New in Journalism: Now the Reporter Gets to Tell the Truth

By Mike Feinsilber

Some people might think that the way news is written hasn’t changed much. They’re wrong.  I speak as one who wrote hard news for two hard core hard-news outfits, UPI and the AP, for most of 50 years – and then did something else for the next 10. One thing I’ve done is read the papers. And I tell you that in our best publications, the news is written more assertively and more honestly than it used to be. I’ll show you what I mean in a minute.

The rule, spoken or just understood, used to be that writers kept themselves out of the story. If they wanted a point to be made, they would lay out the evidence, pile it up, until, they hoped, the reader would get the point. But news writers didn’t draw conclusions in print.

The exception might have been if the writer witnessed the event. Then he could say, “It rained hard yesterday.” He didn’t have to write, “It rained hard yesterday, the Weather Bureau said.” Even when he wrote “It rained hard,” because he’d been looking out the window or got soaked going to lunch, the desk might get nervous. The copy editor, worshipful of attribution, might think to himself,  “Couldn’t you just say, ‘Three and a half inches of rain fell over Stormsville yesterday, according to the Weather Bureau’?”

Back on March 1, 1954, while the House of Representatives was debating an immigration bill, four Puerto Rican nationalists fired 30 bullets from the visitors’ gallery, wounding five congressmen. A UPI reporter covering the House saw it happen. He lifted the phone and urgently dictated a story to the bureau downtown. The legend is—but I can’t testify to this—that the deskman downtown broke into the call and asked, “Can’t you give us a source on this?” He wanted attribution; he didn’t like putting unsourced news on the wire.

Things have changed. Take the story by reporter Kathy Lally that led the Washington Post on Sunday, April 20:

KIEV, UKRAINE – Ukraine’s new government inherited an army so bereft of modern equipment and training that when Russian troops entered Crimea and agitators stormed government offices in eastern Ukraine, the country proved helpless to protect its borders and citizens.

There it is, a flat statement.  No “Western observers said Saturday.” No attribution at all. This is a reporter telling you what she knows and what she has seen with her eyes.

This is not the way that story would have been written in 1955 or 1975.

The same powerful writing shouts out throughout Ms. Lally’s story. Graf five:

Ukraine’s position is dire. The new government found the treasury empty when it took over Feb. 27. The Ministry of Defense was so desperate for money that it went to the public for help.

Graf 15:

The state of their military shocked Ukrainians, even though they knew none of their institutions had resisted the pervasive corruption.

Every sentence in these paragraphs could be followed by an editor’s, or a reader’s, question: Sez who? How do you know?

In the old days, Kathy Lally’s assertions would have required attribution. Reporters were trained to find the facts and then to find someone who would recite the facts and then quote that person.  I exaggerate, but not much.

And I’m not deploring this assertive, powerful journalism, I’m hailing it. The reader no longer needs to read between the attributions to discern the truth. Reporters can no longer hide behind sources: they have to know what they are talking about.

What Kathy Lally is doing here—and what good reporters everywhere are doing—is not news analysis, not a column, not investigative reporting. It is just good journalism.

Ms. Lally quotes some people in her story. But the quotes are used to elaborate on what she has told the reader. She’s not using the quotes to slide the facts into the story in hopes the reader will understands what’s going on. To practice this kind of journalism, reporters have to work harder to be sure they know what they say.

Can reporters lie? Sure they can, but they could with the old ways too. A lying reporter only had to find a source willing to give a distorted account. Challenged, he could shrug: “I’m only telling you what my sources say.”

To be sure, this assertive journalism isn’t practiced everywhere. There are plenty of reporters who still write, “It rained hard yesterday, the Weather Bureau said.” But they’re not doing their readers any favors with that don’t-blame-me style of journalism. I think they are on the way out.
Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor, and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.


  1. This seems to me correct, but only half true. I agree that it’s a breath of fresh air to have reporters stating what they know to be true without having to go to ridiculous lengths (as in the examples you cite) to source some attribution. On the other hand, many reporters state “what they know to be true” based on anonymous official sources, sometimes named as such and sometimes not. When reporters echo the US govt line or repeat or paraphrase some corporate press release (as often happens) they’re rarely challenged in their assertions. It’s only when reporters do challenge or go against the grain that their reporting is derided as “opinion” or “activism”.

    Thanks for your thoughtful blog.

  2. Remember me? We are a rare breed, having worked at UPI and AP. I have a blog, “Truth to Tell.” Hope you visit. I mostly agree with you, but if you have a source use it. I also think you exaggerate. Sports writers don’t have to use a source for a score. i did a lot of history stories and never felt I had to write something along the lines of “The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, according to…”

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