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Module 1: Elements of Journalism

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Gathering Information

Background Information

No matter what kind of news gathering system is used, the reporter must first find the background information and the facts of the current event or person, before he can begin to write.

The writer is not simply one who puts words on paper.

A Journalist is NOT expected to know everything, but must learn where to find information on any topic. The reporter must therefore be an adept researcher.

Contacts

Among his primary sources of news the journalist should have personal contacts throughout the community. This does not mean people who secretly let him in on what's going on, but people who know him and understand what he's looking for --people who like to talk.

These contacts can keep the Journalist informed about training, people's hobbies, upcoming community events and the concerns of the local parents' and teachers' organization, for example.

Researching Information

You must always be researching information, uncovering facts, and asking questions. You then need to process the information gathered from this questioning in a way that serves the needs of your audience.

Following up on a news release, or attending a staged event, is part of the process of news gathering, but real journalism is about finding original content.

No significant stories will be handed to you on a plate. You will have to apply your skills of observation and your ability to analyze situations.

Phone

Phones are essential to a journalist's writing. They are used to obtain facts when face-to-face interviews are not required.

Interviews are arranged by phone (most journalists avoid dropping in on the people they need to interview).

Telephoning saves time when people aren't in their office to be interviewed, and it displays respect and courtesy towards the interviewee.

Morgue Files

Perhaps the most indispensable aid for gathering news, especially under tight deadlines, is the newspaper's library or "morgue." The morgue is a collection of information (clippings from previous issues of the newspaper and other sources) a reporter can use to supplement his coverage of events and to provide depth and background in his stories.

Morgues should NOT simply be file copies of each issue filed by issue, unclipped, although such copies should also be maintained. It is vitally important that a morgue be kept up to date. By checking the morgue before going out on a story, the reporter will be able to cover the event with a fuller understanding and write the story imparting this background to the reader.

Future File

Story ideas can also come from the office future file. The future file is a suspense file of sorts. The newspaper staff places announcements of upcoming events in the future file under the date of the event. Reviewing and updating this file daily can help the reporter and editor in finding or assigning story ideas.

The future file is sometimes a collection of file folders, each containing advance information that comes into the office about a particular event. The future file can be as simple as a calendar pad with enough space in its blocks to write reminders to the editor. It can be a large wall calendar under glass or acetate with information written in with grease pencil for a month in advance or more.

Limits and Checks

You can waste a lot of time and effort building a story around incorrect information. Every fact you use needs to be checked and checked again. Don't accept anything without first testing it and then finding a second source to confirm it.

Also, we all have comfort zones where we are happier working. These could be favorite topics which we feel we know enough about to make a reasonable contribution to the public debate. And, while it's important not to stray into areas where you have absolutely no idea what you are doing or what you are talking about, it's also important not to limit yourself.

Some writers seem to be better conversationalists than others, and, conversationalism aids the writer in conducting interviews. But interviewing is a craft, with skills that can be learned, developed and improved.

Interviewing

Interviewing, among all the crafts a writer might develop, is fundamental to all else a writer does.

Writers may occasionally write short articles without interviewing anyone, but most articles of substance require interviews to get the complete story.

Interviews

Writing requires Journalists who can interview a source, take notes on the discussion, transcribe their notes and then arrange it and convey it to the reader.

Many journalists fear the interview. Some don't know how to prepare for or set up an interview, others lack confidence in their ability to carry on a conversation.

These are all fears that can be eased by practice and effort.

Interviewing

Tell the interviewee what you want to talk about and why. Be honest about the context at the outset, explain the scope of the interview and the general areas of questioning you want to cover.

Interviewing is one of a journalist's main skills. It is through interviewing that you find facts, hear diverse perspectives and learn more about the issues you are covering.

It's more than a yes/no process. It's about uncovering and extracting important newsworthy information that has been missed by others.

Pay Attention

Never be so engrossed in thinking about your next question that you fail to hear the previous answer. It is extremely annoying if a journalist asks a question that has just been answered.

Equally, it is embarrassing for a journalist to fail to pick up on a line given in the previous answer. Your audience will know you are not listening, and, if it is an important point you missed, they will feel let down by you.

Don’t be Judgmental

Even if you think the interviewee is in the wrong, you have to treat the person with respect. You must not be swayed by your own personal feelings.

You should always remain objective, fair and impartial, whatever the topic and no matter how you feel about what is being said.

Your emotions don't matter, you are paid to report. You need to use your interviewing skills to get to the truth of the matter and present that information in a way that leaves the audience free to decide what is important.

Do Your Research

Make sure you know your facts and the history of the story before you carry out the interview. You owe it to the person you have arranged to talk to, and to your audience, to be as informed as you possibly can.
You must not waste the time of the interviewee or your audience. There is nothing more embarrassing than making a silly mistake or being corrected by the interviewee.

You should also spend enough time researching the background of the interviewee, as well as the topic being covered. It may help you to understand why they say what they do.

Be Polite

When you request an interview, you are asking someone to give their time so that you can gather information for a news story. You must remain polite and thank the interviewee at the end. Members of the public are not obliged to give an interview, and you have no right to intrude on their privacy.
However, public figures are expected to be accountable; your interview is a way for their actions to be scrutinized, although even they don't have to agree to be interviewed if they don't want to.

So you need to understand that obtaining an interview is never guaranteed and, when someone agrees to be interviewed, you need to be civil and treat them with respect.

Interviewing

A journalist needs to be well prepared when planning an interview.

However, after all your research, try to keep the interview to three or four questions, because if you haven't worked out what you want to know from the person you are talking to in three or four questions, you probably never will.

And try to avoid looking at your notes, but, instead, pay attention to what the person you are interviewing is saying, otherwise you might miss the news story. Here are a few tips for planning and executing an interview

Questions

• It's important to say, though, that any story you write includes some if not all of the questions that make up a news story. There may be times when you deliberately leave out one or more of them.That's fine, as long as you have made a conscious decision to do so. Use these six questions as a checklist.
Who- are the people involved?
What- happened?
When- did it happen?
Where- did it take place?
Why- did the event to take place (the cause)?
How- did it happen?

Interviewing Tips

• Try to ask a maximum of three or four questions.

• Ask the most important question first.
The interview is a conversation. It is not a confrontation. You are not there to make the interviewee look stupid.
Try to avoid looking at notes, the interviewee may find it distracting.
Maintain eye contact at all times and keep your body language in check.

Listen carefully to what the interviewee has to say.

Conversation

To become an accomplished interviewer the reporter must do two things during the course of the session: Let the subject talk, and listen attentively to what is said.

He should listen carefully and forget about what he is planning to ask next. This encourages the subject to be himself instead of a spokesman.

To make the interview as conversational as possible do more than just listen. The reporter is expected to carry his share of it.

Control

Don't Lose Control of the Interview

This may require the writer to restate questions tactfully and to turn conversations back to the subject of the interview. Allowing the source to do limited rambling may elicit information the writer needs, but uncontrolled rambling may provide the writer with mounds of unusable information and few of the facts he needs.

Control is easier when questions are organized and written prior to the interview. Additional questions may arise during the interview, but the written questions provide a framework for conducting and controlling the interview.

Conversation

Turning an interview into a friendly conversation is impossible if the reporter has failed to establish rapport at the outset. And very often this friendly feeling can begin way back when the reporter did all the tedious research and stumbled across something of interest to the subject which can be used as an icebreaker.

Most sources are readily impressed and become more willing to pass along information, when they see by the reporter's questions that the reporter has done his homework. The unprepared reporter who gives his subject the impression that every basic fact of a topic must be explained in detail comes away from the interview with a shallow news or feature story.

Fact-Checking for Journalists

Journalism is about finding facts, interpreting their importance, and then sharing that information with the audience.

That's all journalists do: find, verify, enrich and then disseminate information.

Handled carelessly, the facts we uncover, research and present have the power to cause misunderstandings and damage. That's why it's essential that we apply robust fact-checking to all our journalism. Learn to distinguish facts from rumour.

Obstacles

Sometimes you, the journalist, can be the biggest obstacle to the delivery of reliable information. Be honest about your interests, weaknesses, favouritisms - you may think you are beyond reproach, but if you do have a vested interest it will show through to the audience.
Your job is to deliver facts to your audience so they can make informed choices. If you deliver lies or distorted facts, you are adding to the confusion rather than clarifying issues. That is not journalism.

Accuracy in our fact-checking is at the heart of all we do.

Trust

A journalist must never accept what they are told without scrutinising the information.

Journalists should take a sceptical view of every piece of information shared with them. They should not blindly trust contacts – even if those contacts have proved reliable in the past.
This could lead to a cosy relationship that results in you dropping your guard, compromising your standards and publishing or broadcasting incomplete or unreliable information

Influences and Sources

A journalist is bombarded with facts and so-called facts. These come from a wide variety of sources; stakeholders, contacts, the journalist's own research and digging.
Whatever the source, whether it is a previously reliable contact, a trusted friend, or a figure in authority, the same rigour needs to be applied to all fact-checking.
Did your editor or a senior editorial figure push this story? If so, why? What was their reason? Don't presume that a story is legitimate just because it has been handed down to you to follow up

Two Sources

Most media organizations have a rule that all facts should be confirmed by two reliable source's. Often the wires will be counted as one source. The journalist then has to find another source that is willing to go on record to verify the information.
Ideally, you should be able to attribute the information found to that named source. Sometimes, because of legal reasons, privacy issues or the likelihood of danger, it is not advisable to name sources. In such cases you need to be sure that your source is trustworthy.
You will need to be able to convince your editor that the source is legitimate and the information the source is sharing is correct.

Note Taking

Shorthand

The tape recorder must be backed up by the most fundamental tools and skills of the interviewer. Indeed, many writers stress that the voice recorder should only be used to backup the writer's pad and pen and note-taking skill.

Additionally, note-taking has the advantage of laying the complete interview in front of the reporter.

There are some techniques to note-taking that will help interviews flow smoothly without being broken up by the task of taking notes.

Shorthand

Writers can make vast improvements in their ability to keep notes by developing a personalized form of shorthand using abbreviations.

Common abbreviations (TDY, PCS, ETS, Mon., Wed., Fri., etc.) form the basis and the journalist should add his own.

Some writers drop all vowels, others develop a somewhat closed list of abbreviations they will use. The list is only limited by the writer's imagination and his ability to decipher his abbreviations and shorthand consistently.

Additional Points

One way to develop and practice your note-taking ability; skill in using abbreviations, and to increase your speed, is to take notes during television newscasts.

Develop the habit of watching the screen while you take notes. Learn to listen to the broadcaster and note his expressions as well as what he says.

Learn to remember more of what was said than you wrote on paper. Note only the highlights of the report, recording all essential facts.

Additional Points to Consider when Note-taking

1. Use a pocket-sized notepad.
2.
3. Write on only one side of the paper.
4.
5. Don't lose eye-contact with the subject (interviewee).
6.
7. Pace your note-taking, be consistent.
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9. Plan ahead of time which key points you must ask questions about.
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11. Make essential notations at the back of your note pad and transcribe the interview as soon as possible.