What’s the Difference Writing Hard News, Feature and Investigative Journalism?

I’ve been a writer and journalist various formats most of my professional career. I’ve been a reporter of hardnews, features and investigative pieces. It’s been an interesting ride and if you asked me which format I like more, I’d say all of them. They are just different.

I also realize most folks I talk to are not familiar with the different formats, so I’d spend a fair amount of time explaining the variances between these three structures.

Here is how it breaks down:

A definition of Hard news is very time sensitive. It’s very serious news of widespread import, concerning politics, foreign affairs, or the like. It is distinguished from routine news items, feature stories, or human-interest stories. If it is breaking, it can be tough to gather all the important details timely, such as speaking with important people involved with the issue. Which is why many news stories get a lot of follow-up.

Serious news has a high level of importance usually has to do with politics or foreign affairs as opposed to human interest.

How to write a hard news story.

It is critical that the reporting and news gathering is as complete as possible, and as much is gathered as possible for a 4 pm deadline for the next day’s paper. Next, it helps to create an outline or a “premature” first draft before you have everything figured out. Typing up everything you know will show you where the holes are. Consider what Bob Woodward calls his “rule of six.” He believes a story should have at least six strong elements. Another great way to sketch out your story and get an immediate reaction is to talk through your story with a colleague. What questions do they have? What doesn’t make sense?

The opening paragraph of a story is called a “lede.” In a news story, it’s critical to be sure that the lede gives the reader a full sense of what is to come. Busy readers want the important information up front. You can push the background information deeper into the story.

The writing styles of a news story and a feature are different. In a news story, the emphasis is on content rather than form. News stories go straight to the point, using simple and effective words to deliver the facts quickly. They usually average between 300-500 words.

Features are less time sensitive, so there is usual ample time for chasing down important stakeholders.

Feature stories are often more wordy and they have a creative structure. Feature stories can be more than 2000 words.

How to write a feature story.

Unlike hard news that gets right to the point, feature articles have a more creative style. The topic covers more in depth with lots of interviews to flesh out the topic. Features usually begin with a hook that captures the ready and sets up the story to come. For example, a feature about a fire may start out with a story about a particular family that was affected by the fire and their predicament. Did they lose their house? Are their pets safe?

This personal story makes the feature more personal and brings the reader immediately into the story with a personal narrative. Feature writing is creative journalism. It escapes the hard-news format, allowing the creative writers among us to write feature articles in an inventive and compelling way.

Unlike short and to-the-point news articles, feature articles deal with a subject in greater depth and, usually, at greater length.

Hard news is a short, crisp and matter-of-fact of way, they keep you up to date and tell you what you need to know. However, feature articles tell you what you want to know. You get to go behind of scenes, so to speak. You get more intimate with the subject. The great thing about features is the reader gets a much full piece of the story and the people. Some call it “immersive” writing.

Investigative

Probably the most sensitive of all journalism is the investigative story. Investigative pieces are their own beast.  Usually, investigative stories have no deadline as the research can take a long time to uncover and it’s critical that every piece of the investigation is covered. Usually the assignment has to do with exposing something and the work at getting the facts is critical. Investigative reporters must take special care when writing a story. This is because investigative stories usually make someone appear either bad or incompetent, or guilty of something. These are serious accusations which can lead to legal action against you for defamation. It’s safe if the story is true and there is ample information to back it up and the story is in the public interest. However, it can lose the protection of the law if there are serious errors. You can be sure if the story exposes a corrupt, incompetent or corrupt person, they will be actively looking closely for mistakes.

How to write an investigative story.

Writing stories based on investigative journalism requires all the skills required for general journalism and more. It’s time intensive and there are no half measures. Unlike hard news, there are no shortcuts. The risks are great.

All facts must be doubly checked.  Always ask: Has this fact been confirmed? Has it been confirmed by another source?

There is no room for speculation. The reporter absolutely cannot write something that “may” be sure but has not been confirmed by more than one person. Even it appears to be true, it cannot be included.

Of course, it goes without saying, there is no room for a personal agenda. Although it might seem the story would go in one direction, it just may go in another direction based on the facts.

It’s not unusual to have several confidential sources. Be sure to keep their identity secret. Check the story and make sure they have been identified simply by a quote. Read the story as though you are a subject of the story. Would you recognize his person? If so, the story must be re-written so there is no risk to the sources.

Have to say, I love all of it. I have the best job in the world.