Archives for posts with tag: Journalism

Beginning journalism students often try to insert themselves into the story, and they have a hard time understanding why they shouldn’t. It was explained to me that the reporter shouldn’t be part of the story. So here’s how I explain it: I ask, “Did you ever watch the movie ‘Men in Black’? Well, as a reporter that’s what you are. When they went out to investigate space aliens and UFOs, did any of the civilians remember they were there? No.” And this student today was like, “No! Because they used their neuralizer!” And I said, “That’s right! They used their neuralizer! Reporters are like the Men in Black in that way. They are not seen and they are not heard in any news report that they write. They are visible in the byline. That’s it.”

I made that analogy during a discussion among journalism professors on a Facebook post a few years ago. It resurfaced yesterday, and I’m so glad that it did during one-on-one consultations with my public affairs reporting students. I’d actually forgotten about this tactic because it hadn’t been necessary the last couple of years.

Well, one of my students who just couldn’t resist inserting himself into the story with stuff like “In our short interview, X told me …” and “X said when we talked about Y for this story” finally got it when I brought up the Men in Black analogy.

And as a bonus, I thought of another way to explain why synonyms for “said” are wasted creative energy: The NBA All-Star Game. There’s a place for creativity on the court and a place for discipline on the court. Go wild all you want in the lead and with your ending, which are the Slam-Dunk Contest in this analogy. But use “said” at the free-throw line, which is about quietly getting it done without thinking by putting your feet place, using the same amount of force, launching the ball the same way, following through the same way every single time. Anyway, I think he got it.

Story pitch forms are a useful tool for reporters who are developing a story. Use this form to guide your thinking about what your article will be about and whom you will contact to interview for your story. Remember the requirements of our stories:

— Each story will be 500-750 words in length.
— Each story will have no fewer than THREE SEPARATE HUMAN SOURCES whom you have interviewed.
— If you’re covering a speech story, you must include lots of quotes from the speech or lecture; comment about the speech from a member of the audience; and comment from one other type of source, which might be another audience member, an event organizer, a protester, or someone else who provides an opposing viewpoint about the ideas presented by the person who gave the lecture or speech. 

Topic Beat Story Pitch Form

  1. The topic, issue, or public event I plan to write is about:


  1. This story is appropriate to my beat because:


  1. This story is timely because:


  1. These are among the people in the community (aka stakeholders) who are affected by this topic or issue:


  1. My leader source will be:

          This source can answer the following questions I have about this story:


  1. My expert source will be:

            This source can answer the following questions I have about this story:


  1. My functionary source will be:

            This source can answer the following questions I have about this story:


  1. My real people source or sources will be:

            This source can answer the following questions I have about this story:


  1. These are the names of the three people with whom I am setting up interviews for this story:


Source 1:

Person’s name:


Phone number:

Source 2:

Person’s name:


Phone number:

Source 3:

Person’s name:


Phone number:

Successful students distinguish themselves from their struggling classmates in many ways. The contrast is particularly sharp during end-of-semester grading, which I just wrapped up last night for a journalism course in news reporting. If I could offer advice to those who struggled before they began the term, these are the things I would tell them they need to do to succeed:

  1. Go to class every day.
  2. Be interested in the subject being taught. If the course is in your major, it should be easy to be genuinely enthusiastic about it. If it is not in your major but a required course, use the “fake it until you make it” approach. This involves what theater people refer to in their audiences as “willful suspension of disbelief.” That concept refers to spectators at a play setting aside their immersion in their day-to-day reality in order to immerse themselves in the lives of the characters of the play. That is, they let themselves care about those characters as if they were people they cared about in real life. You can do the same in a non-major, required course, but accept that you are one of the players and your role is that of one of the people immersed in that field of study. My play is News Reporting, and I play the part of an editor (which I was for a dozen years, seventeen if you include my work at the Columbia Missourian). If you are a student in that class, you play the role of a reporter, and you learn to be a reporter by doing the things reporters do. Do this, and you just might convince yourself that you really are fascinated by the subject.
  3. Beware of absent presence. This is when the student is physically present in the classroom but mentally absent. Pay attention to the instruction taking place there. Not all of it comes from the professor. Much of it comes from discussion with classmates and hands-on exercises. It should go without saying, but successful students avoid using their cell phone unless specifically directed to do so in connection with a class exercise.
  4. Be aware that even when instructors do not take attendance, missing class has consequences. Those include falling behind the rest of the class; missing graded in-class lab assignments; misunderstanding the instructions for homework because you did not ask for clarification when needed before doing the assignment; missing quizzes; missing hands-on instruction.
  5. Get notes from a reliable classmate. Especially do this if you must miss a class on account of an emergency like an illness or a court date that you just cannot change. But at least once in the semester, swap notes with a classmate who takes thorough notes. Compare yours with theirs. Are you getting everything that they did? If not, work at writing down key points. It is so easy to forget what we see and hear. It really baffles me when I talk and the pens aren’t moving. Generally, you’ll remember only about 30 percent of what you hear without writing it down. The act of writing notes with pen or pencil helps cement what you have learned in your deep memory. Want proof? Here it is.
  6. Be careful about whom you judge to be reliable. Make friends with a student or students who really have their act together and borrow notes from them if you have to miss a class.
  7. Keep close track of deadlines for assignments. Don’t mix them up with each other. Find an organization strategy that works for you and stick to it. Also, being present in class will help make sure you know when the instructor decides to push back a deadline to give you more time to complete an assignment.
  8. Read the directions for assignments.
  9. Follow those directions closely.
  10. Turn in assignments on time. If I had to pick two things that hiring editors ask me about the most when deciding whether to offer an internship to a college student, they would be “Do they follow directions and respond to feedback?” and “Can I rely on them to meet deadline?” You get that question less about candidates for full-time, paid work after graduation because successful completion of an internship usually means the answer to both questions is “yes.”
  11. Give yourself time to re-read and revise your work before you turn it in. Do this even if the final grade will be based on a revision.
  12. When given the opportunity to revise, fix every error that your instructor points out to you.
  13. If you need help, ask for it. That does not mean to ask for an extension; journalism is a deadline business, and those who cannot meet deadlines find it difficult to stay in it for long. Rather, ask when you don’t understand how you are supposed to do something BEFORE deadline.

These next pointers are just for journalism students:

  1. Read, watch and listen to high-quality journalism. Want to be a writer for a news site, magazine or newspaper? Find it in the New York Times and Washington Post. Want to be a TV journalist? Find it by watching 60 Minutes, Face the Nation and the CBS Evening News. Want to be a photojournalist? Find it in the National Geographic and the New York Times photo blog, Lens. If you’re at Wayne State University, you don’t have to look far to find high-quality print, photography and video storytelling: Turn to the Detroit Free Press. Nor do you have to look far to find high-quality radio journalism: Tune your dial to WDET-FM.
  2. Identify your heroes in journalism and emulate what they do.
  3. Be careful about whom you deem your journalism heroes. Some rise quickly by cutting corners. But if they play fast and loose with the facts, their sourcing, or the originality of their work, they are eventually called out on it.
  4. Never misspell a name in a news story. Bad things happen to your grade if you do this in a class. Worse things happen to your career prospects on the job.

If you can make all of those things a part of your set of skills and attitudes, you will have much greater chances for success in the classroom or in the newsroom.

Buried leads (or to the old-school journalist, “ledes”) are a common problem for beginning journalism students. As I read a particularly long, throat-clearing buried lead, I had a Chance the Gardener thought. If you have seen “Being There,” you will get what I mean by that. If not, watch this. If you don’t need the reminder, here is what occurred to me. It is quite lengthy; I will try to remember it all:

It is important to remove the weeds from the garden. If you do not remove them, they will take up all the sunlight and the flowers in the garden will die. But if you remove the weeds, the flowers will get sun and bloom. You must be careful to keep weeding because they will try to come back and overgrow the garden.

Getting to the point matters.

That is particularly true in a relatively short story of, say, 500 words. Throat-clearing leads — those that take too long to deliver the most critical information and/or the news peg — waste space. Say in 75 words what you could say in 20 and you choke out room for a couple of quotes or more details about the event you’re writing about.

Throat-clearing leads also try your reader’s patience. A short story is usually not the right piece to attempt a scene-setter lead. Adequate scene-setting takes space. It is a form of ornamentation that works extraordinarily well if you have the space for it. There is a place for narrative and scene-setting leads in the news just as there is a place for certain kinds of plants in a large-enough garden.

But plants that are beneficial in one context are harmful in others. In the wrong place, they become weeds. I love mint, but if you let it out of a container and onto your yard it will take over the whole place and the other plants will die because the mint consumes all the water and sunlight and soil nutrients.

Put the plant of ornamentation in the wrong space and you have introduced weeds to the garden of your words that choke out quotes, context and details that would help the reader learn more about the subject rather than wonder what you left out in order to write that lengthy lead.

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