By Errol A. Cockfield Jr.
For the novice news gatherer, reporting a story may seem like a complex endeavor. Some stories are difficult and others are not, but any good reporter will tell you that complexity turns to ease when you have a game plan.
The following is a list of tips and good habits for any reporter. Most are expected of reporters at various news organizations.
Before You Start
Discuss: Talk with your assigning editor to make sure your perceptions of the topic are the same. A lack of communication means more work, and more stress, for both of you.
Have a Plan: Think about the story, how best to report it, how best to approach it. Draft an outline of how you intend to proceed before you begin reporting. This will make the story easier to write later.
Check the Clips: See what your publication has written before on this and related subjects.
Use the Library: You can research the individuals or topics you will be reporting on before you head into the field. This is helpful in formulating questions. Check periodicals for what’s been written before.
Prepare Questions: What would you or your reader want to know? If you don’t prepare questions, it’s easy to forget even basic questions, such as someone’s age or where they’re from. If a story is breaking, scribble a quick list of things you need to know.
Know Where: Always keep a map in the car. You may be venturing into areas, even on campus, that you don’t know. Getting lost is a huge waste of time.
Have the Tools: Carry note pads, pens and a tape-recorder if needed. If you use a tape, remember it takes time to transcribe, time you may not have if you are writing on deadline. Also carry a pencil; pens don’t write in the rain.
Reporting the Story
What You Need: Ask who, what, when, where, why and how. Have the answers to these and your reporting will be done.
Write It Down: Take notes when you interview. If you need the person you’re interviewing to repeat a statement, don’t be intimidated or embarrassed to ask. People want you to get it right. Ask until you understand, because you soon will have to explain it in the paper.
Verify Basics: Always check the basic information that a story requires. Get the correct spelling of the person’s name, the age (they usually will give it), where they are from, majors, class standing, and so on, as it is appropriate to your story. Details make the story real.
Be persistent: If someone avoids a question, find another way to ask it (if a question is posed the right way, people often respond) If there is information you really need, call until you get it, even if it means hearing a dial tone.
Be Clear: Always introduce yourself as a reporter from whatever news organization you represent.
Anything Else: At the end of the interview, always ask the subject if he or she has anything else to say and/or what else you should know about the story you are covering. Reporters get some of their best quotes and information this way.
Double Check: Verify facts you receive with various sources and research materials. Check the names of places in an atlas. Look up the names of famous individuals in encyclopedias and of others in telephone directories.
More Than One: Unless there is no other way, never write a story with one source. If you are writing a profile, get perspectives from friends, family and those who work with the subject and those who hold a different view.
Keep an Open Mind: The story may change as you report it. Keep your editor informed of your progress and any changes in what you perceive the story to be.
Watch Your Watch: While you’re reporting, you have to be careful with your time. There may be a lot of bases for you to cover. Ask what your deadline is. Leave enough time to write.
Keep in Touch: Check in with your editor when possible, and explain where you think the story is headed. Before you write the story, discuss its thrust and the facts you’ve gathered.
Reaching Out: When you are in the field, keep important telephone numbers handy. Get home numbers for sources.
Never Assume: Ask if you don’t understand. And never say more in print than you can defend in court.
Writing the Story
First Thing: Take advantage of your short term memory. Go over notes soon after you get back to the office. You will remember much more then than you will later.
Watch Your Watch: Be aware of the time you have. Don’t spend two hours on the first paragraph and 30 minutes on the body of a story. If you don’t know what the first paragraph will say, start writing other elements that you know will be in the story, such as biographical details and quotes.
The Point: The first paragraph, also called the lede, should explain the most important aspect of the story. It should not have minor details such as street names and exact times. The lede shouldn’t be too long. It should say what’s important quickly and leave other details to the rest of the story. For example: “Two well-dressed men who identified themselves as police officers robbed the End of the Bridge restaurant at the University at Stony Brook, police said.”
The Top: The story should be written with the most important facts at the top and the least important information toward the bottom. Sometimes stories are cut, and copy editors usually cut from the bottom. Moreover, readers need to know what happened. If they aren’t sure, they’ll turn the page.
Liven It Up: Use quotes to tell the story. It makes the story easier to read. People like to “hear” other people talking.
Say Who: Attribute facts to the people who told you. Give whatever other information is appropriate to the story. For example: Estelle Rodriguez, assistant professor of Theater Arts.
Be Fair: Write a story that is balanced. If someone is accused, give that person or their lawyer or representative a chance to respond.
Stay Aware of Length: Publications can’t run every word that’s written. Consult your editor on length. A rule of thumb is that a typewritten line usually has about 10 words.
Check Again: Proofread the story. After the story is written, check your facts again. Double-check the spelling of names.
Read It Aloud: This often helps reporters identify awkward phrasing.
One Last Time: After editors have read the story, check with them again. They often have questions.
Errol A. Cockfield Jr. is a reporter at Newsday. Before graduating from the University at Stony Brook in 1994, he was editor-in-chief of Blackworld, a staff writer for Statesman, and an intern at Newsday. He has also written for the Los Angeles Times and The Hartford Courant.