What to put into a story and what to leave out

Workshop for Illinois Journalism Education Association

The time has come for journalists to embrace more transparency and to enhance verification of stories. One way to do this is with links and annotation. I could write lots of words about this, but showing beats telling. Illinois journalism student Austin Keating shared some of his favorite examples with me, which I’m passing along to high school students today:

WaitButWhy.com http://waitbutwhy.com/2015/01/artificial-intelligence-revolution-1.html

Austin’s go-to favorite with genius.it (news.genius.com) http://blogs.reuters.com/equals/2014/03/20/is-there-a-gender-gap-in-tech-salaries/#/

A website about the California water crisis. “This link lands you on the background page, but they continually put out news stories on other parts of the website. http://www.waterdeeply.org/background/supply/

Traditionally, footnotes and end notes have been omitted in the news. But maybe we need more of them for the sake of transparency and verification. Let the readers check out what we’ve done. One classic from 2004 by David Foster Wallace is “Consider the Lobster” in Gourmet magazine. http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2004/08/consider_the_lobster.html

And just this week comes the Atlantic Monthly’s report on families and the effect of imprisonment:


The Atlantic said “incarceration.” I said “imprisonment.” What do we explain? What words do we define? Do we say what a QB is in a football story? A first chair trombone player in a band story? Archaea in a story about a biology student? When does the vocabulary need explaining? And to whom? These are questions about audience.

When I teach science writing, I teach three things all semester long:

  • Appeal to the senses. Write descriptively
  • Put people in the story. Write with characters.
  • Build the vocabulary step by step.

Today, I want to focus on the vocabulary, or the jargon.

We’ll read this story from the Associated Press and brainstorm about it. AP story on deaths linked to air pollution: http://customwire.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_SCI_KILLER_AIR?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2015-09-16-19-56-53

And the scientific publication it used as a source: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v525/n7569/full/nature15371.html

Embed links under narrative text.

Now, my name is Jennifer, and with letting readers jump off, you can let them get really distracted, as I did when I ended up at this story about baby names. My name is Jennifer, and this article reveals some information about my name and its (lack of) current popularity.