A good story starts with a good idea. Where do you get ideas? They come primarily from what interests or excites you and from what you think would interest your reader. Ideas should be fresh and timely or newsy; they should be of general interest, important and relevant to young people. They should result in stories about things the reader has the right to know or a need to know in order to be a good citizen. These stories should inform, educate, guide or entertain.
So, now you have this great idea. You should start interviewing, right? Wrong. The first thing you need to do is research the subject as thoroughly as possible, at the library, on the internet and by talking to some experts.
Collect as many facts and as much detail as possible. Become as much of an instant expert as you can, but bear in mind that this is just the beginning of the process.
You've heard the expression, "Look before you leap"? The same goes for reporting. Think about what you want to find out that's new about your subject. Think about who would be the best persons to interview. Think about what you are going to ask them.
You became an instant expert through your advance research, right? Now I want you to become a dummy! Ask dumb questions. Don't try to impress the interviewee with your expertise. Ask questions that will prompt an answer. Then listen.
It's a good idea to write down your key questions in advance. In listening you'll think of even better questions during the interview, based on what you are told. Take lots of notes but review them as soon after the interview as possible to fill in the blanks and, yes, to make sure you can read what you wrote.
Make notes during or after the interview of what your senses picked up. They are usually visual (pictures on walls, books on shelves, how person dresses, whether they smile a lot, etc.), but there also may be sounds worth noting or even smells. When it comes time to write, details tend to reveal a lot about the subject.
There are two sides to an interview: you and the interviewee. Let's talk about you. Call in advance for an appointment if you plan a face-to-face interview. Whether it's in person, by telephone or by email, you should: identify yourself clearly by name; point out that you are reporting for a publication, provide the name and give the URL if asked; and briefly explain what your story is about. Be general, because the shape of most stories changes as you do more reporting.
Don't plunge into your interview unless the interviewee is really in a hurry. A minute or two of chat creates a less tense interview. Usually your least important questions come first.
A good carpenter goes to the job site with a full tool box. Make sure you have pencils (or pens), a notebook or pad of paper, and, if necessary, a tape recorder.
About your tools: Pens are more reliable than pencils. They don't break. A stenographer's notebook is usually easy to handle, but an 8 1/2 x 11-inch pad is sometimes preferred. Make sure your tape recorder has batteries and carry an extra tape.
Get the interviewee's permission before taping. In some places it is against the law to tape record what someone else says without explicit permission, whether it's on the telephone or in person. Some laws are national, others are by region or, as is the case in the U.S., by state. By answering email questions--assuming you made it clear they were in connection with a story for publication--the interviewee is in fact giving permission. Tape recording enables you to get perfectly-accurate quotes, but the process is often cumbersome and time-consuming. And guess what? Machines don't always work! Thus, it's best to take notes, even when taping.
An explosion on the waterfront...United Press sends its rookie (me) to the scene by cab...It's 1953, and the Korean Conflict is going on...Espionage is the first thought that comes to mind...Two soldiers with rifles and long bayonets guard the entrance to the docks...Fire and smoke can be seen billowing from an aircraft carrier, the USS Leyte. "Your identification," says the soldier...I don't hesitate...Out comes my wallet...I show him a card..."Go ahead!" he says, with a sweeping wave...I was first on the scene at an explosion that killed 37 sailors and injured 28...My credentials? A dog-eared union membership card with 12 blocks where stamps were stuck on each month when I paid my dues.
Who certifies the press? Who grants credentials?
In my reporter days in Boston the State Police gave out press badges annually. Later my newspaper said, "Wait a minute! We should decide who bonafide reporters and photographers are, not a government agency." So we made up our own badges.
In controlled societies reporters don't have that luxury. The government licenses them, and that's it. And even in free societies there are instances when badges have to be given out for crowd control or security reasons: covering a country's king, prime minister or president; covering major sports or political events, etc.
Credentials generally are not needed to make appointments or do interviews. Someone who refuses an interview, because you don't have credentials, would probably turn you down anyway.
You could make up fancy, laminated press cards for your publication if you wished, but they would be a lot of work, expensive to make (and mail) and impossible to control over time.
So I recommend you rely on your charm...and your creativity.
You can pile information as high as the eyebrows
of The Sphinx, but that doesn't produce a worthy story.
The key to good journalism is context or perspective. Let's examine the difference between a story that results from "emptying your notebook" and "synthesizing" the material you have amassed.
As an example, take a subject: child literacy. If you did a story on a girl from your country who was illiterate at age 12, it certainly would make a readable story. However, it would also be vital to include other elements, such as: what is the rate of illiteracy in your country? How does it compare with worldwide statistics or with countries of similar size or of neighboring countries?
Good enough? No, because those statistics wouldn't have much meaning, unless you could give a snapshot of progress or lack of progress. What was illiteracy like ten years ago? Twenty years ago?
Still, statistics don't tell the whole story. Some say there is a tie-in between government funding of education and literacy. Some say there is a close connection between infant mortality and illiteracy.
And so on. You need to examine the causes or influences that create a certain effect or outcome. Cause and effect...
When you report a story, keep moving your telescope in and out: get the closeup story, the close-in detail, but also draw back and get the big picture.
In the end, the biggest question you need to answer in your reporting is: Why?
Smart reporters are like squirrels: They save nuggets.
Computers give you a decided advantage. It's easy to store material. The trick is to keep your eye out for snippets of information. Or telling quotations. The "reporting" you do today might come in handy years later.
For example, here are some quotes I have kept through the years, and--since you can write till you die--I never know when they might come in handy to help with a story I'm working on:
``Live simply so that others might simply live.'' Mahatma Gandhi.
``We are not disobeying the laws of God; we are obeying the laws of justice,'' by using civil disobedience. ``They (government officials) are getting away with murder, literally and figuratively.'' Bishop Tutu of South Africa.
``We live in an insane world where we spend one million dollars on arms each minute, while during that same period forty people throughout the world die of malnutrition.'' Dr. Roger Walsh, U of California.
About writing: ``The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning.'' Mark Twain.
``We are left with this final image of the United States, a democracy inside but an empire outside: Dr. Jekyll at home; Mr. Hyde in Latin America.'' Carlos Fuentes, in 1986.
"The kind of work we do does not make us holy, but we may make it holy." Meister Eckhart
``Those who desire to see the living God face to face should not seek him in the empty firmament of the mind but in human love.'' Dostoevsky.
A wise editor I once worked with often lectured the staff about the need for "overreporting". You never can dig enough on a story you are working on. Indeed, most of the best stories are thoroughly researched, even though--as stated in earlier tutorials--you only use the salient material when you write.
I can hear the loud chorus from you: "Give me a break...I have other things to do in my life...I don't have time..and, and..." OK, so I'll give you a break, because the reader also needs a break. A good publication isn't loaded from end to end with tomes. Variety is the spice of life. Some stories are not that difficult to do and are fun at the same time.
So here are ideas for Five Easy Pieces:
1. Read a book, go to a movie or a play or a concert and write a review. Or go to religious services for two different denominations and write about the comparisons and contrasts.
2. Go to public meeting having to do with education or civic matters that you think would be similar in other countries and write your general impressions. This would be more of a mood piece than a news story.
3. Stand at the busiest intersection in your hometown for an hour and do a piece on whatever strikes you (clothes styles of old vs. young, number of cars that run the yellow light--or the red light). Did anyone stop to talk to you whom you didn't know? What was conversation about? It's a way of conveying the flavor of the place where you live to others.
4. Mail or hand-deliver a six-question written interview to a well-known writer or leading professor or member of the clergy on whatever subject interests you. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
5. Pick out someone in your community who has a really interesting or colorful job and interview her or him What tweaked their interest in the job in the first place? Why do they like it? What's their normal day like? What's the best thing that every happened to them? The worst? The funniest?
If you think hard enough, you can come up with five of your own ideas for easy pieces. Two warnings: 1. Don't avoid doing the difficult, in-depth stories, because readers like and want them, too; 2. Don't forget photos!
ONE-MINUTE TUTORIAL…on Reporting (#8)
In free societies public records are a reporter’s best
friends. In closed societies
reporters have to be creative to gain access to governmental records.
A reporter should always remember that records are indeed
for the public and not just the journalist.
Therefore, in asking to see a particular record, a reporter should bear
in mind that he or she is doing so on behalf of the reading public.
A veteran reporter I worked with always used his name only, without
appending the name of his prominent newspaper, because he felt he was
reinforcing the average person’s rights every time he did so.
Public records contain a wealth of valuable information,
whether they relate to the schools, the courts or the governing bodies.
They are an especially good starting point for a story, providing a
foundation to build on. Often they are te basis for questions asked during
interviews, which generally should follow rather than precede a records’
When there is a need to scour records from multiple agencies, a public library may provide some one-stop shopping. But for up-to-date, complete civic records, nothing substitutes for knocking on the counter of the responsible agency or department.
ONE-MINUTE TUTORIAL…on Reporting (#9)
"Couch potatoes"--those who sit and thoughtlessly absorb what's on
television--don't make good reporters. Even when covering a speech, or a
press conference or a debate, a reporter needs to do more than absorb what is being pitched.
Preparation before covering this type of story is one step. Learn as much as you can about the person(s) and the past positions that have been taken
on the issues expected to be discussed. Whether the opportunity arises during the event or after, ask short, well-crafted questions that you think
will prompt a thoughtful response.
After the event try to get reaction to what was said from as broad a spectrum of people as possible: the audience, supporters and competitors,
young and old, etc.
Use a tape recorder if possible to record the event and your interviews. Review your notes, think, then write.
"Couch potatoes" tend to swallow what they see and hear; reporters chew things over.
ONE-MINUTE TUTORIAL…on Reporting (#10)
The last thing you want to do if you are writing a story about a person is to interview that person. Literally.
Whether you are writing a profile (that is, a concise biographical sketch) or a story about the exploits of an individual, you should envision your reporting as being like a dart board. At the center is the person you are writing about. The outer circle represents all the written material you can gather about him or her.
The other circles can be thought of as the people who know something about the person. Interview those who know the least first, working your way closer to those who are associates, friends or relatives. Finally you reach your target.
The objective is not to sneak up on the targeted person; rather it is to gather all the information you can, so that you are fully prepared to conduct an informed final interview.
There’s another advantage: time. You don’t want to waste time during your interview with mundane questions: How old are you? What jobs have you held? How many brothers and sisters do you have? These questions not only take up valuable interviewing minutes, but they also put the interviewee to sleep. Keep that person awake with sharp, well-thought-out questions and you are more likely to get sharp, well-thought-out answers in return.
Follow this reporting formula, and your story will hit the bull’s-eye.
ONE-MINUTE TUTORIAL…on Reporting (#11)
Sometimes a reporter’s notebook looks like a fence covered with graffiti. Notes are written in the margins and between lines of other notes. Scratch-outs appear here and there. Sometimes words are underlined, or sentences have asterisks beside them. It looks as though the notes were written by someone from outer space or, at the very least, in a foreign language.
How does this come about?
Like most of us, reporters generally don’t have photographic memories. They’ve learned an axiom: elapsed time equals lapsed memory.
After covering a fast-moving event or doing an interview, a reporter frequently finds a place of solitude: a corner of a room, a park bench, an automobile. There the reporter reviews notes taken a few minutes earlier and fills in gaps. Frequently when first writing quotations in a notebook, a reporter leaves out some words due to haste. While fresh, recollections of visual reporting are jotted down later on: What did the scene look like? What was the person or persons wearing? Did they have any noteworthy mannerisms?
I used to put three asterisks beside my best quotes, two beside good ones and one beside those that were worth considering. When it came time to write the story, this process made the reconstruction easier, particularly if you amassed several pages of notes over the course of the day, as usually was the case.
Two other reasons why I reconstructed my notes as soon as possible after covering a news event or conducting an interview: (1) I used shorthand symbols for certain common words; (2) my handwriting is so atrocious that even I can’t read it two hours after hasty note taking.
It’s almost always helpful to step back from your reporting and organize your notebook, along with your thoughts. Putting details into your notebook also puts the story into perspective in your mind.