Information, at its source
Newswriting depends on information. The quality of the writing is tied to the quality of the information. The quality of the information depends on its source.
Reporting is the basic activity of journalism. Good journalism depends almost entirely on good reporting — having the latest, most accurate, most credible information. Writing is important but secondary to reporting. Newswriters must understand information and sources, however, in order to present the information properly to the audience.
Three types of sources
• stored — information that you can look up, in a book, in a library, on the Web. The good news reporter knows sources of information and can find them quickly.
Once, this was considered the least useful of all types of sources for the journalist. The web has changed that, however. Now because of the web, store information can be accessed quickly and readily, and that information is much more like to be more recent. Even the web does not solve the basic problems of stored sources: they are static (they can’t be questioned) and they may not contain the latest information.
• observational — information that you can get from personal experience, by going to a city council meeting, a fire, a press conference, etc.
Reporters would like to cover more events than they are able to. Being an eyewitness to something and being able to talk to people who have experienced it is an experience that cannot be duplicated. Reporters learn to prepare themselves to cover an event by
— learning as much as they can about the event beforehand
— getting into a position to see and hear what is going on
— talking with people who are also experiencing the event
— taking good notes; using a tape recorder; making notes to themselves immediately after the event
— taking pictures
• personal — information that you get from talking to people. Look over the section on interviewing in chapter 4 of Writing for the Mass Media. Most news reporters have to interview people to complete their news stories.
Being able to talk to people — and getting people to talk to them — is one of the most important skills of reporters. Many people are reluctant to talk with reporters because they are afraid of being misquoted or afraid of the consequences of being in the news. Others are anxious to talk with reporters but they may not have good information or they may be pushing their own agenda or point of view.
Reporters must learn to get the most from their sources by
— finding the right people to talk to (VERY IMPORTANT), rather than using “sources of convenience”
— respecting their feelings and position
— dealing with them ethically by identifying themselves, understanding the principles of on-the-record and off-the-record conversations, and maintaining the confidentiality of sources even when it is difficult to do so (such as being faced with going to jail)
— learning how to interview people properly
- most news and information is gathered by talking to people
- it is a standard practice of journalism
- good interviewing takes skill acquired by practice and experience
- we place a high value on what people say
- interviewing gives us the latest (most recent) information from the people likely to know the most
- in journalism, interviewing isn’t just talking to people; there are specific rules, guidelines and expectations involved if an interview is conducted properly
Anyone can look something up (using stored sources). And anyone can have an opinion about something. But it takes a journalist to find out information that other people can’t find or can’t be bothered with finding. That’s why we interview.
Who should be interviewed? Finding good sources of information — and persuading them to talk to you — is the job of the journalist. When you are writing about any topic or event, you should try to find
- Experts with first-hand knowledge of the topic
- People who general knowledge about the topic
- People with informed opinions
How should the interview be conducted? In person, if possible. Over the phone, if in-person is not possible. By email, but that isn’t always a good option.
Here’s a separate JPROF article on interviewing.
And take a look at this, too:
Whom should you interview?
Here’s an except from the JEM 200 lecture for Jan. 28, 2010 about the people whom reporters should try to find to interview about an event or topic they are covering.
The rules. OK, what are the rules of journalistic interviewing that make it different from just conversation. Here are a few:
- Be completely honest with your interviewee. All information exchange in journalism is based on honesty.
- Indentify yourself to the interviewee BEFORE the interview begins. Tell the interviewee why you want to talk with him or her and that what is said might be quoted in a news story. Make sure the interviewee understands all this.
- Tell the interviewee what news organization you are working for.
- Ask the interview how to spell his or her first and last name. Take down the interviewee’s title.
- Take notes.
- Listen carefully to what the person is saying. Repeat back what you don’t understand. Ask for clarification.
- Ask the interviewee before turning on a digital recorder. You must have the person’s permission.
- When you use a quotation, if you put words within quotation marks, they must beexactly the words the interviewee said and in the order they said them.
Journalism is defined by the process of verification. It is the essence of the journalistic method of finding information and assuring its accuracy.
- Consistency. Journalists use the same approach to finding information for their stories.
- Transparency. Journalists don’t use secret methods, nor do they disguise themselves and what they do. They operate in the open, and they are open to criticism about their methods and actions.
- Multiple witnesses or sources. Journalists try to gather information from as many sources as possible given the nature of the event or topic and time they have to complete their work.
- Recognizing bias. Journalists first recognize their own bias and make consistent and honest efforts to assure that their methods are not change by their own bias. Then they recognize the bias that their sources have toward the information they are giving. This recognition allows them to weigh the information and correct it with other information.
- Adherence to professional forms. Many of the forms of writing, story structure and information presentation exist because they assist in the process of verification. For example, in a news story, all major information should be attributed to some source. This custom puts a burden on the writer, but it is necessary to show readers where the information comes from.
A good statement of the principles of journalism is at the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Three kinds of events occur that reporters must cover: staged events; spontaneous events; and events that are a mixture of the two.
A staged event is one that is planned and about which information can be gained before the event occurs. A staged event might be a concert, a political speech, an awards ceremony or a grand opening. These events are usually managed by a person or organization and have a purpose that benefits whoever is producing the event. These are the easiest for the journalist to plan, often because the producers of the event want news coverage and will be cooperative with the journalists.
In covering staged events, journalists
- should contact the producers beforehand to get the who, what, when and where of the event.
- make sure that there are arrangements to accommodate journalists by finding out what access journalists will have to the areas of the event, to whom the journalists can talk to, the timing and scheduling of the event and so on.
- should check with the producers to see if there are any special rules in covering the event and to see if those rules are acceptable. Sometimes producers will want to limit coverage or will try to make sure that events are reported in a particular way.
- should not agree to attend and cover staged events if the conditions intrude on their freedom to write and say what they want about the event.
- check on with a staged event is to find what electronic and wireless availability there is in case journalists what to report live from the scene via the web.
A spontaneous event is when something unexpected and significant occurrs that involves more than a few people: a fire, an explosion at a factory, a major traffic jam caused by a wreck, a tornado that destorys property, etc. While many spontaneous events are bad news, that is not always the case.
Still, a spontaneous event is more likely to involve tragedy than not. Journalists must be ready to cover such events with all of the professionalism and objectivity they can display. They must remember that they are witnesses and should not get caught up in the moment and its emotions.
In covering a spontaneous event, journalists should
- try to get as close to the event’s location as possible
- should always carry some form of identification that shows they are reporters working as media professionals. Police and emergency workers are more cooperative in allowing reporters access when they are convinced the reporters are professionals.
- On September 11, 2001, CNN reporter David Mattingly was visiting family in Pennsylvania when he hear the news of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. He then realized he was about two hours away from where a plane hijacked by terrorists had crashed. He drove there immediately but did not have any identification that would show he was a reporter. He talked with the police guarding the crash scene and convinced them to let him have access to the scene by showing them his Georgia license tags (CNN headquarters is in Atlanta) and a CNN baseball cap that he had in the back seat of his vehicle. (See James Glen Stovall, Journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How, Allyn and Bacon, 2005.)
- try to find officials in charge of the scene so they can get the latest information.
- try to find eyewitnesses to the event and interview them. Finally, they try to find people who have been affected by the event and talk with them about the ways in which the event has altered their lives.
- should identify themselves and make sure that people understand they are talking with a member of the news media and that they may be quoted if they continue the conversation.
- should take additional care for those who are grieving to make sure they do not take advantage of their vulnerability.
- if asked by those in grief to be left alone, they should honor that request.
A mixed event is one that has both elements of spontaneity and planning. An event might be planned, but its outcome may be in doubt. A sporting event such as football game is a good example. Journalists know generally what will happen at such events, but they still need to be there to witness the action and record the outcome.
One of the conventions of news writing is that you give the reader some idea of what the source of the information is. This is called attribution. Three things you should know about attribution are
- most important information in a news story should be attributed to some source;
- information that is well known does not need to be attributed; for instance, you would not write, “The lake is on the north side of town,” the sheriff said;sometimes the source of the information is so obvious that it does not need any direct attribution;
- different media have different styles of attribution; in writing for print, attribution is often direct and obvious; in broadcast writing, attribution is often implied rather than directly stated.
See the JPROF essay on verbs of attribution.
Quoting and paraphrasing
Because newswriting depends so much on personal sources of information, you will do a lot of quoting and paraphrasing. Both terms refer to attributing information to a personal source.
Quoting (or sometimes we say a direct quotation) means using the exact words that the source used. A direct quote uses quotation marks (“ ”) around the words of the source and then gives the name of the source.
A paraphrase is when you change the words of a direct quotation or when you put what the speaker has said in your own words. This is sometimes called an indirect quotation.
“My opponent is distorting my record,” Bradley said.
Bradley said the vice president was distorting his record.
In writing a typical news story, you should quote sparingly. There are several reasons for this.
One is that, as a trained news writer, you can generally say things more efficiently that your sources.
Another reason is that as a news writer, you are an interpreter for your readers. Lazy writers just dump a bunch of direct quotations on the reader as if to say, “Here, you figure it out.”
Still, you should use at least some direct quotation in your news stories when it is appropriate. Quoting directly gives your stories life and makes the sources seem more real.
Finally, two things about using direct quotation:
— Notice how the quotation above is punctuated. Be sure to use the proper punctuation for your direct quotes.
— The proper sequence for the elements in a direct quotation are direct quote, speaker, verb. Again, look at the example above.
JEM 200 lecture response
Do not fill this form out until you are told to do so.
Sign-up for Jim's newsletter
Jim Stovall has a newsletter he uses to get in touch with those who like what he writes. Subscribers get advanced notice of publications, free downloads and a variety of information about what he is working on. He would love to have you on the list, so sign up today.