On Reporting


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Reporting #1


The words “report” and “research” are like Mickey and Minnie Mouse:  They look a lot alike.


Think of research as being only a part of reporting.  Or think of reporting as being an extension of research. 


One of the best journalists I ever knew was responsible for writing a lengthy story each week.  He was given an assignment by his editor and had five days to complete the reporting and writing.  The first thing he did was go to the library, gather as much material as he could, go to a corner and take notes for as long as he had to, so that he would become well grounded in the subject matter.  Before going out to interview the experts, he wanted to become as much of an expert on the subject matter as possible so that he would know the right questions to ask.


Preparing well-thought-out, knowledgeable questions is as important as asking the questions. 


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Reporting #2


Two heads are better than one.  Three are better still.


Rather than plunge into the reporting, it’s a good idea to take a short time to plan your reporting strategy.  Sitting down with one or more other persons and brainstorming is a valuable technique.  What is the basic thrust of the story you are reporting on?  Where can you go to find out the most about it?  Who are the best people to talk with?  In what order?  It like swimming in a river.  You don’t want to just jump in without thinking.  You want to find the best spot, where it’s not too shallow and not too deep; where boats are unlikely to be buzzing around; where the current is right; where others are nearby (swimming alone is not a good idea).


Even a few minutes spent sharing ideas with a parent, a brother or sister, another student, a teacher or a librarian will save wasting a lot of time in the end.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Reporting #3


If you analyze the two parts of the word “report”, you will take a giant step toward being a sound fundamental reporter.  “Re” means back and “port” means carry.  So to report is to carry back.


What do you carry back?  Answer: specific, accurate information based on what you observe, hear and even feel (such as the rumble under your feet as the truck passes by).  Collect facts, impressions, quotations and details.


You are carrying this material back to the place you will write, but more importantly you are ultimately carrying it back to your readers.


When you are in the process of reporting, don’t forget the reader.  Try to figure out the questions the reader would want answered.  In the end it is the reader—be it your teacher or your peers--to whom you are carrying back all that you collect.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Reporting #4


Your story should carry back to the reader more than just the facts you collect.  Words are symbols.  You use them to convey to the reader what you’ve seen, felt, heard, smelled and, yes, maybe even tasted.


A television camera allows the audience to see and hear what the photojournalist chooses to shoot.  Word pictures often can go beyond pictures, revealing what the camera might not be able to focus on; describing feelings (“the doorknob was so cold that the skin of your fingers stuck to it”) and aromas (“as you walked through the Italian section, the smell of pizza baking made your mouth water”).


You are a painter.  You are creating a picture that illuminates and even awakens the senses of your readers who might chuckle or grimace or even shed a tear as they not only read but also experience what you are writing.


That’s why taking note of all the elements of your surroundings when reporting makes sense.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Reporting #5


A court stenographer records everything that is said during a trial; a reporter takes notes on the important questions and answers but at the same time is aware of details that may or may not have anything to do with what is being said. 


When you are interviewing someone, details also can be more revealing than the words that are spoken.   Say the health teacher tells you she is announcing a school campaign to promote better eating.  On the same day the you see the teacher leaving the cafeteria with a pile of French fries, a slice of cake, and an extra-large soda on her tray. 


The above example is only in jest, just to help make the point, which is:  No matter what type of story is being reported, the smallest detail sometimes speaks volumes to the reader.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Reporting #6


A veteran editor told his staff again and again:  You must engage in over-reporting.


He knew the value of details.  And he knew the value of corroborating information.


If one person tells you that the mayor likes to make phone calls for an hour early every morning, is that enough corroboration?  Having two sources for that information is better; having three is best. Verifying this information through the mayor is ideal.


The more important and sensitive the information is the more sources are needed.  Over-reporting is the only way to be sure. (When you have more than one source, attribute your information to the most significant and credible source—such as the vice mayor rather than the city hall intern.)



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Reporting #7


Accuracy results from careful, meticulous reporting.  Errors result from failure to keep good notes of what you see and hear. They can also result from bias. So always avoid inserting your own opinion into what you report.


Here’s a tip:  Take notes on top of your notes.


What does that mean?  Reporters often find a quiet corner after completing an interview or after covering an event.  There they huddle with head down, feverishly writing in their notebook while their memory is still fresh. 


They might find certain quotations in their notes that lack a word or two due to haste.  Or they may wish to jot down certain observations that are still clear in their mind, such as the color of a dress, the number of people in a room, the make and model of an automobile that might be part of the story.   From experience they know they may not remember some of these points when it’s time to write. 


Few of us have a photographic memory.  Time tends to make memory murky.  Notes that build on notes can produce near-photographic results.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Reporting #8


“To err is human.”  If Alexander Pope hadn’t written that, we would all have a guilty conscience, because we all make mistakes.  But we can’t use that as an excuse.


If your story contains inaccuracies, it becomes less believable. Credibility is key.


Most errors occur in spelling, use of names and titles, numbers or geographic locations.

Double-checking never hurts.  No one likes to be misidentified in print, so never hesitate to ask, “Could you spell your name please?”,  or,  “Your title is chancellor of the exchequer, correct?”


Getting the basics correct is a good start.  Then you can worry about the subtleties, such as whether the actress sits straight in a chair at the table and looks you straight in the eye or slouches in a big, pillowy sofa and stares out the window during your interview.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Reporting #9


As you gather information, stop every so often and asks, “What do all these details mean?”  It is not enough to pile up fact upon fact.  When you eat, you place a portion of your food in your mouth, chew it over, then digest it.  It is the same with reporting.


The process is known a providing perspective.


When you are taking photographs, you often take several close-ups, then adjust your lens to get a broader view.  Same with writing.


Another way to gain perspective is to use comparisons. “If you refer to the average number of students in a classroom at your school, how does it compare with the number of students per classroom in other schools in your community or nearby?


Making comparisons in order to gain perspective often is useful when referring to amounts of money.  What does it mean to say the government is spending $3 million a year on a certain type of children’s program?  If we can compare that figure with the amount of spending on similar programs as well as including the total annual government budget figure, it helps the reader digest the significance of all those numbers.


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Reporting #10


Asking a person questions face to face is recommended.  Most people respond better in person.  It also lets you get a better sense of the person. You can observe and note expressions and even hand gestures.


Email and telephone also have their place in reporting.  They are especially useful if you have just a quick question or two, or if the person you wish to interview is too busy to meet with you.


An advantage with email is that you can send as many questions as you wish whenever you wish.  The problem is that you might not get the answers you asked for. They might be too short or not quite a response to what you asked. 


The advantage of using the telephone for reporting is that you can get a quick response (assuming the person is available to take the call.  The disadvantage is that people generally don’t have time for a lot of phone questions.  If you have more than a couple of questions, the best tactic is to call and ask for a time when you can call back.  Give an estimated amount of time it will take.  Here’s a tip: never ask for more than 20 minutes. You risk getting turned down altogether.


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Reporting #11


Nicholas Gage was a well-known New York Times reporter. It is said that he got hooked on investigating/reporting while he was a Boston University student.  A building on the college campus earlier had been a hotel, where the famous playwright Eugene O’Neill died.  Gage read in a book that in the playwright’s dying moments he turned to his wife and asked her to burn his unfinished manuscripts in the hotel room fireplace.


Nick checked the room.  No fireplace.  So he checked the blueprints.  No plan for a fireplace.  So he called the widow, who told him she gave the manuscripts to a janitor who burned them in a basement furnace.  Gage called the publisher and the book was changed.


Moral:  Don’t believe everything you read.  Indeed, don’t assume any fact is true.  I checked two sources before writing this Nicholas Gage anecdote.


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Reporting #12


How do you know when you’ve finished your reporting?


Well, after you’ve collected enough information to support your story, you should take two more steps:


  1. Test the old formula sometimes known as the "5 W’s and an H.”  The letters stood for:  Who?  What?  When?  Where?  Why?  And How?  If you can’t answer one of those questions, you undoubtedly need to do more reporting.


  1. Put yourself in the place of the reader.  What questions—large or small—would you want to find out in the story?


If you can answer those questions, then the fun is about to begin:  It’s time to write.



                                       Copyright, 2003, MIT Media Laboratory