Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Reporting Life, Part Four

By Kathleen Miller.

5:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Now it’s time to write. Everybody goes about this process differently.

The lede, or first sentence of an article, is arguably the most important part of a story. You’re trying to hook readers and summarize the story at once, typically in less than 40 words.

I personally prefer to dive in, throwing all my information onto the page and allowing the story to shake out as I write it. My boyfriend, who I’ve occasionally had to double byline stories with, takes the opposite approach. The kid will literally spend an hour visiting and using an online thesaurus to revise and rework every single word in the lede until he’s totally satisfied with it before thinking about the rest of the story.

I’m too anxious. Plus, I think while you’re writing the rest of the story, it often helps hone your lede and reminds you of what the overall point here is. That being said, his ledes are typically better than mine. But his stories are often late.

After the lede comes a nut graph, in which you put the whole story in context, generally referencing the background elements that led to the breaking news. For example, if council members voted to restrict homeowners’ rights to add-on to their homes, the nut graph may mention that “mansionization” has been an issue in Montgomery County for years as neighbors complain that some people’s massive reconstruction efforts block other people’s sunlight and intrude on their privacy.

It’s basically as simple as that typically, with the story filled out by quotes and insight from people on both sides of whatever issue is being covered.

There is a new school of thought in journalism championed by the AP’s Washington bureau chief Ron Fournier that says reporters should “cut through the clutter,” or essentially call bullshit as they see it.

I took a journalism ethics class in graduate school where we learned that during the McCarthy era, many reporters felt professionally restricted, only able to report exactly what McCarthy and his targets said, and not offer any independent insight or analysis about the situation. The press in those days, apparently, was often far less-educated than the people they covered, and there was a sort of hesitance to challenge authority or do anything other than basically act as stenographers.

Last summer, Fournier said in a memo to AP reporters that they should “write with authority.” “The AP's hard-earned reputation for fairness and nonpartisanship must not be used as an excuse for fuzzy language when a clear voice is demanded, nor should it force us to give both sides of a story equal play when one side is plainly wrong.”

Fourner said that shortly after Katrina struck, he had “dutifully reported” that President Bush had said nobody anticipated the breach of the levees, when, in actuality, many experts had actually predicted a major storm would bust New Orleans’ flood-control barriers.

“In the past, that’s all I would have written;” Fournier wrote in the memo. “Readers would get both sides of the story and then be expected to draw their own conclusion. This time, I went a step further and simply wrote: He was wrong. Why not? Why force the readers to read between carefully parsed lines when the facts are clear? Why not just get to the point? The president of the United States was wrong. The governor lied. The congressman broke his promise. The preacher, the CEO, the banker, the coach, or whomever, failed. Don’t mince words... Too often we depend on the government and its critics to tell us what happened, and we end up with he said/she said stories that never get to the bottom line.”

It’s an interesting concept. I think it’s both smart and dangerous. If you’ve covered an administration or an issue for years like Fournier or many of his team, you are probably an expert in your own right and deserve the power to call it like you see it.

You can’t use that style every day, in every story or on every topic, however, or you risk editorializing. There are some topics - for me, environmental policy - where at this stage of the game, I have no business calling BS or cutting through the clutter. I’m too green, (yikes - pun unintended) to take on that role. In others, like local immigration policy or WSSC drama, I feel like I’ve been in the weeds enough to cut through the crap on occasion.

Tomorrow: 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.