Issac Bailey blog: The craft of journalism and the thinking required to do it responsibly

June 23, 2014 

Harvard University summer school begins today, while I’ll lead my initial class in basic journalism tomorrow. Part of tomorrow’s discussion will be how to examine the video at the link below like a journalist should. (The class will also include more mundane, technical aspects of basic newsgathering and writing I won’t bore you with.) The video is only four and a half minutes long but says a lot about how we come to view people based upon some of the worst, most emotionally-charged episodes of their lives, even though we don’t have the broader context needed to levy an informed judgment.

Here’s the link to the video (warning: it includes graphic language that is peppered with racial epithets): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqdCWpUmP-Y

Take a look at the video and tell me how you would write up what you saw (imagine that you witnessed the event first-hand) if you were on a tight deadline and your editor was in your ear, barking that you needed to post something soon to stay ahead of the competition. What would you include in your description of the event? What would you leave out? Which fact(s) would you being your story with? How would you describe the racial epithets being used? How would you categorize the behavior of the man behind the camera? Why?

Now imagine that you weren’t on a tight deadline and your editor gave you enough time to dig deeper. How would that change the texture and tone of the piece you would have been forced to write on deadline? What questions would you ask? Of whom? Why? What broader context would you include? What convinced you that context is relevant to this story? Would you include expert voices? Why? How would you identify and locate and choose those experts? Would you ask everyday people for their reaction to the event? Why? Would you include a mix of responses? What counts as a mix of responses? What else would you want to learn about the woman and how much of that background would you include? Same questions for the man.

Now imagine that you were the editor and one of your reporters told you about this event. How would you handle it? Would you say write up what you have as soon as possible? Would you say take the time you need to do more reporting? Would you say it is not newsworthy? Say you were the editor of a local paper or regional paper or national paper or editor of strictly online outfit or of a local or national radio or TV news program, how would your answers change in those different settings?

I don’t expect my students to have many answers to these questions. I simply want the questions to be raised early this summer as a backdrop for the more technical of the writing craft of journalism we’ll be most focused on. In this 24/7 news cycle world, I think it is more important than ever for journalists to think through all sorts of questions before committing to a story or crafting it a particular way, especially on complex, emotionally-charged social issues that garner so much discussion and debate.

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