This is one of 10 essays I offer as we close 2021 that I hope will help broadcast journalists tell stronger stories in the year ahead.
I believe that your greatest value as a journalist is not telling me what happened but why it happened, why it matters or what’s next.
The images and videos of tornadoes and the first images of storm damage in Kentucky earlier this month came from regular folks. While I stipulate that in moments of catastrophe, there is no substitute for a journalist covering the unfolding breaking story, the breaking nature of most stories ends pretty fast. They extinguish the fire, they investigate the crash site, they clear the crime scene and then what?
I am pushing you to embrace complexity in 2022. Here’s how.
First, I want you to come up with a list of the most pressing issues facing your community. I imagine the list might include:
- The cost of health care/prescriptions
- The economy/jobs
- Racial inequity
- Housing prices
- COVID-19 disruption
- Climate change
- Distrust in government/government officials/political divisions
- Education (including the impact of COVID-19)
- Rising violent crime
- The opioid crisis
But I suspect if we audited your newscasts, we would find that breaking news stories including crimes and accidents take up a significant portion of your time and effort. Let me point you to some resources and examples that might inspire you to take on stories that fit in that big pressing issues category.
Building stories that get to “the why, the how, the why not?”
I hope the following resources and stories will jumpstart your confidence to embrace deep, critically important issues.
Kaiser Health News is a good place to start looking for great health care topics. Every morning, Kaiser collects topical news coverage from around the country. Click on the “state watch” tab of that page and you will see the top health stories state-by-state.
Kaiser also has a section called “Bill of the Month,” which is a crowdsourced investigation of outrageous medical bills.
KUSA took on a similar multi-year campaign examining medical bills. Viewers sent the station hundreds of medical bills to sort through and try to find answers for why a bag of saline costs $359 or why insurance companies pay $100,000 for a procedure that should cost a couple of hundred bucks. I take you inside the project in this Poynter profile.
The Association of Health Care Journalists is a nonstop source of great story ideas and will connect you with people like you who are trying to dig into the important stuff that your audience craves.
ProPublica built an extensive database and investigation of 1,000 toxic hot spots where hundreds of thousands of people live but who had no idea that they were living exposed to industrial poisons. This is a story from KY3 in Springfield, Missouri, from that data.
WFAA wanted to know why there are so few banks below an invisible line in Dallas. The line is an interstate, and below that line low- and moderate-income communities find it difficult to find a lender interested in loaning money to potential home or business owners.
KING-TV in Seattle dedicated 13 special programs to deep, thoughtful conversations about race. They tackled race and policing, race and education, immigration and even how to talk about race while you are with family over the holidays. This project is worth tackling in every market, but it is not a minute-30 quick-hit story. It is a deep, thoughtful exploration to help the community understand itself.
If you want to cover crime and justice, start with the daily newsletter from The Marshall Project. This Pulitzer Prize-winning group enterprises stories and collects the most relevant justice and incarceration stories every day. For example, here is their story on why martial arts training can make police less violent during an arrest. Marshall looks at why prison work programs lose money even with nearly free labor. Overdose deaths are increasing in prisons and county jails. Marshall reports, “From 2001 to 2018, the number of people who have died of drug or alcohol intoxication in state prisons increased by more than 600%, according to an analysis of newly-released data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In county jails, overdose deaths increased by over 200%.”
The VERA Institute just released the new incarceration data for every county in America. In some cities, county jail populations are declining, but in many rural areas, jails are big business for counties and their jail populations are increasing. You can explore why the number of women in jail is rising, especially in rural areas. These have significant budget implications for your community, to say nothing of the human cost.
The Crime Report is a place journalists can go to find creative and thoughtful story starters. It is published by The John Jay Center on Media Crime and Justice.
Have you ever considered what one gunshot to one victim costs that victim and the community as a whole? It is a very different way to think about a nonfatal crime that might not be newsworthy on its own. But gunshot victims cost one hospital $672,000 a month, and that is not taking into account the cost of law enforcement, rehab, loss of income and so much more. See how much gun violence costs Medicaid, which you pay for.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office also investigates big issues, like the cost of gun violence.
Investigative Reporters and Editors is not only a top-notch professional organization, it is a gold mine for downloadable databases, story tips and training. If you want to dig through databases, take an IRE/NICAR boot camp class. It will open your eyes and doors of opportunity.
The Education Writers Association is one of my favorite go-to places for fresh, deep ideas for covering education. The Chronicle of Higher Education is without peer for covering of universities and colleges, which are cornerstones for most of your communities. Are there any institutions that have a bigger impact on your town’s economy but get less coverage?
The Journalists’ Resource is a page from Harvard’s Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. I 100% promise you that you will find a story idea on that page every day that is worth exploring. For example, should teenagers need parental permission to get a COVID-19 shot? They look at the research. They also have a tip sheet on how to correct false information that comes from a government official.
Regional Federal Banks provide more story ideas than you could do in a month. I can only imagine how boring it might sound for me to tell you to read research from the Federal Reserve Banks, but regional banks have all sorts of amazing specific data waiting for you. The Beige Book is published every six weeks and provides detailed regional economic information.
Every month, your station reports inflation figures and unemployment figures and it sounds so bland. But it really can be compelling stuff if you dig into the data to find out what it means locally. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics is a great place to start. The next Consumer Price Index data comes out Jan. 12. You can be ready for it and, believe me, inflation is a story everybody is talking about. If you go here, you can get local and regional inflation data.
FireRescue1 is a place I go to find out what firefighters are talking about. COVID-19 vaccines have been a big topic, of course. But I also found an interesting story about a hip-hop song that is linked to suicide prevention. I also found an interesting lecture from an expert about why firefighters are reluctant to call “mayday” too early, then wait until a full-blown emergency has formed.
Look back at old stories to uncover essential truths. The Retro Report is such a great example of how you can mind your station’s archives for stories that need follow-up. RetroReport explains how the Bush-Gore election mess affects voting today, how unionization is growing again in the pandemic economy, why Black children drown at a significantly higher rate than white children because of historic discrepancies, and whether climate change could return us to the Dust Bowl days of a century ago.
2022 could be your year to break out of chasing mindless spot news and echoing press conferences. Make your journalism matter by embracing complexity and help your viewers find the information they need and can’t find on their own.
(Some ideas in this series are included in my college textbook, “Aim for the Heart.”)
Al Tompkins will expand on his storytelling and writing teaching in two Poynter seminars: The Poynter Producer Project and TV Power Reporting. Click the links to see the schedules, meet our all-star visiting faculty and apply. Thanks to a grant from CNN, we offer 50% tuition scholarships to NABJ, NAHJ, AAJA, NAJA and NLGJA members. Both seminars take place over three days at Poynter in St. Petersburg, Florida, or you can attend virtually.