By Ruth Jellison
“Newspapers always tell us the same things. The only things they change are the dates and the photographs and the names of the scenes, the victims, and the perpetrators.”
I find this quote by Mokokoma Mokhonoana, a modern social critic and self-proclaimed “writer of funny yet profound aphorisms,” to be unfairly critical of an industry (“Mainstream Media”) that often gets a bad rap. (Please note: I’ll not use this space to discuss the role and influence of advertising on the industry.)
With these words, Mokhonoana paints a bleak picture of the newsgathering and news-producing process. He argues that newspapers offer no variety and no positivity. I would politely argue otherwise, and point him to the plethora of pieces — from hard-hitting crime stories and enterprising series, to softer features such as impact pieces, business coverage, health news, uplifting profiles, local sports stories, editorials or opinion writing, and more — available in the pages of just one issue.
Sure, you may find traditional journalistic writing to be a bit dry and formulaic — “just the facts” written in past tense and crammed in the inverted pyramid structure — but as a former print journalist myself, I can tell you, there’s more to the story. Because, simply put, there’s more than one angle and more than one way to objectively tell a story.
Creativity, I would argue, is required — evident, even — in all stages of the newsgathering process, starting with the curiosity (discovery) phase of a story, flowing through the composition (writing) and cutting (editing) phase, and continuing through the completion (distribution) phase as editors consider the appropriate medium(s) for their message.
Is this article for print only? Web only? Is there a sidebar or infographic? Is this article part of a series or a multimedia package? Answers to such questions will help drive the coverage. (Print reporters are limited to column inches and word counts, while digital coverage has fewer constraints. Editing and branding still comes into play, however.)
Regardless of the “look” of the final product, reporters rely on the news values of prominence, proximity, currency, timeliness, conflict, impact, human interest, and odd/unusual nature to help intensify the “newsworthiness” of any given story (“hook” the readers) and to help answer the traditional journalistic questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how.
Reporters have freedom in what questions they ask, how deeply they delve into facts, whose voices they weave into the account, and how they choose to tell the story — within certain ethical boundaries, of course.
As Chinese journalist Tan Hongkai says, “I think journalism anywhere should be based on social justice and impartiality, making contributions to society as well as taking responsibility in society. Whether you are capitalist or socialist or Marxist, journalists should have the same professional integrity” (Judy Polumbaum, China Ink: The Changing Face of Chinese Journalism).
Integrity should not take a back seat to creativity, or even the urgency — there are non-stop deadlines in a 24-hour news cycle, people! — of any news story. Traditionally speaking, a primary role of a journalist is that of a watchdog. Reporters are working to hold our governments accountable to their local communities. Reporters are truth-seekers, uncovering and exposing corruption and crime.
But reporting is not all bad, nor just about “bad news,” and it’s not all political, because in addition to the aforementioned roles, journalists are also harbingers of good news, covering local sports and lifestyle news, sharing positive community trends, introducing us to overcomers, introducing new perspectives, and more.
In this sense, journalists serve as curious community historians, recording both the large and small events of the day, week, year, or decade and creatively and accurately packaging them as a memory for future generations.
If we’re going to get the story, then we should get it right (read: true, accurate, timely, fair) — not necessarily first. To get the story right, you need tenacity and creativity to find the truth. A “right” story is a “good” story. And that’s just good news for everyone.
Ruth Jellison is a former journalist and lifeguard turned teacher. Ruth has 14 years of experience in the field of journalism, including reporting, editing, photography and videography, web design, page design, and more with both weekly and daily publications.
Today, she serves as the technology, speech, and journalism teacher at a Christian school in western Maryland. She enjoys putting her lifeguarding and photography skills to use at summer camp; spending time in the great outdoors while walking, hiking, sailing, and kayaking with her husband Marty and black lab Dexter; and participating in local theater with Marty and her theater friends.