How To’s

Quick tips for building journalism skills, from reporting to using Twitter. Suggest or submit a How To.


Tragic images of children captured by photojournalists over time

In most cultures, children are valued as precious gifts of life — treasured icons of hope.

That stands in stark contrast to photographs circulated this week of a small, lifeless refugee child lying face-down on a Turkish beach with his bright red shirt, little blue cargo shorts and Velcro-strapped, sneakers. Almost immediately, the image became a symbol of the plight of refugees fleeing the Syrian crisis. When children are harmed, abused or neglected, the world gasps collectively — sometimes mobilizing to action. Such visceral stories are often best reported in words, sound and pictures. The news media did just that this week and the images struck audiences the deepest. We look back on other moving, iconic photos of children — often the casualties of life’s most bitter conflicts. Read more


Wednesday, Sep. 02, 2015


15 tips for handling quotes

In the almost 40-year history of the Poynter Institute, there have been few topics that generate as much debate among journalists as how to handle quotes.

I love it when a dogmatic reporter argues, “I only use the exact words that a person says, nothing more or less.” Then comes my cross-examination: “Do you include every time the source says ‘like’ or ‘you know’?” “If the mayor says ‘gonna’ do you ever change it to ‘going to’?” The reporter grumbles. It’s my Perry Mason moment.

One of the benefits of moving my office from one end of Poynter to the other has been the purging of my files and the occasional discovery of something worth saving and sharing. In one dusty file I found a list of “eight tips on handling quotes.”

Here it is with some elaboration, plus seven more. Read more


Friday, Aug. 28, 2015

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Searching for a news anniversary angle? Look to your audience


For Katrina’s fifth anniversary, CNN partnered with local residents to shoot a series of then-and-now photographs. (Katie Hawkins-Gaar/CNN)

Every journalist knows the drill: As a milestone anniversary of a notable event approaches, the planning meetings and team discussions begin. How are we going to cover this? What’s our angle? How many resources will we devote?

The 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is no different. Given the magnitude of the disaster and the proliferation of digital content, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with everything that’s been published so far. (If you are trying to keep up with it all, is a great resource.)

Places like The Washington Post, BuzzFeed and ESPN produced beautiful longform pieces. Journalists created poignant radio stories, smart interactives and stunning photographs. Read more


Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015

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Should you use the video and the fax from the WDBJ shooting? That depends.

WDBJ reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward became the 31st and 32nd journalist murdered this year while doing their jobs.

They were on the air doing a routine morning show assignment on tourism. They weren’t on a foreign battlefield or similar dangerous place journalists around the globe report from daily, but today’s news underscores that it isn’t just war correspondents who find themselves in danger these days.

The Committee to Protect Journalists provides this list of journalists killed in 2015:

But look at where these killings happened:

Now you can add rural Moneta, Virginia to that list.

The public nature of the shooting raises several questions about the ethics of including graphic images of the incident in news stories and television broadcasts. Read more


Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015

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Making the case for Black with a capital B. Again.

When I opened the door to my office after a summer doing research and writing far away from campus, it was there: The 2015 Associated Press Stylebook.

It was like Christmas morning for a copy editor, though the book had probably been there since its release in May. As always, I flipped through it to read new entries and see if there’d been any update to a particular entry, this year on page 30.

There hadn’t. The b in Black is still lowercase, according to the AP.

Photo by takomabibelot/Flickr

Photo by takomabibelot/Flickr

Perhaps it’s a quibble to some, but the decision to keep the descriptor in its lowercase form is a niggling reminder of the pervasive issues of Black underrepresentation in the newsroom and its effects: tone-deaf and/or anemic coverage of Black individuals and communities. Read more


Friday, Aug. 21, 2015


‘Resist the urge to be clever or cute’ and other tips from a writer-turned-reader

As a reader far more often than a writer these days, I find that I’m bothered by different things than I was when the situation was reversed. A sports section that can’t get its agate correct consistently. A story that fails to include a person’s age when it is clearly relevant. Reporting that lacks adequate geographical references so I can locate an area.

I could go on, of course, but you get the idea. This hit home for me the other day when I heard from an editor about a story I had written. His first question was one that I couldn’t answer very well. I immediately realized that I’d fallen victim to one of my own observations: insufficient reporting, compounded by not writing well enough to camouflage it. Read more


Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015

Screen shot, The New York Times

This is why we write stories

Most of the texts we call stories in journalism are more properly called reports. The imprecision of our nomenclature matters because the differences between reports and stories are important, both in how they are produced and how they are received.

The differences, I have argued, begin with the purpose of a report. In general, we write reports to collect, sort through, check out, and dish out information in the public interest. In short, we report to inform. A good report points you there. This is what you need to know. Pay attention to that.

A story is different. In the end, no one reads a story for information. No one reads “Gone with the Wind” to gain information about the Civil War. No one reads “Hamlet” to find out how to get to Elsinore castle. Read more


Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015

Photo by Andy Wright/Flickr

12 basics of interviewing, listening and note-taking

As a writer I would NOT give myself high marks for the crafts of interviewing, listening, and note-taking. But I have sat at the knees of journalists who are experts at these elements of craft: John Sawatsky of ESPN, Jacqui Banaszynski of the University of Missouri, and Tom French of Indiana University – all of whom have taught at Poynter.

Not long ago, I taught a workshop on these topics to the young men of Poynter’s Write Field program, about 40 minority students attending middle school and high school. They found my lessons useful, so I thought I would pass them on to a larger audience.

I realize these dozen strategies constitute the basics. But when I am struggling with a craft – golf, music, writing – I find it helpful to remind myself of those basics, to climb down from the penthouse and visit the ground floor. Read more


Monday, Aug. 17, 2015


Managers, use that ‘You’re a Fraud’ voice in your head to become a better leader

Did anyone out there wake up this morning convinced that today was “The Day?”

The day they discovered you don’t know what you’re talking about?

I did.

Fact is, I wake up on many mornings feeling that way. And I’m not alone. Whenever I ask a group of managers whether they ever start their day with a crisis of confidence, they overwhelmingly say yes.

And when I ask them what they would most like to take home from the seminar or workshop, increasing numbers of them — no matter how experienced they are — say they would like to be more confident.

Ah, insecurity. It isn’t enough that managers have to deal, every day, with unpredictable news developments and wave after wave of change. They also have to deal with that little voice inside their heads that say, “You’re going to mess this up.”

One way to deal with the fear is to just live with it, taking comfort that many creative people suffer from insecurity. Read more


Tuesday, Aug. 04, 2015

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Eat cereal, and other tips on creativity from Snapchat superstar Shonduras

Snapchat celebrity Shonduras

Snapchat celebrity Shonduras says anyone in a creative industry should involve the audience as often as possible. (Screen shot)

When it comes to social media platforms, Snapchat users might be stuck with the most limitations. Most famous for its (supposedly) self-destructing messages, Snapchat limits videos to 10 seconds, text to 31 characters and offers only rudimentary tools for users to draw images.

But Snapchat celebrity Shaun McBride, known as Shonduras to his followers, says Snapchat’s limitations foster creativity rather than restrict it.

Hundreds of thousands of Snapchat users have tuned in to watch McBride, a 28-year-old Utah native, gorge on massive bowls of cereal, pretend each of his many airline flights is his first or perform skateboarding tricks with his luggage.

McBride’s creativity and cheerfulness have built a massive and devoted fanbase and sizable earnings through branded stories. Read more