Preparation is nine-tenths of the law

Last Thursday’s panel had a lot to say about preparing to do interviews, and I was glad our guests really emphasized the importance of this advance work. It’s a sign of respect for our sources and the craft, not to mention our readers.

But I have this suspicion about what happens when an editor asks a reporter to do an archive search and “read up” on the background of a story before beginning to work on an assignment. I suspect that some reporters do a sort of cursory scan, in many cases. I am here to tell you: not good enough.

To really understand what’s happening with a story you’re jumping into, you have to read carefully and deeply, taking notes and highlighting and working to truly absorb the information. Think of it as studying for a test.

When I threw advanced reporting student Brad Racino into a huge story a couple of weeks ago, he had zero background on it. But he has a system, now, of preparation that he used to cover the sentencing of Kraig Kahler. Read what he has to say about how he prepared. The stories he did don’t betray that he was new to the story. So what he did worked.

But what about when you have 0-5 minutes to prepare to cover a story? Your GA editor throws a reflective vest at you and tells you to jump in the car and go cover a house fire? Or, whoops, we forgot about an announcement the president of the University of Missouri system is making this afternoon?

When you jam your thinking cap on your head as you fly out the door, what mental process should take place?

That’s the subject of tomorrow’s lecture by Jacqui Banaszynski: thinking fast and smart in breaking news situations.

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6 Responses to Preparation is nine-tenths of the law

  1. Aaron Cooper says:

    Brad’s strategy for immersing himself in the story and ensuring that he was conversant with the details makes sense. But what do you do when the subject goes back five years, or 10, or 20? Or when there’s a multitude of opinions, policy approaches, or other relevant contextual elements for a story?…By the way, none of the graduate reporters I’ve met are satisfied with a five-minute perfunctory scan.

  2. Carlos D. Navarro says:

    I totally share Aaron’s doubts as to how to approach a topic that’s been “closed” for some time and then suddenly emerges once again. I also thought Brad’s approach to the Kahler case was the way to go and it clearly resulted in a solid piece of reporting and writing. A question that came to my mind, though, was “how can we stop all the material we read as ‘background information’ from getting in our own way to approach the story?” Or, in other words, how can we develop our own approach and style in the face of breaking news after immersing ourselves in as much previous material as possible?

    I certainly think that previous research is essential to good reporting, and I also think that, as with most things, experience and practice are our best resources to develop our own approach to covering breaking news. I guess that after reporting a fair number of these stories, one becomes aware that even though every story is different, there are certain patterns we could identify and come to expect under certain circumstances. Which makes our need to develop a systematic method to approach these stories even bigger.

  3. Carlos D. Navarro says:

    I just found an interesting blog post on how to approach breaking news. Some of the stuff there is quite obvious, but Rob also shares some more subtle tips and ideas, especially those related to what local newspapers should do in the face of potentially big breaking news, the type that are likely to go national:

    http://robcurley.com/2008/01/26/anatomy-of-a-local-breaking-news-story/

  4. Emilie Stigliani says:

    Brad Racino outlined some excellent steps for covering a story. Many of them, I have started doing over the last four weeks, but Brad’s post got me thinking about going the extra mile. I particularly liked what he had to say about finding pictures of people and studying them before he got to the courtroom. I covered a story about the Scott Boulevard phase one ribbon cutting and found myself speaking to the presiding county commissioner, the city manager, and council representatives. Though I had looked some of them up before heading out, I wish I had studied more pictures. That could have saved me the embarrassment of having to ask, “And what is your job title?” to several of the bigwigs in town. Granted, I am not on the government beat and I didn’t have a list of everyone who would be at the event. Still, I recognize that it’s pretty impressive to walk up to the county commissioner and greet him by name.

  5. Christina Trester says:

    I also think Brad outlined some good points on trying to get to know a subject before covering it. I think it is especially important to know all the stories that your publication (the Missourian in our case) has covered on the subject before. It will look like the paper is more unified and is aware of itself. It’s also important to know how other publications have covered the subject.

    Also, never underestimate the power of Google. I google everything before I cover it because you never know what you may come across that hasn’t been covered in a newspaper before.

  6. Alison Matas says:

    I especially liked the part of Brad’s blog post where he talked about the importance of sitting down with Sangeeta to understand the layout of the courtroom and how she wrote her stories. I think when we’re covering a story that’s gotten a lot of attention, we often try to remember to do the bigger things, like conduct research based on the archives, but it’s the stuff that seems smaller that slips our minds. I know when I read Sangeeta’s stories, I wondered how she was taking notes and where she got to sit, but I don’t know if I would have remembered to think about that if I were Brad and were trying to learn the entire case history, too .

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