News next: a journalism teacher's diary

May 21, 2013

Advice on writing and reporting

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 9:23 am
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Students ask me all the time about perfecting their craft. Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute recently posted the notes he took at a conference after “listening carefully to four of the [Washington] Post’s most accomplished writers and reporters: David Finkel, Bob Woodward, DeNeen L. Brown, and Ezra Klein.”

My favorite advice came from Finkel, who said in part about reporting from Iraq:

My intent was to answer a question that needs answering for the reader: What was it like for a soldier to be there in Iraq.
The fact that I stayed in the war zone made all the difference. I was a continuing presence, not someone who parachuted in and out.
Go to a place where other reporters aren’t. Go to the hidden place, the unseen place.
If the tractor with bread and water is headed to feed the refugees in the field, take a flying leap onto the back of that tractor.
Assume nothing, ask everything.
If a refugee is wiping his face with a handkerchief, ask about the handkerchief (turned out to be a gift, a “love letter” from his illiterate wife).
You reach the point where you are “living with people” who become characters in your stories.

Here’s some of what I told students in my opinion writing class:

You have to respect your readers.
You have to investigate—to be a reporter. Telling people what you think they should know and care about is a heavy responsibility. You need to be certain the facts are straight.
You have to give issues a human face or a human voice, to let readers know why they matter.
You have to write well. There are only two ways I know to learn to do that: by writing; and by reading.
Like athletes, writers need to stay in shape. If you take a week off or a summer off, your eye will be less keen, your voice will squeak, your prose will get flabby.
And you need to read omnivorously. Not just newspapers and magazines, but novels, poetry, history, philosophy, science. In particular you need to read what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said”: all those dead white men who are so scorned—the Greeks; the King James Bible; Shakespeare; Tolstoy; Hobbes; Marx; Freud; Melville; Mark Twain.
Reading good writing is like eating good food. You incorporate it as muscle and energy. It enters the bloodstream of your prose.


November 8, 2011

Names are news: spell them right

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 2:59 pm
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There are journalism teachers who give an automatic F to any student who misspells a name. I’m not quite that much of a hardass, but I did lower the grade of a student who misspelled the name of her subject in a profile, and I was distressed to see another student get the name of the main spokesman for an organization he was writing about wrong, even though he had it in front of him in black and white.

“Getting people’s names right is one of the most basic tasks of reporting and editing.” I didn’t say that; a New York Times editor did. So far this year, writes Philip B. Corbett on the Times Topics blog, The Times has published 2,800 corrections, and 480 of them have involved people’s names. He adds:

And every time we get a name wrong, we chip away at The Times’s credibility in the eyes of readers. It’s embarrassing when we misspell well-known names. Even worse is misspelling the names of ordinary people who may appear in The Times only once. Their moment in the spotlight is spoiled, and they’re likely to tell everyone they know that The Times can’t get its facts straight.

Here are some of Corbett’s tips for getting names right:

  •  In every interview, ask the subject to spell his or her name.
  • If you use another source, online or elsewhere, be sure it’s reliable. (Don’t take a Google poll and go with the spelling that gets the most hits.)
  •  Don’t just check how [The Times] spelled the name last time — [its] archive is, among other things, a minefield of past errors.
  • Watch out for names with common variants — Stephen and Steven, O’Neil and O’Neill and O’Neal.

And a couple more tips from me:

  • If you’re at a meeting where there’s a sign-up list for speakers or an athletic event where there’s a lineup card or roster take a picture of it.
  • If you’re handwriting is awful or you’re a little bit dyslexic, hand your notebook to the person you’re interviewing and ask him (or her) to print his name.

September 16, 2011

Tips on taking notes

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 6:55 pm
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Photo by quinn.anya/licensed under creative commons

Want to know what to do when you’re interviewing someone who talks faster than you can write? how to get that great quote that can make your story? how to avoid burdening your story with too much quotation? or even opinions on the best notebook and the right kind of pen?

A colleague at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Indrani Sen, has been collecting tips on taking notes. She put them in a handout for her students, and I thought I’d share them with you.

Note-Taking Tips From Professional Journalists

The best reporters return from every assignment with a notebook stuffed with quotes, information and sensory detail — the raw material we need to build a story. But how do we fill those notebooks? One of the most difficult skills for new reporters to pick up is also one of the most basic — note-taking.

Every reporter has his or her own systems for note-taking, which start with some nuts-and-bolts decisions: Reporter’s notebook or steno pad? Ballpoint or roller ball? Shorthand or cursive? To record or not? Try a few combinations and figure out what feels most comfortable for you over a long day of reporting.

It’s hard to over-emphasize the importance of solid notes. As well as providing the material for your story, your notes are also your documentation of your reporting process. Your editors or professors may on occasion ask to see your notes. They don’t need to be tidy, but they do need to be complete — if it’s in your story, it should be in your notes or your research. Your notes should also provide avenues to verify information and quotes — phone numbers, email addresses, website urls. Your integrity as a journalist rests not only on your finished product, but also upon your reporting process and your ability to document that process.

In 2007, I asked some friends to explain their note-taking systems and offer tips. Please add your own in the comments below! (more…)

August 5, 2011

Leading with your best punch

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 3:43 pm
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Daily News cop house reporter Bob Kappstatter posted this little anthology of classic tabloid leads on Facebook, saying they were “left many years ago by overnight reporter Tom Raftery, a true Daily News legend.”

Read ’em and weep. Read ’em and chuckle. Read ’em and learn. (more…)

February 20, 2011

Let’s be careful out there

In the six years that my students have reported for The Hunts Point Express, no one has been a victim of a crime, but the women reporters have been victimized by crude remarks, whistles and catcalls. Some have responded with anger; some with fear. Some have pushed forward aggressively; some have retreated in shame.

Reporting from an unfamiliar place always has its risks, and the risks are especially acute for women. (more…)

January 30, 2011

You can take pictures of federal buildings

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 10:51 am
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Federal courthouse, Foley Square, New York City

Federal Protective Service Information Bulletin of Aug. 2, 2010, emphasizes “the public’s right to photograph the exterior of federal facilities” from “publicly accessible spaces such as streets, sidewalks, parks and plazas.” It also states that in a field interview, “officers should not seize the camera or its contents, and must be cautious not to give such ‘orders’ to a photographer to erase the contents of a camera.”

In response to a successful lawsuit in October 2010, in January 2011, the New York Civil Liberties Union received a federal directive making it clear that photographers have the right to photograph federal installations from a public place, The New York Times reported on Jan. 27.

The Times includes this link, and suggests printing out the bulletin to show to officers who question you.

July 7, 2010

Hardy perennials: how do you write about what everybody knows?

It’s 103 degrees out as I write this. So every newspaper website and tv station is running a story about the weather. We’ve all read these stories, again and again and again. The heat wave; the cold snap; the hurricane/tornado/wind storm. The run-up to the election. Graduation. They’re stories that have to be written, but that can be so tedious to read, and to write. And they’re stories you know the competition is writing, too. So how do you set yourself apart from the pack?

The Times did it with an amusing piece that took off from a cliche–“hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk.” Was it really?

The Boston Globe’s media columnist surveyed his domain and offered a tip sheet on keeping the heat wave story from wilting.

Some good examples of how to cover an election without writing as though it was a horse race come from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Student reporters fanned out all over the city to collect man-on-the street reports from far-flung neighborhoods, writing about and videotaping first-time voters, immigrants, young people, people in nursing homes, even political meet-ups in bars. A far cry from either policy wonk analysis or poll-driven winners-and-losers reporting.

Perhaps the most famous example of making an ordinary story extraordinary is Jimmy Breslin’s account of the funeral of John F. Kennedy. Knowing that every news outlet in the world would be covering the obsequies, Breslin turned his back on the body lying in state, closed his ears to the dignitaries’ eulogies, ignored the grieving family, and instead wrote about Clifton Pollard, the man who dug Kennedy’s grave.

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