Beth Winegarner


Desensationalizing stories dealing with tragedies such as the shootings at Columbine High School require careful reporting by journalists. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

5 tips on how to desensationalize stories

Every year, news agencies fight harder than before to capture the audience’s attention — and every innovation seems to make that job tougher. With the creation of cable news, the 24-hour news cycle and, more recently, a seemingly infinite number of online options, consumers can get their news just about anywhere, forcing news outlets into ever-more-questionable reporting practices.

Kathy Walton, an audio engineer for several broadcast news services, told me online recently, “I blame the wireless remote control. I’m serious. The day it became so easy to change the channel was the day television news stopped being news and began tap dancing to keep people from clicking away.”

Often, sensationalism is used to lure the audience’s attention. While some publications have made exaggeration and manipulation of the news their stock-in-trade, others stretch the truth less intentionally, not realizing their chosen angle is iffy or just plain wrong. But when it comes to breaking news, especially crime, there’s no substitute for strong storytelling based on solid facts. Read more

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Judges Gavel

6 tips for reporters tracking state legal cases

Newsrooms across the country have been hemorrhaging staff for more than a decade. They’ve had to cut back on major areas of coverage, including investigative reporting and another important beat: court reporting.

Today, reporters might be dispatched to cover big trials, but everyday lawsuits and court hearings are often overlooked. The courts can provide a rich source of daily stories as well as compelling narrative features, and it doesn’t take much time to keep tabs on them when you know what to do.

This piece offers six tips for tracking the legal cases you and your readers, listeners and viewers will want to know about. The tips focus on state courts because they’re often free; the federal courts make most cases available online, but they’re behind the PACER paywall. They can be tracked via Lexis Nexis, but that also costs money.

Check for new cases once a week.

Every state has its own court system, with courts in just about every county. Read more

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Lockedinfo2

6 ways journalists can keep their reporting materials private & off-the-record

The recent discovery that the U.S. Department of Justice has seized Associated Press and Fox News phone records has seriously shaken the news industry.

It remains unclear whether the DOJ went through all the proper channels to get that information. Either way, the situation has made journalists wonder who else has been investigated — and who’s next.

The Internet makes many reporting tasks much easier, from gathering information to communicating with sources. But it also leaves a trail of digital bread crumbs for law-enforcement officials to follow — and electronic messages aren’t protected as strongly as those on paper, Trevor Timm, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said via email.

“Despite the fact that police need a warrant to read physical letters or listen to phone calls, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act says police don’t need a warrant for email over 180 days old,” Timm said.

There are a number of ways journalists can protect themselves. Read more

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lookingforwork

6 tips for getting gigs as a freelance journalist

In Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe,” freelancers or freelances were mercenaries — knights who didn’t belong to any kingdom’s army. Instead, they offered their lance-wielding skills to wealthy landowners. They were the private security officers of their day.

Today, freelance journalism can feel like a constant battle: to come up with good ideas, to pitch them to the right places and to land assignments that both pay well and leave enough room for more writing.

Many reporters turn to freelancing at some point in their careers. They may be fresh out of college and hoping to build a broad range of clips. They may be victims of downsizing who are trying to keep their bylines out there. Or they may be in a situation where they need the flexibility freelancing can provide.

Freelancing has its downsides, including instability, serving as your own collections agency and waiting months for payment. But it also has a major upside, says San Francisco freelance reporter Chris Roberts: “Freedom. Read more

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How journalists can stay safe while working in the field

When journalists head into the field to cover a story, they frequently bring expensive equipment with them. Whether it’s high-end digital cameras, video cameras for television, laptops or smart phones, the gear that’s essential to our jobs can also be tempting to criminals.

After San Francisco Bay Area journalists were robbed in six separate incidents in this summer, I talked to some of those news teams to find out what happened. The journalists I spoke with offered advice on how to stay safe while reporting in the field, what to do if your equipment is stolen, and how to protect your data in case it disappears into thieves’ hands.

Prepare before you go

Laura Oda, chief photographer for the Oakland Tribune, was shooting murals for a news article earlier this month. As she was loading her cameras back into her car, two men approached her from behind. One pointed a gun at her and said, “Gimme all your stuff.” They made off with four cameras, three lenses, a laptop, a hard drive and many archives from Oda’s 18 years at the Tribune. Read more

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6 ways journalists can cope when covering tragedies like the Colorado theater shooting

Almost every journalist will report on a crisis at some point, whether it’s a murder, a sexual assault, a natural disaster or a shooting like the one that happened overnight at a theater in Aurora, Colo.

The untold story is the effect such stories can have on the reporters who cover them.

Some major-league news outlets, such as The New York Times, offer mental-health resources to reporters who need it, whether they’re covering wars overseas or disasters on their home turf. But smaller newsrooms don’t always provide these services.

If you’re struggling to shake the effects of a traumatic incident you’ve covered, here are some tips that can help you stay sane — and stay in the business.

Mentally prepare yourself

San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Henry K. Lee began chasing police cars on his bicycle when he was 7. “Part of me is still that 7-year-old boy who is enamored with the thrill of the chase, the sirens and lights,” he told me by email. Read more

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5 tips for journalists who want to do a better job of cultivating sources

Sources are one of a reporter’s biggest assets. If you cover a regular beat, you’ll find yourself talking to some of the same people pretty often. Over time, if you forge relationships with the right sources, you’ll find that they can become the gateway to career-making scoops.

Sources who trust and respect you will come to you first when they hear news on the down-low. But it takes time to earn that trust and respect. Here are five tips that will put you on the right track.

Embrace the small talk

Many reporters aren’t into schmoozing, but a few friendly words can set you apart from reporters who treat sources like information-vending machines instead of human beings. Think of small talk as the mayo in the tuna salad sandwich of your reporting.

When you reconnect with a source you’ve talked to before, ask how their day is going. Genuinely listen when they respond. Read more

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5 ways journalists can overcome shyness during interviews

When I was a kid, I was the walking definition of “painfully shy.” I was so shy, I couldn’t read out loud when teachers called on me, even though I could read at a higher grade level than my classmates. I was too paralyzed by anxiety to open my mouth.

Soon, I discovered I could write — and write well. When writing, I felt safe to express myself, so I wrote a lot. As a teenager, I found a home at my high-school newspaper and realized I could make journalism a career.

But there was a catch: being a journalist meant talking to people. It meant picking up the phone and cold-calling strangers. It meant walking up to people on the street and asking them personal questions. It meant practically stalking politicians and public figures for a chance at a juicy quote. Each of these prospects terrified me.

With time and experience (not to mention a desire to earn a living), I developed methods for tricking myself into doing all of these things. Read more

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How journalists can stop the spread of misinformation when reporting on the occult

Police in Fairfield, Conn., say new DNA evidence may help them catch the suspect who strangled a newborn boy and left his body by the banks of Lake Mohegan 26 years ago. But as police and reporters return the case to the public eye, they’re also resurrecting rumors that Santeria or Palo Mayombe were involved in the killing.

The infant’s body was laid on a piece of burlap pinned with crosses of St. Lazarus, surrounded by pieces of fruit, coins and food, according to police. Some inspectors claimed these were signs that the killing was part of a ritual, even though neither faith practices human sacrifice.

Police admitted the connection to Santeria was just a guess: “We called it Santeria because we had to label it something,” Fairfield Police Lt. Mike Gagner told the Fairfield Citizen. “There are similar religions; we just don’t know enough about the practices to say.” Local television took it further, connecting the crime to Palo Mayombe, which a reporter erroneously called “a dark offshoot of the Santeria religion.”

Santeria and Palo Mayombe, which are not related faiths, both developed in Africa. Read more

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The hot sauce trial: 5 ways journalists can improve coverage of research

Humans are messy and complicated. Psychologists and sociologists have put us through proverbial rats’ mazes for decades, hoping to find patterns in our behavior. Every time, our humanness gets in the way.

Social science is not like physical science: drop 10 eggs from the same height, and they’ll all fall. Feed eggs to 10 people, though, and you may get 10 different responses. Did the subject’s mother serve eggs every Sunday for breakfast? How did she feel about her mother? Are eggs the subject’s favorite food? Is he allergic? It all plays a role.

That’s why reporting on social-science studies can be deceptively hard. Sure, each one opens with a theory that seems solid and sensible — an easy news hook. But dig deeper, and you’ll find that most studies raise more questions than they answer.

These tips, aimed at general assignment reporters, can save you from misinterpreting or sensationalizing a researcher’s hot new findings. Read more

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