December 10, 2013

Every year, news agencies fight harder than before to capture the audience’s attention — and every innovation seems to make that job tougher. With the creation of cable news, the 24-hour news cycle and, more recently, a seemingly infinite number of online options, consumers can get their news just about anywhere, forcing news outlets into ever-more-questionable reporting practices.

Kathy Walton, an audio engineer for several broadcast news services, told me online recently, “I blame the wireless remote control. I’m serious. The day it became so easy to change the channel was the day television news stopped being news and began tap dancing to keep people from clicking away.”

Often, sensationalism is used to lure the audience’s attention. While some publications have made exaggeration and manipulation of the news their stock-in-trade, others stretch the truth less intentionally, not realizing their chosen angle is iffy or just plain wrong. But when it comes to breaking news, especially crime, there’s no substitute for strong storytelling based on solid facts.

Here are 5 tips that will let you strip the sensationalism from your reporting while still creating stories the audience can’t resist.

1. Stick to the facts

After the Columbine High School shootings, journalists from all over the country flocked to Littleton, Colo., to report as developments broke. Naturally, many spoke with teens at the scene, some of whom were Columbine students — and at least one who wasn’t a student, but claimed he was. Some of these sources told reporters that the shooters were goths who belonged to a “Trenchcoat Mafia” and loved Marilyn Manson, none of which turned out to be true, as Brill’s Content later reported. But it didn’t stop Diane Sawyer from later saying on national TV that goths belong to a “dark underground movement” and some “may have killed before.” Teen goths nationwide suddenly became the object of a great deal of fear and suspicion.

In the chaos of breaking news, it’s important to separate fact from hearsay, and to couch that information appropriately. Don’t report uncertainties and rumors as facts. And if you’re struggling to nail down the facts, keep an eye on what local news outlets are doing. They have the home field advantage and often know what’s plausible and which sources to trust. That’s one reason the Rocky Mountain News was widely credited with having the best breaking news on Columbine.

2. Be careful when naming, describing suspects

After the Boston Marathon bombing, many news outlets misidentified the bombing suspect as a missing Brown University student, which further upset his already distraught family. Likewise, after reporters learned the identity of Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis, it wasn’t long before they were speculating widely about his “obsession with violent video games,” perpetuating unproven theories about the connection between those games and real-life acts of violence.

Early information, whether it’s about the identity of a suspect or it’s about their hobbies and personal histories, is frequently wrong — and reporting it as truth can have long-lasting consequences, not only for those close to the subject but for those who share the same interests mentioned in mistaken reports.

3. Remain skeptical — even of “experts”

At the tail end of the Satanic Panic, two groups of suspects were arrested, tried and convicted for some truly gruesome allegations. In Arkansas, three teenage boys known as the West Memphis Three were imprisoned for almost 18 years for the alleged Satanic-cult killings of three young boys. In Texas, four women dubbed the San Antonio Four were jailed for purportedly engaging in the Satanic sexual abuse of children. After years in jail, all of them have since been freed.

In West Memphis, the “Satanic” angle came from police investigators, who knew one of the suspects was Wiccan but failed to understand the difference between Wicca and Satanism (or that Satanists aren’t killers). In San Antonio, the “Satanic” allegations came from a pediatrician who served as an expert witness in the trial.

Although these are sources reporters would generally trust, it’s important to remember that even good sources don’t know everything. Police might be experts on the facts of a crime, but very few are experts in religion or occult activity; the same goes for pediatricians. When a reliable source says something fishy, check it out before you include it in a news article.

4. Get all the details you can

Be a curious and observant reporter. Go to the scene whenever possible. Take notes on your surroundings — the people, the environment, the atmosphere, the weather, the sounds and smells. Talk to people and get quotes, but remember to hang your writing on the facts.

If you’re covering a crime and the investigators say they don’t know something, or aren’t releasing certain information, report that — rather than asking someone else to speculate. Bystanders may be able to fill in some of the details, but as we’ve seen, they may offer unreliable information that can get people into trouble, and bystanders can’t later be held accountable for their statements. However, you can trust your own powers of observation, so taking note of physical details will add wonderful depth when it comes time to write.

5. Tell a good story

Once you’ve stripped away all the potential sensationalism and speculation, take a bird’s-eye view of your notes. Reporters can get jaded, and over time, almost any situation can feel like one you’ve written a hundred times. But the fact that you — or your editor — thought this one was worth reporting suggests there’s something different about it. Use that, along with the facts at hand and your notes from the scene, to write something compelling.

In all of the cases I’ve mentioned, whether it was Columbine, the Navy Yard shooting, the Boston bombing or the West Memphis killings, the facts provided more than enough meat for good storytelling and attention-getting headlines. Reporters didn’t need goths, video games, missing students or Satanic undertones. In an era of “weird tips” and Upworthy-style headlines, there’s no substitute for painting a vivid picture with solid information.

Beth Winegarner is a longtime reporter who’s covered the San Francisco Bay Area for the SF Examiner, the SF Weekly, and others. Her new book, “The Columbine Effect: How five teen pastimes got caught in the crossfire and why teens are taking them back,” is out now.

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