Paul Rilling: Avoiding commentary in news stories
Aug 05, 2011 | 3241 views |  0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A basic rule of news writing is that a news story should “show, not tell.” This means the reporter tells readers what has happened, not the reporter’s or editor’s opinions about it. You don’t write that it was hot yesterday; you write about the temperature, the humidity, comparisons with other years, how people are dealing with it. You show that it was hot.

A July story in The Star, headlined, “Little: Plans for judicial complex are troubling,” told the reader what The Star thinks about Councilman Ben Little’s opposition to the judicial complex (July 6, Page 1A).

In the lead paragraph, it said, “Councilman Ben Little has made a point of questioning the way the proposed judicial complex has moved forward at council meetings and ward meetings, but has made no specific allegations nor offered any proof to back up his claims.”

The article, by Laura Camper, told readers what to think, then went on to support that viewpoint. The story is presented as a front-page news story but no new developments were reported. It made a good case for its point of view, but it belonged in the commentary pages.

Story needed editing

The story about a former teacher at Alexandria High School who recently withdrew an application to teach at Jacksonville Christian Academy was a story that could damage a person’s reputation, yet it was a story based primarily on second-hand sources and conjecture. Such a story requires care and sensitivity. Written by Laura Johnson, it was properly displayed inside the paper, at the bottom of page 6 (July 22).

According to the information from the JCA principal and unnamed “county school officials,” the teacher resigned from Alexandria High because of  “an inappropriate” and “personal” relationship with a student. After looking into the incident, JCA decided to hire him. JCA reconsidered its move after discussion with concerned parents, and the man withdrew his application. The information could have been provided in much less space than this 12-inch story. It was poorly organized and contained too much repetition.

The JCA principal was quoted as saying that what nobody mentioned was whether the relationship was believed to be physical. So why did The Star choose to discuss it? Its mention in the article was questionable in view of the absence of information. The lack of comment from the person concerned made the story one-sided. The story said “repeated attempts” to reach him were unsuccessful.” This story needed editing.

Details lacking

The Star managed to build a substantial story on a meeting between two companies in Clay and Randolph counties that may or may not have happened. A state senator said he arranged the meeting, but there was no information about it from either company, except that a spokesman for one said he had “no earthly idea” about any meeting.

Undeterred, the story, by Jason Bacaj, went on for 16 paragraphs, quoting academic specialists and Chamber of Commerce officials about what a great idea it would be for the two companies to coordinate their “logistical operations.” (July 14, 1A).

Braves’ info missing

The Star’s sports pages have a daily feature, “On the tube,” that lists sports programs on television. On a number of days in July, “On the tube” mentioned baseball games but omitted Atlanta Braves coverage (July 4 through 7, 18, 20-21 and 29-30). The games were on TV.

Organizing a story

There were two story lines in the article, “Council to weigh in on direction of one-way alley,” by Camper (July 12, 4A).

One story, considering the pros and cons of changing the direction of the alley behind Watermark Tower in Anniston, takes up the center part of the story. The other story line, on how the issue got on the City Council agenda without any request from the water board, was mentioned in paragraphs two and three and then dropped until paragraph 23, when it was revealed that Councilman Little was responsible for the agenda item. Dividing that story line by 18 paragraphs was poor organization and confusing to readers.

Stars in The Star

“Faith-based office takes back seat,” by Tim Lockette (June 30, 1A), was an interesting, well-researched look at the role of area churches in helping communities devastated by the April 27 tornadoes. The story considered the role of the governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, its purpose and lack of visibility in the tornado crisis.

Other good writing in July included:

• “The mild ones,” about the new popularity and social acceptance of motorcycle riding, by Brooke Carbo, photos by Stephen Gross (July 10,1D).

• “75 and growing,” an informative review of the history of the Talladega National Forest on its 75th anniversary, well presented on Page 1A, by Bacaj with a strong photo by Bill Wilson (July 17).

Paul Rilling is a retired former editor at The Star.
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