The Anatomy of a Story

What a mix of stories in the first newsletter of the Spring semester! There was plenty to read for our readers.

There was also a difficult story to write and report for any reporter, an obituary. We worked on today for the newsletter about Kelly Walters.

They are difficult to report because you have to talk to friends and family members who have just lost someone dear. They are hard to write because it will be that last thing people could read about this person.

Obituaries are about a couple of things 1.) to tell the reader about this person — who they were 2.) to tell the reader what happened — how they died, what is significant about their death 3.) to give information about services.

That’s a lot for one story but it can be done. The New York Times obit section is the gold standard in journalism circles on how to write good ones.  So let’s take a look at how we did.

It starts with the lede. Just like with news stories, an obit lede needs to capture the reader.

Since the first grade, political science junior Kelly Walters wanted to be president, said her mother, Ginna Walters.

Ginna Walters said that in the election of 2000, when the winner was disputed between Al Gore and George W. Bush, Kelly decided that neither deserved to be president. Ginna Walters said her daughter took some college ruled paper from her brother and hand wrote a letter to President Bill Clinton volunteering to be president. She actually got a response on White House stationery from Clinton about how she needed to prepare for leadership, her mother said.

“It’s terribly cute for a first grader to write in her own handwriting. She was able to do that at that age,” Ginna Walters said.

Not a bad start. Let’s try something more direct.

Kelly Walters wanted to be president since first grade.

During the election of 2000, when the winner was disputed between Al Gore and George W. Bush, the political science junior declared no one deserved the presidency. So she volunteered, writing then president Bill Clinton to step up to the plate.

Clinton responded on White House stationery, urging her to prepare for leadership.

“It’s terribly cute for a first grader to write in her own handwriting,” her mother Ginna Walters said Monday. “She was able to do that at that age.”

See how direct that is? Still has the same information with fewer words and it gets down to the great quote from her mom. It also allows you to get a key piece of information higher in the story — how she died.

Just like a regular article, obits have news. Here’s how we addressed this.

Ginna Walters hopes telling her daughter’s story will help find the driver who fatally struck Kelly on Friday. Investigators are looking for an older model SUV that may have struck her and left the scene, according to an Arlington Police Department news release.

“It is hard but I’m also interested in getting her story out in case it helps anybody find who did it and help the person who did it understand what they did,” Ginna Walters said. “She was my daughter but she was also my best friend. The hole in my heart is for a friend.”

Oh. Em. Gee. That quote. So poignant.  But we gotta get through the news before we get to it. Here’s how to handle that.

Kelly Walters died Friday night as she attempted to cross the street near the intersection of Northeast Green Oaks Boulevard and Burney Road. Arlington police believe Walters was struck by a older model SUV. A good samaritan called first responders when they saw her lying in the street. Kelly was taken to a local hospital and pronounced dead, according to a police news release.

Police continue to search for the SUV. Ginna Walters said that by telling her daughter’s story, she hopes the driver of the SUV will be found.

“She was my daughter but she was also my best friend,” she said. “The hole in my heart is for a friend.”

So we got the news in there. The information I here came from the press release from the Arlington Police Department, which posts them on their Facebook page. Note how we have specifics, the place the accident happened, the type of car, etc. We also cited the source and streamlined the quote. Did you notice that the beginning of the mother’s quote was already mentioned in the transition? That allowed for the streamlining of the quote that helped get to apex of it — the hole in her heart for a friend.

A piece of information that is still needed in the story was information about services. With a death this sudden, it could be that services were not organized yet. That’s okay. We could write that services are forthcoming or pending. That lets readers know that we asked the question and there is more information coming. We should think about adding that information to the story and using social media when it becomes available.

So let’s talk about the reporting. When it comes to reporting an obit, you want to be kind and courteous with your sources. You want to take your time. They are grieving and answering questions at this time is difficult. So a basic interview that can take 20 minutes can take more than 30 minutes. I’ve had some that went more than one hour. That’s okay. Plan for that.

You want to take some time before the interview to write questions — as many as you can — before you talk to them. You may only get one chance so it’s important to ask the first time. Some things to ask about (other than the news/nuts and bolts) is favorite memories, favorite stories, how they are feeling, what is that person’s legacy, etc.

One thing that should have been done better, however, was the speed in which this story got on the website. This story online now is an news obituary. The first one written was a brief, the 5 Ws and H. In the world of online reporting, the brief goes up quickly. Though we knew about this earlier, we chose to run the story late Monday. With stories like this we need to get it up online as soon as possible. The sooner we write and put the brief up, the sooner (and better) we can write the obituary.

Alright, that’s what I got. Open door if there’s any questions.

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