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The Power of the Press
Don’t Let it Go to Your Head
By Linda Sherwood
This article is a follow-up to “How to be a (shiver) reporter.” The dead air greeted me across the phone lines. The person on the other end had hung up seconds after I’d uttered the words, “This is Linda Sherwood, I’m a reporter.” I hadn’t even had time to finish my sentence.
Instantly a cold chill went through my body. No! I screamed to myself. I’m not one of those reporters. I quickly hit the redial and as soon as the phone picked up I blurted out what I wanted. It worked. The woman on the other end answered my questions and I felt redeemed. The incident reminded me of what I try to do as a reporter for a small weekly newspaper.
The story behind the click began with a car accident. A head-on collision that sent three children to the hospital in critical condition and killed their parents. The phone call was to the driver of the other vehicle, an elderly man. I didn’t want to know any of the gory details. My newspaper didn’t even print a photo of the accident. It would just hurt too many people in the community for the sake of a cheap thrill by a few. I had called to find out how the man was doing. He had been released from the hospital, but no one could tell me his condition.
Reporting the news is different than other types of freelance writing. You are the agenda maker for your community. You decide what issues to cover. You decide what is newsworthy and what isn’t newsworthy. As a reporter, it is important to keep in mind that you have power. By taking the time to research, write and print a story, you are giving credibility to the issue. You are promoting the issue even if you provide both sides.
When you determine what is newsworthy, you are going to encounter people who will try to persuade you its not newsworthy. Face it, lawyers are probably the only profession that people like less than reporters. People would rather sweep their dirt under the rug than print it in the paper. The mere fact you are covering an issue can change the outcome. It happens all of the time. The words you choose and the facts you include influence your readers and the ultimate outcome.
When you make a phone call in search of information on a story you normally get one of two types of responses. The first is someone eager to have their story told and who gives you all sorts of good information and quotes. The second type of response is someone who doesn’t want the story covered. Who would rather let this be put out with yesterday’s trash. You have to coax and persuade. Sometimes it helps to let people know why you are calling.
The advantage of newspaper reporting is you have time to gather the facts and present accurate information. The downside is you don’t reach as many people as other media like television. When a school district had an upcoming election to build a new school, I wrote several articles over several months covering the issues involved. On the day of the election, the local news station aired a story on the election. In the story, the reporter summarized the election by stating a failure to pass the proposal would result in the school district closing its doors.
By the next broadcast, the television station corrected its mistake. It was too late for many voters, however. The proposal passed, but people were unhappy. They felt they had been mislead and the vote should be redone. They didn’t remember it was the reporter who made the false statement. They remembered who had been interviewed, the school’s superintendent.
After the election, I called the superintendent for comments on the reporter’s mistake. When I called, he suggested I not do a story on it. It was over. He would rather not have an article on it. I persisted. I tried to change his mind so he would cooperate with me. I mentioned the letters to the editor we had already received on the matter. He relented and I interviewed him. The next week, he called me back to thank me. My story had cleared up exactly what had happened.
When you interview people, rather than look for the scoop of the decade, look for accuracy. Take detailed notes. Ask the obvious because it just might not be as obvious as you think. Don’t assume you understand the issue. Tell them what you think you understand and see if you’re right. Let them correct you before it goes into print. By the time it’s printed, its too late. You can correct it with the next issue or the next broadcast, but the damage is done.
The damage can go beyond that story. It effects your credibility. It may be the deciding factor on whether or not someone talks to you again. Do your homework. Make sure you are reporting facts with substance and not assumptions. It will make your sources happier and will make life easier on you the next time you call them as a source.
Words have power. Words influence people. People interpret the same words differently. They bring their own prejudices and beliefs to the article as they read. My advice to beginning reporters, or even to the seasoned veteran, is to choose your words carefully. Words have power and if you misuse them they can haunt you.
Last but not least, I would advise you, no, I would beg you (on my knees, pleading here) don’t be one of those reporters. You make it too hard for the rest of us.
Linda Sherwood is a freelance writer and a reporter for two northern Michigan newspapers and a columnist for Moms Online’s new Teens and Money Center. Look for her first column there in January. Linda is at work on her first novel and a children’s book.
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