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 informtion properly to the audience.
Journalists have three types of sources they can go to for information:
Stored sources. This refers to information you can look up, in a book, in a library, on the Web – anywhere that information is recorded. 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, stored 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 still may not contain the very latest information.
Observational sources. This is information that you can get from personal experience, by going to a city council meeting, a fire, a press conference, etc.
Reporters like to be on the scene. They like to be at events. Covering news from afair is not always satisfactory. They like to see with their own eyes, hear with their own ears. They like to talk to the people who are there and get the sights and sounds and smells of a news event.
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 digital recorder; making notes to themselves immediately after the event
- taking pictures
We will discuss being on the scene at an event in more detail in Module 2.9 On-the-scene reporting <link>).
Personal sources. This is information that you get from talking to people. 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 souces 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
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;
- Information that a reporter gathers from on-the-scene reporting generally is not attributed (unless it comes directly from another eyewitness), but it is written in such a way that the reader understands that the reporter was there to see the event.
News reporters want the best information available; therefore, they will try to gather it from the people who know the most or who are closest to a situation. Not only are these people likely to hav the best information, but they are also likely to be the most credible sources.