Being constructive at every stage of the story process
Reporters can incorporate constructive journalism techniques into many steps of their work as they move from story idea to final product and beyond. Here are some ideas how to do that:
1. Developing an idea, choosing a topic ● Brainstorm using the PERMA Method (Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishments). ● Engage the community to see what’s important to them. ● Look at data for inspiration, be on the lookout for “positive deviants”.
2. Desk Research ● Look for protagonists that really represent an issue, not outliers. Are they engaged, making a difference? ● Look for multiple sources with different perspectives to add nuance. Are they surprising? What is their motivation for participating? ● There are multiple perspectives to a story. Ensure the whole picture is being explored, not just the negative or expected aspects.
3. Interviewing ● Listen actively to build trust. ● Try the looping technique to ensure understanding and find what matters to people. ● Add future -oriented questions to learn where things go from here.
4. Writing/editing ● Fill out a story with context and nuance. ● Include a variety of voices to bring in fresh perspectives. ● Language use should be carefully considered – the goal is to inform, not to inflame or create fear. ● Pictures and headlines should be carefully considered.
5. Publication/community ● Publish on social media and ask for input and feedback. ● Moderate social media channels to ensure a constructive environment. ● Answer questions from the audience; respond to constructive comments. ● Ask community members what stories they want next.
● Report the FULL truth, including examples of resilience, post-traumatic growth, positive emotions and accomplishments. ● Report on responses to problems as well as problems. ● Abandon pre-conceived narratives – look for the new and unexpected. ● Embrace nuance and context. Steer away from black and white. ● Change your mindset and framing – “Not all news is bad news; not only bad news is news.” ● Facilitate open-minded debates. ● When writing, balance positive and pessimistic styles. ● Include diverse voices. ● Talk to those affected by problems, not just those causing them or trying to solve them. ● Avoid looking for the most extreme example; the most outlandish quote. Are those representative? ● Learn the history of the issue, tell your audience about it. ● Turn down the volume: fewer horrific scenes, less traumatization, less sensation. ● Don’t neglect narratives of resistance, solidarity and compassion while being independent, critical and realistic.
You’ll need a strong pitch to sell your story idea to editors. The pitch should summarize the proposed story, explain its importance and relevance, how it’ll be produced and why you’re the best person to tackle it. Here are some tips.
Preliminary interviews: Talk to the main characters before submitting the pitch. Be clear with your interviewees that you’re researching a story and don’t promise that they’ll appear on TV/the radio/the paper, etc.
A story, not a topic! “I want to report about sextortion” is the wrong approach – it’s vague and lacks detail. A good pitch would talk about how sextortion survivors in Syria have launched online initiatives to help other victims. Be specific and have characters.
Keep it short: The pitch should be brief, 250 words max. Documentary filmmakers ideally send both a brief pitch/synopsis and a longer proposal of two to five pages. A snappy headline – but not sensationalistic – can make your submission stand out in the pitch pile.
No assumed knowledge: When pitching to foreign publications/editors, don’t assume they know a lot about your country or community. Explain the basics of the story and why it matters. Get the facts straight: Fact-checking is part and parcel of any piece of journalism, whether it’s breaking news or an Instagram story.
Information sources: Unless it’s an opinion piece, editors want to know about the sources of the information that is given in the pitch. Link to them.
Can you deliver? Journalists shouldn’t mention that they’ll get interviews with big names in their pitches unless they really have that kind of access.
Work samples: The pitch should contain links to previous pieces you’ve done or attach a few to your email. Examples of previous constructive stories are even better.
Is it a good story? If it’s difficult to give a brief summary of the proposed story or you’re bored just writing it, ask yourself if it’s worth pitching.
The basics: Don’t forget a phone number and email address in the email signature. Include links to pieces you’ve done previously so the editor can quickly vet your work. Check back in a week if you haven’t heard anything. Always stay professional.
What type of creative person are you?
Find out what type(s) you tend to be through this short self-assessment:
I develop ideas (never – rarely – sometimes – often – always) …
_______ during talks. _______ by associations. _______ by reflecting on my own life experiences. _______ under time pressure. _______ through adaptation. _______ in quiet moments. _______ in competitive situations.
Depending on where you put “often” or “always” above, you can get a sense of what creative type(s) you resemble. Look at your category(ies) below to see how to get the creative juices flowing.
The communicative type: ● needs to talk to others to get new ideas. ● should talk first to people who are concerned, to experts and stakeholders. ● always carries a notebook with them or records conversations. ● creates informal groups, breakfast clubs or working groups to develop ideas.
The associative type: ● gets ideas when reading books, observing other people or discovering new things. ● should often change their daily routines. ● should use public transport instead of their own car. ● spends time in public spaces and observing people. ● spends time in bookshops and reading.
The active type: ● gets ideas by remembering his or her own life experiences. ● hould often leave the office, do a lot of on-the-ground research. ● works on topics which involve them personally. ● should organize leisure time around seeking new experiences.
The deadline type: ● gets a creativity boost under time pressure. ● should practice techniques such as mind storming (Crazy 8). ● should define quantitative objectives. ● clear deadlines should be given.
The adaptive type: ● takes existing ideas as starting points. ● should collect ideas in a personal database. ● should read on topics out of his or her own area of expertise to see the bigger picture.
The calm type: ● needs a calm environment to generate ideas. ● should spend regular quiet moments, in nature (walks, jogging). ● plans creative breaks during working hours.
The competitive type: ● gets creative in competition to others. ● organizes competitions for ideas among colleagues. ● makes bets with colleagues to develop a certain number of ideas in a certain time.
Remember: To stimulate the flow of ideas, it’s important to put yourself in stimulating situations.
Data backs up your story and gives it credibility. But just presenting numbers and statistics isn’t enough. Present data in a way that leads to understanding and doesn’t just overwhelm.
Zoom into key data points and zoom out to provide context:
● Flat/absolute numbers are difficult to comprehend. ● Facts put in relation to something else make more sense (e.g., “…that is equal to the size of 10 football pitches.”). ● The farther an issue is from the audience’s everyday life, the less likely it means something to them – “My reality is not your reality.” ● Do not take the reader’s knowledge for granted. ● The reporter helps create the public’s worldview.
Steps to take:
● Put the data in context and offer perspective – why is this figure important? What does it mean? ● It’s better to offer the perspective early in the report instead of waiting until the end. ● Environment and circumstances are always relevant. ● As percentages and numbers should be in relation to something else, events should be put in context. ● Describe developments, trends, breakthroughs and collapse.
(Source: Minna Skau, editor at the Danish news agency Ritzau)
Explore your creative potential!
Creativity is more complex than commonly thought. Journalists should be creative on different levels. The following questionnaire helps you to find out where your strengths and weaknesses are and identify the abilities you should develop further.
Am I able to think outside of the box?
Am I able to formulate new and relevant questions?
Am I able to identify problems?
Am I able to scrutinize information from all sides and take different perspectives?
Am I able to think associatively?
Am I able to develop original ideas?
Am I able to make analogies?
Am I able to cut through complex issues and to describe / visualize them?
Am I able to develop research strategies, to find new angles, identify hindrances?
Am I able to summarize facts in a coherent manner?
Am I able to combine and interpret facts, to build theories?
Am I able to think in pictures – to combine information with pictures?
How do I solve a problem?
Not worry about the problem
Focus on only one aspect of the problem
Resolving the problem by taking it from several sides in an open, unsystematic and experimental way
When someone asks me to do something creative together,
I prefer to take my time and finally do something alone
I am happy to have company and maybe we can do something interesting
I am very excited and think already about how the person’s skills will complement mine
When something unexpected (e.g., disturbance, change, correctionof the task/briefing) happens in the creative process
I am totally thrown off and can’t quickly find another way to make it work
I did not expect this, but I continue without allowing myself to be irritated any further
I think about following the new impulse and pursue several paths. That can’t hurt after all.
Think outside of the box: Analyze the mainstream public opinion and question it. Could things be seen differently?
Formulate new and relevant questions: Take the perspective of your audience. Which questions could be relevant for them? Which information could be useful for them? And do they all have the same perspective?
Identify problems: Look behind what is obvious and always stay critical. Analyze messages and question their meaning.
Scrutinize information from all sides: Ask who is affected, who is involved and try to understand in which way and what that means. Zoom in and look at the bigger picture.
Develop original ideas: The best way to develop original ideas is to produce many ideas. It is a wrong perception that you might suddenly come up with the one and only phantastic idea. Prominent creative people in history have simply been very productive – and only a small part of their ideas was brilliant, most of them were mediocre or unusable. An idea is original when it differs from usual ways of thinking. You look at a well-known topic from a different perspective. Or you develop a topic further – in a new direction.
Think associatively: You can develop this ability by practicing associative thinking more often, for instance by using the mind mapping method for exploring your topic. This also helps to improve your visual thinking.
Cut through complex issues and describe / visualize them: Most topics that journalists must deal with are extremely complex, especially in a globalized world. Journalists aren’t full experts in the fields of reporting, even though many have acquired some special knowledge, for instance in economical or environmental topics. Their knowledge is rarely so deep that they entirely oversee a complex topic. Often, when there is a solution to one problem, two new problems pop up because everything is so connected. To be a journalist does not mean to become an expert. But becoming a creative journalist means to develop an idea of how different factors intertwine and ask relevant and well targeted questions.
Develop research strategies, to find new angles, identify hindrances: Research takes place by more than 50% in your mind. Who could have an interest to hand over certain information to you. How should you approach a potential informant? What type of questions should you ask at what stage of your research process? You should develop a strategic approach to your information sources. While doing research, you should constantly develop new ideas to find new angles for your research.
Summarize facts in a coherent manner: In order to produce a proper report, you must assemble in a coherent way all information you gathered. It often helps to visualize the different bits and pieces of your research results and how they relate to each other.
Combine and interpret facts, build theories: As a journalist you collect facts, combine them with information that you already have, interprete facts. Then you build theories. Sometimes, this is done unconsciously but as a creative journalist you should always be aware of your assumptions. The theories then need to be vetted before any information can be assembled to tell new stories.
Think in pictures – to combine information with pictures: While the left hemisphere of our brain is responsible for logical and structured thinking and linguistic memory, our right hemisphere stands for emotion and phantasy. Journalists should constantly develop their ability to link information to pictures. Verbal images enable media users to get an easier access to information, they emotionalize facts and activate spatial imagination. Under time pressure, journalists are often not very creative in their wording and chose frequently used phrases. Creative journalists don’t rely on their first ideas but search further.