For those who don’t know me, I’m Shelly Williams (now Conlon). I’m a former Shorty, who held several positions from reporter to EIC. I graduated in December 2013, and have been a professional journalist for almost five months at The Waxahachie Daily Light, a small community newspaper.
Similar to Natalie Webster’s ‘NatChat,’ I will also be posting tips, tricks and lessons I’ve learned on the No Bull blog every Tuesday. The difference is I’ll focus more on content and reporting. I’ll try to keep posts inspiring, but reporting isn’t always glamorous.
So, let’s start with something simple for rookies to The Shorthorn and seniors who want to continue a career as a journalist. (I say journalist, because even as a photographer or videographer, you’re still reporting a story).
Five eternal reporting lessons for a student journalist or beginning professional:
No. 1: Reporting is about the people, for the people.
No matter where you are or what you cover, remember you’re telling a story about a situation that impacts a person, and you’re reporting to tell the truth on how that issue or event is impacting that person or community.
No. 2: Be curious. Be thorough.
Every sentence you write, every photo you take, needs to add new information relative to the story you’re trying to tell. This will help carry your audience through the story. While stories and photos have to answer the typical “Who? What? When? Where? How? And Why?” take time to stop and evaluate what you’re reporting and what you’re shooting photos or video about. Consider the thought of “If I were a reader, what questions would I want to see answered?” Then, make a list of those questions you can then take to the people you’re interviewing. Plus, the answers to those questions will take your reporting beyond surface level and may lead you to other story ideas you can have in your back pocket to follow up on.
No. 3: Always do your research. Triple check your facts, then check them again.
Even if it’s as simple as reporting on an event to let readers know it’s coming up, it’s important to look in the archives to see what was done with that event the year before. What will be new this year?
I recently wrote an article about a woman who asked for community members to pay for a round-trip bus ticket from Texas to Ohio to see her dying sister. She solely lived on social security checks, making it difficult to do anything beyond paying bills. As a skeptic, and an advocate for readers, I had to verify that information. So, I researched her background to help make sure she wasn’t just someone hoping to get a little extra cash for herself. At one point, I discovered she’d been arrested for causing a disturbance during a pancake breakfast at a senior center. The information was not necessarily relevant to the story I was telling. Yet, if I hadn’t done that research and she had been arrested for fraud or scamming people for money, my publication’s and community’s trust and credibility would go out the window. All I did was research her name in the publication’s archives.
No. 4: Never trust an editor, but constantly check in.
I say this for the sole reason that if you don’t understand why an editor has done something, or has asked you to do something, ask.
If you have a question and you don’t speak up, how do you expect to learn how to further your skills? It’s better to try understanding a situation than go out and do something wrong because you didn’t know how. Editors are there to teach you and improve your skills, but they’re also busy people. If you don’t speak up, they may never know you need help.
No. 5: Be a journalist, but be human. The time you take out of a person’s day to speak to them is just as valuable as your own.
Your time is money. However, so is your source’s time. No one has to tell you or show you anything — ever.
While most people like to talk about themselves, there are those who realize they don’t have to say a word. Be courteous and professional no matter how close that deadline is, because the minute you’re not is the very minute the person you’re talking to realizes you’re only there to get a story.That’s the minute you go from being a voice for your reader to just trying to get the news out. While the quantity of work you produce is important, the quality (a.k.a. FAIRNESS, ACCURACY and BALANCE) is more important. Plus, kindness and professionalism often leads sources to tell you things they wouldn’t tell other media outlets because of the trust you’ve built.
On that note, I leave you with this — The “blah, blah, blah” incident: