Reporting Basics

 

Reporting 

Journalism means more than taking handouts or reporting what’s said in news releases. Good journalism rests on a set of principles. Solid stories require accurate information and balance in reporting it.

Think about answering a story’s basic questions:

  • who
  • what
  • when
  • where
  • why

 

HOW

Then examine how the story happened.

How do we connect the dots to tell a good story with a beginning, middle and end?

The inverted pyramid.

Traditionally journalists use the model of the inverted pyramid construct a story.Inverted Pyramid

 

But increasingly, news organizations encourage reporters to use better storytelling techniques, using characters and interesting details to get the reader, viewer or listener interested. Television stories often start with small details, or personal stories and we see that more and more in print, digital and radio.

pyramid
pyramid

Accuracy

Only report what you know was said, and by whom.  This means attributing statements to specific people:

  1. The mayor says…
  2. The district attorney says…
  3. The neighbor says…
  4. According to the Associated Press…
  5. According to The New York Times…
  6. According to the website….

 

Wikipedia

Wikipedia and many other websites aren’t always reliable sources.  If a site quotes another source, it’s important to go to the primary source to make sure that you have accurate information.

Just because somebody says something doesn’t mean it’s true.  Even high-ranking public officials may be misinformed, or may have an agenda that obscures the truth.  Even when you’re under deadline pressure, try to confirm everything that you’re told with additional sources.  It’s a good idea to have at least two sources.  Remember:  truth is an absolute defense against libel.

 

Elements of a Good Story

Ancient Greek writers developed a basic storytelling formula and they understood the importance of characters:

  • villains
  • victims
  • heroes

You’ll find victims, villains and heroes at the center of every good drama.  Audiences recognize the victim’s pain, hiss at the villain, and cheer for the hero. Most of what we cover will not be as dramatic as a classic Greek tale, and news coverage demands that we balance two sides of a story. Until the jury returns a guilty verdict, it’s unfair to characterize the accused as a villain. But if the actions of the accused are villainous, you report the facts and the audience, like the jury decides.

Highlight Characters

In daily news reporting, we don’t always have the luxury of a developing a story around a character. We do have to report the facts. But where we can, we want to highlight characters.

Often they reveal themselves in what they say, how they act, and through the expressions on their faces.

Readers, viewers and listeners want to engage with the real drama in real people’s lives. We feel their pain, their anger, their frustration and their triumph. We cheer them, get angry, or feel their pain. We’re indignant or inspired.

Characters drive stories and make them memorable.

Organization

Whether you begin with just the facts, an engaging character or an interesting detail, you   need to let your reader, viewer or listener in on the point of the story pretty quickly.

Journalism uses the nut graf , or paragraph, to explain the heart of the story. The nut graf should come pretty close to the top of the report. It helps to tie everything together.  It helps you keep the focus and continue to the ideas in your story.

Once you explain the point of the story, you can move on flesh it out with facts and details.

 

 

How to Write a Pitch

A pitch describes the story you want to tell. You need to write a few short paragraphs that get attention and explain what you plan to do. Avoid writing in generalities like, I want to do a story about gentrification in Washington Heights. You want to focus on a specific angle. Are you reporting from the perspective of business and developers? Or, are you looking from the ground level up and the perspective of people who feel that their homes are threatened.

Your pitch might read like this:

Many Dominicans settled in Washington Heights during the 1970s and the neighborhood quickly filled with Dominican restaurants, bodegas and the sounds of Bachata. Multi-generational families filled the spacious apartments from Dyckman Street to 155th Street. But a study by the CUNY Dominican Institute found that the number of Dominican households shrunk by 21% in fifteen years. Rising rents forced many families to move to the suburbs or elsewhere.

I’ll talk to Melissa Suero and her family who have lived in the neighborhood since the 1970s. They worry about whether they can continue to live there. The rents are going up in the building and a developer just bought the building next door. I will also talk to the owner of the Mi Esfuerzo bodega. He opened his store in 1971 and has seen many changes. I’ll talk to other people in the neighborhood, and reach out to the developer who bought the building next door to where Melissa’s family lives. I’ll also try to talk to someone who has moved into the neighborhood more recently.

I’ll shoot footage of people, restaurants, bodegas and the vibrant life in Washington Heights as well as some of the old and new buildings that are going up.

Or

What The Heck?

Barbara Nevins Taylor and Spring 2019 Introduction to Journalism Class at City Hall behind George Washington's desk at New York's City Hall

A Quick Tips for Covering Any Story

Whether you cover the opening of a food pantry, a fire that takes the lives of young children, a city council hearing, or a press conference in the Knicks locker room, you want to take a breath when you arrive at the scene.  Stop, look around and think about what is really going on.

Ask yourself:

  • What’s happening here?
  • What’s important?
  • What’s interesting?
  • How does this affect the people there?
  • How does it affect people in the broader community?
  • Is there something that people aren’t telling me?
  • How can I tell this story?

The best reporters analyze a situation quickly and sum up the essence. Once you understand what’s going on, you can think about a creative and interesting way to tell the story.

Journalism Style Guide

Most news organizations have style and ethics handbooks. They expect reporters, editors and producers to follow the guidelines they lay out.

When it comes to writing, this means that reporters use the same abbreviations, punctuation and approach to writing.

Here’s an example from the Reuters Handbook:

adjectives

Use sparingly. Inject color into copy with strong verbs and facts first. If you have more than two adjectives before a noun, rewrite the sentence. A reader struggles with “the one-eyed poverty-stricken Greek house painter.” Avoid adjectives that imply judgment: “a hard-line speech,” “a glowing tribute,” “a staunch conservative.” Depending on where they stand, some people might consider the speech moderate, the tribute fulsome or the conservative a die-hard reactionary.

When using an adjective and a noun together as an adjective, hyphenate them if it helps to avoid a realistic ambiguity: “a sliced egg sandwich” could mean two things; “a happy birthday card” cannot; “a blue-chip share,” “high-caste Hindus.” By extension, adverbs that end in “-ly” paired with adjectives modifying nouns do not need hyphens, since adverbs cannot modify nouns: “a poorly planned operation” cannot be misconstrued to mean an operation that is poorly and that is planned.

The Reuters’ handbook is a great free resource for you to use. If you wonder about capitalizations, abbreviations, or many other writing questions, please look here:

http://handbook.reuters.com/index.php?title=A

 

Our Class Style Guide

  • Write in the active voice. That means the subject does the action. You can find more on this website here.
  • Start your paragraphs at the margin.
  • Write out numbers one through nine.  Use numerals beyond 10.
  • Write out the full name of a person, organization company, country or state before you use an abbreviation or the initials.

You can use initials for well-known names like the FBI or DEA. When the name is unfamiliar write out the full name: The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, before you write ATF.

When you abbreviate the United States always put a period between the letters. U.S. to avoid confusion with us.

Because most of your work will appear on a website, write out the full name of a company or organization followed by the initials in parenthesis. For example The Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

 

  • Link to the company or organization when you mention them. If you site research, link to the page where you found the research. Also mark open a new page or tab when you create the link.
  • Write percent rather than %
  • When you quote someone, punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. For example,

“Being around guns didn’t affect on me, but knowing how to use guns definitely had an impact on me,” Max said.

Use . . . three dots, at the beginning and end when you use only part of a quote.

  • Capitalize job titles only when they come before a name.  For example: City College President Vincent Boudreau.

Use the lower case when you write, “The City College president held a town hall meeting.”

If we talk about the president of the United States, “The president told his supporters that he doesn’t care what other people think.”

“President Trump said he doesn’t care what people think.”

Some words sound alike but have different meanings. People confuse affect and effect frequently.

  • Use affect as an adjective, noun or verb when you want to say that something influences or when something is put on.  “Nicky’s yelling affected everyone in the room.”  Or, “Nicky affected an angry air.”

Use effect when you mean the result.  “They felt the effects of the drug.”

Use italics for the names of books, magazines, newspapers, plays, movies, works of art, TV programs, radio shows, songs, albums.

  • Avoid fussy words that connect ideas:

however

furthermore

nevermore

nevertheless

  • You can find more examples of fussy words and phrases in the How We Write section of this website.
  • We’ll continue to add to our style guide.