Sunday, April 29, 2007

Is the media actually to blame?

I'd like to start up a discussion on something that has bugged me for some time now, but came up again in the wake of the Virgninia Tech killings. In the week after the massacre, students and others at the university turned on the media, kicking them out of university buildings and banning reporters from areas on campus. The reason - many said THE MEDIA criticized Tech's president, Steger, over the administration's response to the killings and injured students.

Here's a story on it:

I'm confused. In the hours and days after the shooting, the STUDENTS, their PARENTS and many employed with the university called for Steger's post and questioned how he handled this situation. How did THE MEDIA become the ones behind these comments and in turn, warrant comments like this one from the AP story - "It's the nature of the press: Make the worst of any situation. That's what sells."?

Is this truly the nature of the press? How often do reporters think of "what sells" when they are reporting/writing? As journalists, do we report the "blame the media" angle, even when we know it's not true? Do we defend ourselves, such as putting in the comments from students, parents and others that clearly show THEY were asking for Steger's post, or do we just ignore it?
Or is this the usual, "blaming the messenger" thing that we see from people when we report bad news, or we ask officials hard questions about how they handled a dangerous, newsworthy situation?

Any thoughts?

Michele C.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Writer's Group recap April 27

Today our small but merry bunch talked about finding stories. The homework assignment was to come with a few story ideas from your commute to work. And let me tell you, there were a lot of cool ideas --- Here are a few:

From Nicki: She noticed a small, rundown orange stand near the railroad tracks downtown, that still sells fruit in the summer and she also wondered if construction traffic is coordinated between municipalities after finding horrendous traffic on both Rt. 30 and 462 --- her main routes to Lancaster.

From Laura: She thought it'd be cool to write about people's favorite fortunes from their fortune cookies. We talked about doing a story about spooky York lore/sites after noticing a tank sticking out of a building on the Rail Trail.

From Brad: On his drive from the boondocks to civilations Brad questioned how many working farms were actually still in the county, versus farms where people have farm animals as pets. After driving past a "cat lady" house, he wondered what the laws were on feeding cats, or having too many cats on your property. Are there any parts of the county where you can go tubing in area creeks? What could you do with a story about back country roads where people living in upscale houses are right next door to people in trailers. What's going on at Duke Assisted Living Facility since it's closed down? There's a lot of trash piling up... Brad's an overachiever, there were more on this list.

From Jeff: Take a walk around nearby Hawk Lake Golf Course and write about how nature has slowly re-claimed the formerly perfectly manicured grounds.

From Melissa: Commuter stories. Create a scavanger hunt for commuters who drive a certain route every day, to keep the trek interesting.

From me: Where are people's favorite fishing holes? I wanted to do a rural life story about a pony (that is obviously a pet) who lives with a bunch of cows, who will eventually be eaten. What is it like to have to make friends with food, and eventually lose them. There is a cross on the rocks near a creek that looks like a memorial to someone who died, what's the story behind that? I noticed a stage setup during the summer where kids in Dover Township seem to congregate, is this there first step to becoming rock stars?

The main point of the excercise was to get people to open their eyes and see something new in a place that you've driven by a thousand times. It was also to show that there are literally story ideas everywhere we turn, which is pretty exciting if you're feeling like you're in a rut. Don't be afraid to step out of your beat every once and a while to do stories that satisfy your curiousity about a certain subject --- I think we all agreed it was important to do this so you can stay passionate about your job and about writing. Reward yourself with a fun challenging story every once and a while. And if you have an idea, but aren't sure where to go with it, ask a neighbor or a couple people. We spent most of the meeting developing entire stories from a simple observation, it helped getting everyone's input.

Which leads me to my last plug: Apparantly this global warming thing is a huge story that's not going away. What can we do to localize it? Look around you on your way to work. Think about your beat. What stories could we do to show how York County is affected? There is a file called YORKGREEN just begging for ideas.

I have handouts from Wilmington a couple of years ago during a session with St. Petersburg Times reporter Lane DeGregory, about finding stories off the beaten path. They're pretty useful and will get you thinking about new ways to approach finding stories.

Finally, Jen asked me to find volunteers to lead the next two Writer's Group Sessions at 3 p.m. May 16 and 2 p.m. May 24. If you have any ideas for topics please feel free to share. That's all for me!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Reporting and writing the feature story

The latest from Poynter's seminar on sports writing, courtesy of NASCAR beat writer Dustin Long:

Michelle Hiskey of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution talked at a session titled "The craft of reporting and writing the sports feature story.''

First off, don't worry that this is about sports feature story. It can work for any type of story or any type of feature.

She mentioned how disciplined writers do stories that, hopefully, move people.

Think of your pre-story routine as like the same pre-shot routine a Tiger Woods goes through. Tiger thinks of his shot, figures out what club he'll use and how he'll strike the ball. Think of your stories in detail before you do them (or strike the ball in Tiger's case)

What makes a profile? It's a story of a person with something at stake doing something that reveals their character.

You want to look for movement -- they're doing something.

You want to look for a moment. Think of your stories as photos.

She showed a simple shot of boxer Muhammad Ali. It was a standard head and shoulder shot. No action. Nothing exciting. That's like a one-source story that doesn't go very deep. It's just there. How many times have we seen pictures in papers that were not that exciting.

The next photo she showed was Ali up against the ropes in a fight. You saw action. You could see his face. You could see his expression to being hit. You could see the other boxer hitting him.
Well, that's like a second-level feature where your story is richer in detail, in digging deeper into a subject or issue.

Interviewing mistakes

More from Poynter's current seminar on sports writing:

John Sawatsky, a Canadian professor who also is with ESPN, where he teaches interviewing techniques, talked about some of the mistakes make in interviewing.

1. Ask a question.
Sawatsky said a question creates a demand or obligation for the subject to respond. If you make a statement, it merely proclaims something and there's no demand for a response. He showed an example from a 60 Minutes interview where Lesley Stahl was talking to Paul Newman about the death of his son. She made a statement instead of a question. Newman responded but really didn't say anything. It was weak. A question could have gotten a better response that could have been more telling from Newman.

2. Don't ask multiple questions.
How many times have we all done this? Swatsky says make only one demand. Asking more than one question is giving your subject an out. They may not like one question you ask, so they'll focus on the second question and if you don't catch it, you could lose what you were trying to get.
He showed a Barbara Walters interview with Monica Lewinsky's dad from 20/20. He did not believe Linda Tripp's tapes of Monica were real. So, Barbara asked: "How do you explain her visits to the White House? How do you explain the tapes?''
See that she asks two questions?
Well, Mr. Lewinsky responded by addressing the White House visits by saying that's where she worked. He ignored the question about the tapes and went with the response that would be safer for him. Barbara Walters gave him an out and he took it.

3. Don't put in too many topics.
A bad question is: What do you think of sports? Or can be, What do you think of politics? That's too broad a category.
Be sharper. Make the questions more precise. Keep them simple. Don't overload your questions.

4. Don't make remarks. Just ask the question.
Swatsky shoes a tape from 60 minutes where the reporter asks a government official about why the gov. was paying a company a $7 million bonus despite poor and shoddy work. That's the crux of the report.
This is how the question was phrased: 'Why give a bonus at all? If they mess up, why did they get anything? And $7 million is a hefty bonus in anyone's book.''
The problem with that is 1.) they're asking more than 1 question. 2.) By making the statement, the subject has been given an out.
The subject responded by saying that $7 million is really a small amount of money in a $2 billion a year operation. Notice that the issue of why pay the $7 million bonus -- the main point -- is not addressed by the subject.

5. Avoid trigger words.
These are words that instantly wreck an interview. Some may be obvious and some may not. Swatsky showed a tape of a 20/20 interview with a pro wrestler asking the standard question of is it fake? Well, fake is a big trigger word to a wrestler -- that's something that should be obvious. The wrestler responded by hitting the person doing the interview so hard on the side of the head, he fell to the ground. The interviewer got up and got slammed on the head again and fell again. Needless to say the interview was over.
You don't want a word to overtake the question. Be careful about word selection as you create your questions.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Seminar tidbit: Focus on sentences

Roy Peter Clark is heading a Poynter seminar for sports writers that began yesterday. A friend of mine, Dustin Long, who covers NASCAR for papers in Norfolk, Va., Roanoke, Va. and Greensboro, N.C. is there and I asked him to send along some tips ... because although the seminar is targeted toward sports writers, everyone can take something from a writing coach like Clark.

Here is the first tip, as Dustin wrote in an e-mail to me (emphasis added by me). I'll add more tips as the seminar goes along:

Take a hard look at your sentences. You want them to be powerful at the beginning and the end.
For example, here's how (Clark) improved a sentence from a story:
Original sentence (about the death of a whale in Atlanta): "They gathered and knelt around the 15-foot creature.''
Not a bad sentence but here's how to make it better:
"They gathered around the 15-foot creature and knelt.''
So, what's different? What's the big deal with changing the order of a few words in the sentence?
The revised sentence provides a more powerful image, a more powerful ending with emotion. You have an action at the beginning of the sentence, information and context in the middle, and action at the end. The action at the beginning and end of sentences make them stronger.
He said think of the end of a sentence like a gymnast finishing their routine. You want to stick the landing.

Monday at Virginia Tech

David Maraniss in The Washington Post has what promises to be a compelling reconstructive narrative of the shootings.
I haven't read the whole thing yet, but curious to know what you think about how the story deals with the classic issues of sourcing and describing scenes that were not witnessed.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Blaming the victim?

The Daily Telegraph in Australia, in addition to making a giant leap of an assumption, has taken a decidedly cold tact in its lead to the Virginia Tech story.

"THIS is the face of the girl who may have sparked the worst school shooting in US history.",22049,21576271-5001021,00.html

Certainly, different publications both here and abroad take different approaches to journalism and storytelling for varied audiences, but is it fair or responsible -- when we're still gathering critical details -- to essentially place blame on one dead victim for the deaths of all the others?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Would you say something?

On, user "ben" posts an interesting dilemma. Maybe I'm just posting this for Randy, because I know how much he likes to debate ethics. Anyway, this also sort of goes along the same lines of the discussion we had with Diane about holding a dog abandoned during Hurricane Katrina.

If a source with a chronic disease confided in you that he or she thought about suicide but was "too much of a wimp," would you tell someone? Several reporters post on the entry about what they would do. It's not always black and white.

A Question

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Get to the point

Deborah Howell wrote this column on anecdotal leads, and how to do them right: Readers' Plea - Get to the Point.

Confession: I love anecdotal leads. It's sort of my comfort zone. But Howell makes a point that in this information age, readers want the 5 Ws and 1 H right away. She's not saying don't do anecdotal leads, but we have to do them smart, by mixing all the necessary information in with our anecdote. She has a good point.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Famous violinist faces rush hour

The Washington Post ran this story, "Pearls Before Breakfast," about Joshua Bell, a world-famous violinist, who played for about 45 minutes at a D.C. Metro stop during rush hour. Bell, who has played before heads of state and whose tickets cost $100 for the worst seats, agreed to work with the Post for the story, by appearing as a street musician.

The resulting story is really interesting. It's kind of a cultural study on what busy commuters will do in the face of a master (the answer: Not much). It's also a profile of Bell, who is used to being received as a virtuoso by sophisticated audiences and finds himself feeling nervous and awkward in front of the Metro users.

Writer Gene Weingarten did a great job at weaving in facts about Bell, classical music and and the commuter's behavior making the piece really dense, but fascinating. There was a hidden camera at the stop, so the reporter was able to go back and review the expressions of people and their actions when passing the musician (you can watch video clips as part of the story). Weingarten also talked to several of the commuters who passed by. My favorite anecdote was from a rushed mom who was taking her 3-year-old son to daycare, and the son kept craning his neck, trying to slow her down so he could listen to the music.

Anyway, check out the story when you have some time (it's long) and share what you think.

Friday, April 6, 2007

April's writing and visual storytelling challenge

Let's take a page from Susan Orlean (see post below), who says: "I'm primarily interested in the tiny master -- a person with a tiny domain over which they are the master. I wrote a piece about a New York City cabdriver who is also the king of the Ashanti tribe in America."

April's writing and/or visual storytelling challenge, then, is to find a person who's in control or in charge of a small piece of the world, and capture that person and their world. Writers, your challenge is to do it in 500 words or less. And maybe we can do visual storytelling in both stills and video for this challenge.

Some brainstorming to get you thinking:

  • grill cook (master of the grill he cooks on)
  • machinist (master over the machine he's operating)
  • artist/painter (master over the canvas)
  • mom or dad (master of a specific task in the household)
  • dj (master over dance or the music scene at a venue)
  • kids (master of their bedroom, for example)
  • office manager (master of the office)
  • groundskeeper (master of buildings/grounds)
  • receptionist (master of the reception area)
  • crossing guard (master of the intersection)

If you're into it, see your editor and/or Scott.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Ordinary people, extraordinary stories

We often are called upon, and often seek, to tell stories about ordinary people. Susan Orlean is one of the best at writing such stories, and acknowledges the risk involved:

"Readers are initially resistant to a story about an 'ordinary' person. Persuading someone to read a piece about a 10-year-old boy who's not a 'star' is quite a challenge. All you can bring to it is your passion. There's got to be something you're trying to say. And there has to be a reason that a reader will read what you're writing. There's nothing that's obviously sexy about these stories. So, among other things, you need to write a good lead."

She talks more about leads -- and other things such as how it can be difficult to find the story in an ordinary person's life -- in an interview with the University of Oregon's Literary Nonfiction program.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Not-Good Death

Remember that guy who died in front of his TV? Nobody found him for 13 months. Read an awesome story about 70-year-old Vincenzo Riccardi in the LA Times called "He died in vast isolation."

Monday, April 2, 2007

Opening day

Baseball begins again today, but you don't have to be a fan to appreciate this piece by Charles Pierce in the Boston Globe's Sunday magazine. It's a (long) profile of Scott Boras, a controversial and effective player agent responsible for some of the biggest contracts in sports.

Pierce tries to get at why and how Boras does what he does -- why players swear by him and owners/executives often hate him. It's worth checking out, particularly for insight on how to craft a profile story around a strong theme.

It even has what might be called a subtle, short complication/resolution setup at the beginning to show you how Boras works.