Reporting involves collecting facts and checking them carefully for accuracy. Journalists sometimes witness stories. More typically, they learn details from others who experienced something or are experts on the topic. They then corroborate information by talking to additional sources and by checking public records, reports or archives.
Getting the Story is the second in a series on media development.
The ‘Five W’s and an H
The information a journalist collects should answer questions commonly known as the five W’s and an H: who, what, where, when, why and how.
• Who is involved in this story?
• Who is affected by it?
• Who is the best person to tell the story?
• Who is missing from this story?
• Who is in conflict in this story?
• Who else should I talk to about this?
• What happened?
• What is the point of this story?
• What does the reader, viewer or listener need to know to understand this story?
• What is the most important fact?
• What is the history of the story, and what happens next?
• Where did this happen?
• Where should I go to get the full story?
• Where is this story going next?
• When did this happen?
• When did the turning point occur in this story?
• When should I report this story?
• Why is this happening?
• Why are people behaving the way they are?
• Why should anyone watch, read or listen to the story?
• How did this happen?
• How will things be different because of what happened?
• How will this story help the reader, listener or viewer?
• How did I get this information?
Observation and Research
Journalists want to witness events so they can describe them accurately. To record what they observe, reporters need a notebook and pencil or pen. Many carry audio recorders, cameras or mobile phones to record events.
Journalists must be skilled note-takers.
• Write down facts and thoughts. Make clear where a piece of information came from.
• Draw diagrams of rooms, scenes or items in relationship to each other.
• Get spellings of names and proper nouns. Ask for birthdates.
• Spell out interview ground rules.
• Annotate the notes as soon as possible. Spell out abbreviations and mark important information, quotes and anything requiring follow-up.
Reporters use both primary and secondary sources. A primary source is someone with direct experience of an event or a related document. Secondary sources confirm information obtained from primary sources.
Good questions reward with rich information. The best questions are open-ended and cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.
With public officials, start with the premise that the public has a right to know what officials are doing. Experienced reporters can persuade reluctant officials to agree to an interview.
Many journalists begin with an “icebreaker” question that lets the source relax and helps the journalist establish credentials with the source.
Most interviews are “on the record,” meaning the reporter can use anything said and attribute it directly to the person speaking.
The reporter and source must agree in advance if there are different ground rules for using information provided during an interview. “Embargoed,” for example, means information may not be used until a specific time. “On background” or “not for attribution” means that a reporter can use the information if the source is not identified (sometimes sources will permit being described in a general way). “On deep background” means the information can be used, but not in a direct quote, and the source cannot be identified in any way. “Off the record” means the information cannot be used at all in a story or even repeated to another source; it is given only to provide the reporter with context.
(Adapted from an article by Deborah Potter published in the Handbook of Independent Journalism. Potter is executive director of NewsLab, an online resource for journalists in Washington. Download the complete Handbook of Independent Journalism [PDF 834kB].)