Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Best Practices For Online Reporters

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"If an investigative team took a magnifying glass to your last big story, what would they find? What if someone attempted to surmise your state of mind at every stage of the reporting process? What if they recreated all your casual conversations, as well as your formal interviews?


Other than the instructions to "get it right," there really is no step-by-step formula for reporting a complicated story. Most reporters develop their own methods and practices, occasionally sharing some tips along the way.

It's a messy process, often compared to sausage making."

In an article titled "The Reporting Process Unveiled (Warning, It's Not Pretty)", Kelly McBride, writing in the Ethics Journal of Poynter Online, provides some " tips for cleaning up the messy process of reporting", based on her analysis of the CBS report into the 'Rathergate' affair.

The recently released CBS report (.pdf file) "pulls apart the reporting process and reveals the many faults of the "60 Minutes Wednesday" investigation. It provides a rare and detailed look at the path this particular investigation took as it went from idea to story...and provides a great case study for reporters looking to scrutinize their own practices."

The article provides several tips, gleaned from the CBS report, that should be considered by all journalists, reporters and researchers, when looking to improve the fact gathering process.

1. Check out your source
How do you know your source is who he claims to be? Should you ask for identification?

2. Dismiss unreasonable demands immediately
Sources often make ridiculous demands that are beyond the scope of what most newsrooms provide. When journalists humor the possibility of meeting those demands, it poisons the reporting process. Demands for money and other favors should be politely turned down. A source who believes he can directly gain money or other favors from journalists may be more likely to taint information to make it appear more valuable.

3. Vet requests for anonymity
It's not unusual for a source who has been previously quoted to request anonymity on a later story, but the reason should be obvious and explained. Sometimes a source is releasing information he's not authorized to release. Sometimes he's been ordered by a superior to keep quiet. If granted, reasons for the anonymity should be explained, as much as possible, to the viewer or reader. If there's no clear need for anonymity, newsrooms should be especially reluctant to grant it to people who have already been quoted in previous stories.

4. Follow the chain of possession
Any time you have a document or a photograph, you should know where it's been and how it landed on your desk. You might even want to tell the audience. Is it a copy or is it an original? Who else has seen it? Where did it come from?

5. Beware of the "holy grail"
Reporters who've waited for months for FOIAs (Freedom of Information Act) to come through or court records to be made public know that documents rarely support the concrete conclusions that you hope they will. Memos and reports are often couched in bureaucratic language and jargon. They don't make much sense, let alone point to malfeasance or incompetence, absent any context. More often, a document becomes a building block in an investigative report, not the lynchpin.

6. Be candid about your progress
It's hard to tell your boss that you're running in circles. But most complicated stories involve slow progress, if any. Keeping your work too close to your vest deprives you of the opportunity to get fresh ideas and opinions. It is a breeding ground for "myopic zeal."

7. Question your timing
It's not usual for long-standing rumors of philandering, gambling, and illegal behavior to swirl around a few figures on any city council, county commission, or state legislature. When pursued, sometimes these rumors develop into well-known investigative stories, like the Brock Adams sexual harassment story reported by the Seattle Times, which was a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in public service.

But more often these stories lie untouched, or barely touched. The urgency to report them rises and falls with the central character's popularity or
penchant for controversy. It's unrealistic to suggest that every rumor be
investigated the moment someone in the newsroom hears it.

Journalists should discuss the threshold for investigating and reporting
such a piece in the future. At what point in the future would the urgency
of a story rise to a level that reporters ought to investigate it? Asking
such questions makes it more likely a newsroom will start working sooner,
rather than later, on investigative matters.

The CBS report is worth a read by reporters everywhere. It describes
critical moments in the reporting process where red flags were ignored,
bad choices were made and individuals allowed their assumptions to go
untested. All of that happens every day in newsrooms across the country,
but most often the mistakes are caught before they get published. The
reporting process is fraught with potential for failure.

Good advice.

Francis Good -
Reference: Kelly McBride - Poynter Online [ Read more ]
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posted by Robin Good on Thursday, January 27 2005, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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