Reporting/Writing Tip. Spring 2014. Passing Your Exam.
“There is no mysterious NCTJ way of writing that only the markers know about. Stories written for the exam should be written in the same way they would be for any platform: get a good angle, use good quotes, write a tight intro, give the story a clean, strong structure – and keep it accurate.”
Candidates should measure their time for this exam. They need to allow a few minutes to read the briefing notes thoroughly to ensure they understand the story. Highlighting key points would be advantageous. Then they should allow a further few minutes at the end to re-read their copy and check it against the brief. This is to ensure the copy flows and is accurate.
Remember to check and check again your copy before the end of the exam. Careless mistakes are penalised and marks could be saved if candidates ensure they leave ten minutes at the end to read back their work.
It’s amazing how many candidates lose marks by overwriting – always leave time to trim back.
Candidates are asked to put a word count at the bottom of their story. These word counts are checked at random by invigilators AND by markers. Candidates should beware of the consequences of trying to cheat.
If a web address or phone number is included make it clear who it refers to. Often candidates list the number or web address but leave the reader wondering whose it is.
Puns, clichés and tabloid style are marked neutrally. This means they will not be specifically penalised or rewarded. If the approach fits in well with the story structure then it will be rewarded. If the tabloid style goes too far and creates an inaccuracy it will be penalised. For instance, if someone is punched in the face by a handbag thief but is not hurt then it would be inaccurate to call it a ‘vicious mugging’ and would be penalised.
In Questions 1 and 3 watch out for any confusion between county and country
As a general rule, reported speech is best for information and direct quotes are better for opinions.
Note that reported speech should be put into the past tense. It is advisable to use at least one quote high in the story to support the chosen angle.
Candidates should make sure they attribute information clearly. If the information comes from a press release, who has written it?
A common mistake is when candidates forget to quote the person who wrote the press release so that all the opinions in their scripts appear to be their own personal views or those of their papers. Obviously, this is to be avoided.
Marks in Question 1 (d) are often lost through the poor use of quotes. Quotes used should be relevant.
While minor amendments to quotes can be acceptable to make them fit the flow of the story, any further re-writing of quotes is likely to result in penalties. These may be especially heavy if re-writing or carelessness introduces errors.
Sometimes candidates set traps for themselves by using large slabs of quotes instead of striving for a proper balance between reported and direct speech. It is important that any quotes used are in context with the information around them. Problems can sometimes arise with quotes which have it or they in them. Clumsy juxtapositions can lead to confusion. Choose and use quotes with care.
Errors about dates in Questions 1 and 3 will be penalised according to their seriousness. If police are appealing for witnesses to a crime it is important to print the correct day – the penalty will be severe if this is inaccurate. But the penalty will be minor if a candidate says a non-time sensitive press statement was made today when in fact it was yesterday.
Getting the name of the town wrong or not including it in the story at all will be penalised heavily. It’s amazing how many candidates make this basic mistake. Make sure names are spelt correctly and addresses given.
Remember to say when the event happened.
Common problems with use of language are mixed tenses (‘He said it is….’) and muddled use of singular and plural (‘the council is to change their….’). Markers often see ‘he said’ become ‘he says’, which is inconsistent and inaccurate.
Answers to Questions1 (a), (b), (c) should NOT take account, or include, any information given on the exam paper under the heading: “Later today you receive the following additional information.” This material is for use in answering Question1 (d). Using it in answers to Questions 1 (a) (b) (c) will almost certainly lead to loss of marks and heavy penalties.
You should use a new or updated angle when writing your story for Question 1 (d). You should also include relevant material given in the initial scenario from which you have answered Questions 1 (a) (b) (c).
In answering Question 1 (c) remember your Tweet must be 140 characters or fewer. Use the words: ‘See link’ to show that your Tweet is linking to a website story. The words ‘See Link’ count within the 140 character limit
State why each of the three sources matter to this story. List the most obvious sources – so a story about a crime figure increase should include the police as a source. Too often candidates will identify a type of source and then speak to only one individual – ‘a parent’ instead of ‘parents’.
It is important to get a sufficiently broad range of opinions. Sources must be individual. Some candidates produce joint sources such as councillor and/or MP. Each would have different remits. Bullet point answers will be sufficient
It is also important to ensure the right kind of source is listed. The crime figure increase story would need a quote from a senior police spokesman like Chief Constable or perhaps Chief Inspector, depending on the size of the town, city or county.
To suggest speaking to a police constable would be inappropriate and penalised. A specific person should always be suggested – to name police, council or the organisation without identifying the actual position of the appropriate interviewee lacks authority.
Candidates are also asked to list four valid questions for each of the three sources. Frame open questions which will make the story better and move the story on. Avoid repeating similar questions to the same source in different words; something that markers find happens quite frequently. -
DO NOT waste questions on basics, show depth and breadth. Examiners are looking for balance and how you would move the story on. Do not ask biographical questions, you should assume that you already have this information.
Candidates are also asked to list four valid questions for each of the three sources. Frame open questions which will make the story better -
It would then be appropriate to seek opinion and ask why they have increased/decreased and what that means. And finally it would be appropriate to find out what action is going to be taken – more money, more police on the streets, zero tolerance on drugs etc to tackle the problem.
Ethical considerations should be briefly outlined. An essay is NOT required. Time allocated to answering this question should – as with all questions in this exam – be proportionate to the overall marks allocated for each question (and individual parts of each question). Question 2 (c) has ten marks allocated (i.e.: five per cent of the total). There may not be a clear-cut right or wrong answer.
Candidates should demonstrate an understanding of the issues and why publication of certain material needs careful consideration, perhaps including how they might approach briefing an editor on the issues. If codes of conduct are relevant, they should be mentioned by candidates but they are NOT expected to quote the paragraph number from the code. They should, however, indicate what it says and why it is applicable. Candidates who give relevant examples will be rewarded.
One approach to getting breadth to the questions is to think DOA: detail, opinion, action. So with a crime figure story it would be appropriate to get more detail about the figures – what crimes have gone up/gone down, comparative figures for the previous year etc. I
Give one appropriate visual idea to enhance the story on your website over the next 24 hours. Candidates should try to find an eye-catching idea. Suggestions which would increase reader dwell time will be rewarded, including those exploiting the possibilities offered by infographics and datajournalism, but only if justified by the story. Archive material, where appropriate, can impress, i.e. before and after photos. Note the timeframe.
Picture and video ideas need to be given context. For example, picture a council leader at the disputed rubbish dump, not at his desk or in front of the council offices. Similarly, following an arson attack conduct a video interview with the senior police office at the scene, showing the house, street and possibly fire engines in the background
This is designed to ensure candidates can think about the online, video and other digital opportunities available for exploring stories in today’s newsrooms and how to start a dialogue with their readers. Candidates will be rewarded for imaginative ideas and how they would relate them to the story.
This is looking for ideas to generate reader interactivity. You should state your idea, relate it to the story and state what you would do with it.
Question 3 is a test of being able to write to length – so make sure you do. It is also a test of a candidate’s ability to summarise and tell a story in a compelling way. As in all forms of journalism, ensure every word is working. Quotes are not usually found in NIBs of this length. If you include one, ensure it is accurate and really illuminates the story.
For example, if the story is about plans to build a supermarket you could suggest a poll asking readers whether or not they are in favour of the proposed plans. This then could form part of a follow-up story. Note the timeframe.