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

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What journalists covering Ferguson need to know about grand juries

A high school graduation photo of Michael Brown rests on top of a snow-covered memorial Monday, Nov. 17, 2014, more than three months after the black teen was shot and killed nearby by a white policeman in Ferguson, Mo. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency on Monday as a grand jury deliberates on whether to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Robert Cohen)

A high school graduation photo of Michael Brown rests on top of a snow-covered memorial Monday, Nov. 17, 2014, more than three months after the black teen was shot and killed nearby by a white policeman in Ferguson, Mo. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency on Monday as a grand jury deliberates on whether to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Robert Cohen)

While we await word from the St. Louis County, Missouri grand jury investigating the shooting death of Michael Brown, this would be a good time to remind the public how the grand jury system works, what grand juries are and what they are not.

  • Grand juries are usually not sequestered.
  • Grand jurors don’t have to swear they have no opinions about whatever they are investigating.
  • Defense lawyers and judges are not allowed in the grand jury room.
  • It is more difficult for a person being investigated to challenge or “strike” a grand juror from hearing a case.
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Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014

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Photo Sphere, a free and simple tool, gives interactivity and depth to stories

I have tried many programs and apps over the years to capture 360-degree interactive photographs. None has been as easy to use as Google’s Photo Sphere Camera app. Android users have had this at their fingertips for more than a year but the iPhone app is fairly new.

This is PhotoSphere’s instructional video. It really is as easy as it looks.

Photo Sphere tells me to aim my iPhone camera at an orange dot (the dot is blue on Android phones) on the screen. When I get it aligned, the camera snaps, and I do this over and over as I turn in a 360-degree motion. Once I get all the way around, I tilt up to capture the ceiling and down to capture the floor. In all, I captured a 18 images. I knew I was done when there were no white spaces left on my screen to fill with a photo. Read more

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Monday, Nov. 03, 2014

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Why so many people loved Tom Magliozzi’s storytelling

FILE In this July 9, 1991 file photo, Brothers Tom, left, and Ray Magliozzi pose under a car hood in Boston.   Tom Magliozzi died today of complications from Alzheimer's disease. He was 77. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

FILE In this July 9, 1991 file photo, Brothers Tom, left, and Ray Magliozzi pose under a car hood in Boston. Tom Magliozzi died today of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 77. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

The one thing about the news that is eternal, I guess, is that you never know for sure who is going to die next.  One day in 1977 I was walking through the newsroom of the St. Petersburg Times and ran into Mike Foley, the city editor. “What’s new?” I asked him. “Elvis is dead,” he said.

Back then it was Elvis, and today, I learned, it was Tom Magliozzi, a dimmer star in the celebrity heavens than the King, but a special personality in his own right. With his brother Ray, he hosted Car Talk, a radio feast for almost 40 years, now in syndication.

If you’ve heard the show once, you know the ingredients:

  • Chatter about popular cultural and the events of the day.
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Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014

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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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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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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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Monday, Sep. 29, 2014

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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

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.

Glenna Mae Breckenridge: From CBC

Glenna Mae Breckenridge: From CBC

 

So I sat down with Glenna Mae Breckenridge, who lives in Ontario during the summers and, like lots of Canadians, lives in St. Read more

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Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2014

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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)

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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