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Young journalists too used to writing short stories, examiners warn

ShorthandYoung journalists are finding it difficult to provide sufficient detail in their work because they are used to writing short stories, examiners have warned.

Moderators working for the National Council for the Training of Journalists, said tighter writing and more comprehensive stories are needed by candidates sitting the National Qualification in Journalism.

They once again shared their concern over “weak” shorthand following the July sitting of the NQJ, stating in the Examiners’ Report it had “proved a problem and was almost certainly to blame” for some major mistakes made in the news report exam.

It follows a series of previous warnings by examiners after previous sittings about shorthand, with left some candidates “guessing” at quotes rather than reporting them verbatim.

However, the moderators praised an “excellent set of results” in the media law and practice exam, which yielded a 98pc pass rate.

The moderator responsible for the law exam said: “The knowledge and application displayed by most candidates was very encouraging and should inspire confidence with editors.”

Candidates had to pass each of the four sections in the exam – media law and practice, news report, news interview and logbook – with 35 of the 53 candidates proving successful.

Here is a summary of the report on how the candidates performed in each section.


Candidates: 48
Passed: 47
Pass rate: 98pc

Candidates were tested on defamation and the qualified privilege defence, confidentiality and contempt, while the ethics portion invited candidates to debate how to respond when a bereaved partner does not want anything published despite there being a public outpouring of grief.

The examiners said: “Publishing nothing was not an option as there was public interest in reporting on a fatal accident, especially in view of the circumstances of this one, but candidates who did well showed a sensitive and sympathetic approach, explaining how they would do that and not just repeating what the code says. Application is as important as knowledge.

“Once again, candidates with a good writing style and a logical approach, allied to knowledge, tended to do better. A bullet-point approach when answering these questions is recommended but candidates will not be penalised if they do not adopt this.

“Examiners recommend that future candidates return to the latest edition of Essential Law for Journalists to brush up on defamation and contempt dangers and defences and court reporting restrictions, plus case studies.”


Candidates: 51
Passed: 34
Pass rate: 67pc

The paper was a topical story about a garage discontinuing its VW franchise as a result of the emissions scandal and returning to its servicing and repair roots, while setting up a sales and restoration business in secondhand VW campervans.

The examiners said: “Candidates seemed to quickly get the gist of the story but tended to overlook the family detail which readers would want. Shorthand proved a problem and was almost certainly to blame for some of the major mistakes made that would have needed a correction.

“One candidate managed to write his entire story without once mentioning campervans. Poor spelling always upsets the markers and this time the biggest howler was from the 10pc of candidates who said the garage was ‘going back to its routes’.

“It seems that today’s young journalists are used to writing short stories on one aspect and they found difficulty getting sufficient detail in their exam papers to cover all the angles. Tighter writing and more comprehensive stories are needed, getting away from the assumption that readers will know the rest of the story.

“Direct quotes were far from verbatim in all but the best stories, again probably due to weak shorthand. There were extracts cut too short to be meaningful or cobbled with other extracts and presented as a direct quote, sections omitted and transcription errors. We cannot stress too highly how important it is for journalists to get their shorthand up to a workable reliable speed.”


Candidates: 50
Passed: 35
Pass rate: 70pc

The story was about a raid at a stately home, in which three men tied the housekeeper’s husband to a chair and shut her and the family dog in a pantry before fleeing with candlesticks which were copies of expensive originals.

The examiners said: “Despite the amount of good detail, many candidates went for the pedestrian intro starting: ‘Police are hunting…’ Some candidates went on the line of what the raiders stole and the ‘hero’ dog. If someone is left for dead, it is a much better choice for an intro.

“Others got lost with the story and confused the reader after failing to understand the whole scenario. Several made lots of assumptions and added facts without any explanation or context. Many candidates called the injured man the housekeeper which added to the confusion. Others had the wife tied up.

“It was interesting to note that some candidates did not use up their allotted time; one only spent six minutes interviewing and another only nine minutes. Looking at scripts it was obvious that some candidates had issues with their shorthand – the giveaway two-word quotes were in evidence.

“Some also went over the word count, losing valuable marks. Overall some candidates did well, but the number of borderlines and fails for this exam was disappointing.”


Candidates: 41
Passed: 41
Pass rate: 100pc

Markers enjoyed a strong range of submissions and there were no “major issues” with logbooks in this round.

The exmainers said: “Some candidates did still struggle with the problem of uploading the correct information when it comes to original copy and cuttings.

“Those submitting are reminded that any incorrectly uploaded documentation on key tasks will be marked as a zero. We would always recommend to double- check all copy which has been uploaded and also to seek a second opinion.

“Examiners advise all those undertaking the logbook to make sure that if they are unsure of anything, then in the first instance they should seek help from their editor or trainer, or contact the NCTJ and we will be happy to give advice ahead of marking.”


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  • August 16, 2017 at 11:01 am

    The reason for short stories is obvious. Too many trainees spend their time typing up press releases and their work is often not corrected or commented upon (such as we could do with another quote on this).
    E mails are not helping shorthand. “send us a quote on e mail” is easier than taking down one, especially if your notes are shaky.

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  • August 16, 2017 at 11:13 am

    Paperboy is dead right. That garage story was probably the first longish story that these kids had even encountered! So often I read stories in my local paper or, worse, on its website that leave me screaming at their unanswered questions. I used to get the “no staff” excuse even in the 70s when I suggested a follow-up to a story but it must be ten times as bad today,

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  • August 16, 2017 at 1:57 pm

    My paper still does long-reads and longer stories but looking at our web data we can see how far people read down stories online.

    The average is about 180 words in then people click off, even features – good features.

    People only scroll further down if there are more pictures but then by the engagement time you can see people just look at pics then click off.

    Audiences are changing, social media has changed what people want.

    Bite size news is the thing and I agree with paperboy, it is damaging journalist skills.

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  • August 16, 2017 at 9:05 pm


    Upon reading a TM webpage on a mobile device the other day, I got:

    Postcode call-to-action
    Two paragraphs
    One paragraph
    Read more Xref
    Two paragraphs
    One paragraph
    Read more ‘Best of’ Xref
    Three paragraphs
    Read more Xref
    Two paragraphs

    As just another reader, I don’t think I’d have made it to 130 words without giving up!

    I appreciate that reader habits are changing but I don’t think the current online experience helps either.

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  • August 17, 2017 at 9:30 am

    I think few stories in a local paper, especially a weekly, are worth much more than 300-350 words. The problem lies in whoever is in charge (editor in chief 30 miles away) not asking stories that are worth more to be developed. Editing of local papers is so poor now. Too many press releases just dropped in.

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  • August 17, 2017 at 10:50 am

    ‘Going back to its routes’. Lololol – maybe it was meant as a pun… camper vans etc, geddit! Cant be clever in exams. Lots of scathing criticism from examiners considering so many passed. Did they let them off?

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  • August 17, 2017 at 11:44 am

    “Shorthand proved a problem and was almost certainly to blame for some of the major mistake”
    “Direct quotes were far from verbatim in all but the best stories, again probably due to weak shorthand”
    “We cannot stress too highly how important it is for journalists to get their shorthand up to a workable reliable speed.”
    “it was obvious that some candidates had issues with their shorthand”
    – I sense a theme here.

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  • August 18, 2017 at 10:15 am

    God, I dream of reporters whose copy is too short. In my experience, the entirely opposite situation pertains. When writing for the web there are no inbuilt restrictions as to length and reporters routinely submit ‘leads’ which are 800 to 1,000 words long and 500-word picture stories and fillers, padded out with vacuous quotes, repetition, circumlocution, flannel and other dross, and then have to be cut by more than half to fit in the paper, ie. rewritten by the sub (yes, there are a few of us left) since they can’t be cut from the bottom, as would once have been axiomatic, as that’s where you’re more than likely to find the news angle. Insofar as there is one.
    There is no craft or skill left in local journalism, at least from where I’m standing.

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  • August 18, 2017 at 9:50 pm

    Why are short stories seen as a bad thing? In the digital age, nobody is interested in reading long stories. Six lines is adequate. People lose interest within a few seconds. Far too many newspapers simply “fill out” copy to fill a spread. One of the reasons for the sharp decline in print readership.

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  • August 21, 2017 at 2:52 pm

    “In the digital age, nobody is interested in reading long stories.”
    Well, that settles it then….

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