Tracy Alexander, a student at Lakewood Ranch High School, called me recently with a favor: Will you answer some questions for my homework assignment on writing?
I asked her for details, wondering what summer school class or project had prompted her call. I was about to be introduced to virtual education.
Tracy is taking her 11th-grade AP English Language and Composition class online at Florida Virtual School, which bills itself as the country’s first statewide Internet-based public high school. And I was thrilled to learn that her teacher wants her students to learn about writing from an editor at their local newspaper.
“I appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule and for helping me understand the importance of your craft,” Tracy said in framing the questions. She is definitely an ambitious young woman. This straight-A student is taking classes from the virtual school so she can graduate in three years. And she is clear on her goals: to get an undergraduate degree in business at the University of Florida and then attend law school.
Her assignment provided me with a great opportunity: Get my key editors to pause from the daily grind for a bit, and think about why and how we do this newspapering stuff every day. Their answers, I believe, will help you see into our world a little bit better.
1. What responsibility or responsibilities does the editor/reporter/writer have to his or her reading public?
Metro Editor Marc Masferrer: To the reader, we have the responsibility to be fair, accurate and aggressive in pursuing, reporting and writing a story. We do all three, and we establish and maintain the credibility without which we are just killing trees or taking up bandwidth.
Business Editor Jennifer Rich: Our responsibility is to report the news as fairly and accurately as we can in the amount of time we have. As journalists, we hold the public’s trust that we will be fair and impartial at all times — no matter our own personal beliefs.
East Manatee Editor Jim Jones: To report the truth, to find and report the best story possible, and to report a story that is relevant. To be fair, accurate and balanced. To present the story in a logical, readable, interesting way. To approach the story without an ax to grind — or a conflict of interest.
2. What do you consider to be the three most important elements of a successful newspaper article?
MM: Leaves all possible questions answered. Tells the reader something they didn’t already know. Inspires some sort of action by the reader.
JR: Correct facts. Fairness. Covers all the bases.
JJ: Did the reader learn something?
Good journalism should make a positive difference in the community. Did it enlighten, inform and/or entertain?
Was it as complete as we could make it? Did it tell the who, what, when, where and how?
3. How do you determine which information is newsworthy enough for publication?
MM: Is it something we didn’t already know? Does it have the potential of costing readers/taxpayers money? Is it something that could affect public safety?
These are just some of the questions we ask, and if the answer is yes, then it probably is a story.
JR: Newsworthiness depends on your audience’s interests, and how it’s relative locally to what is happening in the world.
JJ: Listen carefully, study and discuss. There can be a story in almost any human endeavor or natural phenomenon. Is the information the truth? Is the source reliable? How does it rank on the priority list of everything else competing to be in the newspaper?
4. How do you keep your personal opinions and beliefs out of an article and stay objective when what is being reported goes against what you believe to be true?
MM: You start by telling yourself that your personal beliefs are not important to the story, and then commit yourself to being fair and objective in the reporting and writing of that story. That said, we are each a product of our personal experiences and beliefs, and you can use those to help explore possible angles to a story. But remember, you are not the story, the people and issues you are writing about are the story. Sometimes that is a fine line, but it is vital that we stay on the right side of it — hopefully, a good editor will be a help. Otherwise, we risk our credibility and that of our news organization.
JR: As journalists, we are trained to maintain standards and keep ourselves out of a story. You are not doing readers any service when you inject yourself into a story.
JJ: If there is a controversy, the writer must not take sides and must present each side fairly. It is a journalist’s responsibility to approach all those we deal with in a professional, friendly, courteous way.
We must also be skeptical of claims, such as when one claims to be the first, the largest, the only, the best. We owe our readers to present the truth, the best that we can discern it.
Tracy, thanks for the homework. It helped remind me that regardless of how much the communications business changes, our role as journalist/reporter/writer remains constant:
We have a responsibility and commitment to protect and uphold our readers’ trust.