Editor’s note: This column is part of a seven-day Forum Communications series on the First Amendment. If you have a question or comment, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the realities of reporting for a newspaper is that some of the most tantalizing news tips never result in a story.
That’s because not everything checks out. Or it’s because the situation turns out to be different than it first appeared. Or we simply weren’t able to verify seemingly solid information.
It’s frustrating at times. But readers should actually find this reassuring.
In a time when it’s become fashionable to brand anything disagreeable as “fake news,” newspapers maintain strict standards for establishing the reliability of what we report.
Bylines aren’t just to indulge a reporter’s vanity. They signify who is accountable for gathering the information. But we attribute our sources, so readers can evaluate the reliability of that information for themselves.
It’s been said that a newspaper is a community in conversation with itself. Reporting is the ultimate conversation starter.
Every reporter is responsible for generating story ideas for the areas he or she covers. Reporters scout around, checking meeting agendas, court filings and police blotters, among lots of other means. In fact, sometimes a reporter’s best sources are those who are never quoted, but who provide a hot tip.
Editors also have plenty of ideas, which result in story assignments. But some of the best ideas come from the public.
Idea in hand, the reporter checks into the information. Much of this is done over the phone, but sometimes happens face to face. If the story involves a dispute, it’s crucial to check with all the parties involved.
Some stories only require a couple of calls. Others can require weeks or even months of digging. It’s often a back-and-forth process. As the reporter learns more, new questions arise. Sometimes, the story veers off in an unexpected direction.
The best stories, in fact, are surprising, with multiple angles that enrich the subject.
The internet has opened the door to vast troves of information. More information is readily available than ever before. But a good reporter bears in mind that information that people aren’t eager for the public to know about is seldom easy to find.
In the case of public information, both North Dakota and Minnesota have good open records laws that help reporters pry loose information. Open records and open meeting laws are crucial for allowing the public to follow what government officials are doing.
The counterpart for open records involving nonprofit organizations is an annual disclosure report they must file with the Internal Revenue Service, detailing their funding sources and accounting for those donated dollars.
Any in-depth story therefore involves two information channels: a paper trail and a people trail. Reporters seek out both human and documentary sources to get the fullest picture possible of their subject.
That can take considerable time, so a reporter has to convince his editor that the story merits that investment in time and effort.
Deadlines are a constant in reporting — even more so now that journalists publish online, with a website that is constantly being updated, as well as various e-editions and print editions.
A deadline provides the impetus for a reporter to dive into a story, but also imposes a limit on how far that quest can go. Space — and a reader’s attention span — also impose limits, although with electronic publishing space is less of a limitation.
Throughout the process, reporters are in touch with their editors. Sometimes they decide a story isn’t worth pursuing further. Sometimes they press the reporter to go further in reporting the story.
The editor reads a story to ensure accuracy and also to check for balance and completeness. It’s a collaborative process that starts with the story idea and isn’t complete until the editor has finished editing the piece.
Once a story is written, the reporter quickly moves on. In the constant rush of news, the biggest frustration is there is never enough time to get to all of the worthy stories that come to our attention.
Patrick Springer is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He can be reached at 701-241-5522.