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Home > Publications > Quill > Become a more effective accountability reporter



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Monday, August 28, 2017
Become a more effective accountability reporter

By Jane Elizabeth

You might know the American Press Institute for its deep research on a variety of issues in journalism, something we’ve done for years as a think tank based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Recently, though, we decided to study something a little different: people.

Here’s how it happened. While working on our ongoing accountability journalism project, we met journalists around the country whose work seemed particularly influential in their communities. They were engaging audiences, encouraging action and conversation, and writing stories with impact.

We were intrigued. We wanted to know: Why are some reporters and editors more effective than others? How does their work seem to have more resonance in their communities?

And most relevant here: How can you be one of them?

We decided to bring a group of those highly effective journalists to D.C. for two days, where we bombarded them with questions, surveys and group conversations. However, first we needed to come up with a methodology for selecting that group of journalists.

We turned to data from Metrics for News, a content analysis program created by API specifically for newsrooms. With more than a half-million pieces of content in our database created by newsrooms enrolled in Metrics for News, we were able to track the most engaging authors. We also examined the work of four newsrooms enrolled in the Knight-Temple Table Stakes project, a yearlong effort to advance the digital transformation of local newsrooms.

What were our criteria? We wanted journalists who:

Through data, conversations, and an examination of their work and reader reaction, we identified 17 journalists from Florida to Washington state. While large news outlets were represented in the group — The Washington Post and the Miami Herald, for example — we also included a public radio station and a 12,000-circulation family-owned newspaper. You can find the full list of 17 journalists at the end of our report on americanpressinstitute.org.

That report, titled “7 characteristics of effective accountability journalists,” was published in December. Today we’ve got some suggestions for those who want to improve their effectiveness and “remake” themselves (or their staffers) into top accountability journalists.

Here are the seven characteristics, and some specific ways to help cultivate them.

Effective accountability journalists exhibit broad curiosity, eagerly adapt to new technologies and platforms

Our group of journalists clearly were “early adopters” in their newsrooms, ready to try new tools and unique ways to reach their audiences. Get more familiar with new technologies and platforms by:

Effective accountability journalists think about multiple audiences

How well do you know all of your audiences? If you’re an education reporter, for instance, you think about several audiences: parents, taxpayers, students, teachers, school boards and elected officials. Learn more about your readers, viewers and listeners by:

Effective accountability journalists work hard to create context for their audiences

Don’t assume the consumers of your work know or remember all the background material for ongoing stories. It may be all too familiar to you, but underlying facts and history should be provided with each story. Try these ideas:

Effective accountability journalists smartly balance their time on story choices and audience interactions

There’s no denying the fact that newsrooms continue to shrink with no end in sight, and that journalists who do keep their jobs are required to take on more responsibilities.

Prioritizing your work, tackling only the stories that really matter, while still focusing on your audiences are key skills.

Effective accountability journalists spend considerable time building relationships with sources, readers

Good advice from our group of journalists included this: Establish relationships with readers and sources before you need them for stories.

Effective accountability journalists build connections and teamwork within their own newsrooms

One of the unexpected lessons we learned from our group of effective accountability journalists was their efforts at building relationships throughout their news organizations. They understand that expertise exists outside their group of reporters and editors.

Effective accountability journalists find their own way and direct their own work

Good editors won’t shudder when they hear that the most effective reporters tend to make their own decisions and work independently. Journalists who hold the characteristics defined above don’t need constant direction — and that’s a good thing for newsroom managers who are struggling with staffing cuts and shrinking resources.

For those managers fortunate enough to write a job posting for new employees, standard phrases like “self-starter” and “adept at social media” don’t quite describe the most effective accountability journalists. Let’s end with some key words and phrases for your next job posting that can help identify the best candidates:

Learn more about effective accountability journalism by connecting with API’s 17 test group journalists on Twitter. Go to bit.ly/The17.

Jane Elizabeth is senior manager of the American Press Institute’s Accountability Journalism Program. She was previously a reporter and editor at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and Washington Post. On Twitter: @JaneEliz

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