I’ve been evaluating news stories for classes the past few days, correcting and commenting about several repeated weaknesses in stories. Here are a few suggestions that I just passed along to my students.
Research your topic as much as possible before writing or interviewing in order to gain context and knowledge and to develop potential questions and possible angles/themes. Start with a Google search, focusing primarily on respectable (usually traditional) news media and government websites. Then, head into social media. If you have time, you might also want to research related topics. For example, if you are about to write a profile on someone who directs a local food bank, research other food banks. In addition, look for related topics, such as homelessness and poverty in order to ascertain data about each. How much must a single parent with two children earn to be considered in poverty and/or to receive food from the food bank? And where does your city/county compare to others across the region or state? This research will enable you to ask more informed questions that yield ever more specific, relevant information.
Keep asking questions until you understand the topic. Your sources do not expect you to understand the topics as well as them. If you did, they’d be interviewing you. A few days, for example, I interviewed a senior analytics expert at ESPN on how he uses data to help create, or direct, content across several media platforms. I knew just enough about the topic to know I needed to do considerably more research, which I did. But when I interviewed this senior director, I quickly learned how little I understood on several topic he addressed. Ultimately, I asked questions, such as: “What can you tell me about analytics that I did not already ask about?” He understood both that I did understand the concepts fairly well and that the subject material is also complex. This does not always work, but I lucked out since he was a former educator, meaning he had spent time breaking down complex issues into simpler explanations. Here’s something else: If someone relies on adjectives and adverbs, stating, for example, that something is “huge,” “fantastic,” “unique” or “ridiculous,” always, always, always ask follow-up questions that enable you to explain in more detail. For example: How huge is the warehouse where foods are stored? Determine it’s size, and, if possible, learn how it compares to other food warehouses. And if a coach calls a recently recruited football player unique, ask how this player is unlike any other player. Is he far quicker than most defensive linemen? If so, what is his 40-yard time? Keep asking questions until you can clearly, thoroughly, and specifically explain anything you are told in any interview. Yes, I know that some might find this approach laborious or annoying, but that’s simply not the case. We interview for information, not for quotes. Plus, sources typically love to speak in depth about topics they know expertly.
Constantly revise stories up until deadline. For a live sports event held at night, this is a far more difficult challenges unless you start writing earlier in the game. Those of us who prefer to cover prep football from the sideline, won’t start writing until after doing a few post-game interview. If you are in a college press box, though, you might have the opportunity to write a few paragraphs about the first quarter, then topping that with a few graphs for each subsequent quarter. If you have time, check for transitions between sections before heading down to the locker rooms, or sidelines, to interview. If you are writing a feature story, write a draft early enough that you can let the story sit for a bit, whether that’s an hour or a day, and then read through the piece as a reader first, then as an editor.