Skills for journalists in print and digital media.

Archive for the ‘Five Stages of a Story’ Category

Accountability: Choices in watchdog coverage

leave a comment »

Holding those in power accountable is the heart of public service journalism. But sometimes reporters and editors think too narrowly about the possibilities.

Accountability does not just mean illegal. Accountability journalism is a matter of (a) citing a standard and then (b) showing how the subject  has fallen short or violated the terms. So think of “accountability” along a range of standards when covering a beat.

Consider this range of standards:

  • Illegal
  • Violation of policies, standards
  • Inefficient (i.e. costs, manpower)
  • Misleading; not as promised
  • Deceptive; fraudulent
  • Dangerous
  • Potentially harmful

Now consider the possibilities and examples here off a City Hall beat.

Illegal: The subject has violated the law. Pure and simple. (e.g. Department head embezzles money.)

Violation of policies, standards: Sometimes this takes digging deeper into city policies that may not be well known. Or if the city policy is vague, digging into similar policies in other cities, or national standards put forth by professional associations or other credible experts. (e.g. City building inspectors fail to follow up on condemned building notices as outlined in city policies. City employees expense personal travel expenses on official trips. City’s review policy for municipal judges far more lax than other cities, and below what the state Supreme Court recommends.)

Inefficient: This usually comes about by doing the math and making smart comparisons. Sometimes there are related standards. Other times the comparisons might run over periods of time or be struck between similar-size cities. (e.g. City finance department’s old computer system makes fast and immediate budget projections impossible. City spends twice what other similar-size cities spend for road repairs.)

Misleading, not as promised: Here the comparison is between what the subject said or promised and what actually happened. Sometimes inefficient and misleading combine. Often this is just recalling what was said in the past and comparing to the results in the present. (e.g. Mayor promised to install open bidding process on city projects — but a year later has not.)

Deceptive, fraudulent: This occurs when bad things are happening (e.g. inefficient) and the subject is willfully lying or covering up the failure. (e.g. City managers cover up overtime expenses to meet budget restrictions.)

Dangerous: When practices — even accepted practices — pose an immediate danger on any level. This can involve public health, money, staffing, etc. The task here is to articulate and prove the danger. (e.g. City water department has not updated its water testing procedures in 20 years, leaving public vulnerable to various pollutants.)

Potentially harmful: A variation on dangerous, but without the immediate threat. These stories look further into the future and may track a worrisome trend, project the math, or in some way identify a problem that has not yet occurred but soon may. (e.g. Rules on lobbyists are far more lax than in other cities, which could lead to undue influence by outside interests in coming budget negotiations.)

Again, the task for each level is to articulate a standard and then prove how it is missed or violated. In many cases, that means going outside the subject of the story for sources with expertise, perspective, proven standards, or other metrics that set up the case to be made.

The denouement comes when after working out the standard, the reporter confronts the subject with clear evidence of how it has been missed or violated. But often the bulk of the story is more explanatory, laying out the standards and the proof of how the subject has fallen short. The best avoid much he said / she said exchanges and instead focus on making a strong case.

This is the essence of good watchdog coverage of government, schools, health care, and other important public institutions, private companies, and powerful individuals. It is also time-consuming work that requires digging, critical thinking, and beat knowledge, things readers rely on us to provide.


Written by mroberts8

February 17, 2010 at 12:07 am

Five Stages of a Story: Part 3

leave a comment »

There are techniques reporters and editors can apply to the tasks of the Idea and Organize stage. Most are critical thinking approaches to help focus the idea. Consider:

IDEA stage

Story mapping: Map the story idea as a web. Lay out all aspects of the idea. Select the most important part of the “map” as the focus of the story and the reporting to come.

Central question: Identify the central question at the heart of your story idea. Then set out to answer that question.

Premise: Frame your idea as premise (rather than a fact) and set out to prove or disprove the premise. Remain open-minded as the reporting progresses.

Point of view: Write your topic or question in the middle of a circle. Around the circle list all the people with a connection to the story. Decide which person’s point of view might be the best way to report and tell the story.

Reader questions: Ask five questions a reader would ask about the topic. Set out to answer those five questions.

Five whys: Ask “why” five times. Each “why” should take you deeper into the topic and closer to the central question or central premise.


Story mapping: Re-map the story with all the information accumulated through reporting. If using a specific point of view, re-map the story with the selected point of view at the center.

Theme statement: In a sentence or two, express the central point of your story, the heart of your story. This can be the answer to your central question or a restatement of the central premise. Use the theme statement to help determine what material stays in the story, what is left out.

Jot outline: List key points in the order they will appear in the story. Consider story focus, length and packaging.

Story forms: Select a story form that will help shape the story. Consider inverted pyramid, block, wine glass or layer cake forms. (See related post on Story Forms.)

Written by mroberts8

October 17, 2009 at 12:10 am

Five Stages of a Story: Part 2

leave a comment »

The five stages of a story are: Idea. Report. Organize. Draft. Revise.

Each stage has a specific task that much be completed before moving on to the next stage. Skipping or not completing a task means it carries over into the next stage. Reporters and editors who find themselves trying to complete two, three or more tasks in one stage doom their work to failure.

Here are the tasks for each stage:

Five Stages of a Story

Idea: Many stories get off to a bad start when the initial idea is too vague. Even when not much is known about the subject, move beyond a simple topic (i.e. crime; poverty; water conservation) and try to frame a central question that seems to be at the heart of the story.

Report: With that question in hand, report until the question is answered.

Organize: Consider all the information. Reconsider what seems to be the central point of the story. Use that central point (well-shaped idea; one thing) to organize and structure the story, package or other content.

Draft: Produce a first draft to the plan.  Adjust as needed, but if all the conversations in the preceding stages were effective, this should be a time to focus on the elements of writing.

Revise: Revise and polish to the plan.

Written by mroberts8

October 16, 2009 at 11:39 pm

Five Stages of a Story: Part 1

leave a comment »

The five stages of a story is a process through which reporters and editors can work together on a story — or any other content. At the heart of the process is a continual emphasis on focus. Here are several quotes to help define what focus means in this process.

William Strunk, E.B. White, The Elements of Style:  Choose a suitable design and hold to it. A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur. This calls for a scheme or procedure…planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing. The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape.

William Blundell, The Art and Craft of Feature Writing: Artful and impeccable use of the language is less important in storytelling than you think. A well-shaped idea, convincing illustration and interpretation of it, and sound story structure count for more. Lacking these, the writer who follows all the instructions on fine-tuning his prose in all the book’s extant will produce a well-written failure.

Roy Peter Clark, Don Fry, Coaching Writers: Perhaps the central step in the writing process, focus gives a story unity and coherence. Most stories should be about one thing. The writer should understand and capture the heart of the story and offer it to the reader. Focus determines what to toss out as well as what to include. Many problems, especially disorganization, result when stories lack focus. Writers and editors search for focus by using a variety of tools; writing the lead, coming up with a headline, making a list of the most important points in the story, and developing a theme or point statement.

Thomas Boswell, Washington Post: The most important thing in the story is finding the central idea. It’s the one thing to be given a topic, but you have to find the idea or the concept within that topic. Once you have that idea or thread, all the other anecdotes, illustrations and quotes are pearls that hang on this thread. The thread may seem very humble, the pearls may seem very flashy, but it’s still the thread that makes the necklace.

When a story idea is focused, one is able to see the “basic structural design” and “determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape” — which means focus leads to structure. The focus is “a well-shaped idea” that leads to a successful story. And that is why “most stories should be about one thing,” with the well-shaped idea as that one thing. Not necessary a simple, one-note idea. But an idea that is clear about the story’s meaning. And that idea or one thing becomes the thread upon which reporters and editors can build a structure, string information, quotes, anecdotes and all the other building blocks of a story in a logical sequence and in the right propotions. That is focus.

Written by mroberts8

October 16, 2009 at 11:17 pm