Real talk: How I learned how to report a story

Feb 18 2013

I started working for the Reese News Lab in January of last year. I was a sophomore journalism student interested in marketing and public relations, with absolutely no real reporting experience beyond the introductory journalism class. I was a “noob,” so to say. To be completely honest, I was lost when I was assigned to work on a story. I didn’t know where to start, who to reach out to, how to write it – I didn’t know ANYTHING. This is why almost none of the stories I took the lead on or helped put together ever got published.

It was discouraging, and can still be that way at times.

That’s why I was thrilled when Managing Editor Alex Barinka announced we’d be having an hour of “real talk” on how to report a story. Finally, I got the opportunity to see exactly how a reporter thoroughly researches, interviews and brainstorms to create a promising pitch that can easily turn into a compelling story. I thought to myself that maybe now I’d finally be able to keep up with all the incredible reporters in the Lab.

I got a lot out of this Reporting 101 workshop. If you’re a rookie reporter like me, just curious about how story ideas are developed, or an experienced reporter in need of a “back to basics” reminder, you’ll want to keep reading. (If you want additional details about what Alex taught us about reporting, take a look at her blog post, The Reese News Lab guide to finding story ideas.)

After the workshop, we each received an assignment to develop a STEM-related story idea for our news site about education in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Here are my notes from the workshop and my thoughts on how I applied Alex’s tips to develop a story idea and pitch I am confident about.

STEP ONE: Generate curiosity on a subject

I started my research for a STEM-related story idea with Google, searching STEM topics including “STEM schools,” “STEM news,” and finally, “Women in STEM.” This topic was the most compelling to me. Reese News Lab hasn’t done a story on women in STEM yet, so I figured I would go with it.

STEP TWO: Talk to folks
OK, so I had my initial idea of doing something on women in STEM. I started to develop questions I’d like to answer:

  • Research into the unconscious bias against women in STEM fields: How do women overcome this bias?
  • How do we get rid of the STEM prototype stereotype to get more women working in STEM fields?
  • Why are women, who are excelling in STEM majors, leaving the field?
  • What can be done in education to bridge the gap?
  • How does the unconscious bias affect female students who are considering STEM majors?

I took these questions to Reese News Lab Senior Producer Sara Peach. She gave me great feedback and helped me narrow my story idea down: investigating the unconscious bias against women working in STEM fields, featuring profiles of women working in STEM who have had experiences with this issue.

STEP THREE: Where to find sources
Alex told us some great places to find sources, such as on company webpages, Facebook, press releases and university pages. To find the appropriate sources for this story, I reached out to people who wrote articles about women in STEM as well as members of the American Association of University Women

STEP FOUR: How to get them to answer the phone
I learned in the workshop that persistence is the key to getting interviews. For my story, I called the AAUW office in Washington, D.C. and reached the voicemail. I left my name, a short explanation of the organization I was with, what I was looking for, and my phone number and email address. This paid off because the next day, I received an email from a woman who had all the information I was looking for. We immediately set up a time for an interview.

STEP FIVE: What do I ask?
Alex taught us that to prepare for an interview, we should either write specific questions or at least develop a list of points we’d like to hit. I made sure to write out the specific questions I needed to ask about women in STEM. Luckily, the woman I spoke with was extremely helpful, answered all of my questions and provided me with further information. She also gave me the name of a website where I can gather data to enhance my story.

STEP SIX: How to keep them answering the phone

One key to becoming a good reporter is maintaining good relationships with sources, even after an interview is complete. Send them articles related to their interests, ask what else they’re working on, and be sure to send a thank-you email with a link to the published story. While finishing up other projects, I know it is important that I maintain a relationship with the woman I interviewed. I have emailed her occasionally to maintain contact so she doesn’t forget about me and doesn’t think I’ve forgotten about how she’s helped me.

I’m now at work finishing my article. Check back soon to see the finished product.


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