Follow The People
Who Goes There?
Three of the journalistic methods I’ve used and recommended for the last 50+ years are —
Follow the Money
Follow the People
Follow the Science
We’ve looked at the first, follow the money, so let’s move on to the second.
Follow The People
People follow people.
That’s a quick summary of the history of the world.
People follow people and they often believe the people they follow. That may be fine if the people they’re following are honest, but what if they aren’t? A longer look at the history of the world proves that leaders often lie and people often follow liars. That means some members of the public end up believing lies because they trust lying leaders. Believing lies leads to living life based on lies. That’s not a good way to live.
How does that affect journalists? It means reporters need to be vigilant in source and fact checking. It means they need to work hard to ensure their news stories include varying, even opposing (when appropriate), expert views about information affecting people. It also means journalists must be objective and fair in the way they present the words of the 'experts’ they interview. If journalists have a personal bias for one side of a story and against another side, they either need to check their bias at the newsroom door and do what journalists are supposed to do (report accurately and fairly), reveal their bias to the public, or find another line of employment. It’s not fair to news consumers for journalists to present stories as fair and accurate if they aren’t.
It’s easy to spot a journalist who has a personal, corporate, or even political agenda by how they present one side of a story in a positive light and another side in a negative light rather than presenting information from all sides fairly. Journalists can say they included both sides in their story, but their bias often shows in how they report information from each side. It might be the length of the interviews or number of words given to different sides (e.g. one side gets more opportunity to present their side than another), where opposing views are presented (e.g. buried at the bottom of a story), or the obvious spin given one side over another (e.g. one side gets positive coverage while the other side gets only negative coverage).
How does that affect the public? It means people have to be diligent as news consumers. Readers, listeners, and viewers need to check out multiple news sources that give them a variety of viewpoints about stories. Journalists need to compare the information those sources give to them and be sure they’re getting to the truth of a story. Even as journalists should be curious and skeptical about what people tell them, so should citizens.
I watch multiple network and local news stories every day. I also read a wide variety of news publications daily. Why? To find truth somewhere in the many words of reporters, anchors, experts, and commentators. It often means doing the laborious work of fact-checking what reporters say and write to see if they’re telling the whole truth. It’s not easy work, but it’s work we must do to make sure we’re getting to the truth of every story.
Powerful people are people. People — just like you and me. That means they can get things right and they can get things wrong. That means they can tell the truth and they can tell a lie. That means they can change their mind about things they once believed. Their reason for changing their mind can be good or bad. That means they can have strong biases. That means they can be pressured by employers, governments, and even fellow powerful people to present a particular view even if not true.
That’s why it’s important for journalists to do a good job vetting the experts they interview for their stories, and why the public needs to do a good job vetting the journalists they look to for accurate information. Even as journalists should talk with many sources for every story, consumers of news should carefully check out many sources of news for their stories.
Who Goes There?
People interviewed for news stories have a personal background. Journalists should know as much about the people they interview as possible. Someone in government who oversees contracts with private industries may have worked for a private industry that earns money from those government contracts. The public has a right to know that. People who used to work in government may be lobbying government agencies on behalf of companies that want to win lucrative contracts. The public has a right to know that. If journalists don’t tell them, who will?
I don’t hear personal background mentioned often in news stories, but I’m always pleased when a journalist shares that as part of a story. It means they’re doing their job, which is good for news consumers and journalism.
Even though I no longer manage a news department, I still research stories as if I did. It usually takes me less than ten minutes to discover information vital to stories that few, if any, journalists are reporting. It is disheartening to me because leaving out important information in news stories goes to the growing distrust the public has in the news media. I’ve noticed this trend growing in journalism during the past several years.
Why? If important information about a story is so readily available, why don’t journalists report it? It may be that they are not curious (which we’ve touched on previously), but that’s not a good excuse. Professional journalists are paid to be curious. They are also paid to be thorough. The objective is to report the truth about every story — the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
It also may be that some journalists don’t want to report the whole truth. Personal bias or corporate agendas have led many journalists to not report stories at all or report only the information that fits a particular point of view. That’s the job of political lobbyists and professional spinners — not journalists. A journalist has one job — report the truth. That includes the truth about people in their stories.
News consumers who get their news from just one side of the political spectrum are missing out on the complete story. News consumers who look to multiple news sources of varying political leanings are often witnesses to how some news organizations either don’t cover a story or leave out important information available from other news sources. It then becomes the job of the news consumer to do the job of the journalist to find the truth in every story. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.
Journalists have a specific job to do — find, confirm, and accurately and fairly report news of interest to the public. The public would like to be able to trust that journalists are doing their job.
Here are some examples of how to follow the people. Almost every story you cover as a journalist has a people angle, so think about the types of stories you cover and how you can follow people in those stories.
# 1 — Man is a candidate for county judge. What are his qualifications for the job? Does he have a legal background? Has he been a judge before? If so, where? If so, what was his reputation as a judge? What does he do for a living now? If a law firm, which one? What is the reputation of the firm? What is his reputation as a lawyer? Any big cases? Cases lost and won? Any disciplinary issues to report? Where did he go to college? What degrees does he have? Military service? Honorary discharge? Any legal work while in the military? What types? Any disciplinary issues to report? Is he married? To whom is he married? What does she do for a living? Any ties to the legal industry? Any possible conflicts of interest for the candidate? Do they have children? Ages? If children are in the workforce, where? Any legal connections? Possible conflicts of interest? Will he agree to an interview without limitations? If not, why not? How would you report on that? Any other questions or concerns come to mind?
# 2 — Woman is candidate for public school board. What are her qualifications for the job? Does or did she have children in school? Public or private? What is or was her reputation as a parent with her children’s schools? Is she now or was she an educator? What did she do in education? What is or was her reputation as an educator? Any disciplinary issues to report?Where did she work in education? Same school system as where she wants to be a member of the school board? If so, what conflicts of interest might she have? Will she agree to an interview without limitations? If not, why not? How would you report on that? Any other questions or concerns come to mind?
# 3 — Wealthy business person donates to the campaign of a sitting U.S. senator. How large is the donation? Do the business person and candidate have a personal or business relationship? If so, what? Did they work in the same business before the senator won the seat the first time? Has the senator voted on any bill(s) that would affect or benefit the wealth donor? If so, how? How often has the donor met with the senator in his office? How often has the senator visited the donor’s office or home? Any personal or business trips taken together? Will he/she agree to an interview without limitations? If not, why not? How would you report on that? Any other questions or concerns come to mind?
# 4 — Foreign government is purchasing land and property in the United States. Why? For what purpose? Did the foreign government use undue influence to purchase land or property? Any law broken or bent? Who are the people making the deals for both the United States and the foreign government? What is their background? Married? To whom? Children? If they are in the work force in their country, where? Any conflicts of interest through family members? Any possibility of bribery or undue influence by them on U.S. or foreign government employees? Any other questions or concerns come to mind?
# 5 — Many people are protesting publicly in your town. Who are they? Are they local people? If so, who are they and why are they protesting? If not, where do they live and why are they protesting in your community? Anyone paying their expenses or salaries? If so, who is fitting the bill and why? If some of the protestors are professional protestors, where else have they protested? What other causes have they protested? Do they believe what they’re saying or is it just part of their job? What are they trying to accomplish through their protest? Where will they go when they’re finished protesting in your town? What are their personal backgrounds? What did they do before becoming professional protestors? Who recruited them to become protestors? How were they recruited? Where were they recruited? How were they trained to protest?
I have met and interviewed professional protestors, and covered their protests from the perspective of them being professionals — how they earn a living. You may be surprised how many protestors who come into your city are on someone’s payroll. Journalists should find out who is paying them and make that information part of their reporting about protests.
I hope this sparks your interest to spend more time following people in your stories. What you discover during the process of following people can lead you to some fascinating and even breaking news stories.
This is another election year and primary candidates are trying to convince people to vote for them. We’ll look at how journalists cover political campaigns in the next newsletter.
I hope these thoughts are helpful to you as a journalist or news consumer. Please share your comments and I’ll respond as quickly as I can. If you like what we’re doing in this newsletter, please let your friends know about it so they can subscribe.
The purpose of this newsletter is to help journalists understand how to do real journalism and the public know how they can find news they can trust on a daily basis. It’s a simple purpose, but complicated to accomplish. We’ll do our best to make it as clear as we can in future newsletters.