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Get the name of the dog – and the nickname

dog-catThe first writing tool I ever learned came from my city editor Mike Foley: “Get the name of the dog.” What he could have added, but didn’t: “…and get the dog’s nickname, too.”

When it comes to characters in stories, nicknames are as important as names – maybe more important. Behind every nickname there is a story.

Let’s begin with the Oxford English Dictionary’s etymology and definition of “nickname.” The Anglo-Saxon work “eke” means “also”; the phrase eke-name, then, means “also name” or “another name.” When you add the indefinite article, you get “an eke-name” and over time the “n” switches over, giving us “a neke-name” or finally “a nickname.”

The definition in the OED: “A name or appellation added to, or substituted for, the proper name of a person, place, etc., usually given in ridicule or pleasantry.” This is followed by historical uses of the word in literature, including this sentence from 1710 in which Joseph Addison writes in The Tatler of a peculiar physician: “He unfortunately got the Nickname of the Squeaking Doctor.” (More about this doctor later.)

We once had a grey cat named Voodoo. Read more

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Friday, Oct. 24, 2014

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From AIDS to Ebola: Journalism, disease, and the mentality of fear

I remember a day back in the 1980s when I first met a person who I thought had AIDS.  I was sitting at the front desk of the old storefront building of the Poynter Institute when a tall gaunt man entered through the glass doors and approached me with a question. I have forgotten his question, but I do remember being frightened by his appearance.

He had several lesions on his face, the kind that people got after their immune system had been compromised by the AIDS virus. I did not reach out to shake his hand, my usual gesture, but babbled some reason to direct him out of the building. I am not proud of this. I just want to establish my credentials as someone capable of panicky, irrational fear.

About a decade after that meeting, 1996 to be exact, I published a month-long series in what was then the St. Read more

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Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014

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Hysteria or proper precaution — a conversation with Michel du Cille

Michel Du Cille

Michel du Cille (Photo by: Julia Ewan/TWP)


Kenny Irby interviewed Washington Post photographer Michel du Cille about his work in Liberia covering the Ebola virus, but before we get into his work, we will address Syracuse University’s decision to disinvite the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner from its S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications Fall Workshop.

Each side stands firm that they were considering what would be best for the students on the campus of Syracuse University.

Last Thursday, du Cille had “cleared the 21-day monitoring window for Ebola and was symptom free,” when Syracuse officials told him not to come to the journalism workshop.

It is “pandering to the hysteria of ignorance,” said du Cille. “The most disappointing part of this bad decision is the disservice to the fine journalism students at Syracuse’s Newhouse School. What a missed opportunity to teach future media professionals how to seek out accurate hard facts; backed up with full details about the Ebola crisis,” he wrote in a Facebook post. Read more

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Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014

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Bergantino issues sharp letter to Putin after detention in Russia

Joe Bergantino, New England Center for Investigative Reporting

Joe Bergantino, New England Center for Investigative Reporting

Joe Bergantino is safely back home in Boston but he is still steaming over being detained in Russia and fired off a letter to Russian President Valdimir Putin. “Was it really necessary to replay a scene from a tired, old cold war movie?” the letter said.

Bergantino, the head of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting was invited by the U.S. State Department to Moscow and St. Petersburg to teach investigative reporting techniques to Russian journalists.

As Bergantino told Poynter.org last week, he had just started teaching the class when Russian immigration officers walked into his classroom and demanded to see his passport and visa. A few minutes later, they came back to the classroom and ordered Bergantino and colleague Randy Covington, director of Newsplex to come with them. After hours of questioning and being hauled before a judge, the two Americans were told they had the wrong visas and would have to shut their journalism workshop down. Read more

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Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014

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Here’s a peek behind the curtain of a televised debate

In the next two weeks, candidates from 11 hotly contested elections will face each other in statewide debates. Candidates in nine other states faced each other in debates already this month. In these days of the tightly scripted message-of-the-day campaigning, debates might be the closest voters get to hearing unscripted viewpoints.

Screen shot 2014-10-12 at 8.24.44 PMMy Poynter colleague Jill Geisler, a veteran journalist in her home state of Wisconsin, moderated one of those high-profile TV debates last week. Republican Gov. Scott Walker faced Democrat Mary Burke. Walker is sometimes mentioned as a 2016 presidential possibility, but he has to get past Burke first and the polls show it is a tight race. The debate focused on typical fare; jobs, increasing minimum wage, social issues including abortion and health care, especially involving health care for women.

Geisler said a key to a successful debate lies in part to holding the candidates to strict time limits and even having the power to cut a long-winded candidate’s microphone off (which happened in the Wisconsin debate.) The Wisconsin debate also included a rule that can allow the moderator and journalists to try to force the candidates to deliver specific answers. Read more

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Monday, Oct. 13, 2014

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Here’s what journalists miss when they don’t leave the office

Today let us pay tribute to reporters who, in their quest for a good daily story, boldly defy the Production gods and do the unthinkable: Hang up the telephone and leave the office.

Granted, doing a “phoner” often seems like the only recourse when your responsibilities for the day include preparing a story (or two or more) for multiple platforms, posting to social media, and any number of other special projects.

But rare is the story done by phone that successfully transports the viewer or reader to that place where they actually can experience something.

Joy. Pain. Anxiety. Relief.

The stories I remember best created an opportunity for me to experience an emotion, a realization, a sense that I was there. And the reporters who created those opportunities had one thing in common: they were there.

It was just before 2 p.m. on a recent Friday when Doreen Carvajal, a reporter based in Paris for the New York Times, received an email from the city of Paris. Read more

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Thursday, Oct. 09, 2014

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Fear not the long sentence

A year ago I wrote an essay for the New York Times titled “The Short Sentence as Gospel Truth.” It argued that authors express their most important ideas or dramatic moments in the shortest sentences. This turned out to be a popular piece, the most emailed of the day. Teachers and editors anointed the short sentence as the solution to many writing problems.

trainFrom my shot comes a rebound:  “If the short sentence is the gospel truth, then what is the long sentence?”  My best answer is metaphorical:  “It’s a journey on a westbound train.”

Editors advise, “When it comes to the long sentence, children, be afraid, be very afraid.”  In the common view, the long sentence too often spins off the tracks, a wreck on the road to comprehensibility. It is not an irrational fear. In almost every story I have written comes a moment when I must take that overly ambitious sentence and cut it in two. Read more

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Sunday, Oct. 05, 2014

Ebola

Media coverage of Ebola requires a delicate balance

The task of covering Ebola is a tricky one for the media.

Too much coverage, and we look like we’re being exploitative with scare tactics. Too little coverage, and we get blamed for not enlightening our audience of its scope.

An unidentified may wears a mask as he walks back from taking out garbage across the street from an apartment complex where Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola patient who traveled from Liberia to Dallas, stayed last week. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

An unidentified may wears a mask as he walks back from taking out garbage across the street from an apartment complex where Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola patient who traveled from Liberia to Dallas, stayed last week. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

A vivid photo this weekend that made its way into a lot of newspapers showed an unnamed man taking his garbage out, across the street from the apartment complex where Ebola victim Thomas Duncan lives. The man wore a mask.

Remember when Magic Johnson was first diagnosed with having HIV? Many of his teammates, opponents and fans were upset when he came out of his self-imposed retirement to play in the All Star game. Read more

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Friday, Oct. 03, 2014

What topics do reporters need to get smarter about in 2015?

The Poynter Institute will be conducting free workshops to quickly get reporters up to speed on important issues in 2015 and we are asking our readers for workshop suggestions.

To help reporters get smart fast on key topics in the news, The Poynter Institute conducted workshops this year on subjects like the Affordable Care Act and the Common Core State Standards for education. The Robert R. McCormick Foundation funds these workshops, called McCormick Specialized Reporting Institutes. We will be crowdsourcing what topics will warrant these workshops in 2015.

We’re asking you to help pick next year’s training topics. What subjects do you predict will be in the news next year that reporters would benefit from learning more about? Poynter will carry out three of these news-driven workshops next year, and McCormick and Poynter will select three other organizations to carry out three additional workshops. One will be on the Iowa caucuses. Read more

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Thursday, Oct. 02, 2014

Listening

Be a Better Listener in 3 Minutes

I work with managers and non-managers alike who want to become better at listening. I’ve read books on it, written columns, and teach sessions on the essentials of the skill.

And then I met journalist E. S. Isaac of India and got a better education on what it means to truly listen.

During a dinner conversation before a week-long leadership seminar at Poynter, Isaac shared his insights. He grew up in rural Chhattisgarh, in Central India. His parents were illiterate. But his father, Benbarisi Isaac, was his best teacher.

I found what E. S. Isaac said — and how he said it — to be so meaningful that I asked his permission to record and share his thoughts.

I think this will be the best three minutes you spend today.

Who is this wise man?

Isaac oversees Doordarshan Television’s international channel DDIndia.  He manages the sports programming on DDSports, reaching 143 countries across the world. Read more

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