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Workshop:If I Know It, 
A Story In The Day Of A Reporter
by
Anne Phyllis Pinzow

Anne Phyllis Pinzow is a script writer who makes her main living as a newspaper reporter and editor.  She has compiled here a list of rules which she has applied with vast success.  She has used these rules to create stories which subsequently went national, attracted TV coverage, and put her phone number in the master-rolodexes on national TV newsdesks.  

These are also the rules she uses to evaluate stories for editorial purposes.  

A fiction writer can use these rules to generate Newspaper stories to be read by their characters.  

And if a character is a news reporter, the character will be more believable if you show-don't-tell how the character follows these rules, even without being consciously aware of it.   

The article below is compiled from bits and pieces of real stories and incidents Anne Phyllis Pinzow has experienced.

Writing students should also read Anne's article on studying TV and Movies to learn visual writing techniques, then notice how those visual writing techniques are used in this article on reporter's rules.  

Good journalism uses visual writing techniques to evoke a sense of "you are there" in plain text, just as TV news coverage gives you a visual image to relate to the words of the report.  

Use this technique in your fictional news reports -- or perhaps one day you will be using visual writing techniques to make your own basic living as a reporter while you write your novels.  Mastery of visual writing is also necessary for a news writer working in television.   Study not only these potent rules, but how they are presented.  

 

 

Youíre the only reporter left in the newsroom and youíre packing up to leave after a long hard day, only your computer somehow shut itself off and you didnít push anything.

The lights flicker and go out, then suddenly come back on along with the start up screens for all the computers.

"Pinzow, find out what the Hell happened."

RULE ONE: FIND OUT WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY, FOR HOW LONG.

If you were at home or in most businesses this would send you scurrying to a fuse box.

In the news business it sends you to the telephone.

First call, the electric company. Not the number that everyone else in the possible "emergency" area has but the special number that connects you with your own contact. And if you donít have your own special inside source then you have to use the general media source.

RULE TWO: GET ONTO THE SCENE

While many reporters seem to think they can cover a story by telephone thatís not the way I do it. People are much more likely to talk to you face to face than over the phone. Also, if government, corporate and emergency officials see you at the scene they are much more likely to give you complete reports of what happened instead of the "line." The simple reason for that is that they will not know how much you found out on your own. The best reason is that you can give an eyewitness account of subsequent actions.

"Pinzow, let Herman do that. Get over to the power station, the one up in Stony Hills that the environmentalists been picketing. Police calls report a possible explosion and call for the paramedics."

That piece of news came from the police scanners, the ones always playing like Muzak in the background of any newsroom. Itís the sound that replaced the tickertapes about the same time as the internet came into vogue.

"Oh, and Pinzow, Iíll try to get a photographer up there, but take your camera just in case theyíre all booked."

By this time youíre out the door heading for your car and thinking of the route, the one no one else knows about, that will take you to the emergency site by avoiding all the traffic back up that would be caused by what must have happened.

And of course, itís raining.

Youíre half way up the mountain behind which is the valley where the controversial power plant is when your cell phone rings.

"Pinzow," you skid for the third time.

"Meet Sigana at the north side of the plant. He says heís got something but heíll only talk to you."

The usual 20 minute drive is made in under 15, even with almost skidding off the road five times. Some time youíll have to remember to get new tires. Oh, and did you remember to call home to say youíll be late for dinner? No time now.

Sigana is your source, the one you did an article on last year to help him find blood donors for his daughterís condition. He usually has some good stuff but itís generally off the record. However, the information does give you a place to start.

RULE THREE: MAINTAIN GOOD RELATIONS WITH YOUR SOURCES AND RESPECT "OFF THE RECORD"

The power plant is in chaos, ordered chaos if you take into account the excellent job the volunteer emergency workers and all the plantís emergency force are doing and how well theyíre working together.

Well, you did do that article a few weeks ago about their new joint training programs. That trip through the fake smoke they took you on was scary even though it was safe to breath.

Make sure you talk to each one of their chiefs.

RULE FOUR: VOLUNTEER AND EMERGENCY WORKERS RISK THEIR LIVES EVERY TIME THEY DO THEIR JOBS. WHENEVER POSSIBLE GIVE THEM THE RECOGNITION AND RESPECT THEY HAVE EARNED. IT WILL ALWAYS PAY OFF IN THE END.

Oh, oh, Tanner, the head of security for the plant is standing right there, waiting for you.

The president of the company was not too happy with the slant of your article about the picketers. Depending on the cause of the explosion, if it is an explosion, remember the "if", this could be either very good or very bad.

RULE FIVE: COMPANY MEDIA SOURCES WILL TELL YOU EVERYTHING THEY WANT YOU TO KNOW. THEY WILL TELL YOU THE TRUTH, BUT NOT NECESSARILY THE WHOLE TRUTH AND OF COURSE THEY HAVE THEIR OWN AGENDAS. ALSO, THEY ARE TRAINED IN DISTRACTION.

"Ah, Pinzow, you can read all about it in the New York Times."

"Not until they give me a call to find out what happened, Tanner."

RULE SIX: MAKE CONTACT WITH COMPANY OFFICIALS AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE SO THAT YOU WILL BE ABLE TO QUOTE "THE PRESIDENT," AND NOT "A COMPANY SPOKESPERSON."

He chuckles a little and takes you aside and gives you the company line, what time the "incident" occurred, where in the plant it happened, how many homes and businesses are without power; so far there are three people who have been taken to the hospital, no deaths, so far.

"What caused the "incident?"

"Weíre still investigating."

RULE SEVEN: WHAT YOU ARE GATHERING IS INFORMATION. NEVER CALL ANYONE A LIAR OR GET EMOTIONAL OR GET INTO AN ALTERCATION. IF SOMEONE SAYS THEY DONíT KNOW, THEN CHECK IT OUT WITH OTHER SOURCES.

"How long will it take to restore power?"

"Weíre still investigating."

"Were there any picketers around?"

"Weíre still investigating."

"Have you ruled out anything?"

"Weíre still investigating."

"Who called in the "incident"?

"The police took her in for questioning, youíll have to get the information from them."

Ah, the line of death. Deadline is in three hours. Even with your laptop and a handy phone connection you will have to have all your information down in two hours and 45 minutes.

Find Sigana!

Oh, there are some people over there standing around.

RULE EIGHT: ALWAYS IDENTIFY YOURSELF AND TELL PEOPLE WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND WHY. BE POLITE AND LISTEN TO THE WHOLE ANSWER BEFORE ASKING ANOTHER QUESTION.

You spend the next half hour gathering contradictory testimony from witnesses before the police take any credible source into custody.

RULE NINE: DONíT FIGHT WITH THE POLICE. THEY WILL TELL PEOPLE NOT TO SPEAK TO REPORTERS AND WITHHOLD WITNESSí NAMES. YOUR JOB IS TO FIND WITNESSES FIRST BUT WITHOUT JEOPARDIZING ANY POSSIBLE CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION. DO YOUR JOB AND LET THEM DO THEIR JOB.

The plant is in a depressed area and some of the slum kids tell you that it took a half hour from the time of the "incident" until anyone showed up.

Yet you know you got there in 15 minutes from the police call and you passed several ambulances already nearing the hospital so they beat you there and were already on their way back within those 15 minutes.

RULE TEN: PEOPLEíS PERCEPTIONS ARE ALWAYS OFF AND SLANTED TO THEIR OWN AGENDAS, ALWAYS, WITHOUT EXCEPTION.

But the kidís might have seen something else worthwhile. Ask them questions about what they saw, get names and phone numbers.

Next talk to Sigana.

Itís off the record but he tells you that because of the picketing, some truckers refused to cross it to deliver much needed backup system replacement parts. Everything would have been ok but for the freak storm. Some equipment which was not shut down in time couldnít handle the energy surge caused by the storm and without the backup emergency parts, the short caused an explosion.

RULE ELEVEN: THOUGH YOUR SOURCE MAY BE RIGHT WHAT HE SAID IS OFF THE RECORD AND ONLY A THEORY. HE MAY THINK HE KNOWS BUT NONE OF THIS INFORMATION MAY APPEAR IN PRINT UNTIL IT IS ALL CHECKED OUT AND CONFIRMED.

RULE TWELVE: ASK YOUR SOURCE WHO YOU MIGHT ASK AND WHAT QUESTIONS YOU SHOULD ASK OF THEM TO ELICIT THE INFORMATION.

By this time the ambulances have left

Note to self: Call the hospitals and get the numbers and conditions of the people from the head admitting nurse.

Note to self: Call the police chief, emergency response unit chief.

Note to self: Call the president of the environmental group which is picketing.

Note to self: Call the president of the trucking company.

Note to self: Call the mayor of the town to find out what might have been reported to her and not to the press. Sometimes politicians will give the press more information than the other officials.

Tanner is waiting for you by your car and before you open your mouth he gives you more information.

Where the explosion (now the "incident" is being called an explosion) took place, what equipment was involved, how long it will take to restore service, what is being done for customers in the meantime, how much money this is costing the utility, how will this affect consumersí bills, which company employees were hurt and their conditions.

The "why" of this is still being investigated but Tanner blames the environmentalists for standing in the way of the completion of the construction of a much needed new, up to date, plant.

Tanner has confirmed some of what Sigana told you and you ask him the other questions.

He confirms that deliveries were being affected but not that there was any tests being done at the time but promises to get back to you.

RULE THIRTEEN: READ THE AS YET UNWRITTEN STORY IN YOUR MIND. ASK YOURSELF IF YOU CAN GET ANY MORE QUESTIONS ANSWERED HERE.

You now have about one hour to get back to your office and write the story.

Your editor may or may not have supplied you with back up information, previous articles about the power plant controversy. If not, you have to do it yourself.

Next, call up for the police report and the hospital reports.

Now, write this up in 250 to 350 words, or 10 to 15 inches.

You have plenty of time, 15 minutes, and oh yes, itís the A1 story, meaning itís the headline. Make sure you have all the names spelled right and that every bit of information is confirmed.

Tomorrow morning, thousands, if not millions of people will not only be talking about information you are including in your article but will make vital decisions, cast their votes, consider moving from or to the area based on what you are writing in these 15 minutes.

If electricity is out, what you are writing now may be their only source of information as to why this is happening in their lives.

They may or may not, more likely not, remember your name. Well, they will remember it if they felt so strongly about your article that they feel they must contact you, either to compliment you or insult you.

But most likely, that all important byline will not make an impression at all. The story is what was important to them, the information you gathered is much more important than who did the gathering and writing.

Your business is gathering information and reporting it accurately. Passion is for an editorial. Speculation, accusations, rumors are a very poor substitute for good hard news reporting.

The next morning is time for follow-up articles. Get in contact with all the people you were unable to speak to the day before. Get up-dates on the people who were taken to the hospital and see if you can speak to their families. Call the police and find out how their investigation is going.

Call the power company and get updates on their investigation. Find out if this type of thing has ever happened before, where and why.

Again speak to the environmentalist group and the trucking group and talk to the shop stewards of the unions to whom the utility workers belong.

Go back to the utility plant and ride around to homes which abut the property. Ask people if they witnessed the incident and any previous activity that might have been a factor in the explosion. Ask them how they are doing, if their electricity is back on and if not, how they are coping.

Get their opinions of what happened and why.

RULE FOURTEEN: ALWAYS GET THE "OTHER" OPINION, NOT ONLY WHO IS FOR BUT WHO IS AGAINST. A ONE SIDED STORY IS PROPAGANDA. WE PRINT NEWS.

RULE FIFTEEN: CONFIRM, CONFIRM, CONFIRM, AND THEN WHEN YOUíRE ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE, CONFIRM.

This material will probably make two or three more articles and depending on the size of the staff, more than one reporter would be assigned to each story. However, it might all land on one personís shoulders especially if thereís another big story, which can and has happened, frequently.

By this time, you have made a list of questions that you ask everyone and you have more questions based on what others have told you.

Donít speculate. Report and make sure that all information is attributed to the proper source.

RULE SIXTEEN: WE ONLY KNOW WHAT PEOPLE TELL US EITHER IN PERSON OR THROUGH RESEARCH. PEOPLE ONLY TELL US WHAT THEY WANT US TO KNOW. MAKE SURE YOU GET YOUR INFORMATION FROM AT LEAST THREE SOURCES.

One of those sources should always be some sort of business news article. Whatever happens, whatever we witness, whatever political action that takes place, it most likely started in the realms of business.

RULE SEVENTEEN: IF THE NEWS HAS TO DO WITH A PUBLICLY TRADED  COMPANY THEN INCLUDE INFORMATION ON HOW THE INCIDENT IS EXPECTED TO EFFECT STOCK PRICES. ALSO FIND OUT WHAT MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED IN THAT BUSINESS THAT MIGHT HAVE CONTRIBUTED TO THE INCIDENT.

IF THE NEWS HAS TO DO WITH A PRIVATE COMPANY, WORK HARDER BUT GET THE SAME INFORMATION.

Remember that when reading a news article, people want to know the five Ws but they also want to know how it is going to affect them.

If youíre reporting on a crime then people need to know if the PRP (potentially responsible party) is at large and might citizens be at risk.

When state, national or international news occurs people want to know how that is going to affect their jobs, their lives, their purchasing power.

It canít be said too often, people live their lives by what is reported to them. They may or may not believe the reports, but even that is a decision based on the accuracy and expertise of the reporters.

RULE EIGHTEEN: BE FAIR, BE HONEST, WORK HARD AND EXCEED YOUR OWN EXPECTATIONS ABOUT YOUR ABILITIES, THEN PUT THE PAPER TO BED.

Itís a story, just like the thousands of stories youíve already covered and the thousands you will cover. You are a reporter and your job is gathering and delivering information. The information may hurt people, but if it does, it is most likely also helping people. Be careful that you print the truth and that the news that you gather is not malicious.

But, at the end of the day rest your body, rest your mind and vent your emotions in your own appropriate manner.

RULE NINETEEN: ALWAYS BE READY TO COVER THE NEWS.

 

 

HOMEWORK:

You are writing a novel set in your own town.  The main character needs a job desperately and has hit on the idea of getting a job as a newspaper reporter.  She takes a local newspaper, clips a story that has been badly written, (you'll have to write that story) re-researches it and writes a follow-up story using the rules above.  

Write the follow-up story she presents as her credential to get this job.  

You don't need a press credential to do that.  You can MAKE UP the data she digs out with good leg-work.  But be sure you use the rules of Visual Writing to create your fictitious news story.  And be sure it's well enough written that the novel's readers would consider it plausible that she would get the job (despite lack of a degree in journalism).  

You may post your piece in the Editing Circle or on the Bulletin boards, requesting input from those subscribed to writers-L.  

An alternative scenario:  Your main character wants to start an email newsletter that carries local news and local advertising/coupons for the local grocery stores.  She starts by writing the above good-followup article on an issue of interest to her community, printing it as a one-pager with the subscription URL and invitation to advertisers.  

Outline the plot of that novel.  

If it's a romance, she meets someone and her dreams come true.  If it's a tragedy/drama/horror novel she attracts a stalker.  If it's a humor piece, she attracts national attention and absurd things happen.  If it's international intrigue, the story she writes blows the cover on some "operation."  If it's an action novel, she gets Mob attention for fingering their operations, and ends up running for her life, maybe getting a new identity from the government after testifying.  If it's an sf novel, the piece is about UFO's and suddenly she's embroiled in an interstellar war.  If it's a fantasy novel, her investigations lead her to a dimensional doorway through which she drops like Alice into Wonderland.  If it's a straight Detective police procedural, the article she writes attracts the attention of a Detective and she solves the crime.  Keep going through the genres until you hit on the one for your favorite kind of story.  

The "concept" -- out of work person starts a local email advertiser AND (whatever happens) -- is called a SPRINGBOARD or a "VEHICLE".  Notice how it can then lead into the story material of any genre.  Notice how the choice of genre specifies precisely what kind of thing can happen as a result of starting the e-mail newsletter -- and how it eliminates a whole set of other kinds of things.  Also notice how VISUAL WRITING is the key to making any of those genres work as a story.   

Then read Writing the News -- and do the homework for that lesson, and you'll almost be able to write a character who is a reporter (as opposed to just saying she's a reporter).  

Read the other lessons by Anne Phyllis Pinzow.  

 

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