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Objectives

After completing this lesson you should be able to

  • Plan what you need to get from an event to contribute to a story
  • Plan interviews with people
  • Be more confident about your interviewing skills
  • Identify organizations that are related to your stories
  • Identify data and reports that are related to your stories
  • Improve your observation skills to include sensory detail in your stories

We have divided the sources of information reporters use to find information for their stories into five categories for this presentation. They are:

  • Interviews
  • Events
  • Organizations
  • Data and reports
  • Observations
  • Internet

In practice, of course, those sources of information overlap. The most obvious overlap is the interview. A reporter may produce a story about an event and in the process interview several people to gather information for the event story. Nevertheless, the preparation differs somewhat among the source types and the kinds of information each contributes differs; therefore, it is useful to examine each source alone.

Let's examine each source

Interviews

This is by far the most common source of information reporters use to gather information for stories. Reporters will interview many people in the process of finding what they need to know before writing the story. Here are some guidelines about interviewing:

  • Prepare for an interview.
    • Answer these questions of yourself before you begin an interview.
      • Why do I need this interview
      • What do I want to learn from this person
    • Write a few key questions as reminders of what you want from the interview.
    • This thoughtful preparation for an interview will free you to concentrate on what the person actually tells you in the interview. You have your notes and can always refer to them. So, just listen to what the person is telling you. Often you will find new information that you had not expected from your pre-interview planning. Be open to the possibility of discovering something better from the interview than your planning had suggested.
  • Ask the right kinds of questions
    • If you need to gather information, ask open-end questions.
      • These are questions that cannot be answered with a "yes" or "no."
      • These often begin with "how", "why", "what."
    • If you need to confirm information, ask close-end questions.
      • These are questions that must be answered with a "yes" or "no."
    • Use the open-end and closed-end questions in combination
      • Confirm a piece of information and then ask an open-end question to learn how or why
      • Alternatively, after acquiring information, summarize it for the source and ask for confirmation of your understanding
    • Follow a person's answer to your question with another question drawn directly from that answer. The really interesting information from interviews usually comes from these follow-up questions.
      • Some veteran reporters say that you get to the real heart of a story with the answer to the fifth "why" question in a series.
      • The key to asking effective follow-up questions is to listen to what the person is saying as an answer to your initial question.
    • Actually ask a question
      • Reporters sometimes just make an observation and expect the person they are interviewing to respond. This is done often in sports interviews -- Reporter: "Great game, coach." Coach: "thanks..."
      • This is also common in the relationship between beat reporters and persons they interview regularly. The process becomes insiders shorthand between reporter and source.
      • The problem with this approach -- it turns the responsibility and authority of the interview content to the person being interviewed. The reporter has given away his or her authority and responsibility to develop a story.
      • The reporter should stand in the place of his or her audience/reader and ask questions they would like to know
    • Get to the question quickly. Avoid long set-up paragraphs
    • Keep the point of view in your questions neutral.
      • Avoid showing sympathy with or aggression toward a source.
        • You may be tempted to use sympathy as a way to establish rapport, but the reporter's role should be separate from the person being interviewed.
      • Avoid expressing an opinion about an issue in your question.
        • Your opinion is not part of a news story.
        • You are interviewing to get information from the source
  • Evaluate the information you are getting
    • During the interview, mentally ask yourself...
      • If you've gotten what you planned to get
      • If you've learned important new information
      • If you've found a better angle that you expected
    • Depending on the answers to those questions, ask additional follow-up or clarification questions
  • Negotiate the meaning of off-the-record when a source asks to speak on that basis
    • When you request an interview and again when the interview begins, tell the person the intended use of the interview
      • In general terms what story it may be a part of
      • What edition of the publication or news program it might be used on
      • Be matter-of-fact in your presentation expecting to move forward with the interview.
      • If the person has concerns, he or she may ask to speak "off-the-record."
    • By itself, standing alone, the phrase "off-the-record" has no universal meaning
    • Talk with the person about his or her concerns
    • Express your own needs for information and the importance of quoting a person directly in a story.
    • Reach agreement with the source on the terms of "off-the-record" before an interview
  • Even in non-broadcast interviews, use a recorder as backup to your note taking if you have one available.
    • Introduce recorder with assumptions it will be approved
    • Set it between you and the person and move quickly to your questions.
    • Use good eye contact with the person and focus his or her attention on you and your note taking. The recorder will soon be forgotten.
  • Take notes even when recording and interview
    • This will speed your writing
    • It will help your concentration
    • Writing notes about what the person just said also gives you and opportunity to evaluate the answer and develop a follow-up question.
  • Close the interview with a final open-end question.
    • Ask the person
      • If there is anything else he or she would like to say
      • If there is anything that is important to this topic that you failed to ask or the person failed to say
    • Continue the interview even if you have turned off the recorder
      • Sometimes the person will relax and provide important information for the story.
      • Acknowledge that additional information.
        • The person needs to know that information was part of the interview, too.
        • The source should not be surprised to read that information in your story.
  • Immediately after the interview
    • Review your notes
    • Make a new judgment about the important elements of the interview
    • Identify those parts of the interview that need checking and verification from other sources
  • Conduct an accuracy check before publication
    • When the story is written, contact the source again to read back the quotes you intend to use
      • This catches errors and misunderstanding
      • These clarifications often strengthen the story
      • The process builds credibility with the person interviewed
    • You are not asking the source for permission to publish the quotes
    • You are asking about the accuracy of what you had understood from the previous interview.

You will use at least a portion of those guidelines for every interview you conduct -- those preliminary, exploratory interviews you conduct to get background for a major interview as well as for-the-record interview with persons likely to be quoted in your stories.

Events

There are a wide variety of events that reporters can use as sources of information for stories. Some events are scheduled primarily for the direct benefit of reporters -- a news conference in which someone calls reporters together to provide information directly to reporters. A demonstration or rally might also fall into this category. Other events are conducted for the benefit of the participants themselves. Reporters attend to gather information for their stories, but their presence is not required to accomplish the purposes of the event -- parades, concerts, picnics, sports contests are all example of events in this category. A third category of events is an unexpected crisis -- fires, accidents and crime scenes are examples.

Here are some guidelines to help you cover events.

  • Prepare for the event.
    • Answer these questions for yourself before you arrive
      • What is it about this event that might be newsworthy
      • What kinds of information must I get to write the story
    • List the key items you need as reminders of what you want to collect at the event.
    • This thoughtful preparation for covering the event will free you to concentrate on what actually is happening there. It frees you to look for and consider other, more interesting or more important angles than you had planned to acquire. This is so because you know that you can always refer to the notes you made during the planning phase.
  • Acquire information about the main activity at the event
    • What is the primary purpose of the event
    • How is that purpose being achieved
    • How is the event failing to achieve its purpose
    • Here are some examples of main activities at events
      • The terms of a new ordinance passed at a city council meeting
      • The vote to approve the new ordinance
      • The number of participants or funds raised at a walk-a-thon
      • The score of an athletic contest and report on how the scores were made
      • The names and conditions of people injured in an accident.
      • An account of how the accident happened
      • The main ideas presented by someone who called a news conference
      • The ideas sponsors present at a rally or demonstration
  • Acquire information about reaction to the main activity
    • Reaction to events is often more newsworthy and interesting than main event.
    • It is also likely that other media outlets will cover the main event. By focusing on reaction, you get information different from other accounts.
    • Here are some examples of possible reaction stories to those main events illustrated above
      • How will the new ordinance affect people in the city
      • Reaction from spectators to the vote
      • Report on how funds will be spent
      • Report on player reactions to account of the game
      • Description of spectator reaction to the elements of the game
      • Report on reaction of eye witnesses to the accident
      • Report on reaction of persons with different points of view about the ideas from the news conference
      • Report on reaction of persons with different points of view to those of demonstrators.
      • Reactions of spectators to demonstration or rally.
  • Here are some characteristics related to specific types of events
    • Emergencies
      • These often involve the threat of or actual injury, loss of life or property damage. Accidents, fires, weather storms are example of emergency events.
      • Keep yourself safe
        • Just because you function as a reporter, you are not immune from personal injury or worse. No single story is worth serious injury or loss of life
        • Sometimes reporters get caught up in the crisis and in getting information of their story and forget to take care. This often is a problem for the photographer who is viewing the situation through a camera viewfinder and may be unaware how close to danger he or she has gotten.
      • When arrive, check in with the official press office or person in charge.
        • It is important to account for all an emergency scene if the situation becomes worse
        • Many police or fire agencies will appoint an officer to deal with the needs of reporters
      • Collect the perishable information first
        • Officials will collect and release the names and conditions of victims and causes for the crisis sometime after the emergency is contained.
        • You should focus on types of information that may disappear. These categories include
          • Interviews with witnesses
          • Observations about what is happening at the scene -- how officials and others are behaving -- what the scene and response looks, sounds, smells like.
        • Respect privacy and private property
          • Laws on what you may and may not do vary by jurisdiction; however there are some general guidelines
          • As a general rule, you are not permitted to enter what would normally be private property without the permission of the owner -- even if officials invite you in
            • For example, you could not accompany fire fighters into a private residence to get a photograph of fire damage or to watch fire fighters at work without the permission of the owner.
          • Use customary standards of good taste and common courtesy in approaching victims or their families in the midst of the crisis.
            • If these people are in a public place, you are free to photograph them. Do so unobtrusively. You can decide later whether to use the photographs.
            • You may feel timid and reluctant to approach someone who as come through an emergency; however, these people often want to talk -- even family members and friends of someone killed in the emergency.
            • Decide what you really need from these people. Approach with respect and confidence and you will get information you need more often than not.
            • Surely, if you do not collect information at the scene, you will not be able to use it in your story.
            • Collecting information and deciding to use it are separate issues.
    • News conference
      • These are events exclusively for reporters. The sponsor wants to make it easier for reporters to get information for a story on an issue that is important to the sponsor.
      • Preparation for the news conference is similar to that for an interview.
      • The news conference differs from the interview in a few ways.
        • It is initiated by the sponsor, not the reporter
        • The sponsor generally has something to say or a statement, report or other document to provide to begin the conference.
        • Thereafter, the event is an interview in which more than one reporter asks questions.
        • Treat the news conference as an interview asking your own questions, listening to the spokesperson and following-up on his or her comments and on the questions from other reporters.
        • In a competitive news environment your good question will also benefit your competitors. When possible, obtain a one-on-one interview with the source or other people related to the story so you can develop a story with information that only you obtained.
        • Sometimes sources will limit the topics that reporters may ask of the source as part of the ground rules for attending the news conference. Discuss those limitations ahead of time if you feel them to be unreasonable; however, if you attend you must respect the limits announced for this event.
    • Rally or Demonstration
      • These events are often conducted to obtain news coverage -- primarily television coverage or a photograph in a print publication -- of a point of view about an issue.
      • The factor alone should not disqualify the point of view from news coverage; however, the staging ought to become a part of the story.
      • Reporters can use observation to collect this type of information for a description of the event itself -- beyond the substance of the point of view.
      • The issues that rallies or demonstrations involve are seldom one-time, isolated issues. In your preparation, identify the context for the current event -- what has gone before? What is the status of the issue?
      • The rally or demonstration presents at least four story possibilities
        • Presentation of the primary message of the sponsors
        • Reaction from observers or persons affected by the event
        • Reaction from other stakeholders who may have different opinions
        • Feature treatment of the participants or observers
    • Independent event
      • The news conference, rally or demonstration could be classified as pseudo-events. They are staged primarily to obtain media news coverage.
      • On the other hand, there are many human activities that go on with out needing news coverage to achieve their purposes. Here are some examples:
        • Holiday parades
        • Meals at soup kitchens
        • Blood drives by the Red Cross
        • Community picnics
        • Athletic contests
        • Convocation to open school year
      • For a publication of record, e.g. a community newspaper or school newspaper, it may be necessary to publish a note that the event was held as a matter of record.
        • Who won the game?
        • How many attended the picnic or holiday parade
      • However, the "event was held" news angle seldom produces memorable stories. The reporter's task is to find something in the event that participant or spectator would not have seen or known
        • An example was the story from coverage of a routine bloodmobile visit in which the reporter told of a now engaged couple that had met at an earlier bloodmobile.
        • Another story about high tea reported on the experience of the only male attending the event.
        • Review the list of potential traditional news values from Lessons 1 and 2 to remind you of possible angles to investigate at these independent events.
    • Meetings
      • Reporters frequently attend meetings -- frequently they are meetings of governmental bodies collecting information as part of the decision-making, regulatory or judicial processes. Sometimes they are actual decision-making sessions.
      • Other meetings may be of individuals or groups preparing to present information to a government body or reacting to a previous decision.
      • Preparation to cover a meeting includes these items
        • What is the background or context for this meeting? Seldom is a meeting a first of a kind. Something has gone before to stimulate this session. What is it?
        • Read previous stories from your publication's library
        • Talk with the sponsor, presiding officer or clerk or secretary of the group to get the context, expectations and agenda for the session.
        • Large, established organizations will have a public relations staff that can be helpful in providing background and context.
        • As you do in preparing for an interview, make an estimate of what you expect to get from the meeting.
          • What will you need to write that story
        • Know the names, titles, phone numbers or other post-meeting contact information for the principals.
      • In covering the meeting
        • Having made that estimate, now keep and open mind about new, unexpected possibilities that happen during the meeting.
        • As you do in covering an emergency, look for reactions to the main event. Reactions can advance your story beyond the "meeting was held" angle.
        • In a competitive environment in which television and radio may report the main event well ahead of a newspaper deadline, the print reporter must find news beyond the "meeting was held" to have a story that is valuable to his or her readers who will have been aware of the main story from other outlets.
        • From your reporting identify the "what next" aspects of the story, particularly government processes. There is almost always a next step.
        • Check your understanding with the source(s) that helped you with background for the story. This is particularly important for reporters new to a government beat.
          • Of course recognize that these sources will have their own perspectives about what is important but they can be useful in the central facts of a story. For example, what does second reading of a proposed city ordinance mean?
        • Also check your understanding and quotes with the sources mentioned in your story for accuracy before you publish.

Organizations

For a story that is more complex than anecdotal human interest story, chances are great that the reporter will deal with several organizations in the develop of that story. In the United States particularly, most stakeholders in an issue have an organization that represents their points of view on the issue in the policy debate.

Organizations include government agencies and departments at a local, state or regional and national levels, professional associations, businesses and business associations, non-governmental organizations and their associations, and citizen groups often organized as ad hoc organizations around a single issue.

Here is a sample list for an education issue:

  • Local governing board of the school district
  • State or regional association of governing board members
  • National association of governing board members
  • Teachers in a building
  • Teachers in a discipline or grade level
  • Teaches association -- local, regional, national
  • Same for staff members
  • Parents and their associations
  • Students and their councils or ad hoc groups
  • State or regional administrative bodies and their national associations
  • National administrations in a Department or Ministry of Education
  • Citizens in the community and their associations
  • Non-profit (NGO) organizations with interests in the issue
  • Vendors to the district and their associations
  • Regional and national legislative bodies and their associations
  • Alumni of the school and their associations

Most continuing organizations have spokespeople, records and position papers on issues of importance to the organizations. The governmental organizations may have regularly scheduled meetings with agenda and other documents that must be available to reporters and the public thorough open records laws. Increasingly, these organizations will have sites on the World Wide Web that give reporters a place to start in gathering information from the organization for a story.

Contacting an organization can lead a reporter to useful information on trends and points of view. Organizations can locate sources.

News from an organization can be generated by the organization itself in its regular meetings, in calling a news conference or issuing a news release for special report on an issue. A reporter may contact an organization for additional information, context and background on a story the reporter has initiated. A reporter may get a tip or story idea from something the organization has published in its magazine or web site. Organizations may be involved in issues long before there is news coverage of the issue in the mainstream press. The newsletters, web sites and magazines of an organization can tip reporters to important stories early in the story development process.

A good reporter will scan the work of the organizations on the reporter's beat for topics and possible story ideas and often will be well ahead of competition in presenting the issues to a general news audience.

Data and Records

Although the most memorable stories are about people, reporters should include data and information from reports to help readers identify the relative importance or impact of the personal story.

Data provides size and scope information and reports can provide information on the essential public policy questions involving the person's story. In effect, these items give the reader "so what" information on the personal story. They add depth and value to the story.

Data can also confirm or contradict information the reporter gets from the interview process or meeting or event coverage.

Where do the numbers come from? There are two primary sources -- data someone else provides and data the reporter collects and analyzes.

Governments at all levels are rich sources of data and reports. Government organizations are required to count things as part of the process of law making and regulation of activities. The question a reporter should ask in trying to find data is what organization would need to count "this" in order to do the business of that organization. A second question is what organization provides money to another organization or has regulatory authority over another organization. Chances are the superior organization has potentially useful data on the lower organization.

The answer is not always "government." Many membership associations and businesses collect data about their members and customers. These organizations are often eager to share that information because it helps get public recognition for the organization and in that way lets the organization participate in the public policy discussion via the reporter's story. Reporters can find behavior information about an employee group -- hours worked salary levels, etc. and marketing data -- percentages of customer types, etc.

Reporters often use the data and information from reports directly. At other times, reporters may gather raw data and analyze it with spreadsheets or various statistical programs to find trends and other information to support the story they are writing. The National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting at the Missouri School of Journalism conducts regular workshops to teach reporters these analytical skills. Topics that have been presented this way include purchasing patterns of local governments, various safety (aircraft, dam, highway, bridge) issue, performance records of government officials.

The growth of the World Wide Web is expanding greatly the availability and ease of locating of data and reports. The issue for the reporter is usually identifying quality data amid the total amount of information posted on various web sites.

There are many web sites that offer visitors no-fee, search services. Among the best known are Yahoo, AltaVista, Google. Each service delivers a somewhat different set of sites and pages from entering the same search terms. Each also provides tips on using that service to search effectively. Many media organizations pay subscriptions to database search services to locate information specific to the interests of that media outlet.

Obviously, just because data or reports are posted on the Web is no indication of quality. A reporter must use the same skepticism to judge these data and reports the reporter would in finding and evaluating interview sources.

Internet Searches

Internet search engines have developed remarkable capability to deliver information to us immediately reducing to seconds what might have taken hours to locate in traditional library searches of yesteryear. However, the ordinary searches are often not as sophisticated as reporters may require in the development of background for their stories.

Reporter searches often require custom use of the Boolean search logic. This logic which process that establishes a logical relationship among search terms is named for the British mathematician George Boole.

Here are the primary Boolean terms and their equivalents often used in the advanced search services on the Internet:

  • OR [dogs OR cats will deliver articles that contain either or both terms] The common advance search equivalents would be -- "any of the words," "should contain" or "at least one of the words." Most primary searches in which you type two worlds will assume and implied OR to conduct the search
  • AND [dogs AND cats will deliver articles that contain only both terms] The common advance search equivalents would be -- "all of these words," "must contain these words."
  • NOT [dogs NOT cats will deliver articles that contain the world dog, but not the word cat] The common advance search equivalent would be -- "must not contain the words..." "should not contain the words..."
  • NEAR [dogs NEAR cats will deliver articles that contain both terms within the same sentence or closely related text] The common advance search equivalent would be -- "near"

Some search services let you identify the place in the article you would like to search for the terms -- the headline, the lead paragraph, the abstract, etc.

Another useful search tool from some services is the wildcard. Using an ! or * at the end of a singular word, you may direct the system to search for the words plural equivalent.

You may find may brief, no-cost tutorials on the Web to help refine your search capabilities or other skills you may need to work productively with the Internet. Here is one site www.internettutorials.net. These tutorials are maintained by Laura Cohen, emeritus faculty at the State University of New York at Albany, USA.

Observation

A reporter's own observations provide context and color to a story. In the process of gathering information from other sources -- interviews and events -- the reporter should also pay attention to what he or she sees, hears, feels, smells.

The observations add depth to a story and avoid situations in which the reporter tells the audience something. Presenting the reporter's observations allows the reporter to show the reader -- a more powerful way to communicate. For example, avoid telling the reader the room was cold. Instead observe what is about the conditions in the room that lead you to conclude it is cold -- Do you see breath of people in the room? Do people shiver? Do they clap their hands and stamp feet, moving as if the exercise will keep them warm? Sensory observations add concreteness to stories and allow the reader to draw his or her conclusions. Here is an example that could be part of a story on city growth patterns or land-use regulations:

Example 1

"Columbia's growth, like a big frog, has leaped over Hathman Plaza. Thousands of cars pass by bumper-to-bumper twice a day as motorists head to and from work. Few stop. In the parking lot, cars occupy fewer than one in six of the spaces, only faintly marked by faded yellow lines on the bleached, patched asphalt pavement. A smashed drink can, a crushed paper cup, a discarded auto fan belt occupy other spaces. Weeds push up in the cracks between the parking lot and the curb as if to say, "Now, it's our turn."


 

The center at 1812 Paris Rd. opened in the 1960s as one of Columbia's first..."

The essential requirement for including detail like this in a story is to select those observations that help build main elements of the story.

Here are two other examples. In the first the reporter's observations reinforce the main theme of the story -- mother serving as nurturer of her home-schooled children. In the second, the detail about the crowded coffee house does not connect in any apparent way to the main content of the story. The detail in Example 3 is unnecessary and the reporter should eliminate it.

Example 2

"We wanted to be the biggest influence on our children when they were young," said home educator Mary Jones, a mother of seven girls and three boys. "That's just hard to do when they spend eight hours a day with someone else."

As her two-year-old son Jordan entered the room with a groggy smile on his face, just having waken from his nap, Jones smiled, noticing he had mistakenly gotten his sister's socks.

As she helped the toddler put his shoes on, Jones illustrated her rationale. "It's like the greenhouse effect," she said. "You keep a sapling in the greenhouse, help it grow, and give it sunshine." She and her husband, Jim, are now watching their older children sprout up on their own.

Example 3

Sitting among the legions of people in a busy coffee-house, Bob Brown avidly talked about an issue that he considers his calling in life; helping children with Severe Emotional Disturbance attain a beneficial education. He believes that parents are the key to ensuring this process works efficiently.


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