Thursday, April 5, 2007

Don’t be a blowhard – add more sources to columns, stories

Research. Observe. Interview.

That’s how journalists learn about any topic, whether it’s a story on the university’s budget or if it’s a story on a baseball game.

Too many young reporters fail to realize this. I recently judged two state contests – for high school and college sports journalists. The biggest problem: a lack of sources.

I read profile stories that relied on a single source, usually the athlete or coach profiled. Many columns did not have any original reporting. And most game stories included quotes only from the home team. As a result, these sports stories were uniformed and under-reported. But that’s what we do – report. That means we need to fully prepare for assignments. Before covering a game, sports reporters should research team rosters, stats, and recent performance by speaking with coaches and by reading previously published stories. For columns, reporters should hang out at practices, attend games, and speak with experts to get a more informed opinion. In addition, sports reporters should also interview friends, teammates, coaches and family before writing a profile story on anybody.

One-source profile stories are worthless. All you’re doing is allowing people to blather on about themselves. Who knows if the stories an athlete or coach tells are true? Verify as many as possible afterward. Not that everybody’s lying, but we all have unique perspectives. Ask my wife about some events from my past, for example, and she’ll offer at least a slightly different perspective, citing details I might have missed. Also, nobody can be fully defined in 1,000 (or even in 3,000) words, but we can offer a slice of someone’s life if we report properly. Do not try to cover someone’s entire life in a profile piece; instead focus on one main theme. Maybe you are focusing on someone’s work ethic before a state swim meet or you are addressing someone’s recent success as a pitcher.

Before interviewing, read previously published stories on this person in college archives, libraries or search engines like Lexis Nexis. You also should spend time with this person away from an interview room. Watch (and take notes) at practice, noting how the person performed and how she interacted with others (noting anything that seems interesting or curious.) You can ask follow-up questions afterwards. You might also want to spend time with this person away from the playing fields. Perhaps, this person raises rabbits or volunteers at a local school. Tag along to collect stories and more questions. That’s how you prepare and develop a real profile, one that will intrigue readers (and impress judges.)

Do not write columns about the Chicago Bears or St. Louis Cardinals unless you have spent some time reporting on these teams (or unless you have a unique personal story to tell). You do not have anything to say, though, if all of your information comes from other writers and from watching the teams play on television. What do you have to say about the Bears that other reporters have not already stated? I read several columns for the state contests that focused on how the Colts and Bears would fare in the Super Bowl. This is information readers can get elsewhere – by sports reporters who regularly cover these teams. Instead, write local columns on your own school teams and about events in your town. And report, observe and interview sources to gain a deeper understanding of the issues, events and people you will be commenting upon. By researching, you might learn a significant point that may change your stance. Essentially, a sports column is a sports story with opinion mixed in. Anybody can spout opinions like a blowhard. Real sports journalists, though, learn everything they can about an issue in order to write an informed, newsworthy, entertaining column. You want to put a little bit of yourself into columns, but this works only if you have put in some reporting as well. There are more stories on your campus than you can imagine. So don’t be dull and lazy. Get out and report on these compelling local stories.

Don’t forget to speak with players and coaches on the opposing team. How good is your home team? Ask the opposing coach. How did your school’s pitcher do? Check with those who faced him on the other team? How does your school’s soccer goalie compare to others? Speak with opposing forwards and coaches. If you plan stories well enough, you can collect comments from several players and coaches as they visit, and compete, against your local team. Another thing: Do not write promotional pieces on your teams. Stay as objective as possible. If your team plays poorly, show that, the same way you should if they play well. You are not the team’s public relations person, trying to sell this team or its athletes. You are a journalist who reports for your readers, not for the team.

Check out this profile of one of America’s best sports reporters, Gary Smith, whose book Beyond The Game is a gem. Actually, anything written by Smith is worth reading and savoring. He frequently writes about those out of the spotlight, breaking down complex stories into more simple, poignant stories. That comes from hard work and solid reporting.


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