SUPPLEMENT 8

How to find the news

In your observation exercise, you recognized that good newswriting requires knowing who the audience is. That means knowing your publication medium.

You have looked at the traditional criteria for news:

  1. News is timely. A rash of auto thefts on campus last night is newsworthy; a rash of thefts last semester is not.

  2. News usually impacts lots of people. One third of Wheeling Jesuit students coming down with the flu is news; three Wheeling Jesuit students coming down with the flu is not.

  3. News often is proximate to readers of the news publication. A fire on campus is newsworthy. A fire in Wyoming in itself is not.

  4. News often involves conflict. A student group staging a protest to call attention to landlord neglect of student housing is newsworthy. A group of students agreeing that they think their apartments are well cared for is not.

  5. News often involves prominent people. The president of the United States breaking a leg in a skiing accident would be news. A first year student breaking a leg in a skiing accident would probably not be newsworthy.

  6. News involves issues of current interest. A Wheeling Jesuit political science professor publishing an article on presidential impeachment in 1999 would be more newsworthy now than in 1989 because of the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

  7. News especially involves issues touching the common good (the unity and advancement of society). The price of gasoline doubling is more newsworthy than the price of Beanie Babies doubling.

An event or topic does not need to meet all these criteria to be newsworthy. But it must meet at least one of them.

You have also looked at how reporters use the 5Ws + H and the "so what" questions to identify and prioritize potentially newsworthy information. We know that the answers to some of these questions will be more important than others. Occasionally, some answers might remain unknown or be entirely unimportant.

In this screen you will learn:

  1. how to distinguish between event-driven news and insight-driven news, and

  2. how to explore insight-driven news topics until you find something that is newsworthy.

Imagine that you are a staff reporter for Wheeling Jesuit's student newspaper, the Cardinal Connection. At the weekly staff meeting, the editor tells you she just learned that there was a car accident involving Wheeling Jesuit English professors. There may be some deaths. What is the news?

The answer is easy. The very drama of the event points to the news. Besides the shocking nature of the news itself, the death of several English professors all at once has a clear and direct impact on the lives of nearly every reader of the Cardinal Connection.

Now imagine that you have been assigned a news story on the new core curriculum. What is the news here? The answer is not so easy. Clearly changes in the core affect nearly every student on campus. But without knowing the changes and the impact these changes will make, the news is not clear. If the changes are minor, there may be no news at all.

This illustrates the difference between what I will call event-driven news and insight-driven news.

For event-driven news, the news is often dramatic and clear. The job of the reporter consists mainly of gathering the information accurately and organizing it properly.

For insight-driven news, the news is less dramatic and less clear. Here the reporter must use his or her knowledge of journalism and analytical skills to draw out what the news is.

You can think of the difference as being something like the difference between prospecting for gold and mining for gold.

All a prospector does is go to where the gold is lying on the ground or in a riverbed and sift a little to get the gold already in nugget form.

A miner, on the other hand, has to dig deep beneath the surface of things. What he gets is not nuggets but ore that must be refined in order to release the gold.

A prospector simply needs to recognize and gather the gold. A minor needs to know how to draw the gold out of ore that may look to the untrained eye just like plain old rock.

The question then becomes, how does a reporter refine the ore of everyday life in order to find the important news that may lie hidden within?

The key is to ask a series of questions that probe steadily deeper into the topic and connect it with the needs and interests of the reporter's audience and the common good. Let's take our second example, the core curriculum revision. I will arrange this probing in a question and answer form.

Q. How has the core been changed?

A. Well, most students will have one more class, a fine arts class.

Q. Why do you say "most students"?

A. Because students in three of the medical professional programs will have the option of fulfilling their language requirement with a single class in medical Spanish.

Q. Why just those programs?

A. Well, the nursing program vehemently objected to any increase in the total number of core hours because the national accrediting agencies already require so many classes that the major takes up every hour beyond the core. It was felt that increasing the total number of hours in a student's load would put Wheeling Jesuit's program at a competitive disadvantage with less expensive schools that don't have as demanding a core requirement.

Q. Is that the only difference?

A. No. Even though the core still requires the same NUMBER of classes in most areas —for example, two history classes, two literature classes, two science classes—the CONTENT of these classes will be significantly different.

Q. How will these new core classes be different?

A. There will be no more survey courses. The school is moving away from trying to give students a survey of Western Civilization or of a particular body of literature. Instead, the first course will be introduce students to the methodology of that particular subject, for example, how great writers use figurative language to tell a story. The second course will be an application of that methodology to a particular area within that subject, for example, Fantasy Literature. Instead of every student having to take the same two literature courses, they will have a choice of courses—at least for the second course in a core subject area.

Q. What difference will this make in the quality of education for Wheeling Jesuit students?

A. The hope is that by giving up the increasingly impossible task of surveying the whole body of knowledge in a particular area—for example, the history of Western Civilization in two semesters, teachers can concentrate MORE on teaching students how to gain historical knowledge. Rather than memorizing and forgetting a lot of facts, students will carry away the crucial skills that will make them lifelong learners.

With just a few well-aimed questions, our reporter has uncovered changes that could dramatically affects the education of every student. Our reporter has also learned that there has been a conflict of some kind between the professional programs and the liberal arts programs over the revision. Notice that our reporter was careful to pick up on the little hints and details that are so crucial to finding insight— for example, by noticing the unexpected detail of "most students." Our reporter was careful to ask if this was the only change instead of assuming it was.

It is important to recognize the overlap between these two approaches to news stories. May stories can be approached both ways, as event-driven news stories AND as insight-driven news stories. A story idea that may be moderately important when looked at in an event-driven way may become much more important when looked at in an insight driven way. A good example of this is the core revision story above.

Clearly, the story strategy becomes much more important for insight-driven news stories. For insight-driven news stories require more careful thought and preparation if the reporter is to have any hope of offering the reader something of value.

It is helpful to look at news stories in two different ways, as event-driven where the news is fairly obvious and as insight-driven where the news reveals itself only after careful probing.

To write insight-driven news stories, the reporter must learn how to ask probing questions that uncover the important details and relate them to the needs and interests of readers.

Good reporters develop insight-driven stories by asking questions like:

  1. Why is something this way and not another way?

  2. What does this mean?

  3. What does this mean in plain English?

  4. Where are the issues? Where are people of good will disagreeing with one another and why?

  5. What is really at stake here?

  6. How will this make a practical difference in reader's lives?

  7. Why, why, why? So what, so what, so what?

How to strategize a story

So far, you have recognized that hard news stories focus on one or more of the 5Ws + H and are arranged in a form called inverted pyramid. This inverted pyramid form is really a series of conclusions listing the news from most to least important. Theoretically, a story of this kind can be cut at the bottom of any paragraph.

You also know that the reporter's job is to tell the reader something he doesn't already know. Sometimes this is easy. Often it is hard.

In this screen you will learn:

  1. why it is important to take an active rather than a passive approach to reporting news,

  2. that taking an active approach means having a plan or strategy,

  3. how to construct a story strategy, and

  4. how to avoid the pitfalls of having a strategy.

A good reporting strategy helps you in two vital ways. First, it actually helps you to see more and understand it better. Second, it saves you lots of time and effort because it helps you sort through all the irrelevant stuff and recognize what you really need.

Let me give you a very simple example. In West Virginia when water falls out of the sky in winter and lies frozen and fluffy on the ground, we call it "snow." New snow, old snow, fluffy snow, granular snow, crusty snow—we call it all "snow."

But it is not that way in the far north. The native peoples of the north call the snow on the trees "qali," and the snow on the ground "api." The bottom layer of "api" is "pukak" (which provides an ideal winter habitat for a host of small mammals, the location of which can mean the difference between survival and starvation). "Upsik" is the hard-packed, wind-driven snow of open spaces such as large lakes and bogs. "Siqoqtoaq" is crusty snow whose top layer has thawed and refrozen—sometimes so hard that it gashes the legs of moose and caribou that break through it. Siqoqtoaq can immobilize these huge beasts as effectively as an electric fence.

We who are quite ignorant of the ways of winter in the wilderness see only snow. But those wise in its ways see a complex variety of differences. These insights are part of what enables these people to devise strategies for living in a land where we would freeze to death in a matter of hours or starve in a matter of days.

In a similar way, where unskilled reporters see only the routine humdrum of everyday life, skilled reporters see a complex variety of things. And in that they see news. They see this because they have trained themselves to notice differences and details that most people miss.

When thrust into the job of reporting, amateurs tend to look first and think afterwards. Good reporters reverse that process. They think first, before they begin to look. And they keep thinking as they look. In this way, they train themselves to see more and understand it better. The record of their thinking is called a story strategy.

Let me give you an example. Let's suppose that you have been assigned to cover the keynote speech for the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Wheeling Jesuit. A responsible amateur would show up for the address and take down as much as possible of what the keynote speaker said. Maybe he or she would ask a couple of people there what they thought the keynote address was about and write down what they say. Then this reporter would go back to his or her room. Sometime before the deadline, the reporter would sit down and look through the notes. ONLY THEN would the reporter really begin to think and ask questions like:

  • What was the most important thing that happened at this event?
  • What am I going to put at the beginning of this story?

Untrained reporters are like a person who when told to buy groceries for the family, runs off to the store and grab something off the shelf. Only when he returns home and starts to cook dinner does he think about whether the item he grabbed was the thing that was needed. Especially conscientious but unskilled reporters are like people who run off to the grocery store and grab everything they see, haul it all back, and then ask whether the thing needed is somewhere in the big pile of stuff.

Most of us would never grocery shop like this. Why do we report like this?

A skilled reporter starts asking these questions and makes a list of those questions he will have to answer BEFORE the event happens. He or she asks questions and begins to formulate possible answers. Most importantly, the skilled reporter begins to visualize what the story might look like as he or she is preparing to cover the event. In this way, the reporter is already beginning to look for a lead and for those pithy quotes that make for a great news story.

The secret is to start the thinking before the reporting.

So how does one do this?

Story strategy example

Story idea:

  • College's smoking policy

Rephrased as question:

  • How well is the college's smoking policy being implemented and what repercussions is it is having—both beneficial and problematic?

  • Why is student smoking rate going up despite strict campus no-smoking policy in public places? (BETTER because probes deeper and offers more insight)

Story focus: (answer to question—stated in single sentence)

  • Students are accepting the college's smoking policy. (OK)

  • Although students are accepting the college's smoking policy, they are not smoking any less. (BETTER because deeper and more insightful)

More possible answers to question (other possible focuses):

  • Many students continue to ignore the college's smoking policy.

  • Two years after the college's smoking policy went into effect, student smoking is down five percent.

Impact (why should reader care—stated in single sentence):

  • Cancer rates among young people are also going up.

  • Or:

  • College is looking at how to build a major anti-smoking component into its health and wellness program.

Lead ideas (how put a face on the focus/impact):

  • Anecdote about a first year student who starts smoking.

Photo/graphic ideas (how show the focus/impact):

  • Students huddled outside of Donohue Hall in the freezing rain puffing way.

  • Graphic showing increase in smoking-related illnesses

  • Graphic comparing average number of kisses per week for smokers and non-smokers (look for on Internet)

Possible sources, what you expect to learn from them, and questions:

  • Students who smoke; when did you start smoking? Why do you smoke? Would you like to quit? Do you feel your smoking is generally well accepted by other students? Why/Why not?

  • Students who don't smoke; How big a problem is second-hand smoke on campus?

  • Patricia Vargo, head of WJU Health Services; whether more students smoke today than in the past? What factors lead WJU students to start smoking, keep smoking?

  • Jeanne Kigerl, head of WJU counseling center; What factors lead WJU students to start smoking, keep smoking?

  • Prof. Mary Beth Murray, who teaches respiratory therapy; What are effects of smoking on smoker, others? Does smoking actually help students be more alert? Keep weight down? Is there a safe amount to smoke?

Notice that a story strategy begins with writing down the topic and then asking AND ANSWERING a series of questions. It doesn't matter than you aren't sure yet. You may be making a wild guess. But the point is to think about what might be the kinds of possible answers you will encounter when you do the reporting. (A football coach doesn't KNOW what the other team will do once the game begins. But only a foolish coach would begin the game without a carefully thought out game plan. It is much easier to adjust a plan that already exists than it is to come up with one when it is fourth down and long yardage!)

Notice that a story strategy is a visualization of what the story might look like—what the lead might be and what kind of photos or graphics would help make the story interesting and effective.

Most importantly, notice that a story strategy identifies specific people—or at least KINDS of people—that you need to talk with and the questions you need to ask them.

Let me offer one more analogy. The heart of science is the scientific method. This method can be stated as:

  1. Ask a specific question (for example where does the brain store visual memories?)

  2. Come up with a specific possible answer (for example, the anterior cerebral cortex)

  3. Devise an experiment to test this hypothesis (for example, during surgeries on this part of the brain, stimulate the cortex with a mild electric current and ask the patient what he or she senses).

  4. Evaluate the results of the experiment to see if the hypothesis needs modification or replacing.

  5. Publish a complete and careful record of your research so others can try to replicate your findings.

That is in essence what a story strategy is—a hypothesis that you go out and test through your reporting. Like most scientific hypotheses, it will need revising. Sometimes it will need to be scrapped entirely. But no serious scientist would just start poking around a person's brain without a carefully thought out experimental plan first. No serious coach would begin a game without a game plan. In the same way, no serious reporter should begin reporting a story without a reporting plan—a story strategy.

Lastly, I need to point out some pitfalls and how to avoid them. The pitfalls fall into two categories: sloppy strategizing and putting on blinders.

Sloppy strategiziing happens when different parts of the strategy answer slightly different questions (or answer a question with a question). This I call a "cockeyed" strategy.

'Cockeyed' story strategy example

In a well-focused story strategy, each element points to the same basic story idea, offering real insight. A "cock-eyed" story strategy, on the other hand, is one where one or more of the elements point to slightly different story ideas or offer no insight. This leads to confusion and incoherence (or at least a poorly focused story). Here's an example of a "cockeyed" story strategy. How would you fix it?

Story idea:

  • Blind dating is becoming popular again among college students

Rephrased as question:

  • What is blind dating?

Story focus: (answer to question—stated in one sentence)

  • Students don't have time to date so they are just doing things together in groups.

Impact (why the reader should care—stated in one sentence):

  • Why would a student take the risk of a blind date?

Lead ideas (how put a face on the focus/impact):

  • Bill Jones, a sophomore at Wheeling Jesuit is sick of the lack of things going on at Wheeling Jesuit.

Photo/graphic ideas (how show the focus/impact):

  • Two couples going out on a blind date

  • Graphic showing increase in the number of students who say they've been out on a blind date in the last year.

Possible sources, what you expect to learn from them, and questions:

  • Cheryl Jones who met her fiancee on a blind date set up by her hallmate.

The second pitfall is putting on blinders. Having a strategy is no guarantee that reality will turn out to be so neat. Usually, it is not. That means you have to be on the look out for things you didn't know or anticipate. It just might turn out that the real story involves something you learn about only as you are reporting. A good reporter is constantly adjusting and improving the strategy to fit the reality he or she finds during the reporting.

In this screen you learned:

  1. that good reporting begins with a plan which is called the story strategy;

  2. that a story strategy consists of a series of questions and answers;

  3. that a good story strategy actually begins to visualize what the story might look like—for example, what kind of lead and graphics will be needed, what kinds of sources the reporter needs to find, and what questions the reporter should ask each source—so the reporter can be on the lookout for these;

  4. how to avoid pitfalls by making sure all parts of the strategy focus on the same story and by being open during the reporting process to making adjustments or even adopting a completely new focus should the evidence call for it.