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Prewriting
Harvesting the news
News reporters gather information in three ways: by interviewing people, by researching the written record and by observation. The better you are at these, the better your stories will be. This newsgathering triad underlies all good reporting and good writing. In fact, good information, even poorly written, is better than soufflé writing, or writing with no substance.

1. The more ways you gather information, and the more information you gather, the better your story will be. You will move closer to the "actual reality" of the event. Remember your goal is to use any legal and ethical means to learn what's really going on.

2. Let's start with the simplest type of news gathering, the story gathered in only one of the three ways. It is based on what
you are told, rather than what you discover for yourself. This is source-controlled, source-originated journalism. Let's call it
level 1 journalism.

3. Level 1 stories result from handouts, press releases, press conferences, speeches and statements. They result from what someone tells you. It is surface journalism. It is the work of a clerk, not a reporter. This type of reporting doesn't have to be bad. It can be information from the city as to when the trash will be picked up, or when to register to vote.

4. But level 1 journalism has its problems. The material can be one-sided. It can be offered by the source for personal, political or economic gain. If the newspaper is filled with this kind of material, the reading public becomes apathetic and distrustful.

5. Worse than being one-sided, level 1 journalism can be wrong. Frequently, people don't know what they are talking about, and sometimes they lie. So, what's a reporter to do? Be skeptical. Good reporters question what they are told. They check and double check. They rely on what they are told, but they improve upon it by talking to more than one person, by searching the written record, by trying to see for themselves. As President Reagan said of the Russians, "Trust but verify."

6. A word of caution: There is a difference between skepticism and cynicism. A skeptic is one who wants proof, but he or she is not prejudiced against face-value explanations. A cynic, on the other hand, refuses to believe face-value explanations and is ready to ascribe almost evil motives to those he or she covers. A good reporter is skeptical but not cynical.

7. When you take what someone tells you, and supplement it with information from your own research, your own observations, or with what others tells you, you move to level 2 journalism. You shed "air and light'' on the subject, to use Lincoln Steffens' phrase. You "climb the stairs," according to A.J. Liebling. Remember the sign in the Los Angeles Times office: GOYA/KOD, Get off your ass, knock on doors.

8. By operating on the information you have been told, you move from level 1 journalism closer to the "actual reality." You provide background, details, reaction from others, and your own observations as verification for what has been provided.

9. Suppose you were sent to cover a speech by the director of a university writing center on the subject of student writing. If you went to the speech and reported strictly what the speaker said, that's level 1 reporting. If you talked with tutors, students, professors, other writing centers, if you visited there yourself, if you provided a history of the center, then that's level 2 reporting.

10. If you take it one step further, if you attempt to answer the so what? question, if you provide some information on the causes and consequences of the issue, then that is level 3 reporting. Level 3 reporting tells the reader why things are as they are, why they work or don't work.


Reporters harvest
the news by:
  • Personal observation
  • Researching the written record
  • Interviewing people
  • Prewriting
    To be a successful reporter
    The nature of news
    The art of interviewing—part 1
    The art of interviewing—part 2
    Harvesting the news
    The human touch

    A Web site created by Jim Hall for beginning reporters, those studying the craft and their teachers.