Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

Going ‘on location’ makes a story ‘real’

By · Friday, May 14th, 2010

As I read a story on the front page of a local newspaper this week, I kept looking for a “real person” in the piece, which discussed how health-care officials were working to lower the area’s infant mortality rate. The story needed to quote someone — presumably a young mother with an “at-risk” child — who had used local services. But that someone wasn’t there.

I wondered if the reporter-editor team had tried, only to be thwarted by a tight deadline or concerns about privacy. I could understand this, but it didn’t seem such a situation would have been insurmountable. Public health officials who regularly work with journalists understand the “real people” element and how important it is to the story, and to their own success. Readers connect with stories better when they see people like themselves. This is a basic that journalists should understand, too.

I finished the story — which I was reading in the print edition, not online — and flipped back to the front page. And it was then that I experienced something quite common. There was a picture that I had overlooked, and it showed just the “real person” I was eager to see. She was sitting in her living room, 5-month-old in her arms.

Why wasn’t she in the story?

While I don’t know the answer in this case, this is something I have seen too often. A “real person” can be missing from a story when a reporter works the story by phone and requests a photo. The photographer connects with the folks the reporter is working with, and then goes out to take the picture. Of course. Because a photo can’t be taken over the phone.

What’s the point? Reporters must take a photographer’s mindset: I can’t do this story without finding a “real person,” seeing a “real person,” and including him or her in my story.

This happened many times in the small-town Pennsylvania newspaper where I worked after leaving USA TODAY. Our staff photographers would return from shoots and file their photos, and inevitably we would chat for a minute. They would tell me interesting nuggets about the people, and oftentimes about personal observations they had made while “on location.”

Then I’d read the story. Disappointment. The person in the picture was not in the story.

Sometimes a reporter legitimately would say, “I just couldn’t get there.”

But photographers juggle many assignments, too, and reporters should approach their own work in the same “must see” way.

Editors have to help make it happen.

In our book, “Think Like an Editor,” we discuss the importance of going “on location.” You can read about it in Strategy 2 — 10 Steps to a Better Story: How to Work with Reporters on a Focused Plan before They Report.

Find ways to beat the “I just don’t have time to go there” syndrome. Help make the story “real.”

Steve Davis

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