We continue with Part Two of Jeff Rowe's News Judgement and Reporting
Thanks to easy computer access to mountains of knowledge, every reporter should be able to begin field reporting and interviewing knowing at least something about the subject. Learn how to find information on the internet and how to use various databases to research your topic.
Consider the following example of the power of information to a reporter:
Through police scanners, reporters at the station learned of a gunman holding several hostages in a commercial building nearby. The station quickly notified reporters at their partner newspaper and reporters from both organizations soon were on the scene. There, police told reporters they believed the gunman had arrived in a pick-up truck parked in front of the building.
Reporters called in the truck's license number to the newspaper's library, where a researcher ran the plate number through the Department of Motor Vehicles database. That produced a name and address. Within minutes, reporters in the newsroom using a telephone directory that lists phone numbers by address had found names and telephone numbers of the gunman's neighbors and were interviewing them on the phone.
Meanwhile, another researcher was checking voter registration, property records, and various news databases for other information on the suspected hostage-taker.
By the time the gunman surrendered peacefully an hour later, the paper and station had confirmed his identity and assembled a profile.
Learn how to use all the tools available to you as a reporter; the information you gather will enrich your writing.
Some journalists are better reporters than writers; that is, they are better at gathering the facts than assembling them into a smooth script. But the baseball player who is a better fielder than hitter cannot simply surrender at the plate. Dedicated athletes, and dedicated journalists, work on their weaknesses.
At larger newspapers, reporters develop specialties; they become experts in a certain topic area - aviation, agribusiness, the economy, politics, tourism, etc.
Newspapers can do that because - depending on advertising sales they simply can add pages for more news. But radio and television are linear - that is, they only can broadcast one story at a time, no matter how big the station. That explains why a television station's news staff is smaller than the staff of the newspaper in the same town. Given the smaller staff, television news reporters rarely can count on working a beat in the same way their print counterparts can.
Broadcast journalists therefore must learn a little about a lot because they often will find themselves covering wildly different stories in the course of a single day, particularly at small stations. They may cover a bank robbery in the morning, a business outlook conference in the afternoon, and a school board meeting in the evening. (It can be a long work day in a small town. )
One beat all broadcast reporters should be able to cover is politics. Some say the tools, techniques and tricks political operatives bring to an election have outpaced the media's knowledge in dealing with them. These campaign managers know, for example, that media scrutiny for a state or national candidate in a small or medium-sized city likely will be far less than the scrutiny in a major metropolitan area. Campaign managers know that the smaller the town, the more likely the tenor of coverage will be uncritical, if not giddy and adoring. They know reporters in smaller cities tend to be less experienced and often will settle for rehearsed bites from the candidate.
We can do better. Here are some tips drawn from dozens of journalists and compiled by Editor & Publisher magazine:
Go easy on the polls. Yes, it's useful information - if we explain how the candidates are adjusting their campaign and how the polls signal shifts in public thinking. But too often, polling information is presented as a score, as if the election were a game.
Speak to real people, who often have very different priorities than the ones candidates are talking about. At a recent municipal election in California, the media focused almost exclusively on the candidates' attacks on each other. But at a candidate's forum, all of the questions were about traffic, growth and safety.
Resist bombarding listeners and viewers with peripheral information. How many houses a candidate owns is important, but if our audience knows more about the candidate's various residences than the how the candidate's health plan will work, then we probably ought to shift our focus a bit.
Look into the backgrounds of candidates. Treat them as applicants for a job. Talk to past and present employers, colleagues, neighbors, customers, suppliers - anyone and everyone who comes into significant contact with the candidate. How well they campaign is important but what we really want to present to our listeners and viewers is sufficient information to allow them to judge how well the candidate will govern. That may mean we have to raise questions the candidates are avoiding.
Press beyond the stereotypes. This can be difficult because the media herd can cling to collective beliefs about a candidate. Be strong enough to explore beyond the accepted version of a candidate's strengths and weaknesses.
Be a relentless fact checker. Make sure we carefully check candidate's statements and ensure that we inform our audience about any variations in the truth.
Jeff Rowe has been a journalist since 1975, reporting and producing news for television, radio, newspapers, magazines and online publications. He's been a broadcast writer for the Associated Press, a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal, and broadcast editor for The Orange County Register. Rowe is a former Air Force officer and graduate of the University of Hawaii. He teaches broadcast news writing at Callifornia State University Fullerton and is the author of Broadcast News Writing for Professionals, Marion Street Press.
Jeff is a frequent contributor to School Video News and hard at work on a new book.