SPJ Reading Room
Better by the dozen12 quick tips for being a smarter reporter
By Greg Hardesty
Orange County Register
Be a human being first, and a reporter second. This especially applies when covering tragedies. Show empathy. Keep your notebook and pen out of sight until after you look a person in the eye and introduce yourself, and chat briefly. Make a connection, then get to work.
Listen, listen, listen. You will get your best material by shutting up and not interjecting often when a source is talking. You can interact, of course, but keep it to a minimum.
Clearly explain the angle of your story before you interview someone, including when the story will run (if you know). People feel more comfortable when you spell things out to them however briefly.
Always get a phone number/email to confirm facts. This is crucial. Never get out of the habit of fact-checking (from a printout of your story; never from the computer screen). Also, you never know when you will need an extra quote or more information from your source. So you better know how to reach them.
On especially tight deadlines, use e-mail. When sources aren't being exactly helpful, urge them to collect their thoughts and send you them in an e-mail that you later can use for quotes. This works wonders,
Never be afraid to ask someone to repeat what they have said. Your source wants you to get things right. So get things right. Don't feel shy about re-confirming even the most basic stuff (i.e., name spelling).
Reconfirm facts via research. For example, go on the Internet to confirm the full, official name of an organization to which a source belongs. People often speak in shorthand. It's your job as a journalist to confirm all factual stuff in your story. Get things right.
Urge your source to let you know what they thought of your story. Doing so makes a source feel as if he or she is part of a team (in a sense) and sometimes leads to great follow-up story ideas. Don't act like some snobbish reporter on high who is immune from criticism (and praise, too, for that matter).
Think visually when writing. Visualize a story like a movie in your head. Try to place the reader at a scene. You can still do this, to a degree, when writing straight news — even briefs. Don't get lazy just because your story may be short,.
When writing, pay attention to the rhythm of the words. Read your story out loud if you must, but good writing should be inviting to read — it should be effortless and pleasing, like listening to a favorite song. Good stories should have zest, bounce and energy.
Remember: If you are bored with your story, your reader will be doubly bored. Attack each story by challenging yourself: How can I make this the most interesting story possible? How can I grab the throat of my reader?
Always cultivate story ideas. Urge sources to call you if they ever think they may have a good story for you — even if it has nothing to do with the story you are working on when you talk to them. And when going about your daily lives outside of work, do the same if the subject of what you do comes up. Use the eyes and ears of the community to your advantage.
Greg Hardesty has been a journalist for nearly 20 years, covering general news, courts and business for the Orange County Register for the last 10. He currently is a general assignment reporter for the Register. Hardesty also teaches journalism at Cal State Long Beach. Prior to joining the Register, Hardesty was a copy editor and page designer for the Glendale News Press and Daily Pilot. He also has worked as a copy editor for the Japan Times in Tokyo and has reported for business lifestyle magazines in Orange County. He graduated from UC Irvine with a bachelor’s degree in English, and was editor of the student newspaper, the New University. He has a Ford Fellowship in Business Journalism.