The Washington Post just announced the start of a new storytelling site: Storyline. Jim Tankersley, editor of Storyline, explains.
Today we launch a new destination on Washingtonpost.com, dedicated to the power of stories to help us understand complicated, critical things. We’re focused on public policy, but not on Washington process. We care about policy as experienced by people across America. About the problems in people’s lives that demand a shift from government policymakers and about the way policies from Washington are shifting how people live.
Any storyteller should be excited about what this site promises:
- We’ll tell those stories at Web speed and frequency.
- We’ll ground them in data — insights from empirical research and our own deep-dive analysis — to add big-picture context to tightly focused human drama.
- We’ll invite you to join in the storytelling experience, by clicking a button and sharing your story with us and your fellow readers.
- We’ll tell all kinds of stories, because, as my mother the school librarian loves to remind me, people learn in all kinds of ways.
- Some stories we will tell in chapters, across days and months, collected under themes that we call storylines.
- Sometimes we’ll let our visuals — our short documentary films and photo galleries and charts — do the talking. Sometimes we’ll push the boundaries of traditional narrative journalism, weaving those visuals together with text in fun new ways.
Stories are fundamental to communication, and journalists are trained storytellers. In an evolving profession, journalists are learning to tell stories in different ways, on multiple platforms. The constant is why they do it — to enlighten, entertain and engage.
These themes also are paramount to an evolving audience — people who want more and expect more, who want it now, who want it their way.
Let’s watch and experience what it’s all about as The Washington Post gets started.
Sometimes profound insight is found in the most unexpected places. This short piece of advice comes from James Garner, as reported in USA TODAY’S obituary of the actor, who died July 19 at age 86.
“I’m a Spencer Tracy-type actor,” Garner once said. “His idea was to be on time, know your words, hit your marks and tell the truth. Most every actor tries to make it something it isn’t [or] looks for the easy way out. I don’t think acting is that difficult if you can put yourself aside and do what the writer wrote.”
It seems that this sage advice could apply to so many aspects of a person’s professional life — and certainly could be the essence of a journalist’s credo.
Simple. Direct. Practical. Selfless. Think about it.
With the tragic news of the downed Malaysia Airlines jet over Ukraine, here are some tips for covering breaking news of this kind as more details are uncovered and stories are updated — by the minute, hour, day, week and beyond. Keep track of and check the following in every story.
- Flight number
- Number of people on board
- Breakdown of passengers on board and crew members on board
- Nationalities / countries of those on board
- Type of jet
- Originating city and destination city
- Flight path of jet
- Altitude of jet
- Location of wreckage
- Initial cause of the crash
- Status of recording devices
Sometimes news organizations will report conflicting information. As appropriate, include that information in coverage and explain the reason for the discrepancy. Breaking news is fluid. Knowing what you don’t know — and why — and explaining that to your audience is just as important as being accurate with the kinds of details that won’t change.
Sources are important, too. As you gather information and report it, be sure to include where you obtained the details and from whom. This helps you to be transparent with your audience, and it also protects your credibility.
Another hoax. Surprise, surprise.
How many people published, posted, shared, liked, tweeted, retweeted and commented on the YouTube video of a shark sighting in Lake Ontario — without a bit of skepticism?
Hooray for those who at least suspected it was a hoax.
Even more important, how many people were genuinely concerned? Here’s a sense from a story published on syracuse.com that asked its audience: “A Hoax or the Real Deal?”
- Erin Whalen, a waitress at the Wolfe Island Grille, told the National Post that she’s talked to customers who think it was a bull shark.
“I think a lot of people aren’t sure if it’s a true story or not,” she said. “But it’s got a lot of parents being wary.”
- Axl Mellon, an employee at a local fishing tackle outfitter on Wolfe Island, said he’s heard that the purported shark is over five feet long.
“We’re usually just scared of musky and water snakes, but now this is a realistic threat,” said Mellon.
About a week after the shark story broke, cable channel Discovery Canada announced yesterday that it was all part of a promotion for its upcoming Shark Week programming in August.
Fake videos as promotions. Remember the YouTube sensation “Lonelygirl15″ that attracted a lot of attention? A few viewers got wise and uncovered the truth — that was not teenager “Bree” pouring out her heart in a series of videos posted online. She was a scripted 20-year-old actress helping create buzz for a hoped-for movie.
Hoaxes and gimmicks can make incredible video stories. Editors must be especially vigilant to prevent them from being posted as news — or posted at all. Sometimes editors must be the messengers who alert readers about fakes. Use your resources to check things out for your audience. The site snopes.com routinely investigates and reports about all kinds of truths and myths, for example.
People don’t like to be fooled — or alarmed. Even Discovery Canada says it cut short its promotion when it found out people on Wolfe Island were concerned.
Perhaps the best way to think about this is through the comment of University of Guelph marine biologist Jim Ballantyne, who had theorized the creature could not be a shark.
“It sort of seems a bit unethical to frighten people,” he said after learning of the prank.
Writers love words, right? And there are so many choices. Choose wisely. One way is to focus on strong verbs and the active voice. Make it a top priority to achieve lively language. Following are some tips to get you started.
How to strengthen verbs
Weak: There are good reasons to use strong verbs when writing and editing.
Instead: Use strong verbs when writing and editing.
Weak: There is a meeting of editors at 3 p.m. today.
Instead: Editors will meet at 3 p.m. today.
Weak: That player elevates higher than anyone.
Instead: That player jumps higher than anyone.
Weak: Lawmakers drew comparisons among their proposals.
Instead: Lawmakers compared their proposals.
Weak: If you don’t agree, fill out a complaint form.
Instead: If you disagree, file a complaint.
Avoid the passive voice
The passive voice weakens the message. Instead, use the active voice with strong verbs. Follow the subject / verb / object structure. Let the subject do the action. When a message is delivered in the passive voice, an action is put upon the subject.
Weak, passive: The message is weakened by the passive voice.
Instead, active: The passive voice weakens the message.
Weak, passive: The story was improved by the editor.
Instead, active: The editor improved the story.
Weak, passive: A special series about global warming was written by a reporter who had been in Antarctica for two months.
Instead, active: A reporter who lived in Antarctica for two months wrote a special series about global warming.
Tips to ensure strong verbs
Consult a thesaurus. Use every opportunity to make a good verb better and a strong verb stronger. Choose precisely the right word. Rewrite and rethink.
Weak: The judge will make a decision before Tuesday.
Good: The judge will decide before Tuesday.
Better: The judge will rule before Tuesday.
Check definitions. Be sure words convey their intended meanings. A quick look in the dictionary can uncover a better word for the message. Pay attention to nuance. Visualize the action.
Weak: The contestants hastily ate hot dogs. (To put food in the mouth, chew if necessary, and swallow — Webster’s)
Good: The contestants stuffed their mouths with hot dogs. (To eat too much or too quickly — Webster’s)
Better: The contestants gorged themselves with hot dogs. (To eat gluttonously; to swallow greedily — Webster’s)
When assessing content, if you must think too long about whether something is fair, then it probably is not, and you should redirect your energy into making it fair. Fairness has to do with being aware of and attentive to nuances, treating people with respect, and anticipating perceptions that readers will take away with them. Fairness has to do with being consistent, yet flexible when circumstances require. A role of an editor is to consider context in making decisions case by case — and to do so with care and a conscience. All journalists, not just editors, should approach content this way.
Questions you can ask about story treatment
Does a story make light of people at their expense? News can be fun, and news organizations can have fun with obvious, lighthearted news. But they should not do it at anyone else’s expense. It would not be fair. Police reports and court proceedings, for example, are full of humorous situations and predicaments, but the humor factor is relative — it might not be funny to the person in the news. Editors can take their lead from how people react to their own situations. If people in the news think what happened is funny, then editors can feel comfortable that a light approach to the story would be appropriate and fair. If in doubt, err on the side of caution.
Are people and issues treated differently in similar situations? Editors should ask this question to ensure that readers do not perceive favoritism. If a news organization routinely publishes driving while intoxicated arrests, for example, then it should not withhold publication of some arrests just to protect certain people. The same is true for any news of record that is regularly published. A news organization should not decide to leave someone out because publication would be an embarrassment or because of the person’s place in the community and connections to high-profile people. Readers have a sense of how news is treated. They will notice exceptions.
News judgment is a different thing
These distinctions regarding fairness should not be confused with news judgment, however. There are times when editors make exceptions because the news warrants more extensive coverage — or less extensive coverage. When a prominent person in a community dies, a news feature about that person usually is published, even though only short obituaries announce the deaths of most people in the community. This practice is not favoritism; it is sound news judgment that readers expect. News judgment is the reason prominent people might be singled out in unfavorable coverage, too. A DWI or drug arrest of a prominent person might be published as a full story, even if other people arrested appear only in a list. This is not unfair treatment of the prominent person; it is a response to the news value of that person’s arrest.
How you can decide
Use the “me” test. If this were about me, what would be my reaction?
- What if I don’t want to be interviewed?
- What if I don’t think this is funny?
- What if I don’t want my arrest to be published?
This is a good approach to start. But, then, step back and use the “editor” test. Review everything once more. Consider news values, consistent practices and whether any exceptions are valid. Ask other editors what they think. In the quest to be fair, consider the consequences of publishing — and of not publishing. You want readers to always trust your news organization to deliver news and information. You don’t want them to think you are withholding news or shirking your responsibility to disseminate it. Make your decisions with care and with a conscience.