Updated: May 12, 2021
Recently, a long-time and well respected former broadcaster/rescue coordination expert responded to my quote [sic] in an article penned about the importance of humanizing spot news. His take on journalists "editorializing" situations got me thinking.
He is right of course. But only to a point. Far too often, I'd argue, releases are parroted without exploring what a situation means. Missing from the officialdom are the most important details: How and Why? And more than just for the sake of critical thinking, these questions are vital in maintaining and advancing journalism. They get at the heart of affecting change. They‘re also are the domain of journalists - working on behalf of all people. They're not necessarily the domain of agencies, organizations or companies communicating on behalf of their masters.
Let's take a moment to explore How and Why?
This was one of may favorite follow up questions after getting a news release or talking point during an interview. A despised example: police are searching for two suspected killers. Great - that's their job. But does it make anyone feel safe, satisfied or fulfilled? A better line of questions and writing, 'How are police searching for the killers?'
- Are they using helicopters?
- Are they going door-to-door?
- Who are they questioning in that search - if anyone?
- What other jurisdictions are involved?
- Will any of it work and how will you know?
Let's take that How line to other types of news. During the COVID-19 vaccination campaigns, there were plenty of initial stories with locations (where), dates (when), age groups/occupations (who) and of course details on which shots (what). In following the comments of real people on social media (not just trolls), I was struck by those demanding details on how it would work. The short-comings of the vaccination campaign became paramount. Change and adaptations resulted but only after faulty systems were discovered and reported. Those managing the news conferences and news releases were suddenly exposed to more hardball questions.
This exploration holds true for defining the line between publicity/advertising and journalism in reporting what's deemed news by any organization. Critical thinking does not mean editorial thinking - it means representing a balance of likelihoods much the way a savvy consumer shops for quality products and services.
I also love Why! It's such an honest question that gets to the Genesis of any news. Why did that plane crash or building burn? Why is my favorite restaurant suddenly closed for renovations? Why did that corporate leader or politician unexpectedly resign? Why did COVID-19 cases increase despite new restrictions and a huge vaccination program?
For every news conference, news release or cold-pitch, there is a reason. Usually, the reason (s) can be the focus of a better quality story that again amplifies the line between publicity/advertising and compelling news content. Impact becomes the driver.
A fictional and overly simplistic example. An outsourced IT business is setup with the promise of helping 24/7 - reachable by a simple phone call to an office 20 minutes north of 100 Mile House, BC. That service is promoted and a release is sent to business journalists. For me, a flag goes up...there is more to the story and it's likely more interesting than it seems at first blush.
-Why would someone in the middle of nowhere (my apologies to 100 Mile House) think they could be in the IT business?
With these answered, we can bring What into the mix- What is this person's story?
Why, like How, are the tools of the truly curious. Journalists are obliged to be curious - their content consumers certainly are. For this reason, I'd suggest making those two questions the most important part of any story development. The resulting higher quality content will then become a new reason why some stories reach and connect with more people than others.