The Elements of Journalism
What is News
A lot of news will come to you as a journalist without any real effort on your part.
Government handouts, Ministers' speeches and announcements of new developments come into the newsroom after being processed by press officers or public relations officers.
Passing on such information, as long as it is genuinely interesting and informative, is an important function of the media, to provide society with the hard facts of what is happening in the country.
It is part of your job as a journalist to sort out what is interesting and informative from the millions of boring words which may be sent to you.
There is also news which journalists find for themselves and reveal to the public. This need not be a subject which somebody wants to be kept secret.
Many people have a story to tell but do not know how to write a media release. It is part of your job as a journalist to find these people and report their stories.
A story should meet the following criteria, is it: new, unusual, significant or about people.
One way of deciding the strength of a story is to check how many of those four criteria it meets. There are other factors, though, which make stories strong or weak.
The following are the main areas of life in which we expect frequently to find news stories: oddities, progression, emotion and conflict.
Sports fall into this category, as do wars, terrorism, criminal behavior, illegal drugs and gang fights.
But, conflict also spreads into other areas of life such as people opposing rate hikes in their telephone bills, or arguments about whether smoking should be banned from public areas. Conflict can also be seen in public demonstrations.
Politics can also be mentioned under conflict as it has a bearing on war, terrorism, drugs and criminal activities as well as the public sparring between politicians and different political parties.
When the American space shuttle Challenger exploded the emotion was tragedy. When the first man stepped on the moon the emotion was elation. When peace came at the end of World War Il the emotion was Jubilation.
When a family dies in a house fire and a father watches in tragic helplessness the emotion is sorrow and empathy.
People are interested in emotional stories, and want to somehow share in the drama of life..
Progress fascinates people. Readers always want to see what new technologies are doing to improve everyday life. The introduction of the newest smart phone, new electronic devices for cars and new uses for computers
are some examples.
Take advantage of these advancements and write about them for your readers. Take the time to explain how these advancements improve the quality of life or
the ability to perform everyday tasks.
Progress can also be achievements in nuclear arms reductions, civil rights, etc.
Readers are interested in people, animals and things which don't fit the norm. When whales beach themselves without reason, the oddity of the act gives it news value.
Be wary of the danger in this element, though. You must have good taste not to
engage in the bizarre for its own sake or merely for shock value.
Never ridicule people. Never depend on oddity to fill your paper.
The first task is to separate what is in the public interest from those things members of the public are interested in; they are not necessarily the same. The fact that the public may be interested in something often has nothing to do with whether investigating and covering that issue is in the public interest.
What is News
Journalists should always apply the public interest test before deciding whether to cover a story.
For most issues it's fairly clear what is and what is not in the public interest; however, for some issues it's more complicated, particularly where privacy and power are concerned.
The public interest is in having a safe, healthy and fully-functioning society. In a democracy, journalism plays a central role in that. It gives people the information they need to take part in the democratic process. If journalists are good at their job, they hold governments and other institutions to account.
This is what real journalists do. They scrutinize the executive, shine a light in dark places, and dig where others don't - and all in the public interest.
For example, journalists should normally be honest about who and what they are; they should always give their names and say which news organization they work for.
There is a public service ethic at the heart of all serious journalism.
Journalists must build and retain the trust of their audiences by behaving in an ethical and professional manner, however sometimes, there are reasons to vary from standard good practice in order to bring an important subject to the public’s attention.
If the decision is taken to publish, it’s likely to be because the story would do one of these things:
Correct a significant wrong
Bring to light information affecting public well-being and safety
Improve the public’s understanding of an issue
Lead to greater accountability and transparency in public life
None of this is easy. Journalists grapple with these issues every day. And there are many other factors at play, but if you get the public interest test right, you will be fulfilling the highest purpose of journalism.
Some countries build the public interest into their legal systems. So if you want to publish a difficult or controversial item because it is in the public interest it is highly advisable to know whether the legal framework will give you protection.
Of course, in other countries, those in power might actively oppose journalists revealing information which is in the public interest because it might threaten their control of society.
In such cases, the public interest test takes on another meaning. How those in power define the public interest might be more about control than freedom of information. Here, extra care is required.
Journalists should not normally intrude into the private lives of people - but there might be a case for doing so if the person being investigated is a public figure who is behaving differently in private from what he or she is advocating in public.
You must be able to justify your actions to yourself, your colleagues and, perhaps later, to your audience.
There are times however, when a journalist might have to go undercover and hide their true identity and the real reason for their actions. Such cases could include the investigation of crime or political wrongdoing.
This is an act of deception, which is to be avoided, but, if it brings justice, and an end to criminal activity, it may be justified in the wider public interest.
Develop News Angles
Seeking out new angles on a breaking, developing or running news story is an important part of the editorial process.
Journalists have a responsibility to think through and explain how news developments affect the lives of their audience.
This process often takes place in news meetings where editorial staff discuss the implications of events in order to decide which deserve further investigation. However, a journalist working alone will often have to work out the most important angles for themselves.
From taking a fairly basic story we could develop more than a dozen related stories.
Each of these related stories can explore the significance of elements in the original story in a way that could help the audience understand the possible impact of what is happening around them.
News stories break in many ways. Sometimes the first we hear of a story is on the news wires. At other times a journalist will have been digging around at topic and will have come up with information that deserves further investigation.
At this stage, often all we have are one or two facts. Our job is to find out more. As we do, the story develops. Eventually, we would hope to publish or broadcast a comprehensive and informative report with all angles covered.
Never Manipulate Information
Our role as journalists is to unearth information, prepare it and then display it for the benefit of the audience. We are not there to fabricate, manipulate or force.
We are there to uncover facts, not plant them.
You need to retain an open mind and accept that unexpected things may happen. It may be that there is a stronger line of questioning than the one you had thought of as you set off for the interview.
Firm but Fair
You can be rigorous and robust in your interviewing and remain fair. You probably won’t achieve this with a shouting match and a standoff.It will need clear questioning and sensible interpretation of the answers.
Your role is not to appear smart and score points against the interviewee. Your role is to inform the public debate so that the audience can make educated choices.
Be prepared to back down if you have asked a question that is clearly irrelevant and off-topic. Be prepared to admit when you are wrong or when you are still learning. Be prepared to acknowledge a good point if the interviewee offers a plausible explanation.
Don't force an issue
Some journalists misinterpret resistance to questioning to be an admission of guilt, and that if the interviewee refuses to answer, or avoids the question, they have something to hide. It might not mean that.
It could mean that it was a bad question not relevant to the topic. It could also mean that the person you are interviewing genuinely doesn’t have an answer or opinion. It could mean that you don’t understand the complexity of the issues being discussed.
Press too hard at times like these and you could end up looking silly and damage the integrity of the media organization you represent
Spotting a Story
Your story should make the viewer, listener or reader stop in their tracks, look up from their breakfast, and want to tell the story to someone else. A good test is if one of your colleagues says "so what?" - if you can't answer that question, then it might not be quite the story you thought it was.
What are the telltale signs that distinguish fact from fiction? How do you know when you are on the right track? How do you ensure that you spot real news stories and dig out important facts?If you consume news voraciously - and you should - you'll know if your story is fresh and original.
Will Anything Change
If you tell your story, will anything be different? Will other people's lives improve or get worse? If they improve, that's a good sign. If they are likely to get worse for many people, think again about whether to publish or broadcasting it.
A controversial story told well and fairly will earn you respect. A controversial story told badly and unfairly will make it harder for you to work as a journalist. You need to be fair, honest, objective, impartial and accurate in all you do.
Are others likely to follow up your story
If it's a really great piece of original journalism, your competitors will follow up with their own take on the story. If it's an outstanding piece of journalism, politicians, campaigners, decision-makers, and those with an interest in the issue, will do something.
This is why you should always have your own follow up plan. If, once your story breaks, others follow your lead, then you need to be ahead of the game again. Jotting down a few follow-up angles is always a good idea. A really good story, will have at least three related stories for you to chase. You have a head start on your competitors, so you should be anticipating where the story will go even before it is published or broadcast.
Does the story make sense
The more incredible the story and the more removed from reality as you know it, the more likely the story you have is simply not true. That does not mean that such stories are not out there, it just means that you must be extremely sure of your facts before you publish or broadcast.
A good rule of thumb is that the more difficult the story is to tell, the more likely it is to be a great story. If it were easy to tell, the chances are that someone else will have already done so. This also underlines the importance of not giving up too easily.
Once you've done all your preparatory research you will be ready to set up the interviews. However, you might find that the main interviewee avoids taking your calls, refuses to take part, or doesn't answer your questions. If that's the case, it could be that the person at the centre of the story has something to fear or something to hide.
Of course, that is not proof that the story is true, nor is it proof you are on the right track. There could be many reasons the person wants to remain silent. However, it could indicate that there are issues that you need to investigate further. Don't jump to conclusions.
Building Blocks for News Stories
A journalist writing a news story is the author, organizer and decision maker. Without them the story may never be told.
They assemble the material they have at hand and which they have researched and uncovered, and then they make the most important decision of all by asking the question - is there a story?
If you decide that there is a story, you then need to think through which part or parts of it are of potential interest. This affects how should you tell the story, what angle you should take and the main points you should try to get across.
Constructing a News Story
There are as many ways to write a story as there are people prepared to do it. Some will be better than others, some may even be dreadful, but they will all be different. There is no formula or template to replace individual thought and application.
Despite what you may hear about the objectivity of news, you as the writer cannot help being subjective because you are applying your own judgement and values.
The important thing is that your judgement is not just a personal preference. It is guided and based on journalistic principles.
What it Takes
Writers understand that for an article to be credible, facts and opinion must be attributed. Indisputable, publicly known facts can be used without attribution.
However, the new journalist should
strive toward letting the interviewee and reference sources be the sources of attribution.
The writer can never use himself as the
source of attribution in any news or feature story that they are writing.
It's a good idea to avoid putting words into the interviewee's mouth.
Questions which begin with or end with comments such as: "Don't you think ...." or "Wouldn't you say ...." generally indicate a thought the writer wants to attribute to the source.
Such questions indicate to your source that you have already written the article and just want to attribute it to him. It also puts the interviewee in a "yes' or 'no' answering mood. It also puts the interviewee in a "yes' or 'no' answering mood. This makes getting anecdotes and the source's personality or additional
thoughts next to impossible.
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