Moving Towards “So What?” Reporting

July 23, 2008 at 3:42 am Leave a comment

Harvesting the News – A Progression To Story!

News reporters gather information in three ways: by interviewing people, by researching the written record and by observation. The better you are at these, the better your stories will be. This news-gathering triad underlies all good reporting and good writing. In fact, good information, even poorly written, is better than soufflé writing, or writing with no substance.

1. The more ways you gather information, and the more information you gather, the better your story will be. You will move closer to the “actual reality” of the event. Remember your goal is to use any legal and ethical means to learn what’s really going on.

2. Let’s start with the simplest type of news gathering, the story gathered in only one of the three ways. It is based on what you are told, rather than what you discover for yourself. This is source-controlled, source-originated journalism. Let’s call it level 1 journalism.

3. Level 1 stories result from handouts, press releases, press conferences, speeches and statements. They result from what someone tells you. It is surface journalism. It is the work of a clerk, not a reporter. This type of reporting doesn’t have to be bad. It can be information from the city as to when the trash will be picked up, or when to register to vote.

4. But level 1 journalism has its problems. The material can be one-sided. It can be offered by the source for personal, political or economic gain. If the newspaper is filled with this kind of material, the reading public becomes apathetic and distrustful.

5. Worse than being one-sided, level 1 journalism can be wrong. Frequently, people don’t know what they are talking about, and sometimes they lie. So, what’s a reporter to do? Be skeptical. Good reporters question what they are told. They check and double check. They rely on what they are told, but they improve upon it by talking to more than one person, by searching the written record, by trying to see for themselves. As President Reagan said of the Russians, “Trust but verify.”

6. A word of caution: There is a difference between skepticism and cynicism. A skeptic is one who wants proof, but he or she is not prejudiced against face-value explanations. A cynic, on the other hand, refuses to believe face-value explanations and is ready to ascribe almost evil motives to those he or she covers. A good reporter is skeptical but not cynical.

7. When you take what someone tells you, and supplement it with information from your own research, your own observations, or with what others tells you, you move to level 2 journalism. You shed “air and light” on the subject, to use Lincoln Steffens’ phrase. You “climb the stairs,” according to A.J. Liebling. Remember the sign in the Los Angeles Times office: GOYA/KOD, Get off your ass, knock on doors.

8. By operating on the information you have been told, you move from level 1 journalism closer to the “actual reality.” You provide background, details, reaction from others, and your own observations as verification for what has been provided.

9. Suppose you were sent to cover a speech by the director of a university writing center on the subject of student writing. If you went to the speech and reported strictly what the speaker said, that’s level 1 reporting. If you talked with tutors, students, professors, other writing centers, if you visited there yourself, if you provided a history of the center, then that’s level 2 reporting.

10. If you take it one step further, if you attempt to answer the so what? question, if you provide some information on the causes and consequences of the issue, then that is level 3 reporting. Level 3 reporting tells the reader why things are as they are, why they work or don’t work.

–From Beginning Reporting

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From PBS:

Some key elements when considering “newsworthiness” are:

    • Timing: if it happened today, it’s news, if it happened last week, it’s not; with 24-hour news access, “breaking” news is important
    • Significance: how many people are affected
    • Proximity: the closer a story hits to home, the more newsworthy it is
    • Prominence: when famous people are affected, the story matters (i.e. car accident involving your family vs. a car accident involving the President)
    • Human Interest: because these stories are based on emotional appeal, they are meant to be amusing or to generate empathy or other emotions. They often appear in special sections of the newspaper or at the end of the newscast as a “feel good” story or to draw attention to something particularly amusing, quirky, or offbeat

Students know good news stories when they see and hear them. Key components of good news stories include:

  • Attention getting headline
  • A strong lead containing 5 W’s and H (who, what, when, where, why, and how) and an answer for relevance or a response “So What?”
  • Use of quotes (we like to hear what others have to say about the topic of the story)
  • Real facts (the truth and accuracy matter)
  • A strong summary
  • Arrangement of the story (presenting information from most to least important)

For your topic, ask:

  • As you read and learned more about the topic of this news story, did it make you want to learn more or take action in any way? Explain.
  • In your opinion, why it is important to be informed about news that impacts you and/or your community/world both directly and indirectly?

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More Important Tips

  • It’s About People
    News stories are all about how people are affected. In your sports story, you might spend some time focusing on one or more individuals, or on how the team morale is doing, or how the supporters are feeling.
  • Have an Angle!
    Most stories can be presented using a particular angle or “slant”. This is a standard technique and isn’t necessarily bad – it can help make the purpose of the story clear and give it focus. Examples of angles you could use for your sports story: “Seeking Savvy Satire: Where We Get Our News’ Fix” — “Citizen Journalism, Blogging, and Corporate ‘Unbiased’ Journalism: Will the Real Reporters Please Stand Up?” — “Gay Marriage, Straight Marriage: What Are the Alternatives?”
    “Team Tackles National Competition”
    “Big Ask for First-Year Coach”
    “Local Team in Need of Funds”
  • Keep it Objective
    You are completely impartial. Cite your sources. If there is more than one side to the story, cover them all. Don’t use “I” and “me” unless you are quoting someone. Speaking of quoting…
  • Quote People
    For example: “We’re really excited about this competition,” says coach Bob Dobalina, “It’s the highest target we’ve ever set ourselves”.
  • Don’t Get Flowery
    Keep your sentences and paragraphs short. Don’t use lots of heavily descriptive language. When you’ve finished, go through the entire story and try to remove any words which aren’t completely necessary.
  • Reporting often involves research — going to libraries, reading about an idea, thinking about where to get more information and who to talk to (all things that Internet can help with). Most of all, reporting involves meeting and interviewing people who either know about the story or who are part of it. Those people are called sources.
  • Reporting is at the heart of a news story. Interviewing real people provides the meat of a good story — quotes of what they said. Talking to people often leads to unexpected information that can take a story in a whole different direction. And people often tell wonderful stories, called anecdotes, to illustrate what they are talking about.It is reporting that makes a news story so different from other forms of writing. And it is meeting people and learning surprising, unexpected — and sometimes amazing — things that makes reporting so rewarding. And any of those ingredients will make your news story interesting.

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Read here about finding your Angle and Whammy!

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Entry filed under: Reporting. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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