Style guide for GroundUp reporters, photographers and editors
This version applies to articles published from 9 May 2018 (Last updated 21 February 2022).
The style guide's purpose is to keep articles on the site consistent and to make reading GroundUp articles an easy, undistracted experience.
Rules of integrity
- No fact may ever be intentionally false. This is the most important rule and may never be broken. Any journalist who intentionally writes a false fact will not be allowed to write for GroundUp again.
- No plagiarism. This rule may never be broken. Credit sources. A hyperlink to the source is usually fine. (Often, to place an article in context, we will copy a paragraph from a previous article on the same topic published by GroundUp, without necessarily crediting the original article. This limited form of "self-plagiairism" is acceptable.)
- Be fair to people or institutions criticised in articles. They should have a chance to respond. (This doesn't apply to opinion pieces.) The most common reason for us delaying the publication of an article is that the reporter has not made enough effort to get comment from someone criticised in the article. Note that being fair doesn't mean striking a false balance. For example, there's no need for an article on HIV to include comment from an AIDS denialist, nor an article on climate change to include comment by a climate change denialist.
Making articles easy to read
- There are many disputes about how to write English. Many of these are unimportant. (It's fine to split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, start sentences with "But" or "And", and use contractions if doing so makes sentences easier to read.) The key thing to keep in mind is how to make the article read easily with no unnecessary distractions for the reader. The rules below this one can be broken if doing so makes an article easier and less distracting to read.
- Write in plain language.
- For news reports (as opposed to features), the first four paragraphs should tell the busy reader everything he or she needs to know. Everything after the first four paragraphs is additional information for especially interested readers.
- Use subheadings especially in long articles.
- Before submitting or publishing an article, read it again and remove unnecessary adjectives. We prefer understatement to overstatement, although getting it exactly right is best.
Case, punctuation, abbreviations, acronyms, and spelling
- British spelling: organisation. Not organization (unless it's a quote from a formal text).
- In nearly every article we have to consider whether to add or omit punctuation. If there's doubt it's usually better to omit. We prefer less punctuation.
- There is only one space between sentences.
- Put spaces on both sides of an em dash.
- When in doubt use lower case. However we always capitalise the Constitution; it's the document that most informs our work and deserves special respect. But we don't capitalise constitutional (except Constitutional Court). Parliament is capitalised, but parliamentary isn't (except Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health). We write Minister of Health or Minister Motsoaledi but the health minister, President Cyril Ramaphosa but the president. The body of ministers that rules the country is the Cabinet. We write provincial Minister Dhlomo (i.e. provincial is not capitalised).
Also: The court found ... (don't capitalise court unless it is used as part of the name of the court, e.g. Durban High Court).
- We have simplified our style for abbreviations for nouns. Our previous style required too much editing time to resolve border cases. Our new style is that abbreviations are upper case: E.g. SARS, TAC, NEDLAC, COSATU, SAPS, HIV, AIDS etc.
- The full name of an institution, place or concept must always be spelt out on first use with the abbreviation in parenthesis following it. E.g. Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). However, the following exceptions do not need to be spelt on first use because they are so well known: ANC, DA, EFF, COSATU, USA, UK, UCT, SARS, SAPS, VAT.
Do not use SAPO. Rather on first use write South African Post Office and thereafter use Post Office.
Do not abbreviate South Africa on first use of an institution containing "South Africa" in it.
E.g. South African Social Security Agency
But not: SA Social Security Agency
We can write Hawks instead of Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation
- Use double quotation marks to open a quotation, and then single quotation marks for a quotation inside a quotation. In the rare case of a quotation inside a quotation inside a quotation, use double quotation marks for the innermost quotation.
- Examples of how we quote:
Use a comma or colon after said. E.g. Mandela said, "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it."
This is also fine (and must be used if introducing a blockquote): Mandela said: I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.
But keep it consistent throughout an article.
"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it," said Mandela. (Note the comma comes before the closing quotation mark.)
"What is your favourite ice cream?" asked Peters.
- Sometimes the direct speech is part of the sentence in which case the punctuation comes after the closing quotation. E.g.
The premier said that she liked "biscuits with my tea".
- When City is capitalised it refers to the municipality or government of the city. E.g. The City is raising rates across the city.
Also: The City council sat for several hours. Same goes for Province vs province.
- A person who sits on the committee of the institution that runs a city is usually introduced in an article as a Mayoral Committee Member (not Mayco member, which was our previous inconsistently used style).
- We write Hogswarth police station not Hogswarth Police Station unless we're absolutely sure Hogswarth Police Station is the official name.
- It is our style that judges write judgments (as opposed to judgements).
- There are words, usually proper nouns, that we use frequently and appear to have disputed spellings. Most of our decisions here are arbitrary, but we have settled on them so that GroundUp articles become more consistent with each other.
- Bo-Kaap (i.e. not Bo Kaap)
- Dunoon (i.e. not Du Noon)
- Mitchells Plain (i.e. not Mitchell's Plain)
- Toyi-toyi refers to a popular protest dance. E.g. The protesters toyi-toyied outside the government building.
Names and other proper nouns
- Check spelling of proper nouns carefully before submitting articles for editing. Reporters who wrongly spell people's names will be forced to read James Joyce's Ulysses, a cruel and unusual punishment.
- Use people's forename and surname on first use. Use only the surname on subsequent use. If the person has a title other than Mr or Ms that is relevant to the story, use his or her title on first use as well. E.g. Judge John Smith said ... But then just: Smith said ... on second use onwards.
- On first use of a person's name, write their first and last name. If they have a title other than Mr or Ms write the title on first use. From second use onwards only use the person's last name. There are exceptions when we use the first name:
(a) We refer to children by their first name. (If the child is known to be 15 years or older, then use surname.)
(b) If two or more people with the same surname are referred to in an article, we use their first names to avoid confusing readers.
(c) In some cases it is too stuffy, pretentious or uncommon to use a person's last name.
- For surnames with prefixes (nobiliary particles) use the following examples to guide spelling:
Patricia de Lille is a politician based in Cape Town. (No capital if preceded by first name)
Wikus van der Merwe is the protagonist in District 9. (Ditto)
De Lille is a politician based in Cape Town. (Always capitalised at beginning of sentence)
Van der Merwe is the protagonist in District 9. (Ditto)
But De Lille is a politician based in Cape Town. (Also capitalised if not preceded by first name)
But Van der Merwe is the protagonist in District 9. (Ditto)
- There is no need to indicate people's ages unless it's relevant to the story. However, reporters should include people's ages in the copy they submit. Editors will then decide whether to remove or not.
Bullets at top of articles
- Most articles should have summary bullet points at the top (below the caption on the main photo).
- These should be short complete sentences that convey the main points of the article.
Treating vulnerable people with respect
- We use sex work and sex workers not prostitute and prostitution. When people are quoted, use the word they use.
- We use the word immigrant not foreigner. Occasionally foreign national is ok. When people are quoted, use the word they use.
- We speak of poor people but not the poor. Likewise disabled people, not the disabled, blind people not the blind, deaf people not the deaf.
- We speak of a land occupation and land occupiers, not land invasion and land invaders. When people are quoted, use the term they use.
- We speak of a person who uses a wheelchair, not a wheelchair-bound person.
- We make minor edits to quotes so that they are easier to read, but never change the meaning. Many of our quotes are translated to English, in which case the final quote should be grammatically correct. Grammar errors in quotes are only kept if they add to the richness of the article or illustrate a point, i.e. rarely.
Do not use grammar errors that denigrate people who are quoted unless they are hypocritical grammar mavens. Facebook and Twitter quotes are usually verbatim unless very difficult to understand. In any case, Facebook and Twitter quotes should be kept to a minimum. (Writing articles that consist primarily of embedded Facebook or Twitter quotes is almost always dreadful journalism.)
Some publications keep quotes entirely unchanged from the original. We don't believe this is a sensible approach in South Africa where many quotes are translated and English is a difficult second-language for most people.
Numbers and dates
- We write dates like this: 4 June 2016. Not: 04 June 2016, nor June 4, nor June 4, 2016.
- We write times like this: 7:30am, 11:05pm. Not 7:30 am (there should be no space), nor 23:05 and definitely not 23:05pm.
- Numbers one to ten are spelt out. But there are exceptions: 3%, Grade 3. (Note too that Grade is capitalised.)
- We almost always prefer % to percent.
- Spell out millions, billions and trillions. E.g. 53-million, R300-million. Not 53m nor R300m except in headlines (to save space). But write 353,000 not 353 thousand.
- Numbers are comma separated at thousands. E.g. 1,543. Not 1 543 nor 1543 nor 1, 543 (no space between comma and 5). Use a point for decimal fractions. E.g. 1,543.87.
- We use the metric system: 29kg, 15m, 27l. Unless there are exceptional circumstances we don't use miles or feet. Be sure to convert properly from imperial units to metric.
- The ideal headline length is 55 characters or fewer.
- Use landscape photographs. They simply work better with the site's design.
- The HTML alt attribute for images should be used so that people using assistive technology can understand what the image contains. The alt attribute text should be short. E.g. Photo of protesters, Photo of woman in front of shack, Graph of GDP.
- Often readers only read the photo captions. Ideally captions should contain useful information about the article.
- Photos should be credited unless the photographer has asked to remain anonymous or, in rare situations, we do not know who the photographer is (in which case the caption should end: Photo supplied.) The way to credit a photo is:
Photo: Sam Nzima
If the article is designated as a photo essay, then it is assumed that all photographs are by the byline author, and there is no need to place the credit on each photo.
If there is more than one photo in an article, all by the same photographer, the first photo may say:
All photos: Ernest Cole
- Photos should always be relevant to the story and should not mislead readers.
- An old photo used on a new story should be credited like this (unless the approximate date the photo was taken is elsewhere in the caption):
Archive photo: Robert Capa
- Only the following modifications to photos are allowed: scaling, cropping, sharpening, contrast and other lighting changes, rotating (the whole photo, not a portion of it). Identifying information of people or objects may be blurred if judged by the editors to be prudent, so long as it is obvious to readers that the change has been made.
- People whose faces are close-up in a photo ideally should be identified with both their forename and surname. This is not always possible if the photos were taken in the heat of an event, but photographers should strive to get this information.
- The best interests of children should always be considered. Photographs of children may be published. It's fine to show children having fun, playing, and doing funny things. Children taking part in demonstrations may also be shown. It is a (very poor) misinterpretation of press code that children may not be shown. However, photos of children in distress or in situations where their dignity is demeaned, and where the children can be identified, should only be used with the permission of their guardians and where there is a compelling public interest to show the photos.
- Videos should always be filmed in landscape mode. Only on rare occasions, e.g. where an amateur video given to us is especially interesting, will we publish videos shot in portrait mode.
- The rules for captioning and modifying photos apply to videos.
- Opinion articles should be clearly marked. A disclaimer should appear at the bottom of the article stating: Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp's.
Medicine and diseases
- There is an infectious disease that we once spelt COVID-19, but with time we began spelling it Covid-19, then Covid
and finally covid(no that last change is just too weird - back to Covid).
- Diseases and germs are not usually capitalised, but their abbreviations are: tuberculosis, TB, human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, diabetes, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, AIDS, covid, SARS-CoV-2.
- If we use the scientific or generic name for a medicine, which is preferred, we don't capitalise it, but we do capitalise brand names. So we prefer paracetamol to Panado.
- There is an infectious disease that we once spelt COVID-19, but with time we began spelling it Covid-19, then Covid
- Tenses should usually be consistent throughout the article. There are however many reasonable exceptions to this.
- Institutions are singular third-person. E.g. In a statement the organisation said it is satisfied with the court outcome.
- Do not use the word around where about or approximately can be used. Often it can be removed completely. Around often signifies woolly thinking.
- Never use the word essentially. It essentially adds nothing to meaning.
- We have relented and begun using the word learner for people in school, though as a small act of defiance sometimes we will still use the word student. We're standing steadfast and using teacher instead of educator. When people are quoted, use the word they use.
- We have relented and will begin using hashtags in the names of organisations that use them. E.g. #UniteBehind, not UniteBehind. It's a bit less clear whether it's #FeesMustFall or Fees Must Fall because it is not a single centralised organisation with an official name, so this is at an editor's discretion.