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 corporate media do to conceal 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 media 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 is often characterised by travel and careful observation.)

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 useful for readers to answer the Five Ws in a small paragraph preceding your photos. This is even more important with photo reports as images are unable to answer some of these questions.

Shots

When composing your picture, try to exclude any information in the scene which will be distracting to the viewer and makes it hard to understand what is going on in the picture. Keep it simple is the rule. Obviously this is not always going to be possible to do so don’t worry if you can’t.

A better way is the shooting script that follows (can be used for video too):

  • Establishing Shot: A high or wide view to establish the viewer of the scene
  • Media Focus: focuses on one action or the main group
  • Detail: A close up, one element, like a persons hands or detail of a building
  • Portraits/Personality: Dramatic tight head shot or persons in their environment, the mood of the place, event or people
  • Interaction: the public, police or staff. Makes for interest for the viewer
  • Summery: summarizes the situation with all the key elements for the viewer Henri Cartier-Bresson called this the “Decisive Moment”
  • Sequence: How to, before and after, the beginning middle and end = Actions
  • Closer: Also known as a clincher; one image that would end/sums up the story

Again not all of the shooting scripts topics will present themselves, so don’t worry, but at least you now have an idea of what to look for.

A variety of angles will also make for better visual layout, when shooting the establishing shot, shoot from low to the ground from high up and from left and right of the scene. This adds visual variety and can be extended to the other “script headings.” You can also use the cameras zoom set at the short end (wide angle) and move close to the subject and shoot low, high, right and left. Then Zoom out to the long end standing back, and shoot low, high, right and left again. This will take 64 pictures plus sequence images, I used to take three rolls of 36 exposures (108 frames) leaving 44 images for the sequence part or 11 sequences with eight different views. So make sure you have enough film or memory card.

Images for features should be iconic as, on Indymedia, a small image is used to accompany the abstract, 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 size and a shot of a banner might be more suitable.

Photo often also benefit from being cropped for better composition (something which these multiple mega pixel photos really lend themselves to when being resized anyway).

Sequence

Ok, so you might have over a hundred images, but don’t publish them all. First sort out those that are poorly exposed, out of focus or obscured at the last minute as some one got in the way. Now go through the script and find the best image of each topic and the best images of the sequence and you should have no more than twenty images.

There approaches to considering what to shoot that have been long established by photojournalists. The first is just following the story in logical sequence from beginning, middle and end. Although that sounds easy it dose not make conveying the story to a viewer an easy task nor dose it help with what pictures you should take to show the beginning middle and end.

Captions

Blurring faces

Taking pictures or video at a protest brings great responsibility with it. Your material could get people into big trouble no matter whether they are actively participating or just standing by. Therefore: Take pictures in a way so that faces can not be recognised (during actions). Make sure that you take memory-cards/-chips and films to a secure location regularly, to minimise the risk of confiscation by the police. In any case, before publishing: All people’s faces must be blurred! Even those of people who might not have been directly part of an action at that time.

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

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. This can often be done with the software than comes with the camera, but there are so many variations it's difficult to give instructions. So here are methods using free software for Linux, Macintosh (OSX) and Windows.

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 an quality. Using an even lower figure would reduce the chance of your images being stolen.

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