Thoughts on Good Journalism from a Ugandan Newsroom

Oct 122007

Fellow Bill Ristow kept a running diary of his work with the New Vision newspaper.

Bill Ristow, who just completed his Knight Fellowship as newsroom trainer at Uganda’s New Vision newspaper, wrote a weekly newsletter, “20-20 Vision,” that became a must-read for journalists at the New Vision and elsewhere. Among Ristow’s parting thoughts for his colleagues was this “Top Ten to Remember” list:

  1. GET. IT. RIGHT. It’s true, this list is not in order of importance. But at the top, it is in priority order. Accuracy is #1, and you know why – every training group quickly drew up a strong list of the impacts of inaccuracy, and at the top of every list was our credibility. It doesn’t matter how many stories you have, how artistically they’re written, or what variety you offer. If readers doubt their accuracy, your business, and reputation, will suffer. This applies to reporting stories, writing them, editing them, and yes, proofing the pages at the end of the cycle. Mistakes can happen in EACH of these stages, and more. Don’t add to the problem.
  2. Follow up, follow up, follow up. I think you are all familiar with this one. The newsletter editor has been crabby enough about it! But I think things are improving – and if the new newsroom structure really does improve the team system, and clarify who is responsible for which coverage, that should make a big difference in following up important stories. Like accuracy, though, this is everyone’s responsibility: if you’re wondering about a story the paper ran six months ago, ask someone. Readers start to notice when you regularly run big stories on page one – and then allow them to drop out of sight the next day. And they notice even more when you surprise them – by returning to those big stories, with solid updates. Remember? It is one of your biggest victories when readers say: “Hmmmm, I was wondering about that!”
  3. Use more – and more varied -- sources! There are still stories in the paper with just one source, and too often it is a government official (or worse, a statement from a government official). Every time you talk to even one more source, you are increasing the chances that you’ll understand the story better, be able to explain it better – and possibly, discover biases or problems with the first guy’s story. AND if you make sure that you are including a source who is one of the people affected by the topic of this story, it will almost surely improve it by 100%.
  4. We work for the readers! This theme has come up many different ways in this newsletter. My hope is that you will remember it as an OVERALL theme, because it covers so much important ground. Here are two important ways it has come up in questions of journalistic standards:
    • Check-passing photos and stories that seem to have NO other purpose than to make a large business (advertiser?) happy. When readers see too many things like that, they say: “Oh, I see who this newspaper works for! It doesn’t work for ME, it works for those special interests, and I figure they pay it to cover their news.” And when readers feel like that, they don’t respect your other news choices.
    • Ethics, bias and politics. If you accept a brown envelope, if you accept transport or other facilitation from a news source, if you decide to do a story (or NOT to do a story) because it involves the political party you support, or because it involves your cousin – well, you are surely NOT working for the readers. And guess what? They will figure that out. Maybe not tomorrow, or the next day, but the word will get around.
  5. Make it USEFUL. This is related to the concept of working for readers, but takes it into a more active stage. When they read one of our stories, readers often want to know what they can DO as a result. We should help them out. Where is the hearing being held? Who can you contact for more information about the project, or to get involved? What time is the concert beginning? How much does that new product cost? When will the road construction be completed, and where will the delays be happening? Every sort of story can benefit from “useful” information – and often, you present it most effectively by pulling it out as a box.
  6. Show, don’t just tell. This is for all aspects of a story. Make sure the reporting uses multiple sources and gathers visual or other sensory detail as well as dry facts. Make sure the writing captures those details and turns them into quick little descriptions that help the reader feel that he or she is there. Make sure the design and presentation include maps or other graphics that not only provide important information, but also tell the reader immediately where this story is happening, or what it is about. Make sure the photograph is a storytelling photograph, portraying some aspect of the theme of the story, not just a picture to prove that you were there. And use the caption to introduce contextual information – not just as a label for the people who happen to be in the picture.
  7. Make it clear – right at the top. Remember the 4-inch rule. If you haven’t given the readers a clear idea of what this story is about in that amount of space – about 100 words – you will probably lose them. This requires clearly understanding yourself what the story is about – and it requires that “ruthless” self-editing we talked about in training. It requires providing a context element where you might tell how this story connects to other events in the past, or what impact it might have on someone or something. Sound like a lot to accomplish in 100 words? Not really – if you don’t feel the need to include the title of every Deputy Sub-minister of the Department of Doing Nothing in your lead paragraph! Take the readers by the hand gently, and walk them into the story – using crisp, clean sentences. Then they’ll be prepared to handle whatever complexities you have to offer.
  8. Read it aloud. Everyone, from the reporter to the assigning editor to the sub-editor, should remember that this is THE single most powerful tool for checking the clarity of a story, the word usage, and the general structural flow. Not to mention the best way to tell whether you have one of the dreaded, gasping-for-breath, SUITCASE LEADS.
  9. someone says something, please: Let them just SAY it. Don’t say they “revealed” it. Don’t say they “claimed” it. Don’t say they “argued” it. The English language is full of confusing, convoluted words. But it has some extremely simple ones, too, and one of the simplest is: “said.” Don’t overuse it – you rarely need to repeat the attribution numerous times. But when someone says something, this is ALWAYS the word of choice (although it can occasionally be supplemented by neutral words such as “added”). Avoid ANY word that adds some judgment about whether the thing he is saying is true or anything else.
  10. Whether you are a reporter, a photographer, an editor, a sub-editor, or anyone else who has anything to do with what goes in the newspaper every day, please: Always remember to ask the two most important questions about stories, photos, headlines, graphics, and everything else: WHO CARES, and SO WHAT.