Good Reporting

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Note: These notes are the personal views of the author(s) and reflect their personal experience with Indymedia. Different people may have different opinions.

The Five Ws

Any journalism course would probably start with the Five Ws, sometimes also known as the Five Ws and one H. A good report is supposed to answer six basic questions: What happened? Where and when did it happen? Who did it or was involved? Why did it all happen and how? Needless to say, the answers to all these questions are expected to be factual. Note also that none of them can be answered with a simple Yes or No.

The first three are fairly obvious, although your perspective would certainly affect, to a greater or lesser extent, the way you describe what happened. That is why Indymedia does not attempt to take an 'objective' or 'impartial' standpoint, the way mainstream and corporate media do to cover their biases towards the state's and capitalism's power structures.

In reporting on major events, such as wars and big mobilisations, who and why become a real issue. Driven by their "worshipping of certainty", mainstream journalists and editors often make up for not having the answer by recycling governments propaganda. So words like "terrorists", "anarchists" etc. fill in the gap of "who", while phrases like "mindless violence", "rouge states" and so on give a false impression of knowing "why".

A 'good report' would answer most, if not all, of these questions in the first paragraph, known as the lead or abstract. For stylistic reasons, the answer to one question could be spread over a few sentences. Here is an example from an Indymedia feature (note the emphasis):

Over 250 Sub-Saharan Africans have been arrested by the Moroccan authorities in raids that took place in different quarters of Rabat on December 23rd, 2006. Among the arrested were women and children refugees and asylum seekers. Six buses, accompanied by the army, then carried them to Oujda on the Algerian borders. At about 11pm, the buses crossed the border at 3 different points and the migrants were left in the middle of nowhere. There are fears that these arrests are only the beginning of a mass deportation campaign to Algeria, or even into the desert, similar to what happened in September-October 2005.

(For style issues, see, for example, the Wikinews style guide)

News Reports

Generally speaking, a news report does not have to be a great piece of literature. It is purely functional and should be simple and direct.

The so-called Three Cs of journalism: clear, concise and correct. Clear means using a simple, straightforward language, avoiding ambiguity. Concise means your report should be as brief and short as possible. Correct is supposed to mean using only facts and being accurate.

Mainstream journalists are trained (or should we say brainwashed?) to hide their own voices and use a standardised way of writing. Most people, however, have an authentic voice, which allows them to express themselves forcefully and passionately. But in the written form at least, fluency can be a rare commodity.

Mainstream journalists are also brainwashed into concealing their opinions, pretending to be 'objective' and 'impartial' (the so-called neutral point of view). However, most of those involved with Indymedia and other alternative media projects would argue that you should have a point of view. It will help you, and your readers, if it's clear where you're coming from. But remember, a news report is not a column or an analysis piece. (Reportage is also a term used for an eye-witness genre of journalism, that is, an individual journalist's report of news, especially when witnessed first-hand, distributed through the media. This style of reporting, however, is often associated with travelling and careful observations.)

Original reports

The main strive of Indymedia is getting news "direct from the streets" - grassroots, first-hand journalism, that is. This means the 'reporter' is either involved him/herself in what he or she is reporting on; has witnessed the action or event; or, at worst, got the information from trusted sources who have witnessed it first-hand. Obviously, reporting techniques may range from eyewitness accounts, photo reports to interviews.

Accuracy is probably the most crucial thing here. At the end of the day, there is no point in over-estimating the numbers or impact of an action or protest, bearing in mind that the few people who turned up may all read what you've posted on Indymedia and become confused. More to the point, they would not believe anything else other people report there in the future.

Planning or structuring your story

You probably remember from school how to divide your composition into an introduction, content and conclusion. Well, news reports work in a similar way. It will also help you a lot to sort the information or material you've got before you start writing. Get clear about the purpose of your report and what you have to say, because if you are not clear about that, your readers won't be either.

The title or headline

Your titles should normally be unique, specific and short. Writers (and sub-editors) usually pick the most important and unique bit of news in the story for the title. Using verbs, present tense and active voice is usually recommended. Examples:

Police mar peaceful protest in Rostock; Indymedia celebrates its 8th birthday; Thousands demonstrate in Schwerin against Neo-Nazis; "No to migration controls", say activists; ...

The summary or abstract

After making sure the basic facts are there, the usual list of what, where, when, who and why is often quite helpful. Try to answer most of these questions in the first paragraph (the abstract) but don't make it a boring list of facts. After all, it's the first thing readers see, so make it interesting! It is often a good trick to get the interesting stuff in right at the beginning of your report, to entice people to read more and save them time sifting through the details.

For instance, never start a report with something like: "It was 6:30am when some 10,000 hard-core German anarchists, joined by fellow activists from Holland, France and the UK, started to gather in Heiligendamm, north Germany, in readiness for the day's assault on the capitalist system...". Rather, start with something like: "Police used tear gas and water cannons as thousands of anti-G8 protesters barricaded the streets of Heiligendamm this morning." You can always recap on details in the content.

The body or content

Logical or chronological flow. Anticipating and answering possible questions or objections. Identifying the readers' needs. Selecting the best tone and style.

News reports are often written in the past tense or the present perfect.

Never assume your readers know any of this in advance.

Finally, illustrating news stories with photographs

Some examples from Indymedia

Photo Reports

You've probably heard the cliché "One picture is worth a thousand words". Well, it is true sometimes and, with digital cameras so easily available nowadays, this has become more possible than ever before. Yet, photo reports are by no means less easy-to-do than text ones. Further, the fact that photojournalists rarely have the option to stand back or wait until the event or action is over means they must make decisions instantly, often in uncomfortable situations.

Photojournalism is distinguished from other types of photography by mainly two things: timeliness (images have a meaning in the context of a published chronological record of events) and narrative (the images combine with other news elements to inform and give insight to the viewer or reader).

The Intro or Abstract

Like with text reports, it would be very helpful to your readers if you could answer the Five Ws in a small paragraph preceding your photos. This is even more important with photo reports as images are often unable to answer some of these questions on their own. After all, there is little point in uploading photos without any context.

Shots

The information conveyed by photo reports is obviously as, if not more, important as the aesthetic dimension of the photographs. So, when 'composing' you picture, try to make it as informative as possible, and also try to exclude any distractions, i.e. elements in the scene which may distract the viewer and make it hard for them to understand what is going on in the picture.

Broadly speaking, a 'good' photo report should contain most, if not all, of the following elements:

  • Establishing shot: a high or wide view to establish the viewer of the scene;
  • Media focus: focuses on the main action or group;
  • Details: close-ups on single elements, like a person's hand or a placard, for example;
  • Portraits: dramatic tight head shots or persons in their environment; the mood of the place, event or people (be careful with these!);
  • Interaction: with the public, police, staff etc.;
  • Sequence: how, before and after; the beginning middle and end of an action or event;
  • Closer (also known as the clincher): one image that ends or sums up the story.

You've probably seen photographers on actions and events jumping around like monkeys :-P This is because the variety of angles not only provides a visual variety, but also more information. Low, high, right and left: try to get everything you're shooting from as many angles as possible if you're not sure beforehand which one would be the best.

Images for features should be iconic, as a small image (icon) is used to accompany the abstract on the startpage of most Indymedia sites. So it should be simple and clear as to what it is. For example, an image of protesters would be hard to make out due to its small size, so a shot of a banner, for instance, might be more suitable.

Finally, if you're a perfectionist kind of person, you can always make your images look better (crop for better composition, lighting etc.) using image manipulation programmes such as The Gimp or Photoshop.

Sequence

With advanced digital cameras, you may take hundreds of pictures of one single event. Well, don't publish them all :-) First, get rid of those that are poorly exposed, out of focus or obscured at the last minute because someone got in the way. Now go through your shooting script (like the one above) and find the best image for each topic and the best images for the sequence. You shouldn't normally need more than 20 images.

As with text, the order of photos could be either chronological (beginning, middle and end) or logical (what you think is the best way to present your story). Although the chronological option may sound easier, it dose not, in fact, make conveying the story to a viewer an easy task, nor dose it help with what pictures you need to take to show the beginning, middle and end. So following carefully studied shooting scripts is a good thing to consider, but your ability to do this almost instinctively will develop with practice.

Captions

Photos may sometimes not be able to convey enough information. That's what photo captions (the text accompanying the images) are there for. You could use these to provide some information that your photos do not contain, info that was left out or you could not get with pictures, or even explain them better.

Blurring faces

Taking pictures at a protest brings with it great responsibility as your pictures of the participants could get them into big troubles (arrest, prosecution etc.). A lot of Indymedia photographers, therefore, take pictures during actions in a way so that faces can not be recognised (distant shots, from behind etc.). In more sensitive cases, however, you should make sure that all people's faces are blurred and not recognisable, even those who might not have directly taken part in the actual action.

There's a simple how-to here, using The Gimp.

Resizing

Digital cameras are producing ever bigger pictures, both physically and in file size. This means that without a bit of attention they can appear way too big on a webpage, and take a long while to appear, especially for modem users. To get round this, they need to be both resized and compressed.

A good size for web image uploads is 640 pixels wide with a max height of perhaps 480. You might want to make them as small as 400 wide to reduce the chance of somebody stealing them for print publication without your permission.

JPG is the obvious first choice for file format, with compress set at about 7 (70%) for a good compromise between file size and quality.

There is a resizing how-to here.

Finally,

always make sure the date and time on your camera are set correctly as your photos might be crucial evidence in court.

Some examples from Indymedia
(with a normal, cheap digital camera, so this is not for professional photographers ;-)

Features

One common 'problem' on many Indymedia sites is long feature abstracts. Due to the traditional linear design of many Indymedia sites, some feature writers tend to put everything in the abstract out of a perception that a lot of readers would only read abstracts and not click the "full article" link. Here's an example. Example of a short abstract.

Some examples from Indymedia

Of course, there is space for more researched and in-depth features, like these ones:

Audio Reports

Some examples from Indymedia

Video Reports

Some examples from Indymedia

Useful Tips

  • Names are very important and, at the same time, quite easy to get wrong. Journalists often write a name down and show it to the source to verify that it is correctly spelled.
  • You should advise you correspondents or sources that you wish to publish their replies or attributed information on Indymedia. Ask in advance, because it's polite and it's not easy to persuade someone after they spill the beans!
  • Agreeing to obscure your source's identity in a finished story can lead to 'bad journalism' if done too often or with too little care. But it can also be an important and valuable way to obtain information that might not otherwise be available.
  • If you're speaking to someone who is used to deal with the press (politicians and senior police officers, for example), bear in mind that these people are often experts at manipulating the impressions of reporters. Your ability to see through manipulation techniques will improve with practice.
  • On the first mention of a person in a story, write the person's organisation, title, and full name. E.g. "The BBC's Director-General Greg Dyke has resigned after the Hutton Inquiry raised serious questions about the broadcasting corporation's journalistic standards and impartiality."
  • If you want to use acronyms in your report, then place the acronym to be used in parenthesis directly after the first mention, where the full name is used. E.g. "A server hosting the site of the Independent Media Centre (IMC) was seized yesterday... IMC is a global network of alternative, grassroots media activists..."

--ShiaR April 2007