Handbook of Independent Journalism (2): Getting The Story

THE tip came in an e-mail from a former government official who suggested looking into the supply of life rafts on ferries in Washington state.

Reporter Eric Nalder, then with the Seattle Times, decided to check it out. His first phone call was to the ferry system’s safety director, who was new on the job, but who gave Nalder the name and location of his predecessor.

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When the reporter reached the retired director by phone, he confirmed the shortage of life rafts.

Far from being satisfied that he had uncovered a good story, Nalder was just getting started.

To get the full story, Nalder needed documents showing the number of life rafts on every ferry, the capacity of each raft, and the maximum number of passengers each ferry could carry.

He had to analyze the data to determine the seriousness of the shortage. He also wanted to ride the ferries and talk to passengers and crew.

Only then was he ready to write his front-page story, which revealed that ferries in his state had only enough life rafts to evacuate one passenger out of seven.

Reporting is a painstaking process that involves collecting facts and checking them carefully for accuracy.

Journalists sometimes witness stories first-hand, but more typically they learn the details from others who have experienced something directly or who are experts in the topic.

That information is reinforced or corroborated by additional sources and checked against documentary evidence in public records, reports, or archives.

The information a journalist collects should answer questions that are commonly known as the five W’s and an H: who, what, where, when, why, and how.

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