How To’s

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


‘I can’t ever unsee that:’ Which unforgettable moments should a journalist choose to cover?

A version of this presentation opened the 11th annual Poynter-Kent State University Media Ethics Workshop. The subject of this year’s workshop, held on Sept. 17, was Journalism and Trauma. 

Why are we here today?

We’re here today because the body of a 3-year-old Syrian child washed ashore on a Turkish beach, and journalists had to decide what to do with the photographs.

We’re here today because a Roanoke TV reporter and photographer were shot to death while reporting live during the station’s morning show, and journalists had to decide what to do with the video.

We’re here today because a bomb killed 20 people during rush hour outside a Bangkok shrine, and journalists had to decide what to do with live-streamed video of the carnage. Read more


Wednesday, Sep. 23, 2015


Eight language lessons from Yogi Berra

Hall of Famer Yogi Berra waves before an induction ceremony at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 2009. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Hall of Famer Yogi Berra waves before an induction ceremony at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 2009. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Now it’s over.  Yogi Berra has died at the age of 90.

He leaves behind a legacy of baseball greatness, and a propensity for the memorable phrase.  Those of us who quote people for a living can learn a lot from old number 8.

I was born into an Italian-American family on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1948, Yogi Berra’s second full season as the catcher of the New York Yankees.  My grandfather, Peter Marino, loved the Yankees, a team with many famous Italian ballplayers: Crosetti, Lazerri, DiMaggio, Rizzuto, and his favorite, Berra.

Next to Mickey Mantle, Yogi became my favorite too.  Read more


Wednesday, Sep. 16, 2015


Donald Trump and the art of the insult

Among Donald Trump’s favorite rhetorical moves, there is the boast and the insult. He is likely to use both tonight in the CNN debate. It’s gonna be huge!

It’s easy to see how the boast and the insult go hand in hand. Boasting builds me up, and the insult knocks you down.

It turns out that these moves are ancient, and they work. They worked for epic poets, Shakespeare, and countless other authors. They also work for modern smack talkers in all forms of competition:

For Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier:

For Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and most other professional wrestlers (of whom Mr. Trump thinks he is one):

For Eminem in the great rap competition that ends the movie “Eight Mile”:

The insult works because it is highly entertaining.  Read more


Monday, Sep. 14, 2015

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Hey, what’s the big idea – about journalism?

Ever since I was a little kid, I heard people say: “Hey, what’s the big idea?” In most cases, this phrase was a synonym for “What do you think you’re doing?” These were not real questions. They were challenges to perceived misbehavior: a kid sneaking around; someone going through your stuff.

What if we asked that question and expected an answer. And what if we added a context: “Hey, what’s the big idea – about journalism?”

Every creative act I can think of is attached to some big idea that is rarely expressed. But if you KNOW that big idea, it can help you learn the values and the elements of a particular craft.

  • The big idea about music is that something abstract — a sound — can evoke an emotion in the listener.
Read more

Friday, Sep. 04, 2015


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