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Getting down to the basics of journalism

August 21, 2005|By BILL KOHLER

In the famed sports movie "Hoosiers," Hickory High School basketball coach Norman Dale stuns his players on the first day of practice.

Not because of his stern demeanor and not because he kicked the parents and townspeople out of the gym.

He shocks his players by having them put down the basketballs and concentrate on fundamentals.

Of course, this ploy - as in so much of mainstream Hollywood - eventually works as the boys get back to basics, work hard and win the state championship.

The story of Hickory High was based on facts and is an example of how the little things - the basics - can pay off and make a huge difference in how a person does something.

In the news business, a firm grasp of the basics is essential.

It starts with good reporting and works its way to the publisher's office.

The publisher of The Herald-Mail, in fact, started as a reporter.

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Good reporters know the basics of what makes a good story and how to get them. They know all stories must contain the five basic elements - Who, What, When, Where and Why - or else the story raises more questions than it answers.

Other fundamentals of good journalism are fairness and clarity.

Fairness means we get both sides of the story no matter the obstacles.

Clarity is best explained this way: If the reporter or writer doesn't understand it, how will the reader?

Newspaper editors, in turn, do their part by helping the reporters get past the hurdles that often keep them from getting the basics.

Editors also are trained in the basics. Many are former reporters who cut their teeth on the fundamentals for years.

Everything in journalism boils down to the basic of all basics, the nuclear element of what we do: accuracy.

Accuracy - or getting it right, as it's known in this business - is what good journalism is based on.

Good reporters check, double-check and triple-check their facts before they finish their stories.

Editors (or fact checkers at bigger news outlets) then take that to the next level, using their expertise, experience and an Associated Press Stylebook to help the story become even better.

Many times at The Herald-Mail - as reporters will be quick to point out - stories are so well written before they reach editors that we need to do very little to them.

Why?

Because the reporter covered the basics.

They got the main elements, they talked to several sources on both sides of the issue, their writing was clear and they double-checked their facts before hitting the send button.

This business is challenging, compelling, important and, at times, frustrating.

But like most other professions, it is not unique at its core.

Before you can fly, you need to learn how. You need to figure out how to flap your wings, how much of a running start is required and how much flapping it will take to keep you aloft.

And then there's the landing.

It is the basics that will keep good newspapers in business.




Bill Kohler is Tri-State Editor of The Herald-Mail. You may reach him at 1-800-626-6397, ext. 2023, or by e-mail at billk@herald-mail.com.

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