"The three most important words in journalism: accuracy, accuracy, accuracy."
- Attributed to Joseph Pulitzer
Here's how to report a story:
Formulate an Angle
When you come up with a story idea, or when your editor assigns one, you must figure out what aspect of the story you'll focus on. That's called the angle. So if a massive fire breaks out at a polar fleece factory in your city, for example, you might be assigned to cover the fire itself in a news story that includes how it started, how it grew out of control, and how it was fought. Another reporter might cover the story from a different angle, perhaps reporting on how much damage was done, how the polar fleece industry will be affected, and how the closing will lead to local unemployment woes.
The next day, you could do a folo news story on the fire itself, with the latest information on exactly what happened. Or you could write a feature story on how the employees are coping with their livelihood having gone up in flames, or a feature about polar fleece itself—how it's made, why it's so warm and soft, how everyone loves to walk and hike and grocery shop in it, how quickly it has become a hugely important textile. A month later you could take up the subject again in a folo feature story to see if the factory's running yet, and if not, what's going on with the workers. These are all different angles for writing about one fire.
The most important angle of every story: people. Who are they? How does this story affect them?
The angle of a hard news story is usually straightforward and dictated by events. Your task is to find out what happened at a certain time and place, and to answer all the W and H questions: what happened, where, when, how, who is involved, why it matters. And rest assured, figuring out why it matters does not mean you are interpreting events. On the contrary, it means you are making sense of the facts you've gathered.
The definition of a hard news story is a "response to an event," and the angle is generally fairly straightforward: this just happened. A feature story, by contrast, is defined as a "response to an idea," so the angle is dictated only by the reporter's or editor's creativity. Some people can rattle off feature ideas non-stop; others struggle to come up with angles that aren't oversimplified or cliché. One of my favorite journalism teachers in all the land is Melissa Wantz, from Foothill Technology High School in Ventura, California—where she also advises The Foothill Dragon Press. Among her brilliant creations is the following brainstorm guide, to help you come up with story ideas:
Story Brainstorming Tips by Melissa Wantz
- Do not ask: "What are some good story ideas?" or "How do I find story ideas?"
- Instead ask:
- What big-ticket item am I going to buy soon? Chances are others may be, too, and a little research can yield good consumer reporting.
- What have I been worrying about lately?
- What has made me angry lately?
- Whom would I like to know more about? (No, not the cute kid in algebra, but still...)
- What do I wish I knew more about?
- What was the last thing I looked up online?
- Skeptical? A veteran journalism adviser says this: "'What has made me angry lately?' I once had a student laughingly say, 'I'm mad at my sister because she wore my sweater today without asking, but that's not a story.' Oh, yeah? The staff brainstormed a bit and ended up with one about dealing with siblings without fighting, complete with a great interview with a local family therapist. Another time, a freshman was angry about having to pay adult rate at the movies but [not being able to] get into an R-rated show he wanted to see. That became a good feature on how the local theaters choose movies and what ratings have to do with it."
- Sometimes, it takes a little work—brainstorming, narrowing the focus, broadening the scope, thinking of ways to localize, and finding good local primary sources to interview—but it's always worked.
Identify the Stakeholders
Stakeholders in a story are the people—or governments, businesses, or organizations—with a significant interest in the story, who are in some way involved with or affected by it. Often, the stakeholders in a story are obvious, but sometimes, figuring out who they are takes a bit of legwork itself.
Once you make a list of stakeholders, make a real effort to interview them. It is lousy work to write that so-and-so—who is important to your story and who will care very much what it says—"could not be reached for comment." Reach people. If the residents of a housing complex accuse their landlord of gross neglect, you need to talk to the landlord. If 500 people spent the night on the floor of Logan airport after their flights were canceled by Air France, you really have to call Air France. If a third grade class, inspired by Brangelina, collected a bazillion pennies to send to an impoverished school in Africa, put Brad and Angelina right on your stakeholder list. You might not reach them for an interview, but if you want a decent story, you had better call their agent and at least give it a try. Indeed, you must always pursue the stakeholders and never shy away just because they're busy or famous or, for that matter, scary. Even if you know a stakeholder is likely to blow your head off in a shrieking tirade, you owe the maniac a call.
Note: Keep in mind that stakeholders by definition have an interest in your story and therefore likely also have a bias. If you ask them for more than just a comment—if you ask them for information—then you're asking them to be your sources. And just as you would with any other source, you must evaluate their credibility and reliability. You do this by thinking through why they are talking to you, what they have to gain, or what they risk. This will help you figure out what their bias may be, so you aren't manipulated or deceived.
Now, consider a moment in history when the American media was manipulated by a single stakeholder—the U.S. government. Watch the beginning of Buying the War, a PBS documentary about the compliant press in the lead-up to the Iraq War.
Gather Information from Sources
Your first source should be, of course, yourself, as you go tearing out the door to unearth the story. There is no substitute for being there at the scene of a story and seeing things with your own eyes. This is how you get the facts right, and this is how you get the atmospherics that make a story come alive.
But before you fling yourself out there, you need to understand that journalists, like all other citizens, must follow the law. Journalists may go to public places—but not to private places—without permission. They may listen to a conversation in the street and report it, but they may not tape that conversation without the speakers' consent; they may go to a crime scene, but they may not necessarily be allowed past the yellow tape (note the phrase "not necessarily"). Journalists do have the right to be at a crime scene, but they can't impede rescue attempts or put themselves or others in danger. For a full list of your rights as a journalist, read and keep as a reference this Student Media Guide to News Gathering from the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), a non-profit organization devoted to the protection of scholastic press rights.
Documents are great sources because they're usually straight with you: once you copy them or take their picture, you've got what you need. Of course they can be forged or doctored, but unless you think a stakeholder would resort to that, you can assume a document is a reliable source. The trick for success with documents is knowing which ones exist and which of those are legally available to the press. The Society of Professional Journalists has compiled an extensive list of public documents, called "The Journalist's Toolbox: Public Records Archives" for you to examine.
If your request for a public document is denied, don't be stopped in your tracks. Keep reporting by submitting a request for the document under the Freedom of Information Act. In the old days, submitting a request under FOI took forever! Journalists were on endless hold, waiting for the government to supply information that sometimes took weeks and months and, truth be told, years to be released. But the process is far more streamlined now, and FOI requests truly work.
Another source of information for reporters is the media itself. No newspaper wants to get its information secondhand, but neither can any newspaper afford to have a correspondent everywhere. Thus newspapers pay for subscriptions to wire services such as AP, UPI, and Reuters. They also rely on reports from other newspapers and from television and the web. Good newspapers will independently verify information from other media sources, especially when the information is breaking news. Never forget that it is quite easy to get information from other media that turns out to be untrue.
Most of the time, your sources will be people, and the way you approach them and engage with them will make all the difference in how well you do your job. When I am in the car with my kid, and a great song comes on, she often says, "Will you stop singing? And—(she sighs)—stop moving your head." So, this is one method of communicating with me. Later in the day, the same child will sidle up to and say, "Ma…mee... (smile, snuggle) Can I take the car?" So in the morning, this child is a bit cranky, while in the afternoon, she is a sweet angel, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that in the afternoon, she wants something from me.
And you are going to want something from your sources—information—and therefore you are going to be very charming with them, as well you should be. But you also need to be professional with your sources and absolutely straight with them, so you do not mislead them or put yourself in a position to be misled.
Set the Ground Rules
When you meet sources, tell them right away you're a reporter for a newspaper so that they don't start talking before they know who you are and what you're doing. And if you call them on the phone, also tell them right away who you are, and that you're putting together a story and want to speak to them about it. Ask if they mind your asking a few questions.
Then establish whether you are talking on the record, off the record, or not for attribution. Be aware that these terms mean different things to different people, so be sure you get the ground rules straight with your source before you start asking questions.
- On the record – This means you will print what they say and use their name.
- Not for attribution – This means you will print what they say, but you won't use their name. This can be dangerous, as you must protect their identity.
- Off the record/On background – This means you are seeking to be informed about a situation. You won't use direct quotes or the source's name. You'll use the information to get more information from another source.
Remember that ethically, it is your responsibility to protect your sources based on the arrangement you made together. If you agree not to name them in your story, then you can't reveal who they are to anyone—except, perhaps, your editor, who may demand to know, depending on how serious the story is and how much he trusts your ability to evaluate sources. If you go ahead with an anonymous source, and the story provokes a court case, you will face a dilemma. If a judge orders you to name your source, you'll either have to do so or risk being put in jail for contempt. This is what happened in the case of Judith Miller (who revealed in her news story the name of an undercover CIA operative) and her source Scooter Libby (the White House official who leaked the name to her), and it raises very difficult questions about whether journalists should have special protection under the law to pursue their work. Should reporters be shielded from the courts' requiring them to name their sources?
In fact our justice system recognizes that journalists may have a claim to special protection under the law because they have a special job to do on behalf of the people as they go about gathering facts and information for their stories. These are called shield laws or reporter's privilege, and they vary state by state: you can look up your state at the previous link.
To see a terrific documentary on the case of Judith Miller and Scooter Libby, you should watch this special on PBS's Frontline, titled News War.
Conduct the Interview
Here is the first rule of interviewing: The source should be talking, and you should be taking notes.
This seems self-evident, but it's surprisingly easy to forget. The source, after all, is someone else, while you are you, the epicenter of the universe as you know it, the one who's come up with clever questions, the one who'll have a byline, the one who, frankly, has gained so much knowledge while preparing for this interview that the interviewee is going to be mightily impressed if he'd just shut up and listen. But he's not supposed to be listening, he's supposed to be talking, and even if you know the answers to your clever questions, you're not the one who should answer them. If you simply can't put yourself in such a powerless position, remember that once the interview's over, it's your show again and your story. How well you stifled your ego during the interview may well determine how well your story turns out in the end. What you want to do is get the source talking.
You should prepare for the interview by writing down your questions and reading them to yourself several times before you meet your source. If you're looking strictly for information for a hard news story, then ask your questions and keep asking until you receive solid answers. (Note the superb interviewing techniques on display in News War by Frontline correspondent Lowell Bergman.) Try to not let the source get away with generalizations or evasions. If you want to know how much money your city is spending on a new park, you should get a number for an answer, not a disquisition on the benefits of greenery. Before you head back to the newsroom, check your written list of questions and be sure you asked them all. Also be sure you have the source's name spelled correctly and an email or phone number so that you can contact him again should you realize, in the middle of writing your story on deadline, that you've forgotten a crucial fact (not that this has happened to me, ever).
If you're working on a feature story, you don't want to grill your source—you want to have what feels like a conversation. Ask a few questions from your list, and then stop thinking about the list and, instead, just listen closely to what your source is saying. Pay attention to her mood and body language, get a sense of how she feels, and ask your follow-up questions based on what she's saying. Before you say goodbye, go back and look at the list of questions you wrote up in advance. Chances are you will have asked them all because you looked them over carefully before the interview started, so they were on your mind and thus you likely found a way to bring them into the "conversation."
The second rule of interviewing is this: Get details, details, details.
A kid wearing a white shirt and slacks to his after-school job as a janitor is less interesting than a kid wearing a white shirt and slacks his mom ironed that morning. Details, details, details. And write them down or you'll forget them. Use five spiral notebooks, if you must.
Here's the third rule: Take notes.
If you meet a source in person, take notes in one of those cool reporter's notebooks, and you might want to use your cell phone to record the conversation as well, but only if you ask the source for permission to use it; it's illegal to tape someone without her permission. If you talk to a source on the phone, write or type as you listen. You can also tape the conversation, to be sure you have the quotes down properly, but, again, only if the source gives you permission.
Try to get the source's words down exactly so you'll have direct quotes in your notebook, and if you can't write as fast as he's talking, ask him to repeat what he said. If you get the direct quote, put quotation marks around it. If your source says something's off the record, write "OFF" beside it. Be sure you're careful with these things so you don't get back to the newsroom and find you can't decipher which words are the source's and which are yours, and which ones were off the record. That would be a stomach-sinking kind of moment for you, especially if the source is now on a plane to Shanghai and unable to help you sort through your mess.
Verify Your Information
"The three most important words in journalism: accuracy, accuracy, accuracy." So said Joseph Pulitzer, and since you have already read a whole section in this book about the cost to a society of mistakes in a newspaper, you don't need a big explanation here. Just remember that after you gather information for your story, you need to "stand the story up," which is newspaper lingo for saying that you need to be sure everything in your story is right. How do you do that? More legwork. More going to the hockey rink.
No, I'm kidding. You might not need to go back there. Plus, you'll never find a parking spot. So you can do a lot of this work from your desk. But you do need to do it—you need to retrace your steps—because you are only human, and it's possible you made a tiny mistake, such as writing "OFF" in the middle of a notebook page filled with quotations and then later, having suffered a cramp in your hand or maybe a brain cramp, you wrote "OTR" and now have no idea what you were trying to tell yourself. OFF the record again? ON the record now? Or what? Not that this has happened to me. But in the heat of reporting a story, you get cranked up and busy, with an editor looming over your shoulder, and it becomes easier than you might think to make an honest mistake.
Furthermore, even without the pressure of a deadline, it's easier than you might think to make a dishonest mistake—that is, a mistake that's not really a mistake but actually your character coming unglued. This happens, for example, when you must call a stakeholder in a story, not a really important character but one who deserves a call, and whom you really do not want to talk to, so you procrastinate until you're sure the guy won't be in his office anymore, and his home phone's unlisted. This sort of lame maneuver is not going to work, by the way—I'm only guessing here—because the editor from hell will tell you to reach the guy at home. And you'll say the number's unlisted and he won't even say one word. He will look you square in the eye. And off you'll have to drive, fast, to the guy's house, and if he's not home you'll have to find out where he is, etc., etc. And now you really are on deadline.
But getting back to the point here: Before you give your article to the editor, you must be sure everything in the story is right—people's names are spelled correctly, the budget numbers are accurate, the information you received from one source has been verified by a second source, quotations are attributed to the people who said them and they've been transcribed accurately from your notebook to your computer screen, etc. and so on—until every piece of material in your story stands up. The best way to do this, I think, is to follow this accuracy checklist from David Yarnold, executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News:
Accuracy Checklist from the San Jose Mercury News
- Is the lead of the story sufficiently supported?
- Has someone double-checked, called, or visited all the phone numbers, addresses, or web addresses in the story? What about the names and titles?
- Is the background material required to understand the story complete?
- Are all the stakeholders in the story identified, and have representatives from that side been contacted and given a choice to talk?
- Does the story pick sides or make subtle value judgments? Will some people like this story more than they should?
- Is something missing?
- Are all the quotes accurate and properly attributed, and do they capture what the person really meant?
After you have done all of this, you may send your article to the editor. He will read it, frowning. He will then call you over to say, "This is wrong," about some small thing, and he will be right. He will not be smiling. Or else your story will be perfect! And he will not say one word.
- Deconstruct a story in order to re-trace the reporter's steps and determine what information he or she received from what sources. Select an article and read it carefully. In 10 words or less, describe the angle. Make a list of the stakeholders. Underline each attribution. (You should find that nearly every piece of information and every quotation is accompanied by an attribution.) Identify information that is not attributed, and determine the source of information and why the passage does not require attribution. (A reporter doesn't need to provide attribution for information that is common knowledge or that he or she saw firsthand.)
- Can you go there? Before you set out to report a story, you need to know where the press is legally allowed to go. You shouldn't be intimidated by people who don't want you around, but you also shouldn't break the law or endanger anyone. (If you didn't take a careful look at the SPLC's Student Media Guide to News Gathering as you were reading above, now is the time.) Explain how you would go about covering a story at the following places:
- A public school board meeting
- A restaurant downtown
- The scene of a car accident
- An amusement park
- Your local mall (pick an actual mall and do your research!)
- Your school
- A tiger that escaped from a local zoo has been caught and returned to its cage. What is your angle? Who are the stakeholders? Who should be your sources? What questions will you ask? What is your bias? How do you keep it out of your story?
- The director of a popular charity in your city has just been arrested, charged with stealing funds from the charity. What is your angle? Who are the stakeholders? Who should be your sources? What questions will you ask? What is your bias? How do you keep it out of your story? What court records are available to you? How about records from the charity?