COM 260: Fundamentals of Journalism Ron Bishop, Ph.D., Drexel University, Department of Culture and Communication
Journalism Still Matters • News of journalism’s death, or the decline in its importance, is greatly exaggerated. • Essential to the functioning of a democracy. • Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable. • Who let the watchdogs out? • A contract with the reader. • An act of conscience. • We must rediscover journalism’s public service value.
Journalism Still Matters • Journalists provide us with the information we need to make sense of what’s going on. • Connect us to the rest of the “global village.” • Enables us to band together. • An important accountability mechanism – journalists keep an eye on the powerful. • Gives voice to genuine outrage; it takes us a while, but it can mean major reform. • Connects us to the comedy – and the tragedy – that makes life so compelling. • Helps us scratch our curiosity itch.
Journalism Still Matters • The Jerry Sandusky story, reported by Sara Ganim of the Harrisburg Patriot-News
Journalism Still Matters… • When thousands of Massachusetts public school students were suspended during the 2009-2010 school year for smoking, skipping class, tardiness and other minor infractions under “zero tolerance” discipline policies that are creating what critics call a “cradle to prison” pipeline. • When the U.S. Government engages in a huge national security buildup in the years since the 9/11 attacks. • When over the last five years several complaints, including red and yellow smoke, explosions and fire, have been reported around Houston-area metal recycling plants.
Journalism Still Matters… • When a closer look at the opioid painkiller binge (retail prescriptions have roughly tripled in the past 20 years) shows that the rising sales and addictions were catalyzed by a massive effort by pharmaceutical companies to shape medical opinion and practice. • When two judges from Pennsylania, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., and Michael T. Conahan plead guilty to wire fraud and income tax fraud for taking more than $2.6 million in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers run by PA Child Care and a sister company, Western PA Child Care.
Journalism Still Matters… • When officials in Washington state moved vulnerable patients from safer pain-control medication to methadone, a cheaper but more dangerous drug, coverage that prompted statewide health warnings. • When severely wounded veterans returning home from a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan return home to face severe physical and emotional challenges.
The Dogs of Journalism • Watchdog • Acts autonomously; “afflicts the comfortable.” • Acts in the public interest. • Keeps an eye on dominant institutions • Our “eyes and ears.” • Lapdog • Submissive • Not independent, lacks power • Protects those dominant institutions • Supports and protects the status quo.
The Dogs of Journalism, Continued • “System” Dog • Part of the power structure • Interacts with powerful groups • Co-actors (see Journalism, Public) • Relationships damage ability to cover powerful interests. • “Guard” Dog • “Sentry” for powerful interests • Suspicious of potential intruders • Sounds the alarm when there’s a threat to dominant institutions. • Those institutions (e.g. the government) don’t need their help.
You’re a Journalist If… • You dig for information, talk to sources. • You actually show up at the scene of an event. • You create original reporting. • You leave personal opinion out of your reporting. • You think extremely carefully before making yourself part of the story. • You clue the reader in when opinion is being expressed. • You move toward truth and don’t rely on the “tennis match” approach.
What is News, Anyway? • Events that are out of the ordinary, that break through the routine. • “Man bites dog” vs. “dog bites man.” • “The best available version of the truth.” • “The first draft of history.” • The quality that gives events, people, and places public character. • A social construction of reality. • A way of knowing (journalism, not news). • Whatever your editor says it is. • Information powerful folks don’t want to see in print – the rest is PR.
A Journalist’s Key Attributes • Commitment • Compassion • Credibility • Courage • Curiosity • Enterprise • Knowledge • Persistence
Always Challenge the Conventional Wisdom… • Does putting our headlights on when we engage our wipers really make us safer? • Do “Amber Alerts” really work? • Is homeownership really better than renting? • Are we really getting obese? • Is the NRA really that powerful?
To Quote The Talking Heads… • “Facts are simple and facts are straight. Facts are lazy and facts are late. Facts all come with points of view. Facts don’t do what I want them to.” • - from the song “Crosseyed and Painless.”
Parental Units, Where Do Stories Come From? • From your editor, acting on what he/she believes will be of interest to readers/viewers. • Your own ideas, which you’ll have to pitch to your editor. • Tips from readers/viewers – approach them with caution. • Enterprise reporting/observation/digging/good fortune.
Parental Units, Where Do Stories Come From? • Regular contact with existing sources. • Whistleblowers – think The Insider. • Contact with public relations people for companies/organizations/agencies. • The work of other news organizations – very often it’s The New York Times. • Other forms of media content – pundits, for example, or (Britney Spears help us!) the Kardashians.
What Does Your Editor Look For in a Story? • Conflict • Familiarity • Novelty • Prominence • Proximity • Relevance • Timeliness
The Big Questions: • Will the story interest our readers? • Will the story interest MANY readers? • What do our readers want us to cover? • The “want vs. need” shift. • Is the story easy to cover? • Can it be assembled efficiently? • Will it have impact? Is there a “holy shit” factor? • Can it entertain while it educates and informs?
A Story’s Key Attributes • Accuracy • Attribution • Balance • Brevity • Clarity • Fairness • Objectivity
How Events Become Stories • Make contact; ID yourself. • Observe, observe, observe. • Listen, listen, listen. • Don’t hesitate to ask questions. Think AHOT. • Put your reader at the scene. • Double-check and double-source. • Approach people, don’t ambush them. • Beware of folks in “we’re thrilled” mode. • Don’t give folks a chance to dance.
Observe, Observe, Observe… • What’s the weather like? • Describe in detail where you are - the room, the space. • How big (or small) is the crowd? • What’s the speaker’s demeanor? • Be “the kind of person on whom nothing is lost,” as Henry James said. • What can’t the audience see or hear? • What would they have missed standing right next to me?
Put Your Reader at the Scene… • Anything striking, beautiful, awe-inspiring, out of whack about where you are? • Any notable smells? Sensations? • What’s the body language of the participants like? • Help the reader envision the event – you’re their eyes and ears, their representative.
You could write… • “The game began in a thick unrelenting fog.” • “Senator Feinstein pounded her desk in frustration as debate on the bill turned raucous.” • “A cold steady rain did not deter the 10,000 protestors who gathered Thursday morning at City Hall.”
Chemical Fumes Cause Evacuation of MMS • Maplewood Middle School was evacuated Thursday morning after a release of toluene fumes sickened 19 students and the school’s custodian. • The fumes came from two drums of toluene stored in what had been a fallout shelter near the school cafeteria. An extremely hazardous chemical, toluene is often used as a dry cleaning solvent. • At 10:42 a.m., workers renovating the cafeteria discovered and then accidentally punctured both drums.
Chemical Fumes Cause Evacuation of MMS • When school officials became aware of the puncture and the fumes, they evacuated the school’s 825 students, 50 faculty members, and 25 staff members in less than 20 minutes. • Essex County’s Hazardous Materials Team was called to remove the drums. The team arrived less than a half-hour after the puncture and release of the fumes. • School custodian Nick Sullivan, 64, and the sickened students were treated at the school by Maplewood EMS. Four students were taken to St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston for observation.
Chemical Fumes Cause Evacuation of MMS • Maplewood Middle School will be closed for two days while the cleanup and fumigation are completed. • “We know this is a huge inconvenience, but we want to make sure the school is safe for our students and staff,” MMS Principal Marcy Young said.
A Story MUST AnswerThese Questions: • Who? • What? • When? • Where? • Why? • How? • Your goal: to have the reader finish your story without needing more information – and maybe wanting to learn more.
Start to Think About Sources… • Who will I need to talk as I write? • Will I need to corroborate something that was said? A version of events? • Will I need to contact for comment someone whose work was cited, or whose reputation was questioned? • What do folks with other views think? • “Regulars” will emerge – but don’t overuse them.
Also Consider… • What’s been reported in the past? • How do I feel about the subject? • How does my audience feel about the subject? • How explicit are my editor’s directions?
Given All That… • You’ll determine the story’s HOOK. • The story’s LEAD will start to form.
Hypothetical #1 • A SEPTA bus traveling eastbound on Chestnut Street skids on a patch of ice, flips on to its side, and comes to a stop outside the Left Bank condos. • As it skids, it plows into the back of a stopped gasoline tanker truck, which does not explode. • It’s 4:45 p.m. – right before the start of rush hour. Philadelphia PD, FD, and EMS respond.
Hypothetical #1 • When did it happen? • How did it happen? • How many folks hurt or killed? • Their IDs? • Where were the injured taken? • What caused the crash?
Hypothetical #1 • How many crashes at this location? • Weather conditions? • Bus driver’s safety record? • The bus’ safety record? • Trucking company’s safety record? • Were the tire treads on the vehicles OK? • Can gasoline ignite after it starts to leak? • Was there any danger to surrounding buildings? • Were any buildings evacuated?
Hypothetical #1 • The story’s structure, with practice, will start to unfold. • What’s the HOOK (aka the PEG)? Pitch me… • Why should the reader care? Why is the story relevant? • What are the possible ANGLES to this story? • What can I file away to FOLLOW UP on?
You could write… • A SEPTA bus late yesterday afternoon flipped over on Chestnut Street and slammed into a gasoline tanker truck. • Check your notes…ask more questions…
Not bad, but make it better… • Ten people were injured late yesterday afternoon when a SEPTA bus flipped over on Chestnut Street in the heart of the Drexel University campus and slammed into a gasoline tanker truck.
Your Basic Summary Lead… • You’ve got the who, the what, the where, and the when…not bad. • They typically run less than 35 words, and often are made up of one short sentence. • You won’t answer all the big questions in the lead. • You’ve started with a compelling noun. • You haven’t overwhelmed the reader with figures, although…
Make it even better… • Ten people were injured late yesterday afternoon when a SEPTA bus flipped on Chestnut Street in the heart of the Drexel University campus and slammed into a tanker truck carrying 2,500 gallons of gasoline.
On to the “Nut” Graph • Now move on to tell the reader WHY something is important – why should they care? • Then arrange the information from most important to least important. • Remember to insert the quotes you’ve gathered from folks on the scene. • Observe (for now) the “one new idea per paragraph” rule.
And About Those Quotes… • Let’s agree for now to use a quote only if it ENLIVENS, CLARIFIES, or AMPLIFIES a piece of information you’ve gathered.
Now Back to Our Story… • Dana Gustavsen, a SEPTA spokesperson, tells you: • “SEPTA is conducting a full investigation of the accident.” • Philadelphia Fire Chief Brian McGinnis tells you: • “I can’t believe SEPTA still lets that son-of-a-bitch drive a bus. He could have killed almost 30 people. They were just trying to get home from work.” • SO: Which one do you quote directly? Which one gets paraphrased/summarized?
And Back to the Nut Graph… • The crash was the fourth in six months involving SEPTA bus driver John Jacob Jingleheimerschmidt. A SEPTA spokesperson said the agency is conducting a full investigation of Jingleheimerschmidt’s safety record, but Philadelphia Fire Chief Brian McGinnis expressed anger at what he believes is SEPTA’s willingness to keep putting an unsafe driver back on the road to endanger passengers and pedestrians.
Then the Quote… • “I can’t believe SEPTA still lets that son-of-a-bitch drive a bus,” McGinnis told reporters at the crash site. “He could have killed almost 30 innocent people. They were just trying to get home from work.”
And a Story is Born… • Continue to add new facts, keeping space restrictions in mind. Add quotes to enhance each new fact. • Make sure the reader always knows who is speaking – and when and where they spoke. • Provide clear time frame. • Provide enough information to give a basic understanding of what happened. • Use information reported earlier to BACKFILL the story.
As You Write, Ask… • (Of each piece of info): do I know this to be true? • Is every first and last name spelled correctly? • Are my beliefs/opinions even slightly leaking through into the story? (the “predisposition check”). • Am I the story at any point? • Am I advancing my own views?
Remember: It’s Totally OK to Write… • “Police declined to comment on the status of the investigation.” • “Bishop refused to comment on speculation in academic circles that he was planning to run for Governor.” • “McNelis refused repeated requests for an interview.” • “Phone calls to Bishop seeking comment were not returned.”
Don’t Forget to Transition • Move the reader along from one graph to another. • Can be a single word, a paraphrase, a direct quote, or a sentence.
Examples… • Unlike many Paralympic athletes, Tracy Wolfington had no experience with participatory sports before she was disabled in a car accident 12 years ago. Her sister, Sue, swears she never even held a basketball, let alone sunk a basket. • But today, the 31-year-old Wolfington is a regular for the Sacramento Gold Rush, and is the only player who’s been with the team since its inception.
Examples… • “State game and fish agencies need to do a lot more research as the land base declines,” Johnson said. • Carol Martin, an activist with the New Mexico Wolf Coalition, agreed: “There needs to be more awareness of the total environmental picture, rather than just game animals.”
How Do I End a Piece? • Used to be you didn’t, since editors edited from the end. • Impactful endings are often what readers most readily remember. • Don’t tidy up an untidy story. Life ain’t tidy. • One thing’s for sure: Don’t save the really important stuff for the end: • At the conclusion of her two-hour concert, Lady Gaga announced her retirement and said she plans to become a yoga instructor in Fairbanks, Alaska.