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Archive for February, 2015

Jon Stewart cut his old friend Brian Williams a break, making some really big media news to overshadow the story about the possible death blow to Williams’ career.

A suspension of the leading anchor of the old Big Three television networks for embellishing stories is a big deal. But the departure of the king of fake news is huge. Whom will we turn to now to learn what the news really means? Well, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Larry Wilmore and whoever replaces Stewart on The Daily Show, but more on that later.

The dual career moves — a suspension following an apology that only made things worse, contrasting with lavish praise following an announcement of a voluntary departure at some vague point later this year — were loaded in contrast and irony that tell us so much about television news and entertainment today:
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When, if ever, should a news organization identify the victim of a slaying before authorities have released the name?

Corey Hutchins of Columbia Journalism Review raises those issues in an examination of last week’s coverage of the murder-suicide of a University of South Carolina professor and his wife. Hutchins reported on reaction to the decision by The State to identify the murder victim, citing unnamed sources, before the coroner was releasing the identity.

I haven’t been able to find the version that reported the victim’s name. Clicking various links from The State’s Twitter account, I believe the running main story of the shooting was updated later with the coroner’s announcement. I’ll invite editors and reporters from The State to elaborate on their decision if they wish.

Spoiler alert: I’m not going to say whether I think The State made the right call. Instead, I am going out run through ethical factors I think a journalist or news organization should consider in deciding whether to identify victims of violence before authorities are willing to identify them. (I may change my mind later, and say whether I think The State made the right call, if journalists there educate me about what they knew, considered and decided on some or all of the factors I suggest you consider.)

The situation can become a classic journalism ethics decision, with strong reasons to consider on both sides, conflicting ethical principles and no easy right-or-wrong answers. I think you need to weigh the reasons to publish the names and the reasons to delay publication of the names, then decide either which argument has the strongest overall case or which argument has a single reason so strong that it should override all other arguments. (more…)

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Few techniques helped me more when I was a reporter than when I learned the value of writing as I reported. It challenged my discipline, but when I succeeded at incorporating writing into my reporting process, I found that it improved both processes.

With today’s digital formats, many journalists have to write as they report: liveblogging events, covering breaking news stories as they unfold, reporting routine beat news or even investigative stories over time as you nail down important developments.

But this was one of my most popular and effective workshops back when I was doing lots of writing and reporting workshops. And I think lots of reporters still cling to the old linear process of reporting first, then writing, when breaking stories don’t force them to write as they report. I think learning the value of writing when you report, even if it’s not a breaking story, will help improve your writing and reporting, as well as helping you succeed in situations where digital formats demand better integration of your different work processes.

So I offer this old workshop handout, not much updated except for this intro, because I think it might still have value.An earlier version of this handout was posted on the No Train, No Gain website. I often paired this, either in the same workshop or in companion workshops, with my teaching about Using Story Elements. The process of writing as I reported and the mentality of thinking in terms of story elements were critical to whatever success I achieved as a reporter.

I addressed both the process and the use of story elements in telling how I wrote the homecoming and twins stories, two of the best narrative efforts of my career. (more…)

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This is an updated writing workshop handout from one of the workshops I first presented in the 1990s, about using story elements. An earlier version of this handout was posted on the No Train, No Gain website. I didn’t add a lot of digital tips to this one, but I updated the reference to my age by more than a decade. The International Center for Journalists has translated this post into Spanish.

I used to like teaching this workshop in combination with Writing as You Report. The combination of my storytelling process and using story elements drove much of whatever success I enjoyed as a reporter.

Think beyond the 5 W’s

Don’t limit your inquiry, or your thinking, to the basic questions of journalism: Who, what, when, where, why, how. Think in terms of story elements: setting, character, plot, conflict, climax, resolution, action, dialogue, theme.

Elements shape reporting

The story elements shape not only your writing but your reporting. For instance, you can answer “who” with a name and some basic details, perhaps age, hometown, occupation: Steve Buttry, 60, an LSU journalism professor. However, if you’re developing a character, you seek and find considerably more: Air Force brat, preacher’s kid, Yankee fan, cancer patient (and survivor), unpublished novelist, father, grandfather, husband, former editor, former reporter, lousy athlete, Eagle Scout, writing coach, itinerant journalist, game creator, wise guy.

“When” may be a place on the map, “where” a point on the calendar or clock. Setting is a place and time where the writer transports the reader. Setting demands description. It evokes the senses. It demands relationship in time and place to surrounding places and to the events that came before and/or after.

Plot is not a set of events, but a series of events, each flowing from the one before and leading to the next.

Conflict demands resolution, or explanation of the pursuit of resolution or the inability to resolve.

Elements shape lead

Story elements may help you write your lead. Which is the most important element for this story? Perhaps that should be the focus of your lead. What is the climax? Perhaps that’s where you should open the story.

Does the intersection of two elements (a character in a setting, the setting of a climax) bring the reader immediately to the point of a story? Then establish both immediately, link them clearly and develop them simultaneously. Is one element secondary to another but still essential? Then introduce the secondary element but keep its development clearly secondary, so you don’t shift or confuse the focus.

Use dialogue, not just quotes

If a quote just gives the reader information, perhaps you should do that in your own words. Use quotes if a character is speaking as a character, telling her own story, giving his opinion, showing emotion, using colorful or distinct language.

Too many journalists confuse quotes with color. Colorful quotes provide color, but quotation marks don’t make information more colorful and don’t turn a dull sentence bright. Paraphrase when you’re giving information or when you can say something better than the person you’re quoting.

Use dialogue, though, to give voice to your characters, to bring a scene alive to your reader.

Video, audio and official transcripts can be effective tools for capturing dialogue and bringing the characters’ actual voices to your stories.

Where recordings or transcripts aren’t available, ask people to reconstruct dialogue for you. “What did you say then? How did she respond?”

Consider non-human characters

Sometimes in a news, feature or issue story, you can make a character of something other than a person. In a medical story, a disease might be the primary character. In a religion story, a church might be a character. When you treat an institution or something intangible or inanimate as a character, you develop it more fully. You are more conscious of the actions of the character, of conflicts with actual people or other institutions or objects.

Consider mythical characters

You can create a mythical “average” character to bring statistics to life. A mythical average person of a certain demographic can allow you to discuss statistics in terms of what is likely to happen, or not happen, in the person’s life.

If you can find someone who is almost or exactly average, you can use the real character to bring life to demographics and statistics.

Gather detail on setting

As you are reporting, you do not know whether setting will be the key element or an important secondary element. So gather information as though it will be. Go to the crime scene or the disaster scene. Interview the character in her environment: home, workplace, school, church, place of leisure or recreation (hopefully more than one).

When you can, a moving interview is effective: start out in the workplace, go out to eat, ride home in the character’s vehicle, ask him to show you the house and the yard.

Video and photos can be important tools for helping place the reader/viewer in the setting.

Learn plot details

If plot may be important, make sure you know the sequence of events. Ask characters to show you who was where when critical events happened. Have them walk you through the events if possible. Seek documentation that may clarify or verify what happened and when and who was present. Watch any videos that may be available.

Look for contradictions and inconsistencies in people’s accounts and see if you can resolve them. They may not mean anyone is lying, but may indicate the different ways people perceived an event, or they may show how confusing it was.

Decide how long your story should be

The success of some news sites specializing in long reads and the phenomenon of binge-video-watching demonstrate that people will stay with a story that’s well told. Decide whether your story justifies binge-watching or reading, and use story elements to hold your readers/viewers’ attention.

But many times, either the nature of the story or your editors’ expectations or limits of print space or broadcast time will require you to work quickly in establishing story elements. You may not have time or space to develop all the elements. After you’ve gathered all this information, identify the most important elements, the most compelling characters, the key moments, the most telling details. You may develop one character fully but have only a few words to establish minor characters.

Watch how quickly a good television commercial establishes a character or setting, or how quickly it resolves a conflict. Read my post on learning narrative techniques from songwriters.

Other writing workshop handouts

Make routine stories special

Strong from the start: advice for writing leads

Getting personal: Learning and telling life’s most intimate stories

Make Your Story Sing:  Learn from songwriters how to tell stories in just a few words

Finding and developing story ideas

Organizing a complex story

Make every word count: Tips for polishing and tightening copy

Grammar matters

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Leading my workshop on Making Routine Stories Special. Photo by Bryan Cantley

Leading my workshop on making routine stories special. Photo by Bryan Cantley

I’m updating some old workshop handouts that I think will be helpful in teaching journalism, maybe in some of my classes, maybe in some of yours. “Make routine stories special” was my most popular workshop about a decade ago, when most of my training focused on traditional writing, reporting and editing skills as well as leadership.

In a meeting of Digital First Media editors in New Haven last year, Tony Adamis of the Daily Freeman in Kingston, N.Y., suggested that some tips in improving coverage of routine news would be helpful, and I promised to dust off this handout and update it. Well, that evening I learned about upcoming upheaval at Digital First Media that would bring the end of my job. So it took me a while to get around to it, but here it is.

What I’ve done here is grab an old copy of my workshop handout from those days, dated April 2003, update it with some newer tips on making routine stories special and add some links. I’ll also update references to the journalists who provided some advice for this workshop when I was doing it originally more than a decade ago and provide links, where I could find them, to the journalists today. Where I could not learn what some journalists are doing today, I have cut them out.

In most cases, I could not find the stories referenced still online, but I’ve linked to stories where I could. I welcome your help in updating this with new stories and links illustrating these techniques as well as new tips for covering routine stories.

After my tips, I’ll tell the anecdote I used to use in the workshops, a story involving the cap I’m wearing in the photo above. So here are my updated tips for making routine stories special: (more…)

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Thanks to Katy Culver and the EducationShift blog for inviting my guest post on the importance of teaching accuracy checklists.

The post is an updated, shortened version of my 2011 post responding to Craig Silverman’s call for journalists to develop their own accuracy checklists. The 2011 post elaborates on the items in my checklist. I hope you’ll read (or reread) both posts and start using a checklist if you’re a journalist and teaching checklists if you’re a journalism professor.

I hope I didn’t screw anything up on either post. If I did, please point out to me. I may have to improve my checklist or use it more diligently. And, of course, I’ll correct.

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