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Introduction
Textbook author Brian Richardson

The author. If this doesn’t scare you, maybe you’re ready to be a journalist.

As a conscientious student and an eager prospective journalist, you are no doubt thinking, “I could be using this time to drink beer. This had better be good.”

You’re right. We had all better be good – you, me and this website. There is a lot of mediocre journalism being passed off as solid work these days, and there is too much at stake for any of us to be complacent about that. Truthful, relevant, reliable information reported in context is the lifeblood of democracy. Whether people get their daily news from newspapers, radio, television, the Web, or all four in combination, news empowers them and makes the idea of self-determination meaningful. Whether you wind up spending your career in a newsroom or not, I hope you come away from this course understanding how important good journalism and good journalists are in any free society.  That’s my primary purpose in pulling you away from your six-pack.

I wrote it with some other purposes in mind, too. Here they are:

    1. You should learn to understand writing as a systematic process that is far less mysterious than you might have been led to believe. Not easy, but less mysterious.

          2. You should get a good start developing skill in weighing the reliability and relative importance of information.

          3. You should get a grasp of the ethical dimension of many decisions you make as a journalist, especially when it comes to weighing benefit and harm.

          4.  You should begin to develop an understanding of what it means to serve an increasingly diverse public.

          5. You should get plenty of practice organizing information and writing news stories clearly and compellingly in three media – print, Web and broadcast — so that diverse audiences in all three can understand why a story is important to them.

          6. You should understand the value of cultivating all these skills.

In each chapter, I have tried to address key journalistic concepts at several levels of abstraction. Usually, I begin by discussing the importance of a concept in a societal context – why audiences need the particular type of information or journalistic approach.

After that, I discuss some particular how-tos and characteristics of the skills you are learning in that chapter. Then I discuss the ethical dimensions of the chapter’s topic. That is followed by strategies I hope you will find helpful in mastering that chapter’s challenge.

Finally, you are asked to put the chapter’s lessons to work in an exercise or series of exercises. By having you work from the general to the specific, I hope to give you a solid understanding of what you are doing and why you are doing it, as well as extensive practice in developing the skills required of a good journalist.

 

Nowhere-ville

             Life is more than a series of isolated incidents. Things relate to other things, problems continue, issues arise, persist, are sometimes resolved. If we don’t know that intuitively, most of us figure it out by the time we are adults. If it is to be helpful, the news is like that, too. In this book you will have to deal with ongoing issues, you will keep revisiting some of the same people, and you will report events that build on previous events until resolution. Part of good journalism is reminding audiences of how they already know the people and issues you are telling them about.

To give you some idea of how that works in a journalist’s job I have made up an entire community. The idea has been tried before in journalism teaching. For example, both Auburn University and the University of Florida have used something like it in home-grown lab exercises, and it was the basis for Ken Metzler’s Newswriting Exercises more than 30 years ago.

The state that Blue Ridge County, Valleydale and Beausoleil are in – Virginia — is real, but everything else – people, places, events and issues — are fictitious. All, though, are based on what I encountered as a reporter during years of covering municipal government, courts, education and interesting people. If you cover it as a reporter would, the community will take on a life of its own. Pardon that cliché, but hundreds of my Introduction to Reporting students over the years will bear me out. They still swap memories of Blue Ridge County’s characters in Facebook posts and Tweets, and at alumni reunions.

 

A paradox

Even so, we need to acknowledge that something’s a little off-center. This is a funny way to kick off a course about news — by inventing a reporter, a newspaper, a TV station, a county, a couple of cities, a bunch of local officials, two universities, some students and a slew of issues and events that touch them all. There is a name for that: fiction — in this case, pretty threadbare fiction. There’s nothing wrong with fiction – except that this course is meant to be an introduction to doing journalism: weighing factual information and turning it into news stories.  Do you see the problem yet? Of course you do: News is not fiction. Reporters are not allowed to make stuff up. People – thousands of them at a time — rely on journalists for truthful information, information they can depend on to make decisions about their lives. It’s a sacred trust, recognized by the U.S. Constitution and anchored in truth-telling. It’s especially important in a world where audiences are inundated with suspect information from suspect sources, spin doctors, strident on-air and online bullies, and outright liars. So how are we going to learn to be good reporters and writers by spending a whole semester dealing with fictitious places, made-up people, events that never happened?

First, Tori Baxter – the reporter whose identity you will adopt — is a composite, not a fantasy; she shares some characteristics with any number of young reporters I have known, although I hope to God she is better at her job than I was when I was starting out. She also runs into many of the same issues and situations that living, breathing reporters encounter every day. The multimedia news operation she works for is struggling with a changing industry, just as all news outlets are now. And the community she covers experiences the same kinds of conflicts, tragedies, good guys and bad guys that hundreds of real communities across the United States do each day.

Second, I could confine this course to a series of how-to lessons accompanied by the real-life experiences of real reporters. But when it came down to doing it for yourself, you’d have two choices. The first would be to rely on a series of real-world-based but unrelated exercises. The problem with that is that, in real communities, events and issues that are newsworthy are often related to each other. You wouldn’t get used to dealing with that if all your exercises were based on real but unrelated events. The second option would be for you to go out into your community and find stories and track people down. You will do that in any decent beat-reporting class, of course – probably pretty soon – but for ground-level journalism students, it’s a tall order. It’s a lot for a teacher of beginners to keep up with, too. (I do hope you will get at least one chance to kick over the traces – to go out into your community and cover at least one “live” story – before you get to the end of this course. In later chapters I provide some opportunities for you to do that.)

Now here’s the irony, I think: By creating “facts” – about events, issues, people, an entire community – we can make sure you’re getting them right. Your teacher can check your reporting against the information you are given in each exercise, your attention to names, addresses and spellings against the City Directory that’s included.  And you can learn something about how interconnected the people, events and issues in a community usually are, whether you live in Bakersfield, Bellingham, Boca Raton, Boston or Buena Vista. If you learn to be careful reporting what you find in this book, including understanding how events and issues may be related, I’m betting that you’ll use that same care when you get to cover a story or a beat in your own community. If you don’t stray from the “facts” you’re given here, you won’t stray from the ones you get when you’re out covering a beat.

 

The plan

Here is how the material in this course is presented:

The first several lessons focus on principles and critical elements of doing news, whether you are working for print, the Web or broadcast. After that, you will work through a few lessons that focus on how to structure your stories for each of those three media. Then, in subsequent lessons, you will learn to write about different kinds of events and issues, based on the kinds of reporting most reporters do most often.

I approach writing as a process, and you will become familiar with what I consider key elements of that process. I’ll expand on that later, but for now you should know that in each lesson you will work on recognizing who your audience is, the community you are covering, making news judgments based on the impact the information you gather will have on your audience, the ethical component of every decision you make and every story you write as a journalist, and developing your skills as a writer in a converged world – one in which reporters are increasingly expected to tell a story effectively for print, broadcast and the Web.

To help you do all those things, I will begin each lesson by presenting basic information, in the kind of textbook-presentation format you are familiar with. I will also try to get you thinking about the kind of ethical challenges the topic might present. Then I will try to help you put all that information to work: first, by presenting strategies to use in your reporting and writing, and then by giving you at least one exercise comprising facts and background about a particular event or issue. You will write at least one story from each exercise, but often, I will call on you to write the story for print, the Web and broadcast. As we go forward and your skills improve, you will be called on to do some assignments on deadline – completing a story in one class period — much as reporters must do every day. The story assignments also will get more and more complex, and they will require you to refer to earlier stories so that you can provide appropriate background for connected events and ongoing issues. Again, that’s why I’ve created the fictional community and its residents.

 

Knowing the tools

I know you’re eager to get started writing, but first let’s evaluate your knowledge of the basic tools of your chosen trade – grammar, spelling, punctuation, syntax – and some basic arithmetic and math for journalists. Work through the two exercises in the next section, Fundamentals. If you struggle, there are some online tutorials listed that you should take advantage of. If you’re not sure-handed with the tools from day one, you will struggle, and audiences won’t understand what you’re trying to tell them.

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