2015 Journalists of the Year Howie Severino, Marites Vitug and Nancy Carvajal show how
Journalism is a calling. If you’re in the industry to make money, journalism is not for you. That’s what Nancy Carvajal, an award-winning journalist who was once connected with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, told members of the media, information officers and bloggers who attended the digital journalism training organized by the Metrobank Foundation and Probe Media Foundation last July 8, 2016.
Many of those who joined the training nodded in agreement, not because they didn’t want to argue with the speaker, but because they themselves knew that it takes hard work and perseverance to become a top-notch journalist.
As Carvajal and two other veteran journalists—Marites Vitug of Rappler and Howie Severino of GMA Network— said, journalists can’t make things up. Big stories or scoops do not just land on a journalist’s lap, and every bit of information in a news story has to be factual, balanced and verified.
But technology has changed the media landscape. While some might say that nothing can replace the traditional way of gathering information, news gathering and reporting have changed over time. Today’s reporters and editors have a bunch of tools that could help them improve a story and present it in different approaches.
Severino said journalists of today have to learn new skills in order to maximize these new tools and write stories that are relevant to the audience, which, apparently, has also been transformed as the digital revolution takes center stage.
Here are some tips in producing and telling stories that hold readers’ attention based on the industry experts’ experiences.
1. Context is crucial.
One common mistake reporters commit when writing news is they take context for granted. They report as if the public already knows the background information, and assume that the readers follow their stories.
“In journalism, regardless of the platform, the objective is the same—to inform,” said Carvajal, but she stressed that while the journalists’ job is to write and present stories that are fair and accurate, it is also their responsibility to make the readers understand their reports.
How? By presenting the circumstances surrounding a statement, for example.
“If you write a breaking story based on quotes from a certain official, ask that official why he or she said it… With the digital age, it is now the duty of journalists to put this information gathered into context,” said Vitug.
2. Think multimedia.
There are several ways to tell and make a story as engaging and compelling as possible. For Vitug, editor-at-large of Rappler, journalists can do timelines, fastfacts, podcast, infographics, Facebook Live, video blogs and documentaries, among others.
These different forms, she said, allow the audience to digest the information fast and easily. “Timelines, for example, are easy to read,” said Vitug.
But to tell a story effectively, reporters also have to learn to select which form works best for their reports. A slideshow or an audio by itself can tell a story, but the impact will be different if the two mediums are used to complement each other.
Big data like crime statistics, for example, can be presented in maps, said Severino, citing some crime-mapping projects of police departments in the United States.
Severino also cited GMA’s project that allows readers to calculate how much less income tax they would pay if tax reform bills in Congress were passed.
“Instead of presenting the information through text, we created a calculator to make it more interesting to readers,” he said.
In short, it’s about picking the right tools, not every tool.
3. News vs. noise
The advent of social media and mobile phones has created the most empowered generation in the world’s history, said Severino, acknowledging that anybody can now produce news and make an impact.
Take, for instance, the case of an information technology consultant in the city of Abbottabad in northern Pakistan where terrorist Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.
The IT consultant, Sohaib Athar, also known as @ReallyVirtual, posted about events surrounding the raid against bin Laden. He wrote on Twitter, “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event),” without realizing that he was tweeting about an attempt to kill one of the world’s most wanted terrorists. It was only nine hours later when he realized it, posting this tweet: “Uh oh, now I’m the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it.”
Athar’s followers on Twitter have increased since that day. As of July 24, 2016, Athar, who describes himself as “an IT consultant taking a break from the ratrace by hiding in the mountains with his laptops,” had 53,977 followers on Twitter.
“Some people make news accidentally, and for others to follow you, you have to make news, be clever or funny,” said Severino.
But there’s a flipside to the power the people now have. Industry experts, like Severino and Carvajal, admitted that verification remains the “heart of journalism.”
“In this age of information, we are also in the age of misinformation…Social media has the power to do many things, but it also has the power to spread hate,” said Severino.
The online dangers he mentioned included threats of death and violence because of political disagreement, online recruitment by terrorists, and casual and anonymous sex with dating apps now available for download.
With all these, journalists, he said, must verify whatever they find online and keep in mind that anything they upload can be shared by others.
“Verify facts before posting or retweeting. Acknowledge, delete and/or correct errors and apologize if necessary. Don’t do anything stupid,” he advised.
For Carvajal, it is the duty of journalists to discern what is important and make it interesting and relevant.
Reporters, she said, must learn to distinguish fact from opinion and news from propaganda, and get the sides of subjects involved in the story.
“Reporters should be wary of political operatives who have become masters of managing news. Your role is not to be the mouthpiece of government, politicians, corporate power, and cause advocates… Get the sides to establish credibility and enhance your integrity, because having less access to alternative views is a disservice to the public,” Carvajal stressed.
Journalism, as Carvajal, Severino and Vitug realized, is not an easy job. Students may have dreamt of becoming a journalist, but writing news is not like writing fiction. One has to sweat, battle migraines, and get carpal tunnel syndrome, but it will be the best job ever if you do it with passion.
(CJJ11 was published in hardcopy in September 2016.)