There are two kinds of story. Diary stories are things you know will happen ahead of time and can plan for. They are things like fesivals, press conferences, business openings and court dates. This kind of story should be recorded in the organisation’s calendar. Google Calendar and Trello are a good options for this.
Off-diary stories are usually breaking news. Leaks, unexpected statements from people in power, the weather and more can all be sources of off-diary stories. A balance between the two is vital.
There are many ways to discover stories, and as you become more well known as a journalist, people will start to supply you with them.
There are many ways journalists uncover news stories;
- Social media - find well-followed accounts in the area you’re reporting on and see what they publish. Think about where they found their stories.
- Events - Go along to intereresting events that are likely to be controversial. Something unexpected could happen.
- Press releases - Companies and political organisations send out notices of things they’re doing, in the hopes you’ll report on it. Ask to be added to their mailing list for updates. You might find that a boring press release actually gives you the gateway into a much more interesting story.
- Newswires - Big media groups subscribe to newswires. Popular newswires are operated by Reuters, the Press Association and International Radio News (IRN). These are paid services.
- Emergency calls - Local journalists keep up to date with the emergency services. In the past, this would be done over the phone, but nowadays it tends to be done via Twitter.
- Contacts - This is the big one. Journalists rely on their networks of sources. These are people working in the area they’re reporting on.
- Public - People might tell you about a story they think is important and ask you to cover it.
- Data - Data published in response to Freedom of Information requests, in reports or found via tools like Google Trends can be the core of an interesting story.
- Other outlets - Everyone does it. When reporting on a story from another media group, it’s vital to add your own spin to avoid plagiarism. This could be quotes you’ve gathered yourself, or extra analysis you’ve done. Remember that the text of a news article is usually copyrighted.
Reporters working as part of a team will have regular conferences and meetings to make sure journalists aren’t replicating each others’ work. Alongside these big meetings, teams will often have smaller “prospects” or “pagination” meetings, where they discuss what stories will end up in their final product, whether it is a newspaper, website or broadcast bulletin.
More than anything else, it’s important for news reporters to keep their eyes and ears open, especially when reading official documents, attending meetings and talking to officials. Most stories are hiding in plain sight - you have to have a good sense of what news is in order to dig them out.
What is news?
There is no single definition of what news is, but people know when they watch/listen/read about it, and good journalists know when they’ve come across it.
“News is something that someone somewhere doesn’t want published. All the rest is advertising.”
News is significant new information about recent events. It has several common features;
- Perishable - News gets out of date quickly. If people would read about your story in a year and react the same way, it's probably not news.
- Interesting - People want to read what you’re writing.
- Unusual - “Dog bites man” is mundane. “Man bites dog” is unusual.
- A Product - News is (sometimes) sold.
- Exclusive - The best news is something your aiudience won’t have seen anywhere else.
- Powerful - The best news has the power to change affect and minds.
- Subjective - If if doesn’t fit any of these criteria but you still think it’s news, it probably is.
Increasingly, digital journalism is redefining what we think news is. News is increasingly collaborative, interactive and mobile; created by citizen journalists and consumed on the move.
News that can’t be verified isn’t news. If you’re reporting new information, you have a responsibility to make sure that information is true. Failing to do this can leave you open to legal action, including defamation lawsuits.
Trace back any statements or facts you have to the source. If you cite a statistic, you should explain where it comes from. If you calculated it yourself, say so. If it was released by someone else, cite the report where it was published.
If you publish statements from other people, make sure your sources know they’re on record and will stand by their claims. This is especially true if they accuse someone else of wrongdoing. Sources that won’t go on record are no use to you, except as a way for you to find other sources that will go on record.
If you are reporting a story you found on social media, it is your responsibility to make sure the person is legitimate.
Do they have a profile picture and authentic-seeming biography? Was their account created recently? Have they tweeted about other things in the past or has the account sprung into life recently? Are other accounts tweeting the same thing or do accounts conflict? Are there pictures?
Tweetdeck is a valuable tool for verifying stories uncovered on Twitter. You can set up columns for particular users and lists of users, follow hashtags and search for particular keywords, and use robust filtering tools.
You can use online services like TinEye and Google Reverse Image Search to identify images. If you are sent an image and want to make sure it was taken at the time and place you think it was, you can use these tools to check.
How can metadata help me?
Images have metadata. You can often use this to discover where and when the image was taken, the equipment used to take it and even whether it has been edited. This is called EXIF data.
This data is often stripped out when pictures are uploaded to social media, but you can still use services like TinEye to see whether that image has already appeared on the web, and in what context.
You can also use tools like Google Street View to check that images were taken where they claim to be.
More complicated tricks are possible. Tools like Wolfram Alpha allow you to check the weather in parts of the world on given days, so you can check if that rainy photo was really taken when it claims.