“Journalism: Gathering Information and Writing Your Story” by Emma Sills, Kyle Olmstead and Shannon Hawley, The University of Delaware

JOURNALISM: Gathering Information and Writing Your Story

University of Delaware Professor Ben Yagoda defines journalism as, “uncovering timely and previously not well-known information that, according to agreed-upon standards, is important; and conveying it to the public clearly, accurately, concisely, disinterestedly, and independently.” As a journalist, the stories you write are meant to provide true facts to readers about issues or news going on in the world today. They are meant to be truthful, unbiased, and informative. According to Peter Cole, writer for The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/sep/25/writing.journalism “journalists write stories for their readers to tell them what is going on, to inform them, engage them, entertain them, shock them, amuse them, disturb them, and uplift them.”

This webtext is an overview of the necessary skill sets to be successful in journalism, specifically, gathering information through interviews and asking the right questions. Readers will also learn how to organize that information and turn it into written work that includes unbiased writing, credible sources, and proper structure.

Gathering Information

The first step to writing a story involves gathering information about your topic. In order to do so, you need people who witnessed the event first hand or have extensive knowledge on said topic. In writing, especially in journalism, the information you use is the heart of your writing. Perhaps without details, sources, evidence, one’s writing will not have the intended impact of informing your audience.

Conducting an Interview

When interviewing someone related or involved with a story, you are receiving information from primary sources. Before you begin interviewing someone, you need to make sure you know what questions to ask and how to ask them. Plan your interview as best you can and think carefully about the topics you want to cover. It would be helpful to write your questions out beforehand if you have time.

Questions to ask yourself before the interview:

  1. What do you know and what do you need to know?
  2. What are you trying to inform your audience about?
  3. What are some of the outcomes? Not everyone will like your story or the topic you choose to write about so be prepared for negative feedback. Be aware of any ethical issues pertaining to your topic as well.

Rich Martin author of the book, “Living Journalism”, who has more than 30 years of reporting and teaching experience, offers his advice about interviewing. These are some questions adopted from his list:

  1. What organizational policies or professional guidelines should you consider?
  2. How can you bring people with different perspectives and ideas into your decision making?
  3. Who will be affected by your decision? Think about your topic and who will be reading about it.
  4. How would you feel if roles were reversed and you were the subject of the story?
  5. Are there ways to minimize harm while remaining true to the facts of the story?  

Once you have answered these questions and feel as though you know a lot about the subject of matter then you can consider questions that you want to find out from the person you are interviewing. It’s a given that you want to hear all sides of the story to prevent a biased opinion , but also keep in mind that there may not always be two sides to a story, so do your research. University of Delaware Professor of Journalism Ben Yagoda refers to this instance as False Equivalency. He refers to this example:

  • The flu vaccine. The question parents are asking themselves is should or shouldn’t my child get the flu vaccine? Reporters may think there are two sides of this story and the truth lies in the middle, but it doesn’t. “That would be saying that only a portion of children should get the flu vaccine when medical reports prove that all children should,” says Yagoda.

With this in mind, think carefully about your topic to your story and whether it’s apparent or not that there’s two sides to look into. If so, plan for multiple interviews because as a journalist you do not want to have a biased opinion. If there is only one side of the story then do the research and interview accordingly.

Here are a few examples of types of questions you can use (adapted from Rich Martin). We have further explained underneath each type.

  1. Ask open-ended questions: This means questions that have no fixed limit or that require your subject to provide details. Example: Do you like animals and why? As opposed to a closed-ended question that only requires one word answers. Example Do you like animals?
  2. Avoid charged language or loaded words: This means questions that are not biased or come across to the subject as trying to persuade them towards a particular viewpoint. Your questions should not sound tough, but they should probe and issue.
  3. Keep your questions short and focused: Don’t overload them with details that will allow the subject to answer selectively.

Good questions illuminate issues and capture the personality and character of the people you’re writing about. Also when interviewing someone, you need to be sure to explain who you are and what your job is. Journalism is about directness, precision, clarity, and not about confusing people. Questions are supposed to get answers. Questions that fail to get answers are not tough enough.

Tips on questions to ask the interviewee according to Yagoda:

  1. Ask follow-up questions-which are sometimes the most important: Example: Yagoda read a story and in it the reporter quoted that his interviewee, “once drank a fine wine that helped him remember a specific memory”. There was nothing further on the subject and Yagoda wanted to know more about what was stated in the quotation. He says, “This would be an example of an opportunity to ask a follow up question so the readers aren’t left with questions. What was the type of wine he drank? What was the memory?
  2. Do not just read off all the questions you have prepared.
  3. If something the interviewee says is surprising or not clear then ask to explain further.
  4. If another topic is brought up ask about that as well.
  5. Educate yourself on the general topic.

After the questions are prepared and you feel confident about them, remember these final tips about conducting your interview:

  1. Be Yourself. Don’t act out of character.
  2. Choose the right setting. Offices and homes are both appropriate and convenient to conduct interviews. Outdoors is also convenient if the story calls for it, but it can be noisy.
  3. Tap into your subject’s ability to remember the details of the event or situation.
  4. Always ask why in order to fully understand what is being said.
  5. Take notes.
  6. Don’t be late.
  7. Dress appropriately

Interviews can be a multifaceted tool not just restricted to Journalism. They can also be used to help strengthen other forms of writing such as argumentative or research. Using interviews in this form of writing may prove to be more difficult than in Journalism due to the fact that Journalism is based on other people’s accounts of an event and stories, while other forms of writing are based on other things such as data and research. An interview adds multiple points of view to help inform the reader of the topic and allow them to create their own opinion. If you are able to conduct an interview with a reliable source, it is strongly advised to do so as this will help strengthen your writing.

Using Credible Sources

One of the most important things in any form of writing when using an outside source is to make sure they are credible. A credible source is someone or a group of people respected in their fields of study. A Harvard Law professor is going to be a more credible source than a freshman at your local community college when looking for information about law, for example. If even one of the sources that you cite in your work is not credible, every single one of the other sources in that piece will be called into question. Credible sources are not hard to come by, but you must take the extra time to make absolutely sure that nothing your sources are saying could be called into question for credibility.

According to Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab, there are a few questions you can ask yourself to determine if your sources are credible. Below, we expanded on some of these questions to better understand them.

1.     Who is the author?

A credible author is going to be someone that has extensively studied the specific field you are writing about or need information about. Not only that, but they also will cite all of their sources in which you can check those as well for validity and backing to what your original author has written. This is also a great chance to find more possible sources to further your story.

2. How recent is the source?

The time in which a certain source was published will be important depending on what your topic is. A perfect example for this is found in the Purdue OWL which states that while information on the Civil War may be very old but still accurate, more modern topics such as computers or engineering must have more recent sources to stay relevant,

3. What is the author’s purpose?

A very important thing to keep in mind when deciding to use a source or not is what the standpoint of that source is. Is it neutral or is it biased to one particular side? This can be very detrimental to your writing if you only choose sources that limit your information to one side of a debate.

4. What type of sources does your audience value?

What this question essentially means is that you need to write to your audience, so you should use sources that could be respected by your audience. Peer-reviewed journals and research logs would be a good source for academics and professionals, but people in your hometown might not value that as much as a mainstream source of information.

Writing a News Story

Now that you have asked the questions, checked the sources, and have all of your information gathered, it is time to write the story. Peter Cole says that journalistic writing is different than creative writing. A journalist’s goals are to inform readers about what’s going and to adhere to just the facts. What sets journalism apart from other forms of writing is not only the eye-catching titles and lead sentences, but also the focus on human interest that makes the reader feel close to the story. These are crucial tools to incorporate into your writing for successful journalism.

Structure of a Story

Before you begin writing your story you need make sure you organize your information. This means picking out key points and quotes from interviews, investigative notes and observation to support your story topic. Unlike an academic essay, the most important information should be in the beginning of your story and supporting facts throughout the rest of it. Matthew Speal, writer for Freelance Writing, and Jim Hall, author of “Beginning Reporting,” highlight some key points to keep in mind when writing a news story:

The Lead:

“The Lead” can be one to two sentences in the opening paragraph or a separate introduction. It is used to grab the reader’s attention and persuade them to keep reading, making it the most important part of the story. There are two main types of leads-direct and delayed. A direct lead, also called a summary lead, immediately reveals what the story is about. It answers the questions; who, what, where, why, and how in a couple sentences. A delayed lead sets the mood of the story rather than answering the what, where, why, and how questions right away. This lead can be used to create anticipation and gives the reader a reason to keep reading.

Heart of the Story:

When writing your story you need to be sure you’ve answered the following questions previously mentioned. Using this structure will help you to avoid any conflict pertaining to a lack of information. You also need to make sure your story flows together and is easy for the subject to read. Using quotes, an active voice, and short sentences are important as well.

Conclusion:

Two ways to end a story are with a quote and a circle ending. A circle ending means you return to a key point or idea mentioned in the lead. Find a quote that ties your story together and draw a conclusion from it.

Non-Biased Writing

One of the single most difficult things for a journalist to do is write their story without bias. Bias is the showing of favoritism towards a specific topic or view point. As a journalist, you will be faced with a wide variety of topics to write about; some of these topics you may have never heard of, while others may personally affect you or a loved one. Writing a story without bias is difficult because if that topic personally affects you, your first instinct will be to write to persuade the audience. This, however, is not the job of the journalist. A journalist’s job is to truthfully inform the public about the facts of the story.

We conducted an interview with advertising student Nikki Marini of West Virginia University who also works at The Daily Athenaeum, West Virginia’s school newspaper. During this interview, Marini was asked about her thoughts on non-biased journalism. She advises the following:

1.     Your first obligation is to the truth and your first loyalty is to the public. By this Marini means that it is up to the journalist to bring the unbiased truth to the public.

2. Avoid making generalizations with potentially controversial subjects. Instead of using the word “all” use “some,” or “often” instead of “always.”

3. As you work through the writing process, try to remind yourself of the assignment you were given. With each sentence you add, ask yourself whether you are including it to better the article or to better argue your personal opinion on the topic.

4. Collaboration is key. When working on a story, you are sure to have some form of copy editor that will look over your work when you are done writing. A copy editor is someone who checks spelling, grammar, punctuation, and overall appearance of your story. Inform this person that you feel as though you may have been biased in your writing and they will be able to take a neutral look at your writing.

Example of bias writing from The New York Times

(The example below was directly quoted from The New York Times):

Journalism Image

Journalism can be an incredibly informative and useful form of writing as long as the proper information gathering and writing techniques are employed. The most important thing to remember when writing is that you are writing with a goal of informing the public. Doing so requires that you include facts, not opinions, and provide as much information from both sides of any given issue as possible.

Resources:

For more information regarding these topics click the links below.

  1. http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp (Society of Professional Journalists)
  2. http://www.thedaonline.com/ (The Daily Athenaeum, West Virginia University school newspaper)
  3. http://kcnn.org/?s=accuracy+and+fact+checking+in+journalism&submit=Search (Knight Community News Network)

Sources:

Cole, Peter. "How Journalist Write." The Guardian. N.p., 24 Sept. 2008. Web. 8 Sept. 2014.
Hall, Jim. "Beginning Reporting: A Web Site for Beginning Reporters." Beginning Reporting: A Web Site for Beginning Rep
Hunter, Derek. "Textbook Example of Media Bias at the New York Times." Breitbart News Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Oct. 2014.orters. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Oct. 2014.
Martin, Rich. Living Journalism: Principles & Practices for an Essential Profession. Scottsdale, AZ: Holcomb Hathaway, 2011. Print.
Speal, Matthew. "Beginning Reporting: A Web Site for Beginning Reporters." Beginning Reporting: A Web Site for Beginning Reporters. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Oct. 2014.
"Welcome to the Purdue OWL." Purdue OWL: Establishing Arguments. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2014.