Stick to the basics: Present all sides of the story
by Jim Pumarlo
Newsroom Writing Trainer
Most reporters can likely relate to this scenario. Someone speaks up at a public meeting to unleash criticism about an individual or organization. Reporters have little difficulty presenting a balanced report – recording all sides of the story – if the accused is at the meeting.
But what happens if the individual is not present? And what if deadlines do not permit time to get the other side of the argument?
It’s the classic case of a “single source” story. These types of stories are no doubt the easiest to write, and they are the most likely to prompt calls of “foul play” from readers – for good reason.
Consider this editor’s note which prefaced a story.
Note: The following article pertains to a presentation which represented one side of a highly controversial topic. Representatives for the alternative position were not available to contest or counter statements made and statistics shared. As such, that perspective is not a component of this report.
Give the newspaper credit for acknowledging the shortcomings in its report, but say what?
The editor’s note – the newspaper’s lack of initiative in pursuing and presenting the other side of the story – is rather remarkable in today’s 24/7 communications landscape. Multiple avenues are available to get the opposing view from picking up the telephone to sending an email to checking out organization websites.
Blind-sided attacks are a common occurrence in reporting the news. Newsrooms, as the clearinghouse of information in your communities, are often in perfect position to anticipate the circumstances and double down your efforts to present all sides of a story.
A simple brainstorming session at a staff meeting can reveal additional opportunities for broader coverage. The more voices in a story, the more balanced a report. Coverage of public affairs affords ample opportunities for including multiple voices.
A school board is prepared to act on a recommendation to switch from half-day to all-day kindergarten; the packet of materials accompanying the agenda details the reasons. A preview of the meeting is a chance to provide “pro” and “con” arguments including interviews with a variety of individuals. Follow-up reports on a variety of board actions present similar opportunities.
Review other everyday coverage in your newspapers.
A community’s selection of a “citizen of the year” is an automatic feature story – usually a one-on-one sit-down with the honoree. Inject some flavor to the story by including comments from other individuals.
A big-box retailer comes into a town with great fanfare. A sidebar is appropriate to capture the sentiments of those who believe existing local retailers will be helped or hindered.
Most items in police blotters are sufficiently summarized in a few sentences. On occasion, take the time to quiz police on some incidents, and the circumstances can lead to an interesting story.
Tracking down all the voices – all the perspectives – of a story is just the first step, however. Two other points are important in the spirit of fairness.
No. 1, give the opposing voices equal prominence. Court proceedings are a great example. In other words, don’t put the prosecutor’s arguments on page one and bury the defense’s rebuttal on jump page. Readers’ attention is limited on the web, too; present the opposing viewpoints in the first few paragraphs.
No. 2, don’t be afraid to hold a story if it means delivering a more complete – and more fair – report. That’s especially the case with nondaily newspapers where it can be a few days to a week before readers receive the “other side.” In these cases, the web is a great friend. Newspapers can wait a few hours to pursue all the voices and still deliver a timely report.
Seeking and incorporating the many varied – yet pertinent – voices in a story is not always easy. It can take time and hard work – solid journalism that benefits the newspaper and readers alike.
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Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on Community Newsroom Success Strategies. He is author of “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper.” He can be contacted at www.pumarlo.com.