Tips for reporting and telling stories with traditional and new tools, including “Writing Tools” by Roy Peter Clark.

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CBC’s effort to uncover bodies in an alleged 58-year-old triple murder

On Wednesday, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship evening newscast dedicated 15-and-a-half minutes to a single jaw-dropping story.  It is the story of a horror that a woman said she witnessed 58 years ago and spent decades trying to get someone to care.

Courtesy CBC

Three years ago, my church pastor called to say he knew a woman who desperately needed a journalist to help her. The pastor said her story might seem to be outlandish and unbelievable, but asked me to give the woman a chance. He believed her, he said, beyond the shadow of a doubt. In more than 40 years of working in journalism I have come to understand that the most unbelievable stories can be true and when they are, they can be blockbusters.… Read more

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Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2014

J.D. Salinger

For Banned Books Week: An X-ray reading from Catcher in the Rye

File photo of J.D. Salinger appears next to copies of his classic novel “The Catcher in the Rye” as well as his volume of short stories called “Nine Stories.” (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

Earlier this year the editors of American Scholar published a dozen examples of “best sentences,” passages from classic literature worth saving and savoring. I was inspired by these and offered my own interpretation of what made them memorable. Now I’ve caught the bug and there appears to be no cure. With the blessing of Robert Wilson, editor of AS, I have chosen a number of sinewy or shapely sentences for X-ray reading, trying to understand what a writer can learn from each. (We’ll be publishing these exemplars occasion, highlighting the writing strategies that created them.)

Since this is also Banned Books Week, I begin with the first sentence of one of the most celebrated banned books of all time: The Catcher in the Rye, published by Little, Brown, which also, I’m proud to add, happens to be my publisher.… Read more

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Tuesday, Sep. 23, 2014

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Storytelling lessons from Budweiser puppy commercial

Budweiser strikes again.

Once again, with the help of a puppy, the beer maker created another viral commercial. Earlier this year, it aired a Super Bowl commercial titled “Puppy Love” that I deconstructed for Poynter.org readers.

The new ad, “Friends are Waiting” comes with this cutline:

Next time you go out, be sure to make a plan to get home safely. Your friends are counting on you. Enjoy Budweiser responsibly. #FriendsAreWaiting

Watch the ad then let’s pull it apart to see what video storytelling lessons we can adapt to news writing:

The story uses a story frame I call:
Once Upon a Time — Suddenly — Fortunately — As it turns out

The playful pup falls in love with the man and the man adores the dog.… Read more

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Monday, Sep. 22, 2014

A call for really good daily stories

Earlier this month I offered some ideas for how journalists can produce better daily stories.

The need is obvious. Thanks to the production demands confronting understaffed newsrooms, reporters and editors are increasingly favoring stories that can be done in a day (or less.)

But that doesn’t mean those stories need to be thin, predictable or boring. They don’t have to be kiss-offs.

Daily stories can be good stories. Sometimes, they can be great stories.

I’d like you to send me a daily story that you’re proud of.

Send me a daily story that you took beyond the routine. Maybe you elevated a straightforward assignment with a great interview, a vivid scene or strong character development. Maybe you offered your audience thoughtful analysis of an important issue.… Read more

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Wednesday, Sep. 10, 2014

Janay Rice

Diverse voices are missing from the debate over showing the Rice video

Once TMZ posted its video of “the punch” — the blow Ray Rice dealt his then fiancée and now wife, Janay Palmer Rice, knocking her unconscious and igniting controversy about how the NFL deals with domestic violence — editors throughout the country faced a single question of journalism ethics: Do we post the video?

Poynter’s resident writing coach, Roy Peter Clark, argues that such violent videos need to be made public because they create “the public outrage and outcry that pierces the shield of even such impenetrable institutions of the NFL.”

Janay Palmer Rice in May. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

His reasoning points to a growing chasm of compassion, dignity and empathy in U.S. media that has grown from our fault lines of race, class and gender.… Read more

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Tuesday, Sep. 09, 2014

Ray Rice, Janay Palmer

How the media can and does help domestic abuse victims

The Executive Director of CASA, the St. Petersburg, Florida domestic violence center told me “not a single word” of Janay Rice’s Instagram post surprised her.

After 30 years of working with domestic violence victims, Linda Osmundson says the Ray Rice case is typical of the 6,000 cases a year that flow through the victim support system, including a small shelter she oversees in Pinellas County. The big difference is most abuse cases don’t make the news. Most abuse happens behind closed doors, not in front of casino elevator cameras.

“Victims stand by their man,” Osmundson said. They will stand by him and stand by him and stand by him until they can’t stand by any longer. Why? Because they love him. They have children together, a house together, a life together.… Read more

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Monday, Sep. 08, 2014

Fast Food Restaurant

Three ways to serve up better dailies

Back when I was doing my communications gig for Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia, I received a phone call one morning from a reporter who was playing catch-up on a new state insurance regulation.

“I’ll be happy to explain it to you,” I said, “but be patient. It’s a little involved.”

About two minutes into my explanation, the reporter interrupted me.

“That’s okay,” he said. “That’s way too complicated. I’ll get something else for tomorrow.”

Another story falls victim to media bias.

No, not the liberal political bias that journalists so often are accused of having. This was another, perhaps more disturbing bias. It’s called:Production Bias.

Simply defined, Production Bias holds that if a story can’t be done in a day, we won’t do it.… Read more

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Monday, Aug. 25, 2014

Calendar Pages and Clock

Want to avoid procrastination? Impose an early deadline on yourself

When I wrote “The Glamour of Grammar,” I turned in the manuscript about three months late. Not a good feeling.

Friday morning, I turned in a finished draft of my next book, “The Art of X-ray Reading,” three months early. A very good feeling.

The key part of the word deadline, remember, is not the “line” part, but the “dead” part.

Now solve this riddle: When does a deadline become a lifeline?

The answer: When it is self-imposed.

I describe the process in my book Help! For Writers:

Many writers procrastinate until the deadline roars toward them like a train, the writer standing on the tracks. Pressing a deadline is a devil-may-care form of exhibitionism, a Houdini escape from a straitjacket, just in the nick of time, fueled by adrenaline.

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Friday, Aug. 22, 2014

Jay Nixon

Was Ferguson a ‘news desert’ until two weeks ago?

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon speaks during a news conference in Ferguson, Mo. Violent protests in Ferguson erupted in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer on Aug. 9. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Coming late to the Ferguson story, I have a modest thought to add to the ongoing discussion of why the police shooting and the bumbling local response to protests happened there.

My hunch is that like many aging and changing suburban communities, Ferguson had received only the most episodic of news coverage until all hell broke loose.  Political theory and high profile reports from the Knight Foundation and FCC suggest that when a town is a news desert, low civic engagement is almost certain to follow.

So if that’s the theory, isn’t Ferguson the practice? … Read more

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Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014

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Veteran photojournalist talks about going into hotspots

Photojournalist Ron Haviv

“The entire world is appalled by the brutal murder of Jim Foley by the terrorist group, ISIL,” President Barack Obama said on Wednesday. “He reported from difficult and dangerous places, bearing witness to the lives of people a world away.”

Around the time of the speech, I was discussing the impact of honest photographic reporting on an Associated Press Photo Managers’ online panel. One the many takeaways from the panel: The role of the photojournalist is often misunderstood. These women and men see themselves as the eyes and ears of the community. One just needs to ponder the disconcerting experience of seeing this focused group of individuals who rush to the epicenter of drama and trauma while others flee for safety.… Read more

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