Being so far behind serialization of my ebook Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers and so close to the end, I break the Sunday rule and sneak in an installment. That makes the next chapter the last before the book releases into the public domain.
What follows is my responsible reporting primer. The list isn’t inclusive, but encapsulates my basic guidance for writing well online during this era of contextual news gathering,
Today’s installment is best understood in context of the others. To best follow the logical flow, you should start at the beginning: Foreward; Section 1, Chapters I and II, III and IV, V and VI; Section 2, Chapters I, II, III, IV, and V; Section 3, Chapters I and II, III, IV, V, VI, and VII.
With that introduction…
VIII. Numbers Nine
Responsible Reporting is organized to present a journalism worldview and principles to act upon. This chapter departs from the format. I had planned to highlight real world examples of good and bad headlines, reporting, sourcing, and writing. But on March 3, 2014, while I mucked around with bookmarks, my browser deleted the folder for this story and immediately synced changes to all my devices. I lost three months of collected URLs. Damnit!
I instead present guidelines, gleaned from more than two decades working as an editor and reporter, that encapsulate the five journalisms—advocacy, contextual, conversational, mob, and process.
1. Let the reporting lead the story
No story should be preconceived. You may start with a hypothesis, but go where the reporting leads. I can’t recount how many times the story written looked nothing like the one I planned. Every story should be based on the reporting.
Include your audience and peers in the reporting process. A short story that proposes a “what if” can generate story leads that advance the reporting, engage the audience, and make the storytelling more compelling. Comb comments for leads.
All quotes should be real and accurate. Embellishment is for fiction writers. Making up sources or quotes is an unforgivable wrong. If caught, your career is over.
From your reporting choose the most-interesting narrative. Sometimes the best news storytelling is several narratives exploring several vantage points (see #3, #6).
In the age of context, the best news stories unfold as several reports in which the audience participates.
2. Get out of the office
Contextual and conversational journalisms are active, and so should you be. Original content is all around you, waiting to be picked and processed. You can find good stories at the local coffee shop, from street buskers or homeless panhandlers, IKEA shoppers, and mall-roving teens. Document stories on your phone. That’s what photo-taking and voice- and video-recording capabilities are for. Share in the moment with your audience. Inspiration is everywhere, if you let it be.
I documented San Diego Comic-Con 2012 in real time using a Samsung Galaxy Nexus smartphone, leading to great conversations and engagement with my Google+ followers. Photos posted to the social network, and I uploaded videos to YouTube from the phone, on site, immediately after shooting them.
Real-time reporting is exciting. That said, the best isn’t some big event like Comic-Con but from where you are every day. Change your location, whether physically, virtually, or both.
In the age of context, the world is your newsroom. Tell stories whenever, wherever, and on whatever you be.
3. Embrace rather than reject point of view
I know this is repetitious, but…journalism schools perpetrate the great urban legend that responsible reporting is unbiased, objective. There is no such thing. All reporting is biased by factors immeasurable. Consider culture as one filter. Political preference is another. Education. Economic class. Etc.
Bias is inevitable. Perspective, and all the influences on it, is unavoidable.
Similarly, as previously stated, writing by nature has a point of view. So embrace its storytelling utility. First-person is immersive. Second-person advises or advocates, and it’s conversational. Third-person, all-knowing “God voice” commands—it’s authoritative. No news story has one point of view, which is why reporters ask who, what, where, when, and why. The last “W” leads to many perspectives.
Even in something as hard factual as physics there is point of view. Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity postulates that constants such as the speed of light change relative to the observer. Responsible reporting is about writing what you know to be true—from your perspective, which might be different for an observer in a different context.
In the age of context, print media concepts about objectivity are antiquated. Perspective provides greater insight into the news, makes for more interesting reading, and better includes the audience in the reporting process.
4. Use present tense
If you write news stories, present tense makes most sense. It’s more timely, more immediate. Present tense packs punch—affirms.
“A giant meteor will destroy the earth in 15 minutes”, NASA spokesman John Hornblower says. Not said. If past tense, we’re all dead, and there is no one alive to read the statement. “‘We do not negotiate with terrorists’, the President said” should be “‘We do not negotiate with terrorists’, the President says”.
However, use present participles sparingly. “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain” is stronger than “The rain in Spain is falling mainly on the plain”. “Google goes to the Moon” is better than “Google is going to the Moon”. “City Hall fights crime” trumps “City Hall is fighting crime”. Whenever there is an “ing” verb form stop and reexamine.
Present participles are grossly overused and abused. Properly expressed, they describe something ongoing and convey emotion:
- Present: “The sniper shoots from the grassy knoll” describes the event.
- Present participle: “The sniper is shooting at me” captures the event in progress.
- Past: “The sniper shot my camera”, and luckily not you, clearly identifies past occurrence.
Each tense has its place. “The sniper is shooting at me” conveys danger. Whereas, “The SWAT Team is approaching the survivors” isn’t as urgent or immediate as “The SWAT Team approaches the survivors”.
For news writing, use past tense only when absolutely necessary, which isn’t often when adopting a present-tense habit.
Passive voice is a crime. “The bill was opposed by the President” is old news and weak writing. “The President opposes the bill” is immediate, affirmative, and authoritative. Passive voice is sometimes unavoidable. Restrain usage, nevertheless.
Complex past-tense forms are vampires that suck the lifeblood from your writing. Figuratively don garlic and wave the crucifix—drive a stake through the undead’s heart.
- Weaker: “‘Lucky kid’, the SWAT, leader said. The bullet had missed the intern because he was bending over his smartphone.
- Stronger: “‘Lucky kid’, the SWAT leader says. The bullet whizzed by an intern bending over his smartphone.
Present tense isn’t appropriate for all types of writing, of course, but consider it first for immediacy.
In the age of context, your audience is present, in real time across multiple online social venues. Your writing should be present tense, which feels more immediate and is more approachable.
5. Be affirmative
Your writing should have voice and authority, something present-tense helps achieve. Some sense of you should slip through, too. If you properly source and present information as you know it to be true, you write responsibly, even when expressing voice and perspective.
Responsible writing shouldn’t be boring. Be affirmative and, again, present a point of view—both attributes make more interesting storytelling. I typically affirmatively write several stories about the same topic from different points of view, leading some commenters to ask why stories are contradictory. They aren’t. For any news event, there are multiple perspectives to consider. Always.
The best affirmative, authoritative, and responsible writing has strong voice. Matt Taibbi, writing for Rolling Stone, is example. His crass and cussing reports are clearly sourced and present a point of view appropriate for the magazine’s readership.
Consider the lead paragraph to Taibbi’s Jan. 4, 2013, story “Secrets and Lies of the Bailout”:
It has been four long winters since the federal government, in the hulking, shaven-skulled, ‘Alien Nation’-esque form of then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, committed $700 billion in taxpayer money to rescue Wall Street from its own chicanery and greed. To listen to the bankers and their allies in Washington tell it, you’d think the bailout was the best thing to hit the American economy since the invention of the assembly line. Not only did it prevent another Great Depression, we’ve been told, but the money has all been paid back, and the government even made a profit. No harm, no foul—right? Wrong.
Taibbi writes with gusto, and you should, too.
In the age of context, you compete with millions of voices, not just thousands of journalists. To be noticed, your content must be authoritative, affirmative, and acrimonious.
6. Make headlines present and active. Use verbs!
Let’s look at some real headlines spotted March 4, 2014, late day. (This section is bitter writing, because of the links to better headline examples saved for months but lost in the browser bruiser.)
Engadget’s “The hoverboard has arrived” would be stronger as “The hoverboard arrives”, particularly in context of a followup story two hours later: “What Is This Fake Hoverboard Company Actually Promoting?” (As an editor, I cringe at the two different upper- and lower-case headline styles on the same blog.)
From /Film, a good example: “Wolverine Recasting Is ‘Inevitable’, says Hugh Jackson”. Another, from National Geographic: “Antarctic Research Bases Spew Toxic Wastes Into Environment”.
Los Angeles Times headline “1 in 10 Americans think HTML is an STD, study finds” is great for the tech set—definitely clickable. The hed would be stronger without “study finds”, and I wouldn’t publish regardless. As an editor, I discourage writers from using studies from companies—in this case vouchercloud.net—that don’t specialize in research. Studies like this are pure PR scourge.
Washington Post headline “Why the Obama budget is already dead” would be better as “The Obama budget is already dead”. But affirming headlines often offend newspaper editors’ sensibilities about objectivity.
BBC surprises with a headline in my RSS feed that’s catchy, without a verb: “The North Koreans longing for home”. Who are they? I want to click and find out. But on the Beeb’s website the real hed is different: “The North Korean defectors who want to return home”. My rewrite: “North Korean defectors want to go home”.
There absolutely is a place for label headlines; I use them, too, just not as often as those with verbs. On this Tuesday in March, the Wire charms with excellent “Paging Bradley Cooper’s Lawyers: He Might Own Ellen’s Famous Oscar Selfie”. The story is excellent example of original reporting extending a timely topic—the Academy Awards pic set a record for retweets, and during a live event seen by millions of people.
The Register consistently writes memorable headlines and deks:
“Thanks a lot, Facebook: Microsoft turns Office 365 into social network (In Redmond, no one lets you unfriend your boss)”; “Booze and bacon sarnies: A recipe for immortality? (Now you can live forever, Reg research suggests)”. The second story is an aggregated synopsis, but what a fun read: “‘Bacon is particularly problematic’, doomwatched the Daily Mail, a noted proponent of the ‘if it’s tasty it’ll kill you’ school of scientific killjoyery”.
Tabloids offer some of the best headline hooks. From top of the New York Daily News home page on March 4, 2014, (the hed inside isn’t as catchy): “OH DRATS, BRAT: Judge denies ‘spoiled’ New Jersey cheerleader’s request for emergency funds in suit against parents”.
Some news editors will bristle at my choices or rewrites, while other people will accuse of promoting link-baiting tactics. I don’t advocate linkbaiting, which seeks to maximize links among aggregators and some social hangouts online; it’s an advertising and attention-getting tactic.
Snappy and provocative headlines predate the Internet by a century or so. Your goal is the same as print-era journalists—to get people to stop and read. Provocative headlines capture and engage audience. A solidly sourced and reported story behind a provocative hed is altogether different from linkbait. Your objective is audience, not quick clicks or links.
No discussion of headline writing should ignore Betteridge’s Law: “Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no’”. Question headlines are weak—they lack authority and communicate uncertainty. Compare “Is Jack the Ripper a murderer?” to “Jack the Ripper is a murder”. Some editors obsessed with the objectivity myth would regard the latter headline as too assertive—advocating a position. Not in the age of context!
Ian Betteridge gives another reason reporters use question headlines that is relevant to new media practicing process journalism, or badly imitating it. “The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it”.
I occasionally use question headlines, mostly when asking a question soliciting readers’ response. I might post “Will you buy Samsung Galaxy S5?” with poll and requesting comments.
In the age of context, affirmative and provoking headlines or titles should lead online news consumers to read, listen, or view your valuable content.
7. Always correct the record
When you get the story wrong, fix it!
Rumor posts run rampant across the online landscape, often inadequately sourced. Then there is process journalism, which should be a way of life for many news gatherers during the age of context. Rumors and process are among the two most likely methods leading to factual errors—or at least need to fix something.
Feb. 17, 2014, BGR story “Apple design boss Jony Ive mysteriously vanishes from Apple’s online list of executives [updated]” demonstrates the problem. It’s a rancid rumor, standing improperly corrected when shown to be inaccurate.
Apple refutes the conjecture with simple explanation: website maintenance, BGR keeps the link-bait “mysteriously” headline and “unexplained” lede, while placing an “update” at the story’s end. Many, if not most, people won’t read far enough to see Apple’s response. So the amended story spreads misinformation.
BGR can claim responsible reporting because the story includes Apple’s response. That’s not good enough. Wire services update stories consistently, often publishing subsequent versions with more accurate information. That’s a good standard to adopt, which best serves the audience and minimizes spread of misinformation across the online socialsphere.
In the age of context, social services amplify mistakes across the Internet, while search and links keep them exposed. Correct the record—in the public interest, for your audience’s benefit, and to maintain faith given you as a trusted source.
8. Own your content
You are the brand. You need to be able to preserve content and maximize its audience value over time. Don’t make my mistakes!
Most of my online writing from May 2003 to April 2009 is gone. During the time period I worked for JupiterResearch as senior analyst and later for Ziff Davis Enterprise as editor of the Apple Watch and Microsoft Watch blogs. Forrester Research acquired Jupiter and removed older content, while ZDE shuttered both Watch blogs after downsizing operations. I luckily archived Jupiter blog posts, but Ziff vanished the more pertinent writing—much of it forward-looking analysis that largely is relevant now.
In the far-gone days of freelance print writing, publishers and writers often danced around ownership rights. Publishers want to own all rights, while freelancers seek to recycle—that is take one story and repackage for several publications. The approach maximizes the reporting and writing value.
The freelance way better fits the age of context.
At the least, use your contextual service accounts, rather than the branded media outlet that employs you or for which you contract or freelance—your Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tumblr, and whichever other socials used.
Don’t be afraid to cross-post blogs or news stories—and, yes, Google likely will penalize you in search. If your goal is building organic, sustainable audience then search ranking isn’t a priority. Make offerings to your audience, not to the Google god.
In the age of context, the content you produce belongs to your audience not the media brand that you work for.
9. Be responsive
Reciprocal engagement is essential to building audience and personal brand. Respond to communications from your readership—email, instant, or text messages, phone calls, site comments, etc. The more immediate the contextual communication, the faster should be your response.
Take the conversation elsewhere. Comment on other reporters’ news stories or posts at services like Reddit, where reader response is the storytelling. Your audience is everywhere. The only limit is your willingness to embrace.
I cannot stress the value of comments, whether the conversation takes place around your content or someone else’s. Absolutely, trolls will come, but even they can add to the conversation.
On my personal blog, I curate comments. It’s my home, and I don’t want some stranger barging in, crapping on the living room rug, and stinking up the place. Elsewhere, my policy is to let all comments and commenters be, unless there is vocal community outcry to prune or block. I believe in free speech and letting the audience decide what comment conduct is acceptable.
At BetaNews, where I primarily write about tech, the editorial policy closes comments 14 days after stories post. There are some sensible reasons, with controlling comment spam principle among them. However, I would keep comments open, because closing them shuts down the conversation.
In the age of context, reciprocation is responsible response that fosters intimate relationship with audience members and extends the conversation and storytelling for all.
Photo Credit: Gareth Simpson