Reporting basics: Telling the story,
fairness, balance and ethical reporting
One of my favorite newspaper cartoons is a 1993 Washington Post sketch of a reporter throwing a dart with his eyes closed. The dartboard is a mess of topics with a banner that reads “Today I’m an expert in:”. The caption is “How reporters start their day at work.”
It’s funny, but it’s true. Newspaper reporters are required to know as much as possible about the topic that they are writing about or covering, whether it’s plumbing or pointilism. Despite what you might think, we aren’t actually geniuses.
I have frequently heard the phrase “write what you know” tossed around English classrooms. This is terrible advice for newspaper reporters if taken literally. The West Side Journal would be, more or less, a catalogue of B-rated sci-fi movies if I followed this rule.
The secret is to let the news tell itself. This makes our job much, much easier. This is a convenience fiction writers simply cannot enjoy. The West Side Journal’s news reporting is, essentially, a top-down list of information from officials, documents and local voices.
Be fair. Be accurate. Be responsible. Write the most useful information first.
One of the most important rules of newswriting is to eat your dessert first. That is, the most valuable information goes at the top of the article. Most readers don’t make it past the first few paragraphs anyway.
Perhaps an equally important rule to journalism is to tell both sides of each story. This sounds pretty simple, but this rule is hotly debated nowadays. What counts as “both sides”? How much coverage does each side get? Who makes those decisions? Who decides what’s fair?
This might sound cut and dry when discussing an evenly divided political landscape, but there are always pitfalls when discussing something as dubious as fairness.
This topic has been interesting to follow this past year as white supremacists have brazenly organized demonstrations in town centers and colleges across America.
Do their voice deserve to be heard?
Some publications have faced major criticism for giving these hate groups a platform in the mainstream press.
Who decides who gets to speak is ultimately in the hands of the newspaper reporters, editors and publishers. This freedom “to call it as you see it” is the source of frustration for a lot of public officials in all level of government. Unleashed journalism frequently leads to accusations of bias. But any reporter worth their salt knows to leave that baggage at home.
One of the first things I learned in college was the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.
This code became somewhat of a warrior’s creed that was pounded into my skull. There are four principles and I’ll share them here.
Seek Truth and Report It
Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.
Be Accountable and Transparent
Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public. (Ahem.)
There is a notion that every person is a scientist; that we all use scientific methods to learn about the world. In the information age, I would venture to say that we are all journalists too, to some degree. We all look for information and we all report back to our friends, family or on social media. Apply fact-based information gathering, critical thinking and fairness to your own life.
There is a lot of bad journalism out there, much of it purveyed by the internet. But I can assure you that there is more good than bad.