For those avoiding the 24-hour news cycle, the So-Called President of the United States recently launched a scattershot volley against his perceived enemy, the Press. In the rambling press conference (and I use the term generously), he asked a black reporter to set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, shot down a Jewish reporter to claim he’s not anti-Semitic, asked (but didn’t answer) what Uranium is, and harped on his above/below average Electoral College victory. Most my Facebook and Twitter news feeds are reactions to how unhinged the man sounded, speaking as a representative of the American People.
A few years ago, I worked as a reporter/editor for a hyper-local media startup. While I’ve semi-seriously sworn to never return to that world, accusations of media bias always raise my hackles. Not because I don’t believe the media to be biased, but because it’s an dismissive accusation that very clearly shows the accuser knows nothing about the industry. As so many people don’t understand how the media works, I thought I’d take some time to explain (loosely) how the news is made.
Note: I’m speaking mostly from my limited and untrained experience. If it’s a topic that interests you, seek out people who are still committed to journalism. I’ll stick to broad strokes, however, as a few of my colleagues may read this and have corrections. (Former colleagues, feel free to chime in with anything I’ve missed or mangled).
So, you’re a journalist now. Congratulations! I hope you like coffee, research and sifting through government propositions.
1. Plant the Seed
First thing you need is the seed of a story–the initial idea. Not all of these are going to be Woodward and Bernstein meeting Deep Throat. Odds are far, far better that you’ll be looking at the upcoming town meeting agenda, or someone will send you a press release for something that’s relevant to your audience. Sometimes, it’s something in the dozens of pages of police reports you receive every day, or you’re walking down a street and a shop sign catches your eye. Regardless of the origin, you need a story that will interest and illuminate your readers. If it affects them, you need to figure out how.
2. Gather Ye Sources While Ye May
Next, gather your sources. These are critical. Your job is not to explain how something works, your job is to find someone who can explain it to you. Partly, because you’re not the expert on the topic at hand, and partly so you can cover your ass: Anything you print, you are responsible for; if you invented it or later learn that your source was a fraud, that could end your career.
A great place to find sources is relevant public events. There, you could get quotes from speakers, and sometimes connect with experts who you could interview on-the-record. As in, they will speak with you and are willing to have you print their name with whatever they say. If you’re at a public meeting, it’s fair to quote anyone whose name you can copy down in time. I spent a lot of time Googling people and searching directories for people who spoke too quickly and left too soon. There were quotes I’d toss out because I couldn’t attribute them to anyone, and the words lost impact coming from “Area Woman.”
Documents are also great resources for some stories. You need something that’s public record–police reports, government documents, books or papers written by one of your relevant sources. Press releases will do for some stories. We are seeing more stories citing peoples’ Facebook pages or Twitter accounts (which is a bit of a grey area between document and real person speaking), but if I’m honest, I never loved social media as a source. Ideally, you want a document that your readers could conceivably go and request from the relevant owners. You might dig up some stats around here, too, which are useful for the big-picture learners.
3. Great, We got Sources. Time to Write, Right?
Probably not. Take a few minutes to check out what the competition wrote. Make sure what you’re saying is still relevant, or adds something new. If it’s a breaking story, this usually goes out the window, because people are looking for info now. If it’s an older storie, this is part of the research, and you may need to find more sources. If it’s an exclusive story, awesome; you’re taking a bit of a risk, though, because everyone’s going to be repeating what you write now.
Important: This is ‘make or break’ time for the story. If you don’t have any sources, it’s not a story; it’s an interesting thing you heard. The types of sources you have will also make a difference: If you’ve just got documents, it’s a procedural story, and you need to keep to what’s in those docs. If all your sources contradict the initial story seed and you still have a story, it’s just not the one you set out to write (happens a l0t), but you must write accordingly. If you’ve just got links to other newspapers, you’ve got an aggregate story, and you need to credit those other folks (and also vet those sources: Random Loud Dude with Blog doesn’t have the same cachet as a major newspaper).
4. Business Time
Everything checks out? Cool. Now it’s time to write. Synthesize the sources, the stuff you can back up, the data and the documents into a single, cohesive story. One of the things that blew my mind, coming from a narrative fiction background, was that a news story is like prose written backwards. The thing you want to lead with is the most interesting piece. The hook is the seed of the story. My rookie mistake was that I’d “bury the lede,” or put the most interesting info at the end of the tale and try to build to it–like I was leading a character to a pivotal moment in their life.
Something to consider: word choice matters. If someone’s been accused of a crime, but not tried or charged, it’s “alleged”. Calling someone a criminal before their trial is libel. In one of my early on-the-job lessons, another editor explained that the “money phrase” for police reports is “arrested and charged,” because if you’ve got a police report that says they arrested someone after an incident, that phrasing is indisputable. The charges may later be dropped, but the fact remains that at one time, the police arrested the person and charged them with something (I’ll get into story updates later).
5. This Part Sucks
You’re not going to enjoy this next part: Editing. I always enjoyed more clinical detachment from my news output than my literary, but it’s still not fun. You’ve got to make sure that the story is fair, that it’s well-written, and you’ve got to make sure that, if someone tried to sue you for libel, you could back up every word in the piece (this is way easier if you’ve got rock-solid sources).
Cool. You’re still not done. You’re too close to the project now. You’ve got to take a step back, and (ideally) let someone else read over this thing. This is where someone can tell you that you’re a little biased one way or another, or that your premise is flawed and you need to head back to step one and adjust. I always did this for stories that were hit on controversial topics. For a meeting summary or a police blotter, I’d usually wander off for a few minutes to clear my head.
6. Start Spreading the News
Now, we go to press. I also had to make sure it got scheduled to post at times people would read it, promote it on social media, plan out the day’s newsletter, etc.
On to the next story, right?
Wrong. A lot of stories have follow-up. A second side to the story you couldn’t get at until the original story ran (a lot of times, someone wrote in to say “I represent the opposing side, let’s chat about the story”). You’re now connected to this story, so expect to pick up every detail about it going forward.
6. Stop the Presses
You made an error and have to print a retraction.
It happens, it sucks, but accept it and move on. You’re a human being, and your sources aren’t always perfect. But it’s not the end of the world: Update the story, re-promote it with the new details, dig deeper and talk to new sources. (There is a fine line between update and follow-up. I’d usually try to do both: if there was a new article, I’d link back to it from the old one).
Lather. Rinse. Repeat until your paper goes under and you have to find a new job.
Speaking of burying the lede: I’ve never really watched much of the Simpsons. These were just perfect gifs for the post.
“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking, “what about op-eds and stuff like that?” That’s not really journalism, per se. There is an ongoing industry debate about how to separate opinion content from journalistic content. It’s important because some news outlets (I’m thinking of Fox News, you may be thinking of MSNBC) blur the lines. The talking heads are expressing clear opinions about journalistic facts–which is only really confusing if you have a hard time differentiating fact from opinion.
This is edging into a topic for another time, but here’s the short version of my opinion: As a journalist, your job is not to express an opinion, but to provide the information others will need to form their own. But it’s unreasonable to expect that a journalist gathering resources doesn’t have an opinion. This is why external editing is so crucial: someone else can tell you where you’re erring on one side better than you can.
Before you go (if you’ve made it this far), one last note: Journalists aren’t chasing one story at a time. The upshot is that any story that’s not panning out will probably fall by the wayside.