By Michael Petrou, journalist
News stories most often appear in the front section of a newspaper, although many newspapers also have "City" or "International" sections that also contain news reports.
A news article will usually begin with a headline that explains what the story is about in a few words and tries to grab the reader's attention. "Premier vows to freeze university tuition fees," is an example of a headline that might run above a story about promises a politician made to students during an election speech.
Beneath the headline usually appears the name of the reporter who has written the story. This is called the byline, because it is often written as "By: John Smith." However, many newspapers simply print the reporter's name, often in bold typeface and slightly above the body of the article.
The byline is often followed by something called a dateline. This identifies where and sometimes when, the story was written. If a newspaper has a reporter in Baghdad, for example, the name of the city will be printed, often in bold typeface, at the beginning of the story.
The main purpose of a news story is to report the news in an objective manner. This means that the author of the news story should not include his or her own opinions in the article. The author should tell the reader what has occurred, but should stick to the facts. For example, if a reporter is writing about a man whose store was forced to close because of bankruptcy, the reporter should not write that the store owner deserved to go out of business because he was rude to his customers or because he charged too much for the goods that he sold. To give another example, an objective journalist reporting on how a university spends its money cannot write that the university should spend less money on professors' salaries and more on varsity sports teams or lab equipment. These are the reporter's personal opinions and they do not belong in a news story.
It is quite acceptable, however, for a reporter to quote other people's opinions in a story. A news story written about a university's budget may, for example, contain several quotes from students who say they think the money spent on staff salaries is wasted. But a good news report must be balanced. In other words, in the university budget story, the reporter must give the university's administration a chance to explain why they have decided to increase professors' salaries but not to increase funding for varsity sports teams.
Most news stories revolve around some sort of conflict -- conflicts involve opposing opinions. All of the sides involved in the conflict must be given a chance to have their say. If this does not happen, the news report is neither balanced nor fair. In reality, however, it is almost impossible for a news story to be completely objective, no matter how hard the reporter tries to make it so. There are many factors in a news story that can imply bias, either intentionally or not.
Let's take the example of a news story about a university's budget. Consider the following two ways in which the first few paragraphs of a hypothetical news story about the budget might be written:
University of Canada principal John Doe yesterday pledged to spend "whatever it takes" to attract top scholars to the university and to prevent existing professors from leaving for higher-paying jobs elsewhere.
At a news conference in which he outlined spending plans for the upcoming year, Mr. Doe announced a 10 per cent salary increase for all tenured professors and set aside an additional two million dollars for new hires.
"If we want to maintain our position as a world-class university, we need to employ the best professors," Mr. Doe said. "And that costs money."
Students at the University of Canada were outraged yesterday to hear that the university plans to increase the amount of money it pays its professors, but has no plans to fund additional scholarships for students and will not increase funding to university sports teams.
"I'm disgusted," said Student Council president Jane Smith. "Too many talented high school students can't afford to come here the way it is. Without more money for scholarships, it will just get worse."
John Jones, a varsity hockey player, said he was disappointed to learn the university will not pay to repair the stands at the university ice rink, which he says are "falling apart."
Both of the above stories are written about the same fictional event and both might be factually correct. However, the first example highlights the opinion of the university's principal, while the second highlights the opinions of two angry students. The results are two very different news stories written about the same topic. This is an example of bias that often exists in news reports, even when the reporter's opinions are not openly expressed.
When reading newspapers, it is a good idea to compare how different newspapers have covered the same event. Often you will notice similar biases affecting how the reports are written. Pay attention to who is quoted in the news article. Have all sides been given a chance to give their side of the story? Is one side quoted at length and the other almost not at all?
Language is also very important. A news reporter should try to use neutral language, but not all words are neutral. A suicide bomber in the Middle East, for example, might be called a "fighter" in one news report and a "terrorist" in another. Both terms are accurate, but neither is strictly neutral.
Even the placement of an article in a newspaper is revealing. If an article is run on the front page of the newspaper beneath a large headline, this suggests the topic of the news report is important and should be read. If, on the other hand, a much shorter article on the same topic is run near the back of a newspaper, the implication is that the article is not as important as the stories that appear on the newspaper's front page.
When evaluating news reports, read the articles closely and carefully. Ask yourself: is the article accurate? Is it fair?