By Shannon Lester
No one said that news reporting was easy. In fact, when speaking to some of the most experienced editors and reporters, you hear the very statement every aspiring journalist hates to hear. “You’re going to have trouble getting people to talk to you.” You cringe for a few minutes until reality sets in. You’ve got a story to write, and the editor wants it in just a few days. So where do you begin?
Before writing your first story, remember one thing — news revolves around life. Any local, state, or national event that has a direct impact on the community is fair game for news. As reporters, it is our job to seek the odd, the interesting and the unusual. You capture the news in its essence.
With this in mind, let’s begin. Every story begins with research. So, here are some tips on how to get started.
You may feel as if you’re running around in circles, but don’t be discouraged. In many cases, you may encounter people who are fearful of the press. Handling these people requires work, but a few minutes of chit chat will make both you and the other person feel more comfortable. Explain to the subject that you are covering a story assigned to you by your editor. Tell him that you will not quote him, if he does not want to be, and remind him that you are not trying to ruin his credibility. The story depends upon your ability to interact with others, and putting on a callous countenance isn’t going to make your job any easier. More than likely, it will scare the person into silence.
You should begin by writing interview questions. Write open-ended questions that require more than a yes or no answer. Formulating a minimum of twenty questions should keep the person you’re interviewing talking for a while. As you converse with your source, listen carefully for answers that need clarification. When you get a break in conversation, ask a follow-up question. Essentially, you want to keep your source talking for at least an hour, so you may find it helpful to jump in with extra inquiries. If you’ve established a good relationship with the person you’re interviewing, chances are that he’ll talk.
The key here is to act interested, but not too interested. Smile. Compliment the person on something, such as a piece of jewelry. You want to establish a certain degree of comfort between you and the other person. Leaping straight into your questions before providing the person with an explanation of the projected article will make him feel uneasy. People want to know what you are writing and where the story will appear. In many cases, people will ask for a copy of the final article. It makes people feel better to hear that you’re willing to let them see what you write about them. Send a copy of your final articles to your sources, if they request one. This proves that you’re trustworthy, and may help you build positive relationships within the community.
Let your source ramble. I once interviewed a woman who went on and on about her experiences working as an executive director at a city facility. As she continued on about how great the weather was and what services her company offered, I picked up personality traits, which helped convey her personality in the final article.
You’ll need to request paperwork–and lots of it. Let’s say you’re writing a story on a water main break, and you need paperwork from the government. You may need to request government records. Before you start, however, use the Internet to search for any press releases related to the event or topic. If you’re researching a topic that’s not regional-specific, such as the effects of ultraviolet rays, this is especially helpful. Lycos, Hotbot, and just about any other popular search engine will index pages related to your topic.
Talking to people living in the neighborhood is a very valuable asset. Local citizens will be able to give you details that you won’t get from the government. By getting a local resident’s opinion, you’re giving readers someone they can relate to. You not only have the facts, but you have the words of real people, just like them. Quotes and statistics also add dimension to a story. But these should be used sparingly.
As a reporter, you are obligated to protect the rights of your sources. They’re trusting you with their information. And abusing that privilege is a violation of the journalism code of ethics. Just because a person has agreed to talk to you, doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you want with his information. Use your facts wisely. In other words, don’t write anything that invades one’s privacy or is libelous. Fact check your information. Double check. Your sources may get really annoyed, but better safe than sorry. If you so much as spell someone’s name incorrectly, your paper could be faced with a lawsuit for misrepresentation and could face some hefty fines.
Try not to let your personal feelings be reflected in the article. As the reporter, you distill the facts–and only the facts. At times, it may be necessary to include the opinions of other people and officials, but reporting anything other than the information you’re given can get you in trouble.
Once you have established an angle to the event or subject you are covering, you are ready to write your lead. The lead sentence should be short, concise, yet interesting enough to catch the reader’s attention. Starting a lead with a question, a startling fact, or a famous quote are all good examples of lead sentences. Leads can be colorful, disturbing, or thought-provoking. Keeping it short with just enough information to interest the reader is your goal. Once you have achieved this, cover the 5 W’s (who, what where, when and why) within the first few paragraphs. Write with the average person in mind. Speak in language that’s neutral–not stilted. You are the reporter, the news courier. You are the one who determines what stories make the newsstands.
Shannon is a freelance writer and journalism student whose writings have appeared in both print and internet publications. She is a contributing editor on Suite101.com with her own column entitled, “Living with Brain Injuries.” Her work has also been published in Careers & the disABLED magazine, on Shoutingout.com, Whoodoo.com, as well as in Blue Mountain Arts products.