Handbook of Independent Journalism (3) : Telling The Story

ALL news stories are made up of facts, observations, quotations, and details. Reporters almost always have more than they can use, and because they’ve worked hard to collect all of that information, their natural impulse is to use as much of it as possible in their stories.

But cramming in all the facts that will fit rarely results in a well-told story that will engage the audience.

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It is harder to understand stories that are overstuffed with information. A reporter who tries to explain everything may succeed only in confusing the audience.

Besides, newspapers have only so much space; radio and television news programs only so much airtime; and readers, listeners, and viewers only so much spare time and attention to devote to catching up on the news.

Good journalism involves selection, not compression.

Reporters must use their news judgment to decide what is most important to include in a story and in what order to put it.

For many reporters, the most difficult part of telling a story is deciding what to leave out. One way to make those decisions is to choose a central point or a theme for the story, also called a focus.

The focus of a story is basically the answer to the question, “What is this story really about?” To determine the focus, Poynter Institute writing instructor Chip Scanlan suggests asking five additional questions:

• What’s the news?
• What’s the story?
• What’s the image?
• How can I tell it in six words?
• So what?

Imagine that you’re covering a fast-moving wildfire. You’ve been out talking to people and observing the damage all day.

Now, you need to focus your story before you begin writing. Here’s how you might use Scanlan’s questions to find your focus:

• What’s the news? A fire destroyed two houses in the mountains east of the city, but no one was injured and the city business district was spared.
• What’s the story? Two families are homeless but grateful to be alive.
• What’s the image? Family members hug each other near the smoking ruins of their house.
• How can I tell it in six words or less? Fire destroys homes but not spirits.
• So what? Property damage from a dangerous fire was limited.

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