Take your reporting to another level . . . it can be as easy as answering What if . . . questions for your readers
- Ask yourself What if . . . . or Should the . . . . or Could it happen here. . . questions. They are great ways to plant the seeds of an issue to explore: (What if . . . a giant asteroid was hurtling toward Earth?; What if . . . the municipality closed an arena for budget reasons? . . . Should the school board close high schools in XXXX county? . . . Great Lakes Oil Spill: Could it happen here?)
By Gregg McLachlan
In small towns we don't have murders, fires, bank robberies or scandals on a daily basis. If we relied on these events to be our 'big' news we'd be waiting months.
Sometimes we have to 'create' the news ourselves if we want 'big' stuff.
(Disclaimer: This doesn't mean you should go out and kill someone.)
Now don't shudder at the word 'create'. It doesn't have to have an unethical connotation. Think of it more as exploring issues. Issues reporting, to be exact.
In any newsroom on any given day, reporters and editors chat about issues affecting the community. Usually it's just chit chat. We're not always chatting in journalism mode, sometimes it's just friendly co-worker mode.
But think for a moment: Maybe it's an issue worthy of a story?
Usually, all it takes is a basic theme statement to mould your approach.
TV news stations have become superb at using issues reporting to entice us to tune in with teasers such as Canada and its naval submarines: Are we in over our heads? See it tonight on the six o'clock news.
There are always current issues to explore or issues that will arise in the future in every community.
People talk about issues in coffee shops or at the dinner table.
Our letters to the editor are filled with issues.
Many times, the seeds of an issue have already been planted when we reported on a previous story. It's just a matter of asking ourselves: What's the basic story? Now, what's the bigger issue within the story that can be expanded and explored?
Exploring an issue can be fun. For example, give a tape measure to a reporter and have him/her measure parking spaces to see if they comply with local bylaws. (If your readers gripe about getting their car doors dinged at the local mall, your story may explain why.)
Or, exploring an issue can be, of course, serious with themes such as Is XXXX County ready to handle a bird flu pandemic?
Either way, issues reporting is something we can and should do, especially at smaller newspaper. It's also a nice way to balance all that coverage of bake sales, school assemblies or strawberry socials.
No matter what the size of a community, the issues are endless.
Issues reporting isn't exclusively for larger papers.
All it takes at smaller newspapers is the ability to be open to new approaches in reporting and the curiousity to explore a topic that may or should be of interest to the public.
10 Questions To Ask Yourself Before You 'Issues Report'
1. Will this be news in the future? Why?
2. What are you trying to tell the public?
3. Why should the public be aware of this issue?
4. Why does this story need to be told now, rather than later?
5. What kind of change and/or impact, if any, could result from reporting on this issue?
6. What's your intended focus? (Haven't got a focus? Develop a theme statement, it'll help you stay on track when exploring an issue, ie. Smithville is facing significant cuts to service if council proceeds with its goal of a zero per cent tax increase for residents. . . )
7. What can you do to take this story beyond just a regular news story and develop the issue?
8. If this issue is not told, what will the public be missing?
9. Ask yourself What if . . . . or Should the . . . . or Could it happen here. . . questions. They are a great way to plant the seeds of a theme (What if . . . a giant asteroid was hurtling toward Earth?; What if . . . the municipality closed an arena for budget reasons? . . . Should the school board close high schools in XXXX county? . . . Great Lakes Oil Spill: Could it happen here?)
10. How would Stone present it? Or Diane Sawyer. Or John Stossel at 20/20? Thinking in TV mode can help your focus, or even preface the issue before you begin, especially if you're unsure of the newsworthiness. In a private space or in your head, think about how Stone Phillips would handle the intro segment of the issue. If you can remove yourself from the equation temporarily, and envision what a metro daily or TV news magazine-style show might do with the idea, you might come away thinking: Yes, that's how to pitch it!
Newspapers, magazines, news investigation shows: It's the same basic approach
Below are teasers for issues-driven reporting. They all develop a focus to draw us into the issue by asking a question. The teasers are from a magazine, newspaper, TV news and television guide. Can you figure out which is which? (See answers below)
1) Fasten your seat-belts. Since 9/11, the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on improving security at our airports. But, has that made us any safer?
2) It's a crucial economic artery from the U.S. to the heart of Ontario's economy, yet Windsor's chronically clogged Ambassador Bridge is controlled by one man: a billionaire trucking magnate. Should critical infrastructure be privateley owned?
3) As two men are gunned down in a Vancouver nightclub, is it time for security screening at all private clubs?
4) The future of paper: What if we didn't need wood after all?
This exercise shows that the basic starting point for issues-driven reporting begins with a question. It's an approach that's the same no matter where you work.
1. Starweek magazine, Nov. 9, 2005 TV guide blurb for CBC's The Fifth Estate news show
2. The Toronto Star, Nov. 13, 2005
3. Global TV news, as read by anchor Kevin Newman, Nov. 14, 2005
4. ON NATURE magazine, fall 2005