“What’s this story about?”
Victoria Baxter takes a deep breath. Even though she hears this question from her city editor almost daily, it always registers a little thump inside. As The Jeffersonville Herald’s sole reporter in Blue Ridge County, Tori has to decide every day what is most worth telling her audiences. Some days, she will crank out two or even three stories, but most of the time the space in the paper for news — the “news hole” — is at a premium, and so it’s her job to give “downtown” the story that will make the most difference to the most people. She knows that news stories should be about the people involved in events and issues, not just about the events and issues.
“Two members of Valleydale City Council tried to force a vote to fire the city manager last night, but they couldn’t, Faith,” Tori says. “Three days ago the same two council members had asked the Finance Committee to investigate him, but the committee voted 2-1 to ignore their request. We wrote about that.”
“Is this the guy who was going through the messy divorce?” Faith Palmer asks.
“No, that was the fire chief, Skeeter Wofford,” Tori tells her city editor. “These two council members are mad at City Manager Prentice because they say his budget has irregularities that he won’t explain. But they won’t give us any details.”
“That the only thing the council could find to do last night?” Faith asks.
“I think what’s important here is that these two keep trying to get rid of the guy, without much solid evidence,” Tori says. “Nobody will tell me yet what’s really behind this. But I guarantee we haven’t heard the end of this thing.”
“Okay, Tori,” Faith says. “Ten inches. And remember to do a reader for broadcast, and give us a summary as soon as you can for the website. Anything in the Web versions we should link to?”
“I’ll let you know,” Tori says.
Tori Baxter loves her job. She likes the opportunity it gives her to stay in close touch with many, diverse people, to learn every day, to write, and to believe she is making a difference in people’s lives. It’s not only vital and challenging work; on most days it’s also great fun. We’ll talk more about her job shortly.
Tori has been covering Blue Ridge County, Valleydale and Beausoleil since she joined The Herald 18 months ago. She’s three years out of journalism school. What she learned in J-school and in her internship was that to become a better reporter and writer, you have to write a lot of stories. After graduation, she took an entry-level job at a small daily paper in western North Carolina. Hammering out three and four stories a day at that little paper gave her a lot of experience meeting deadlines. Unfortunately, it also got her into some bad habits. More about that in a minute, too.
Tori wants to move from The Herald’s bureau in Blue Ridge County to Jeffersonville, but jobs on the city desk there are pretty competitive. People with twice as much experience as she has are dying to go there because of the city’s quality of life and the paper’s reputation. It won a Pulitzer Prize several years ago for exposing corruption in coal mine inspections. The two writers who dug out that story moved on to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Tori believes she is good enough to go that far, but there are dues to pay first. So for now, she is a one-person bureau on the northern edge of The Herald’s circulation area.
Blue Ridge County, Valleydale and Beausoleil have a total population of about 37,000, but the three have distinct, autonomous governments. (See Box 1.1) Like most reporters from out of state, it took Tori a while to understand that people who live in Valleydale and Beausoleil don’t technically live in Blue Ridge County. Unlike in most other places in the United States, in Virginia residents who live in cities pay taxes to their city but not to the surrounding county. Knowing that, and knowing that the three governments don’t cooperate much, is pretty important background for some of Tori’s stories.
Box 1.1 Local Governments At A Glance
Blue Ridge County
Board of Supervisors – Five elected members; one member elected chair by the others
County Administrator – Full-time professional hired by the Board of Supervisors
Mayor – Elected separately from City Council members. Presides at meetings; votes only to break a tie
City Council – Six elected members
City Manager – Full-time professional hired by City Council
City Council – Six elected members; mayor elected from among the council by the other members
City Manager – Full-time professional hired by City Council
Blue Ridge County stretches from the western slope of the famous Blue Ridge, for which it is named, across the Valley of Virginia. The county line nudges the first ridges of the Allegheny Mountains to the west. Real estate developers and promoters of tourism like to say the county is in the Shenandoah Valley. But Tori knows that the Shenandoah Valley actually lies miles north.
Like local officials everywhere, county leaders are hoping to attract clean industry and tourism dollars. Because Interstates 88 and 61 intersect at the center of the county, heavy traffic passes through the area day and night, both north-south and east-west. Other than that, though, Blue Ridge County is pretty remote. Jeffersonville is 55 miles to the southwest; Wilson, a city of about 35,000, is 40 miles northeast.
Valleydale is the most important city in the county, although Beausoleil residents bristle when they hear that. Valleydale is a pretty, restored 19th century hamlet of 7,000, but that includes 3,500 college students. It is home to both Virginia Presbyterian University (VPU) and Southern Military Academy (SMA). The tourism people like to call it the Shrine of the South, because several Confederate war heroes either lived there or are buried there. It’s gotten more notice recently because SMA began admitting women for the first time in 1997, which attracted international media attention. That was a boon for Tori, because she led The Herald’s coverage of that story all year. As a result she got numerous Page One bylines, a lot of exposure on the air and from the wire services, and a couple of awards from the Virginia Press Association.
But because of the intense coverage of SMA, she has not paid enough attention to other events and issues in Valleydale, Beausoleil and Blue Ridge County during the past year. Beausoleil, a struggling blue collar city of 7,000, is six miles from Valleydale at the base of the Blue Ridge. Its residents are insular and fiercely independent. Even the pronunciation of the town’s name – “Bee-oo-slee” (rhyming roughly with “loosely”) sets it apart, and locals are quick to recognize strangers by the way they mangle it. Beausoleil has a new flood wall that cost almost $60 million. It was built to protect the people from the North River and the creeks that feed it. Five times in the last 30 years those creeks have overflowed so badly that old-fashioned “smokestack” industries virtually abandoned the city. The city has had modest success in the last few years luring new ones, but while employment figures keep creeping upward, low-wage jobs remain a problem. The city finished a new high school a year ago, but money to pay off the building’s debt has been tough to find.
The Blue Ridge County community is like hundreds of other small communities nationwide. But it is unusual in one important respect: There is little racial diversity in the county, in Valleydale or in Beausoleil. The one significant African American community is in Valleydale. Some of the community’s African American families have lived in the town for five generations or more, but full assimilation remains a problem for them. There is a small group of black professionals, including faculty members from both universities, but many in the black community are working class, and affordable housing is a challenge. Most live in a small section of town called Love Hill, where many dwellings are substandard. Adding to the problem is a recent move by some investors to buy up low-cost housing in the area to rent to VPU students at several times what local families can afford to pay. That has created a housing crunch. Partly because she is African American herself, Tori is aware of the problems facing many of Valleydale’s black citizens. But she likes to think that any good reporter, no matter what her race or ethnicity, would know to pay attention to all of her area’s residents and the issues affecting them.
Tori likes to find out who and what make a community work, and to tell their stories, from the people who run City Hall, to the sanitation workers on garbage trucks, to the numerous community volunteers who serve on the boards of all sorts of nonprofit agencies.
The Herald has a huge coverage area, stretching more than a hundred miles down the valley from northern Blue Ridge County to Steubenburg, 50 miles southwest of Jeffersonville. The paper has a paid circulation of about 100,000 and is read by about twice that number each day. Only a few thousand of those readers live in the Blue Ridge County area. Readers in each of the newspaper’s many communities are interested primarily in what their own local governments and communities are up to, so most of those readers have little interest in Beausoleil’s problems, or whether Valleydale will fire its city manager. Most of Tori’s stories make it into only the North Region edition, which circulates in Blue Ridge County and Madison County, the county southwest of Blue Ridge on the way to Jeffersonville. It’s only when the people whom Tori covers do something of interest to all The Herald’s readers that her stories make the “main sheet,” the sections of the paper that are sent to all subscribers. Southern Military Academy’s coeducation was one such story. A lot of people found it compelling.
Even though Tori has been out of journalism school only a few years, the job of many reporters has changed substantially since she began to learn her craft. Like practically all daily newspapers now, The Herald has its own online edition, accessible on the Web. The paper maintains a small separate staff to produce the online edition, but all the reporters contribute to it. The online staff is so small that they do not have time for much rewriting, so Tori is often asked to write an early version of her story for immediate Web distribution.
The Herald also owns Channel Five, one of the two TV stations in Jeffersonville, and while the station maintains its own staff of broadcast reporters, trained to shoot and edit video, there are no broadcast reporters assigned to Blue Ridge County. For marketing and competitive reasons, the station recently expanded to a one-hour evening newscast, even though filling that much time with the same number of staff is a stretch. Tori is often asked to rewrite her print stories for broadcast, usually in the form of 30-second “readers,” or RDRs. Because TV stations don’t do “zoned” broadcasts, stories that go on the air have to appeal to all the station’s viewers, and airtime to cover a vast area is at a premium. So Tori must be brief, especially when she has no video to accompany her stories. In its online and broadcast presence, The Herald is following the lead of a number of big newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, the Tampa Tribune, The Orlando Sentinel and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
When something happens in Blue Ridge County big enough for the TV station to send a reporter and videographer, Tori is asked to share her reporting with them. And she has been told that within the next year she will be cross-trained to shoot and edit her own video. The day is at hand when her little office in Valleydale will contain an editing suite and satellite mini-uplink so she can do broadcast as well as print stories from there. And with video-editing software now on the market, Tori will even be able to edit video on a laptop in the field. Already, The Herald’s website contains both print stories and video stories “streamed” to the Web by the TV station.
The phenomenon is changing so rapidly that the word we appropriated for it just a few years ago – convergence — is already considered passé. Increasingly, newsrooms describe themselves as multimedia. Whatever you call it, nothing Tori had in J-school prepared her for it. Broadcast and print were separate tracks there, and while advanced reporting students learned how to find and download data on the Web, the university had not yet begun online publishing. Tori knows that if she is to move downtown, cross-training will put her a jump ahead of older print reporters there who have more experience but no broadcast training. Again, in this book, you will work on learning the basics of print, broadcast and Web writing.
Faith Palmer, Tori’s city editor, is all for multimedia, even though she broke into the business in an era when newspaper people wouldn’t take TV reporters seriously. But Faith also knows that the front-end skills required of good journalists – solid, persistent fact-gathering and interviewing, disciplined thinking, careful analysis, sure-handed ethical reasoning and clear, concise writing — should not change, no matter what the delivery systems for news look like in the next decade and beyond. Faith is a demanding taskmaster, but Tori has developed tremendous respect for her. In several important respects, the paper Tori worked for in North Carolina was not a good place to learn. It was unimaginative in its coverage, it didn’t like to rock the boat with local officials, and it was insensitive to the needs of many of its readers, particularly those from minority communities.
Faith has taught Tori about her responsibilities as a journalist. One of the first things she disabused her of was the idea Tori had brought from North Carolina that reporters don’t make news, they just gather and report it. What reporters gather, Faith told Tori, is information. They make it into news. There is nothing inevitable about the news people get; what people learn about is a function of decisions that reporters and editors make. Every day, Tori learns of only a fraction of what is going on in her coverage area. She can work only a small part of that into stories. What people read is pretty much up to her judgment. There is nothing wrong with that, but to make those decisions responsibly, Tori has to have developed a set of professional ethics and an understanding of the role journalists have in our society. Those are not things that journalists talk about a lot, but Tori has come to learn that good journalists take those responsibilities seriously. They become part of every decision she makes, whether she acknowledges them consciously or not.
It’s important that you understand an important difference between news media and other forms of mass communications, particularly those I call persuasive media – public relations and advertising, for example. Persuasive media professionals are hired by a client to represent that client’s best interest to the public. In advertising, that can take the form of a newspaper or magazine ad or a television commercial touting a client’s new toothpaste or SUV. In public relations, it can be a public relation’s professional’s attempt to “clean up” Lindsay Lohan’s image by pitching more positive stories or story ideas to news and entertainment media. It might also be an attempt to show news media and the public an energy company’s acceptance of responsibility for an oil spill and the money it spends to make things right.
Journalists, the professionals who work for news media, look on their audiences as their clients. They serve their audiences’ interests by giving them truthful, appropriately contextualized information. It is certainly not true that the primary job of advertising and public relations professionals is to lie for a living, as some claim. But serving a particular client’s best interests and serving a mass audience’s need for truthful information are different – and often conflicting – responsibilities.
Most journalists share several core values that arise from journalism’s primary functions in a democratic society. (See Box 1.2) Those primary functions are:
To serve as a watchdog over government and other powerful institutions, including education, religion and the economy, to help keep them accountable to those they serve;
To educate audiences;
To serve as a mirror of society and culture;
To act as a bulletin board for events and issues.
Box 1.2 Journalism’s Primary Functions
1. Watch over powerful institutions, including government, education, religion, the economy and other mass media.
2. Educate readers, listeners and viewers.
3. Mirror trends, issues and values in society.
4. Provide a bulletin board for the community.
The core values journalists embrace to fulfill those functions (see Box 1.3) include:
Box 1.3 Journalism’s Core Values
1. Truthfulness. Journalists place facts in appropriate context, and try to separate truth from fiction, embellishment and lies.
2. Independence. Journalists remain free of influences that could compromise the faith their audiences have in them.
3. Fairness. Journalists try to give all stakeholders in stories fair representation.
4 .Respect. Journalists are sensitive to their sources and their audiences. They strive never to cause avoidable harm, and to minimize harm when they cannot avoid doing harm.
Truth. To be able to trust information, audiences need to know that the journalist is trying her hardest to make sure the information is true. Audiences are inundated with information from advocates of particular causes or positions, particularly since the advent of several cable television “news” channels that are really thinly disguised political or ideological platforms. Audiences need to be able to turn to someone who can separate truth from fiction, embellishment and outright lies. Telling the truth includes placing facts in the appropriate context.
Independence. Audiences have to trust the information they receive if they are to use it to make important decisions. They need to know that the journalist who provides it is free of any influences that could compromise the truth and reliability of the information.
Fairness. Because they are often the only source of information for audiences, journalists try to be fair in gathering it, weighing it and reporting it. Among other things, that means they give all significant sides in an issue fair representation in a story.
Respect. Journalists know that they can wield great power, and that with that power comes the potential to do great harm. To give audiences information they need, it is often necessary to cause a certain amount of harm. For example, journalists invade the privacy of some people involved in events or issues so that audiences have access to essential information. Journalists must treat both their audiences and the people they cover with respect, striving never to cause harm if it can be avoided, and to minimize harm when it cannot.
Saying that journalists have important responsibilities to their audiences is not to say that journalists cover only what affects people in measurable ways — their jobs, their pocketbooks, their sense of security. Some stories make it into the paper or on the air because they are what reporters and editors call “a good read” — they engage us, they make us pay attention to the story until the end.
What Faith Palmer has taught Tori is that those news elements she learned about in her high school and college journalism classes — proximity, timeliness, consequence, magnitude, conflict, human interest, unusualness and so forth — all beg the question: Why do we say those elements make a story worth telling? Every time Faith asks Tori or any of her other reporters “What’s this story about?”, she and the reporter know she is asking, “Why should anybody care? Why should we ask them to spend their time on this story?” The answer she is looking for, each time, is “Because it affects them,” and she expects her reporters to show how.
Faith teaches her reporters that stories affect people in at least two ways. They can have rational impact: Say the city council passed a tax increase last night. How much will it cost the average homeowner next year? What will the money pay for? Stories can also have emotional impact: A 3-year-old child drowned in a backyard swimming pool last night. How can we show audiences that accidents are about people, and are not merely statistics? Even though practically none of The Herald’s readers knew the child, or his family, or anything about the neighborhood where he lived, the paper reports it because it affects people emotionally. It makes them aware of their shared humanity, of where their values converge and diverge.
Not all stories that hit home emotionally are sad or tragic. Some provoke different responses from different readers. Take a story that Tori wrote a week ago:
BLUE RIDGE COUNTY — The chief of the local volunteer fire-rescue squad is burned up about some pictures of her that her colleagues posted on the Web.
Cecelia “Sissy” Baxter has asked County Administrator Rufus Stallard to find and fire the firefighters who posted pictures of Baxter, drenched and in a T-shirt, taken at a benefit car wash two weeks ago.
“I’ve fought discrimination and sexism every step of the way to get where I am,” Baxter said Tuesday. “Now I get taken advantage of when I go out on my day off to raise money for the department. This is sick.”
A series of six pictures was posted on an amateur candids page of a popular men’s magazine’s website. Baxter, second-runnerup in the Miss Virginia Pageant in 1995, is shown under the headline “She Can Light Our Fire Anytime.”
Stallard promised to investigate the incident.
Other stories move us because they show people at their best:
VALLEYDALE – Virginia Presbyterian University senior Meagan LeBlanc, who dived into a burning home last October to pull a toddler to safety, was honored by City Council Thursday for her bravery.
LeBlanc, a 21-year-old from Detroit, was given a key to the city for her rescue of 2-year-old Chandra Jefferson, who lived next door to LeBlanc.
LeBlanc is already something of a hero locally. In January, three months after the rescue, she was lauded by the President during his State of the Union message for developing a privately financed economic recovery plan for a blighted Washington, D.C. neighborhood.
She devised that initiative as part of a summer internship with VPU’s poverty studies program.
Many stories have both rational and emotional impact. The coming of women to SMA was more than just the tale of how short the women would have to wear their hair, or whether the bathrooms could be modified for them, or whether they were tough enough to do pull-ups and weather verbal abuse from upperclassmen. Those details became the focus of much reporting, because journalists were trying to show how such a profound change affected the daily lives of those who were a part of it. Sometimes, when it’s difficult to grasp the magnitude of change, reporters can help audiences understand by showing it in such anecdotes.
A minute ago we spoke of showing people how stories will affect them. “Show me, don’t tell me,” is advice Faith gives Tori and her other reporters almost every day. Again, though, the reason SMA coeducation was a big story was not haircuts and bathrooms and pull-ups. There were issues involved that challenged us to think about values such as fairness: Should an institution that is supported by taxpayers be allowed to exclude applicants because of their sex? Should it be allowed to continue as a male-only military institution because male applicants would have no opportunity for getting that kind of education elsewhere in the state?
There were also emotional issues involved: Should thousands of alumni who feel a deep attachment to SMA have to see it change fundamentally? Would any woman in her right mind want to subject herself to the rigors that first-years go through? Should the government be able to get that involved in anybody’s life?
What is important is that Tori and her paper — and the website and the television station she is increasingly reporting for — have a defensible rationale for doing news. The way they go about deciding what to report is a function of their sense of professional responsibility and their ethics. As you work your way through this book, always keep in mind why we are doing a particular story. How will it serve our audiences? Do we as news people have a legitimate reason for doing the often intrusive work we do?
You probably already know that journalism ethics has been getting a lot of public attention in recent years, mostly because of whopping transgressions by some reporters. For example, while he was a reporter with The New York Times, Jayson Blair plagiarized material for some stories and simply made up material for others – quoting people he had never talked to, among other things. During the 2004 presidential election campaign, as questions about President Bush’s National Guard service 35 years ago arose, CBS News aired a story that called his service into question. It turned out that the documents CBS had relied on could not be authenticated. Other instances of plagiarism, relying on false information or sloppy reporting have also come to light recently.
Lou Hodges, retired Knight Professor in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, argues that in several of those cases there were no real ethical dilemmas or issues at stake. They were cases of reporters knowing right from wrong and simply yielding to temptation – doing the wrong thing for personal aggrandizement or gain. But most journalists don’t yield to temptation; they don’t plagiarize, lie or fabricate. Still, they are faced with ethical dilemmas nearly every day. Why?
Because giving audiences information they need to manage their own lives often involves putting values in conflict with each other. For example, audiences often need information about private individuals that those individuals would rather not have revealed. So the reporter has to weigh the relative importance of two ethical principles – providing people information that will help them be self-determining, and respecting an individual’s right to privacy. Prof. Hodges says the toughest ethical decisions – and the ones that honest, conscientious reporters face most often – involve trying to resolve those competing or conflicting principles. The challenge is to look not for the perfect outcome but for the relatively better one, not the one that will cause no harm, but the one that will minimize harm while providing the maximum benefit to your audience. Those decisions take care, deep and rigorous thought, and collaboration – talking things over with your editors and others. Because there is an ethical dimension to practically every decision a journalist makes, and because of the enormous consequences those decisions can have, I will try to get you thinking about ethics in each chapter of this book. I hope those lead to some lively classroom discussions.
It’s important to distinguish ethics from the laws governing journalists. For one thing, because journalism enjoys First Amendment protection, journalists have few legal constraints. So it is possible to behave irresponsibly — to lie, fabricate, plagiarize and cause unnecessary harm — without violating any laws. Depending only on the law to set your ethical limits is a guaranteed way to behave unethically. By relying only on constraints imposed from outside, we become ethically lazy and deny our own sense of duty and responsibility.
There is another problem with relying only on the law for our ethical standards. While journalists, just like other citizens, are duty-bound in nearly all circumstances to obey the law, we can imagine the rare case of an unjust law. The leaders of the American civil rights movement come to mind, courageous individuals who chose to break unjust segregation laws and accept the consequences until the laws were changed. A recent example from American journalism involves judges who have ordered reporters to reveal the names of their confidential sources. While she was a reporter at USA Today, my colleague Toni Locy was ordered by a federal judge to reveal the names of sources for her reporting on terrorism in the wake of 9-11. Someone had poisoned several people by mailing them envelopes laced with deadly anthrax. In a civil case arising from the investigation, a judge ordered Locy to reveal her sources or face fines of up to $5,000 a day. Locy and her newspaper stood fast, fought the order, and eventually prevailed befor an appellate court.
The ethical dilemma the journalist faces in such cases often involves consequences for the journalist as well as her audience: Obey the law, or accept the potential penalties for her decision that an independent press that monitors the judicial system serves the public better than a press that becomes an investigative tool of that system. In Locy’s case, she determined that her moral obligation was to disobey the court’s order.
Thinking about ethics does not mean that reporters should shy away from controversy, or that they should always be able to keep everybody happy. If those were our only goals, we could not serve our audiences. Many times, Tori Baxter encounters people who are suspicious of reporters, people who are offended at any invasion of their privacy, or people who are defensive because Tori is writing a story about something bad that happened. Sometimes there are other reasons as well, having to do with people’s preconceived notions or prejudices. For example, because Tori is African American, one county supervisor from a rural, all-white district simply refuses to talk to her.
Nobody called Tori with a tip about the Web pictures of the fire-rescue chief. A worker at a local Internet service provider tipped her about the website where the photos were posted. Sissy Baxter was willing to talk to her, but when Tori tried to get reaction from county supervisors, she got an earful from Boone District’s Cleveland McNitt about media transgressions and nosy reporters trying to sell newspapers. McNitt, owner of the biggest auto dealership in Blue Ridge County, threatened to pull his ads from The Herald if the story ran. When Tori was in North Carolina, her paper sometimes yielded to such pressures. The Herald never has. In the end, McNitt kept the ads in.
Tori also had to deal with a plea from Baxter not to include in her story the address of the website that contained the photos. After a newsroom discussion in which Tori participated by phone, The Herald withheld the address of the website from Tori’s story, and did not link to it in the online version. That discussion would sound familiar to any reporter in a real newsroom. Again, practically every day, they are called on to do some moral reasoning about the appropriateness of what they are doing.
If you have taken other journalism courses, you might have noticed that I did not include objectivity in the list of core values above. Thanks to Faith Palmer’s guidance, Tori has come to realize that objectivity is a term some journalists still use loosely. They claim not ever to take sides in a story, and not to care about the outcome of an event or issue. Obviously, that’s not the case. Reporters who write about plane crashes and what caused them seldom take the attitude that they don’t care whether the plane crashed or not. No story about the 9-11 attacks took the tone toward the crash victims that “What the hell. They got on the plane; they knew the risks.” (Fred Friendly, a former producer at CBS News, once said there was no such thing as two sides to a story about a starving child.)
In his book Public Journalism and Public Life, Buzz Merritt, a veteran newspaper editor, makes a distinction between objectivity and detachment. When Dr. Jonas Salk was seeking a vaccine against polio, Merritt says, he was hardly detached from the issue. He wanted desperately to protect people from a disease that was crippling thousands every year. But Salk knew he had no chance to succeed unless he gathered and evaluated his data objectively. Simply wanting one formula to work would not make it so. By weighing his data carefully, he ultimately got the information he needed to develop an effective vaccine. If Salk hadn’t cared deeply at the outset about saving people from polio, though, he never would have gotten to a vaccine.
What reporters do strive for is to use a methodology that honors their values and helps keep their covenant with their audiences: They want to be fair, balanced and thorough in gathering and reporting information, so that audiences know they can depend on news media for the information they need. When audiences understand that information, they can act on it as they choose to. The journalist has been objective in her method of information gathering, but in caring that her audiences get truthful information on which to base their decisions, she is hardly detached. Jack Fuller, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, says reporters must be neutral in their inquiry, but not necessarily in the expression of their findings.
Tori knows that most stories have more than two sides, so limiting herself to a representative quote from “both” sides usually is a disservice to her audience and the people involved in the stories. When we look for only two polarized opinions to put into a story we also leave little room for our audiences to understand a story and form an opinion about it or react to it. Most of us are not at one extreme or other on an issue. We recognize our own ambivalence about the difficult decisions involved in almost any issue. We place ourselves somewhere along a continuum, with absolute advocacy at one end and absolute opposition at the other. Journalists who don’t “frame” their stories with that in mind fail in their duty to audiences. While conflict is one way to frame a story, it is not the only way and often not the best way. One way to think of framing is in terms of the context we provide for information.
Tori also knows that she has a duty to point out when someone is lying. Rather than settle for “he said, but she said” reporting, she must try to show her audiences when she knows one statement is true and one is false.
When Tori decides to do a story, it’s usually because she cares about it. But she has to examine why she cares about it, because she knows that what simply interests her might not interest or affect her audience. Tori measures how much she cares about a story by knowing who her audience is, and knowing how the information will affect that audience. She keeps both in mind when she is reporting and writing. It is her job to show her audiences, in a coherent manner, the elements of the story that will convey why they will care about it.
Gathering that information is a challenging job, often frustrating and full of false starts, leads that don’t pan out and reluctant or downright hostile sources. It’s probably too big a job for beginning reporting students to wrestle with. Evaluating, organizing and writing information in a way that will make sense to a broad audience is enough of a challenge for you. So, as I said earlier, I created a community for this course. In most of the exercises that follow, information will be given to you. Your job is to decide which of it is factual, which of it is important, and how to present it in a way that will show your audience why it is important. I will take you through most of a year in the life of the Valleydale/Blue Ridge County/Beausoleil community. As the term progresses, you will find that many of the stories you do will be related to ones you wrote earlier. With others, you will be pretty sure there will be more stories ahead about the same issue.
News is the journalist’s account of events and issues that affect many people in significant ways. But news is told in stories, and, as we said at the beginning of this chapter, stories should be about people. When we put a human face on a story, with people’s quotes and opinions, we increase the possibility of making errors: Stories that don’t quote people never misquote people, but they are weak stories. Even balance becomes a problem in stories that try to focus on people.
Most people, most of the time, believe in their news media; that is, they recognize and understand the importance of the role of news in our society. Whether they believe their news media is a different question. Sometimes it’s unavoidable that someone will lose faith in a news organization. When a story about a controversial issue achieves balance, advocates of one position may feel slighted. In Miami, Florida, for example, a small but vocal part of the Cuban American community has chosen not to assimilate in the same highly successful way that most of their neighbors have. They consider themselves, essentially, a government in exile, waiting for the day when Fidel Castro is overthrown and they return to Cuba in triumph. To those people, any story in The Miami Herald that is not vehemently anti-Castro in tone makes the paper and its reporters dupes of communism. As long as The Herald strives for fairness in its coverage of Cuba, it will alienate that small segment of the population.
Most of the time, though, when people don’t believe their news media it isn’t because we are perceived as being biased. It’s because we make stupid, avoidable mistakes. We misspell names and words. We get addresses wrong. We misquote or take quotes out of context. We use bad grammar or punctuation. People think that if they can’t trust us on the basics, they can’t trust us to get the “big stuff” – complex events and issues — right. And they think news people don’t know their own communities and don’t belong to them because news media are staffed by people who can’t wait to get the next step up on the career ladder. A study several years ago by the American Society of Newspaper Editors found all those attitudes among audiences. Whether those beliefs reflect the truth or not, they are understandable.
Even though she had a slow start, the hours are long and entry-level pay was lousy, Tori Baxter thinks being a reporter is the best job in the world. While there is a lot of routine and her responsibilities are awesome, every day is a little different, advancement can be quick and spectacular, and she gets paid to be a perennial student of life. And, as we said earlier, it’s almost always fun.
Box 1.4 Strategies for Getting Started
1. Think of your audience first. Mass audiences are different from specialized audiences. How much explaining will you need to do?
2. Familiarize yourself with the City Directory on this website.
3. Learn to use your City Directory to verify spellings, addresses, middle initials and so forth. Errors have been built in to many of the exercises.
4. Identify people properly in your stories.
5. Real reporters are called on to revisit an emerging issue repeatedly. You will encounter the same people in several exercises. Keep an eye out for them.
6. Keeping reminding your audience of what has happened so far. A reporter might need several stories to find out and tell her audience everything that audience needs to know.
7. Ask your instructor for an ongoing summary of significant events in the life of the Valleydale/Blue Ridge County community.
8. Make sure to brush up on your grammar, spelling, punctuation and math skills, especially if you did poorly on the exercises in the previous chapter.
Here are some tips as you prepare to work your way through your first several assignments:
1. Audience first. Think about who your audience is when you are trying to create understanding. For example, in an essay written to impress your English professor with how much you have learned about Jane Austen, you will start with a set of assumptions about what someone with a Ph.D. in 19th Century British literature already knows about Jane Austen, what terms you can assume she will understand, and her level of interest in your topic. In writing a news story for a mass audience, an email to a friend or in an oral account for a young child, though, you start with an entirely different set of assumptions about who your audience is, what it knows already, and what words will be most effective.
2. Look at the City Directory elsewhere on this website. It lists everyone who is mentioned, along with a spouse if there is one, the occupation of both, and a home address. Addresses are listed for businesses that are mentioned as well. The directory is alphabetized by last name, or by business or institution name. With people, that is followed by the first name. Then, in parentheses, the directory lists a spouse or partner’s name, and the spouse or partner’s occupation. That is followed by the occupation of the first person named, and the address of that person. In the case of businesses or institutions, the name of the proprietor, owner or head is listed before the address. Here is an example:
BEAUCHAMP, Ottis (Sherri) pipefitter, 1912 Sycamore Ave., Beausoleil
From looking at this listing, we know that Ottis Beauchamp is a pipefitter who lives with his wife, Sherri, at 1912 Sycamore St., Beausoleil. (See Box 1.5 for other examples.)
Box 1.5 Examples of City Directory Listings
BAXTER, Cecelia “Sissy” (Howard, mechanic) county fire-rescue chief, 311 Forbes Rd., Blue Ridge County
BAXTER, Victoria, reporter, 379 Flower Lane, Blue Ridge County
BEATTY, Effie, asst mgr Valley Bank, 1395 Rebel Dr.
BEAUCHAMP, Ottis (Sherri) pipefitter, 1912 Sycamore St., Beausoleil
BENSON, Todd (Marya, tchr) principal, Ridge View Elem., 181 South River Rd., Stonewall
3. Use your City Directory as the authority on spellings, addresses, middle initials and so forth. I have built some errors into the exercises — names are misspelled, ranks and titles are wrong, an address or two might be bogus — so make sure always to check the City Directory. For example, in an exercise, I might spell our pipefitter’s name Otis Beauchamp. A check of your City Directory will catch that fact error. Depending on how your instructor chooses to grade you, a fact error could leave you with a failing grade for the assignment, no matter how good a job you did otherwise.
4. Remember that identifying people in your stories is critical. In almost all cases, we owe it to our audiences to tell them whom we are writing about and whom we are quoting. There are some exceptions, which we’ll cover in later chapters, but proper identification is the rule. Your City Directory gives you enough information to do the basics of identification – name, address, occupation. How else you describe people depends on how and why they show up in your story.
5. In this course you will encounter the same people again and again. That’s because I have created both an ongoing issue involving the city manager and City Council and a series of events surrounding a VPU student, Meagan LeBlanc, and her friends. That happens to real reporters: They are called on to revisit an emerging issue repeatedly, and many times they find a link in a series of events that might not have appeared related at first.
Often, because events continue to unfold and information is revealed in stages, it takes several stories for a reporter to tell her audience everything that audience needs to know. By dealing with the ongoing issues and events in these exercises, you will get practice looking for context and framing stories appropriately.
To help you with that, and so that you can provide appropriate background in your stories, your instructor can give you an ongoing summary of significant events in the life of the Valleydale/Blue Ridge County community over the time period covered in this book.
We’ll continue your training in in the next section by looking at how news people go about deciding what’s important. Then you can wrestle with Exercises 1a and 1b at the end of the chapter.
Now we’ll examine how journalists go about deciding what is news. Most people recognize what news is, even if they are hard-pressed to give a coherent definition of it. Almost every day, by way of greeting our friends, we tell them about something that we witnessed or that happened to us.
“I just saw something totally gross. This guy hurled right in front of the Commons.”
“I just got my LSATs. 167. Yessss!”
Neither of these occurrences is going to make Tori Baxter lunge for the phone to call her editor in Jeffersonville. But both had an effect in your life. In the first case, the emotional impact of seeing somebody toss his cookies affected how your day started. As a result of seeing it, you will need a little while to settle into your B hour class. In the second, the rational impact of a good LSAT score is obvious: It will help you determine the course your life will take.
News is like that on a large scale. As we said in Part One, news is a journalist’s account of events and issues that affect many people in significant ways. Instead of sharing with our friends information that affects only us or them, we as reporters are looking to share with a mass audience information that will affect all or most of that audience in a significant way. As Faith Palmer tells Tori, that effect can be rational, emotional, or a combination of both. Let’s look at the factors that go into how journalists decide what is news on any given day, and how you can go about making those decisions yourself.
Box 1.6 Characteristics of Mass Audiences
1. Mass audiences are large. They range from a few thousand to many million.
2. Members of mass audiences share many interests. Examples are fans of the Boston Red Sox or constituents of a particular member of the U.S. Congress.
3. Mass audiences are diverse in age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, level of education, life experiences, political affiliation, temperament and any number of other characteristics.
4. Mass audiences come to news stories with those differences. Those differences help shape how people respond to news stories.
Remember that news is intended for mass audiences. So let’s take a minute to identify some characteristics of mass audiences (See Box 1.6). First, obviously, they comprise large numbers. But even such an apparently straightforward statement can be deceptive. For a weekly newspaper in Valleydale the mass audience might be on the order of five thousand people. For The Jeffersonville Herald it might be one hundred thousand. For the TV station affiliated with The Herald it might be twice that number. But for the CBS Evening News or CNN.com, it would be millions.
The fact that mass audience sizes can vary markedly leads us to a second characteristic: Even though each member might not realize it, members of mass audiences often share interests. Those broad interests frequently are defined by community: The five thousand people who read Valleydale’s weekly newspaper share their citizenship in the city. They all pay taxes to the city in one form or another, and are bound by the same local laws. Many have children in the public schools. The readers of The Jeffersonville Herald share broader characteristics: They are nearly all residents of Virginia, governed by its General Assembly and governor, subject most days to pretty much the same weather. The millions of people who watch the CBS Evening News share even broader interests: They are nearly all Americans or live in the United States. They are governed by the same federal system and led by the same President, whether they like him or not. They share many of the same worries about terrorism.
Third, while mass audiences share broad interests, they are diverse as well – in sex, age, race, ethnicity, religion, education, experience and temperament. There is much diversity even in some small communities. For example, while Valleydale is not especially diverse racially, even the comparatively few readers of the local weekly range broadly in age, comprise men and women and rich and poor (although low-income people are not heavy newspaper readers in many communities), and reflect different political affiliations.
Finally, mass audiences come to news stories with wide differences in background, context and expertise for those stories. And no one – no matter how smart, well-educated or rabid about consuming news — will already be familiar with every story he or she sees.
Obviously, the impact of events or issues on mass audiences is a function of several factors. Journalists use an almost universal template of basic questions to help them determine the significance of those events and issues:
Who was involved?
What happened and what is at issue?
When did it happen?
Where did it happen?
How did it happen and how did we get into this situation?
Why did it happen and why is it an issue now? (See Box 1.7)
Box 1.7 Five Ws and an H
Journalists try to answer the same fundamental questions in nearly all stories. Depending on the story, some of those questions are more important than others.
1. Who was involved, and who was, is or will be affected?
2. What happened or whatis at issue?
3. Whendid the event take place, or when did the issue become important?
4. Where is the action in the story taking place, or where do the people affected live?
5. How did the event come to pass, howdid the issue evolve, or how will the audience become involved?
6. Why is the event or issue important, why did it come about, or why did someone behave as he or she did?
These so-called 5Ws and an H are probably familiar to you if you took journalism courses in high school or worked on your school paper or radio station. They are no less important for being hackneyed.
Most often, journalists use these elements in some combination to determine its impact on audiences — whether an event or issue is worth telling an audience about. For example, if Valleydale Mayor Delmer Hostetter falls and tears cartilage in his knee, it’s doubtful even the local Valleydale weekly newspapers would report it. Neither the who nor the what carries much impact. But when then-President Clinton fell and hurt his knee in 1997, only a week or so before a summit meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the who, the what and the when yielded enough impact to merit reporting the incident, because the fitness of the most powerful man in the world affects us all. Most of us get to choose to keep an injury reasonably private. The president of the United States did not have that option, because there was a legitimate question about whether the injury would affect his performance at the summit. As it turned out, most observers – whether they worked for broadcast, print or online media — thought it did. Clinton had just had knee surgery, he was confined to a wheelchair, and he was in obvious pain. The image he conveyed to the rest of the world was not that of the confident, take-charge leader he wanted to project.
Some events affect a large but not universal audience. If the knee injury happened to LeBron James on the eve of the NBA finals, for example, basketball fans all over the world would feel the impact — emotionally at least, rationally if they were planning to bet on the outcome of the series. For others who don’t care about basketball, the injury would mean nothing.
Our definition of news — the journalist’s account of events and issues that affect large audiences in significant ways — should help us understand why journalists recognize at least two steps in making decisions about news. The first step is whether to try to gather information in the first place. The second involves how – or whether – we will give that information to audiences as stories. You will probably recognize some overlap in those two decisions, but because the goal of this chapter is to get you thinking about what kind of information is important to your audience, let’s try to examine each step in turn.
In deciding whether to gather information, Tori Baxter thinks first about her audience. Say she has gotten a tip that a member of Valleydale’s city council is having an extramarital affair. Does her audience need to know that? Is there any reason for her even to check out the rumor? If she were to pursue the rumor, and it turned out to be true, would it make any difference – that is, would it affect the council member’s performance of his or her official duties?
Journalists must also think about how they allocate their resources. For Tori, if she takes the time to chase down the rumor about the city council member’s affair, what other story or stories will her audience not read or see? Is nailing down one story worth giving up another? As you might imagine, Tory’s editors at the newspaper and producers and assigning editors at the television news operation also make constant decisions about allocation of resources. If the superintendent of schools in an outlying county calls a news conference to announce results of the district’s latest state-mandated testing, for example, is it worth a station tying down a reporter and videographer for half a day to get to the event and gather the necessary information, before they even turn it into a story? Again, what stories will the station miss because it decided to allocate two people to the news conference? Is the story they got worth more than the ones they might have missed?
The second step in making news decisions – how or whether to give information to audiences — is often a collaborative process in newsrooms. Like most reporters – broadcast, print or online – before she writes a story, and often before she has even gathered much information for it, Tori almost always talks with her assigning editor about the approach she will take. She and her editor will talk about the key information Tori expects to be in the story and how that information will be organized and presented to her audience. To help you understand that conversation, look again at the dialog between Tori and her editor at the beginning of this chapter, and think about our discussion of framing and objectivity.
At least once a day, editors for each section of a newspaper and its top editors will gather for a news meeting. In television news operations, producers and the news director will have a similar meeting. The purpose of these news meetings is to figure out the relative importance of the day’s stories. Those decisions will be reflected in how long each story is and where it is placed in the newspaper, on the website or in the news broadcast.
It’s important to remember that reporters and editors hear many tips and get a lot of preliminary information that they don’t pursue, because they have judged it to be either nobody else’s business or not worth the resources they would have to invest. But if there is any doubt about the importance of information, journalists will usually do at least some preliminary fact-gathering, because that is the safe option. If they do not make the attempt, they will never know whether it would have been worthwhile for their audiences to know – unless they see it in a rival news outlet. If they gather some facts, they can then make an informed decision about whether to continue to pursue the story, and then whether to share it with audiences or let it go.
We live in a society that believes in and tries to practice self-governance and participatory democracy. News people take their marching orders from the firm belief that access to comprehensive, trustworthy information is essential if people are to make effective decisions about how they ought to be governed and about how other institutions of society ought to work. We hear the word empowerment a lot these days, and it makes some of us uncomfortable with its touchy-feely connotations. But when news people fulfill their duty to their audiences, they give people some control over their own lives. We can argue, then, that news empowers audiences. That result provides justification for much of what journalists do, but the process of gathering information and turning it into stories should be guided by care and careful thought.
We need always to keep in mind our professional responsibilities as journalists when we are making decisions about what is news. Often, that is expressed ethically as our duty to our audiences, or what we owe our audiences. For example, we can argue that any information we get about a prominent person will have some impact on audiences. But many times that impact is merely titillating or voyeuristic. Some publications and TV shows are committed to showing audiences every scrap of personal information they can gather about Beyonce or Kim Kardashian. Even legitimate news organizations continually wrestle with how much of a public figure’s life has a substantial impact on audiences. Gathering and publishing personal information always involves an invasion of privacy. Our responsibility as journalists is to decide whether it is a justifiable invasion of privacy. For example, when entertainer Michael Jackson died, he moved from a constant presence in the pages of lurid tabloid “newspapers” and salacious video gossip shows to mainstream news media, who began to follow whether a doctor had improperly prescribed a combination of drugs that led to his death.
To use another example, this one involving a public official rather than a celebrity, then-President Clinton had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky in the mid-1990s. In public opinion polls, most Americans said the affair itself was a matter only between Clinton, Lewinsky, and the President’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. But many cared deeply about whether Clinton had lied about his relationship with Lewinsky under oath, a felony. That left news people with difficult choices about how to report on aspects of the president’s private life that affected his public performance and hence our own lives.
Even when an event involving a public person has no impact on anyone’s welfare, journalists still wrestle with whether the person is such a part of the public consciousness that his or her life is news. The Kennedy family had been so much in the lives of Americans for 50 years that nobody in the news business considered leaving John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death in July 1999 in the light plane he was piloting at a brief print or broadcast story that began “The son of a prominent family was killed in the crash of a small plane he was piloting today . . . .” There was plenty of discussion, though, about the point at which satisfying public curiosity inexcusably invaded the Kennedy family’s privacy.
Now then, how does all this flag-waving translate into the decisions news people make every day? (See Box 1.8) In this section, we have looked a bit at the elements that go into those decisions, at the mechanics and the ethics of that process. In Exercise 1b below, try to apply those criteria to the choices you must make. You will choose which of several potential stories need to be in the newspaper, on the air or on the Web today, and in what order of relative importance.
Remember, to make those decisions we must first determine who our audience is. That audience will vary some depending on whether you are reporting for the newspaper, the television newscast or the Web.
Box 1.8 Strategies for Deciding What Is News
As you gather information and think about whether and how to turn it into a story, remember to ask yourself these questions:
1. Who is my audience? What needs and interests do its members share? How will they be affected?
2. Does my audience need to know the information you have gathered? Or is it fun to know, but not essential?
3. What resources must I spend to get this story? Is there another story you should devote those resources to instead? What other story might you be giving up to get this one?
4. What elements of this story should I emphasize for my audience – who, what, when, where, why, or how? Which ones most make it news?
5. What is the relative importance of this story compared to the others your newsroom is working on today? Where will it go in the paper or on the newscast or Web site?
6. Would sharing this story with a mass audience show good ethical judgment?
Write a narrative of three or four short paragraphs about the Boston Marathon bombings for each of the following: A daily newspaper audience in Jeffersonville; your best friend, whom you are emailing; and a 5-year-old child, who must hear your account read aloud. Assume none has yet heard the news. Consider the appropriate content, tone and word choice for each audience. Finally, try to write your narrative as a text message to your friend, as a series of approximately six Tweets, and as a 30-second story a television news anchor would read. Time yourself reading the TV story aloud.
Hint: If you need some background on the events of that day, try a Web search. Here’s a place to start: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/01/05/justice/tsarnaev-trial-starts-things-to-know
Assume you are Tori Baxter, and that the following events occurred or were revealed in Valleydale, Beausoleil or Blue Ridge County within the past 24 hours. You have to decide their relative importance to the audience for The Jeffersonville Herald’s Blue Ridge County, Valleydale and Beausoleil edition of the paper, for that evening’s television news broadcast and for the website. Remember that stories affect audiences both rationally and emotionally, and that the long-term emotional impact of some stories is more profound than the short-term rational impact of others.
Hint: Consult the City Directory for information about the people involved. You might find it useful in making your decisions. Remember also that newspaper people and online journalists have the choice of putting several stories on the front page, but that it is still necessary to rank them because readers’ eyes customarily go to some parts of the page before others. Radio and TV journalists can present only one story at a time, so stories have to be ranked sequentially.
Once you have ranked the stories, write a one-page analysis showing your rankings and why you ranked the stories as you did. If you think your decisions would be different for the different media, explain why. Assume that we learned about all of these events today.
1. A light plane plummeted into a field in northern Blue Ridge County during a thunderstorm. Both occupants of the plane died. Sheriff’s deputies would not release their names.
2. Beausoleil City Manager L. E. “Skeet” Thurston announced that a group of investors is “very interested” in building a golf course on city property, a project that could create 150 jobs during construction and 23 permanent jobs.
3. North River Manufacturing Company, Beausoleil’s biggest industrial plant, which employs 3,000 workers, this morning announced that its workers had voted 1,437-1,390 to unionize. It was the first time that a work force in Blue Ridge County had done so.
4. The Blue Ridge County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to build a new courthouse, and to raise property taxes countywide to finance the construction.
5. The Chamber of Commerce announced yesterday that its annual banquet four nights ago set an attendance record.
6. For the third year in a row, Valleydale City Schools met state requirements for student performance on the statewide Comprehensive Achievement Tests, the school board announced yesterday.
7. Following a nighttime roadblock to conduct sobriety checks, Valleydale Police announced the following arrests on charges of drunk driving: Preston Allen, Martha Blatchky, T.A. “Tater” Chipps and Sporrin Spruance.
8. Responding to complaints from county residents, Blue Ridge County Supervisors passed a noise ordinance aimed at limiting parties by Virginia Presbyterian University students.