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.

Focus, focus, focus, focus, focus

OK, the director of CNN Digital didn’t say the same word five times, but she could have. Have a specialty, measure what matters, match platform to message, tend to your story after publication, and go in order.

Here’s the flavor of Meredith Artley’s remarks made at Harvard last week and a link to the audio of her presentation:

Artley also discussed how analytics can be used to improve journalism — without compromising an outlet’s commitment to hard news. “It’s not saying, ‘Let’s not do Ukraine because nobody’s clicking on it.’ It’s saying, ‘This is a critically important story — how do we need to position this … to reach the broadest audience?'” she said. “Don’t simplify the argument into ‘data bad, journalistic instinct good.’”

Meredith Artley of CNN Digital: Five rules for modern journalists Journalist’s Resource: Research for Reporting, from Harvard Shorenstein Center.

A melting Arctic and weird weather: the plot thickens

Weather Weirding

Language carries so many connotations: Climate skeptic or denier? Global warming or climate change? The recent deep freeze may make people receptive to possible explanations about weather patterns, may allow people to look under the labels for some information. In her article, “A melting Arctic and weird weather: the plot thickens,” Rutgers Professor Jennifer Francis offers a look at the jet stream — both the knowns and unknowns:

The jet stream is a dastardly complex creature, and figuring out what makes it tick has challenged atmospheric scientists since it was discovered about 75 years ago. Even more elusive is figuring out how climate change will affect it

Her article appears in The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics.