake sale, pick out a delicious pie and show your support for the wonderful Smith family," said Pat Pastrypusher, chairman of the Smith Family Bake Sale Committee.
A quote may be either a direct quote within quotation marks containing the exact words that were said or an indirect quote, which is a paraphrase of what was said that is not put in quotation marks. Whether the quote is direct or indirect, the quote needs to be attributed to a person other than the writer of the article.
For such non-controversial items as a bake sale announcement, the writer does not need to be concerned about providing balance. It isn't necessary to seek out the opinion of people who might be skeptical regarding the potential deliciousness of the pies or to quote people who think the Smiths are, in fact, scum.
Whether or not the subject matter is controversial, the writer should not be seen as having an opinion about anything. Although an article of any length should include a byline, the writer should otherwise be invisible.
A writer of a standard news article has to make subjective judgments on how to gather information, what information to include, what to leave out and how to organize that information. The writer needs to answer the major questions that arise without challenging the readers' attention spans. The writer needs to determine when to include background information for clarity and when to seek other viewpoints for balance.
There are skills involved in writing standard news articles that differ from the skills used for other writing formats. Ironically, the better a writer is at standard news writing, the more invisible he or she is. The goal is for people to not think of an article as being written by a person at all, but simply as facts that appear on a page.
As a side note, it is impractical for the staff at most newspapers to gather as much background information or to seek diverse viewpoints as often as would be ideal. Time limitations require us to use the resources most readily available. There are recourses for people who believe that false or misleading information has been provided or significant details omitted.
The difficulty in providing standard news format is compounded by the fact that much of our information comes to us from outside sources. It is e-mailed, faxed or dropped off to be typed.
Sometimes a submitted item will be discarded, which is the fate of most non-local submissions even when in standard news format. Sometimes the press release is put into standard format and at other times the material is simply placed in the paper with little or no editing.
Editing is particularly necessary for notices that are too short to have a byline. When a specific author is not identified, any statement in an article becomes an assertion of the newspaper.
Some months back, we received a press release about a religious musical event. The press release had phrases regarding the spiritual benefits provided by the event. I edited out those phrases and subsequently received a visit from a disturbed pastor wanting an explanation of why the press release was modified.
I don't think the pastor understood my explanation of standard news format and remained displeased after our discussion. I don't really care about people not understanding that the newspaper decides what appears in the newspaper and how it appears. What disturbs me is that we are not consistent.
Some people think my obsession with such rules is a bit…well, I won't say what they think it is but they should suffer hideously for thinking it.
We are already well down that slippery slope and gaining speed.
It's like that nightmare that I'm sure you've all had, the one where you are in an orange and green VW mini-bus filled with members of the Smith family and you try to convince them that a vicious hyperboloid is about to devour the mini-bus but they all insist that it is a harmless paraboloid.
At least you always wake up from that nightmare, don't you?