Revisiting the Basics of Journalism

Rhonda Prast, Mike Jenner and Caitlin Carter
Magazine journalism faculty members Rhonda Prast (left) and Mike Jenner, who is serving as the interim editorial director at Vox magazine, review story pitches at a weekly staff meeting with Caitlin Carter. Photo: Rosellen Downey.

Missouri School of Journalism Faculty Identify 10 Tenets of Good Reporting in Today's Convergent News Environment

By Ekaterina Timokhina
Fulbright Master's Student
Russia

Have the basic tenets of good reporting changed in the era of instantaneous communication, fast news and an overwhelming stream of information? Do they differ across the news media platforms?

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Professor Emeritus George Kennedy compares journalists' new role to the educational mission of museum curators. It is about pulling together material, setting up exhibits, offering education and explanation to present a noteworthy picture that the audience can trust and understand. It's what he calls "gatekeeping with a modern emphasis."

"Basic tenets of good reporting carry over no matter the media," notes Jacqui Banaszynski, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who serves as the Knight Chair in Editing at the school.

In this article, Missouri School of Journalism faculty members representing digital, print, magazine, radio and television perspectives share their views on what constitutes good reporting in today's multi-platform news environment.

    Alison Jung and Mike Jenner
    Vox student editor Alison Jung and interim editorial director Mike Jenner discuss a question during production. Photo: Rosellen Downey.

  1. Be accurate. The first tenet cited by professors was accuracy, or making sure the information in the story is correct. Accuracy is understood in broader terms as not only getting the facts right, but "providing the context in which those facts live," Banaszynski says. Kennedy says that context is important because it enables the reader to understand it and make reasonable judgments about it. Faculty members warn, however, that the push for speed and instantaneous communication might undermine accuracy. "Speed is the enemy of thoughtfulness," Kennedy says. "When a journalist is forced to simply repeat what he is hearing without being able to check the facts, then accuracy is often a victim of speed." Jennifer Reeves, a radio-television journalism associate professor, says the challenge is to be able to verify the information and still be ahead of social media. Accuracy is crucial as news gets reported faster. In this case, Kennedy says the guide for journalists is what communications theorist James Carey called the "full curriculum of journalism." This means that while journalists on the scene report what is happening, with the benefit of more time, they are able to check the facts and provide additional perspectives, he says. "Only when a reader has the access to this full curriculum of journalism can he think that he is getting the whole story," Kennedy says.

  2. Avoid biases. A journalist should be focused on serving the public without underlying agendas that would spin the information a certain way, Banaszynski says. "It is getting information to people so that they can make a decision but not trying to push people to make a certain decision," she says. Kennedy says objectivity is both desirable and attainable in mainstream journalism. Standard daily newspapers, the 6 o'clock television news, NPR, the network news - these are outlets that have an obligation to tell a story that is factual, accurate and true, he says. Consequently, it should be clear to the audience when a reporter is advocating certain point of view and why. "For many people, the line gets blurred between objectivity and advocacy, and that leads to confusion and misunderstanding and diminishes journalists' credibility," Kennedy says. "The journalist cannot try to be both," he says. David Herzog, a member of the print and digital news faculty, says that although everyone comes to a story with a bias, it is important to be aware as a journalist of what the biases are. His advice is to approach every assignment with an open mind and creativity but remain skeptical.

  3. Rehman Tungekar at KBIA
    KBIA producer Rehman Tungekar fields phone calls in the studio during a live show. Photo: Rosellen Downey.

  4. Present multiple viewpoints or perspectives. One way to do avoid bias is to question and test every assumption by using as many sources as possible, Herzog says. "If you are talking to a lot of people and look at tons of documents, you are broadening your information, widening your horizons, which helps counter whatever biases you have," Herzog says. "The number of sources can run to hundreds, especially in investigative stories." Amanda Hinnant, assistant professor of magazine journalism, says it's important to provide a variety of perspectives. Vox magazine, for instance, requires reporters to use at least 3-to-4 sources for a primary story and 2-to-3 sources for a secondary story. Reporters should talk to many people about an issue because the reader doesn't have time to, Hinnant says. "I tell my students that the more people you talk to, the more value you are adding for the reader, and you will offer a better, well-rounded picture of reality," Hinnant says. "Going to a website and reporting from that is not adding value to our readers' lives. You need to do the legwork." Banaszynski says good reporters should evaluate the depth of their articles by asking: "Am I talking to the right people? The right mix of people? Enough people to get a full view of the situation?"

  5. Pursue the truth. A good reporter makes an effort to report broadly and deeply to pursue "the best obtainable version of the truth," Kennedy says, quoting the Washington Post investigative reporter Carl Bernstein. While a journalist might not be able to get absolute truth, he or she should try to find as much information as possible. "In journalism, we don't have the luxury of time that a historian has and the power that a law enforcement officer has," Kennedy says. "Frequently, a journalist can only manage to get part of the truth with the capital T." He says that truth doesn't mean every side of an issue is represented by an equal number of quotes - not every issue has equivalent sides. Janet Saidi, assistant professor and news director at KBIA-FM, says she thinks there are issues journalists can take a stand on, naming human rights, justice and corruption among those.

  6. Alison Jung, Rhonda Prast and Kristi McCann
    Vox magazine editor Alison Jung (left) and art and books editor Kristi McCann check for changes on galleys of the new Vox issue. Magazine journalism professor Rhonda Prast (in background) provides assistance as needed. Photo: Rosellen Downey.

  7. Use factual data, yet develop people skills. Data-driven reporting is an important element of good reporting, says Herzog, who serves as an academic adviser to the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting. There are programs to find information buried in the archives, government documents and data spreadsheets. This is how, in Herzog's words, "journalism brings to the table the ability to make sense of information overload and present that to people." Saidi also emphasizes the importance of data-gathering skills but says people skills are just as important for good reporting. "Ultimately, journalists do not need to know everything or present themselves as experts but need to know how to learn about certain issues from others," she says. "They need to be in a hyper-curious mode." Saidi advises to approach every issue like a learning exercise, because journalists are people who connect the audience with expertise and data.

  8. Maintain community ties and "connect the dots." Reeves says the greatest stories come from talking to people in a line at a grocery store, at the gym, on a walk, or anywhere that makes a reporter get away from his or her computer. She says good reporting is something that is not gathered from press releases but is achieved by knowing what the community is concerned about. Thus, the challenge for a journalist is to go out and find people who are affected by an issue. Reeves also praises social networks as a reporting tool, since they provide the opportunity to engage in a conversation with readers, form communities of interest and distribute important information instantly. "It is fabulous," she says. "I always craved to have instant impact and instant communication with the consumer, and now we are fully a part of the community." Being connected to the community is an important quality, especially for local and regional media, Saidi says. Along with this, Saidi says reporting should be original and connect the dots for readers. It should help the audience to understand something it didn't understand about society. For instance, KBIA recently investigated where health researchers on the University of Missouri campus get their funds and how many of them are funded by pharmaceutical companies. The story is important for the community and aggregates knowledge about areas broadly reported about but not directly connected: healthcare, the pharmaceutical industry and research funding. "A lot of times, it is something that is in the news but not investigated," Saidi says, "something we were just wondering about and pointed at."

  9. Be open and transparent. Transparency, or openness about how information was gathered for a story, is another frequently-named tenet of good reporting. Hinnant says transparency should be used to avoid confusing a reader. "In a story, we need to identify the way of communication," she says. "Otherwise, the reader assumes that we have talked to an interviewee in person, and we don't want to mislead the reader even in that small way," she says. Kennedy says transparency provides an opportunity for readers or watchers to be involved in journalists' decision-making processes. After all, news consumers can check the accuracy of reported information online, Kennedy says, which is a significant contribution to increasing transparency and good reporting practices. Herzog supports Kennedy's idea, saying journalism has become more visible and verifiable as the Web has become more crucial in delivering information. Every journalist is now viewed under a microscope and on an international level, he says.

  10. Hilary Lau
    Vox Scene department editor Hilary Lau making edits during production at Vox magazine. Photo: Rosellen Downey.

  11. Evoke emotion. A good story, whatever medium it is presented in, evokes emotion, faculty members say. Brian Kratzer, assistant professor of photojournalism, recalls an award-winning Pictures of the Year photo essay titled "Tobacco Road." The photos followed the effects of tobacco, from the poor individuals who harvest it to the smoker's lung cancer. Kratzer was impressed by the storytelling and how the photos showed the different ways tobacco infiltrates society. "Whether it is one image or several images in a photo essay, it could bring light to so many wrongs that are in the world or so many little stories that are in a little community in just one shot," Kratzer says. "The opportunity for storytelling is massive." He remarks that evoking emotion is especially essential in photojournalism: Different people feel different emotions from the image, so everyone comes away with different messages after "reading" the picture. "Photographs allow us to experience joy and sadness that we would have never experienced with our 9-to-5 working hours," he says.

  12. Think visually; have vision. Banaszynski says good reporting for print and digital platforms requires "visual reporting." A journalist has to be able to report visually and paint a picture with words, even if photos accompany the news. She emphasizes that, in print writing, quotations need to be better because the audience cannot hear the emotion in the voice. "An interviewer should be able to make a person say something that is richer and more precise than would necessarily be needed if audio was accompanying the story," she says. In photojournalism, Kratzer says, having a clear vision is a prerequisite to success. "Sometimes, we think the story should go this way, and then after spending time with the subject, the story takes the whole new direction," he says.

  13. Integrate new developments and technology. Technological advances and the emergence of social media create new standards for what good reporting is, faculty members say. "Not only do we need to make a story now, we also need to be able to do everything that goes along with it - from taking pictures to distributing a story in social networks - even on the radio," Saidi says. Kennedy says that with the development of online media, the audience finds news wherever it is, which opens up a new dimension of reporting. Not only it should be accurate, complete, fair and balanced, but also it should also include the consumers in the news that interests them, he says. "From troubles in Iran and Syria to the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, we see that what people can do today they could never do very well before - communicate between themselves without relying on mainstream journalists and traditional media," Kennedy says. "Journalism today has truly become a dialogue and a conversation, and it is the conversation that adds to human knowledge."

Ekaterina Timokhina Ekaterina Timokhina is a Fulbright graduate student from Russia. She has four years of experience in strategic communication and media analysis, having worked for the PBN Company as an integral member of its client service teams. Timokhina worked on projects in energy, fast-moving consumer goods, retail, financial and healthcare sectors. Her previous work experience also includes business development at the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce and interpreting for the Open World Program. Timokhina graduated with honors from the Plekhanov Russian Academy of Economics with a degree in international economic relations in 2007. She is fluent in Russian, English, German and Spanish.