What a Reporter Does

Reporters are responsible for telling newspaper readers about events. Doing this involves basic rules of creating news stories that are to the point, emphasize important details, and keep readers interested from the first paragraph to the last.

A newspaper story doesn’t have to be long to be informative. In fact, if all the information is there, shorter stories are better. Remember the saying “quality, not quantity?” The same holds true for news stories. Readers are less likely to read lengthy stories and adding fluff or unnecessary text detracts from a story’s focus. What is important, regardless of the length, is that the story includes certain details and in constructed in a way readers can understand.

A news story that does this begins with an opening paragraph that is called a “lead.” A lead should not only be well written to spark a reader’s interest, it should also summarize the story. In short, a reader could have at least an understanding of what the story is about, with subsequent paragraphs providing additional details.

Leads should be kept short, with a sentence that is 25 words or less. As a writer, you are trying to whet readers’ interest in a story. The lead paragraph is followed by the body of the story which includes the “5Ws” in journalism:

Who. A news story should inform readers of the details about individuals mentioned in a story.

Considerations include:

  1. Names, ages, and addresses of victims. Readers want to know if the deceased is someone they know and simply listing a name often is not enough. There may be a dozen men named “John Smith” living in the same city.
  2. Titles of officials discussed. How is their position relevant to what is written in the story?
  3. Backgrounds of political candidates and elected officials. How has the situation you are writing about evolved from previous positions or actions they have taken?

What. Readers need to know all the facts about an incident:

  1. What kind of weapon was used in the commission of a homicide? How many times was the victim attacked?
  2. What are the consequences of a city council, school board, or other elected body not taking action on a matter?
  3. What are scientists hoping to accomplish through research?
  4. What are the reasons a candidate is seeking elected office?

A story’s location may simply inform the reader, but it can also add relevance to why an event was held at a certain location:

  1. Was a school board meeting moved to different location for a specific reason?
  2. Did a politician announce his candidacy in a neighborhood to highlight problems in that area?
  3. Was a city council meeting relocated because of problems at its regular meeting space. (often a story in itself)

Readers also need to know specific locations for crime incidents because those are areas they want to avoid.

When. Documenting when something occurs is important because it lets readers know whether an event or meeting occurred recently, or if the writer is referencing a past event. Just as important, readers need to know the date and time, because knowing that information beforehand may impact their lives:

  1. When will weather conditions be detrimental?
  2. When is the big game?
  3. When is a public forum being held?
  4. When will the city council vote on a controversial issue?

Why. Writers need to make sure they have explained why a story is important to readers:

  1. If a city council is planning to cut services, how will the reader be impacted?
  2. An increase in homicides may indicate readers are living in a high crime area and want to consider relocating.
  3. Is a candidate’s position one that the reader agrees or disagrees with? Of course, that decision will vary among individuals, but they cannot make that determination if the information is not presented.

The importance of summarizing a story’s relevant information in the lead paragraph and subsequently sharing other details represents a style known in journalism as an “inverted pyramid.” Using the most important information first represents the bulk of a story, with less important details at the bottom – thus the name “inverted pyramid.”

This style is said to have originated during the Civil War so reporters could relay the most important information first via telegraphs line to guard against the possibility lines might be cut before they had completed their reports. That style is also important today because people do not read as much, thus the need for stories that prioritize information so readers can quickly know what articles are about.

Journalists should remember they are the eyes and ears for readers. News stories should be interesting and tell readers at a glance what they need to know. Just like the narrative of a good novel, a successful news story should make readers feel they are part of the story.

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