Scott Stanford: Writing for readers, not sources


One of the fundamental lessons reporters must learn is to write stories for the benefit of readers, not sources.

This isn't as easy as it sounds. Why? Because reporters spend much of their days interacting with sources and a lot less time interacting with readers. Most often, it is sources' judgments of their work that they hear, not the public's.

A source is anyone who contributes information for a story. Many of our readers have been sources. But we have several regular sources -- people who because of the nature of their jobs are frequently quoted in the newspaper.

Some examples:

Our law enforcement reporter talks regularly with the sheriff, deputies, police chief and police officers. She has a rapport with them she likely will never have with crime victims or criminals. Our city government reporter has working relationships with City Council members and city staff that she never will have with most of the people affected by city policies. The education reporter knows the superintendent, principals and School Board members better than he knows most parents and students. Our sports reporters have conversations with coaches that they'll never have with fans.

In such an environment, it's easy to fall into the trap of letting your sources also become your primary audience -- caring more about how City Council members respond to a city government story than how average readers do. After all, it is the City Council members whom the city government reporter is most likely to see the day her story appears.

But it's not uncommon for "regular sources" to have expectations of how the reporters they deal with will handle coverage. Reporters get requests from sources to hold stories, kill stories and, for lack of a better term, spin stories. Most times, there is nothing sinister about such requests.

But the reporter must decide who benefits from such requests -- the reader or the source? Almost always, the answer is the source, and giving in to such requests invariably leads to the worst kind of journalism.

Our reporters' mission is simple -- to give useful, accurate and unbiased information to readers. To take the often bureaucratic action of government and translate it so that readers understand the impact it will have on their lives. To explain policy. To report who was arrested and why. To report who was hired, who was fired and how much both are being paid. To report what's broken and how much it will cost to fix. To explain what we're building, where we're building and how much and how long we'll have to pay for it. To give readers news in as timely a fashion as possible.

There's an old saying that newspapers should "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." The quote actually is taken out of context -- the Irish author was in reality poking fun at newspapers rather than assigning them a noble mission. But if there is some truth in the saying, it is that newspapers must first and foremost represent their readers. We owe readers news that benefits them, even if that news doesn't benefit the comfortable -- in this case, our "regular sources."

From the Editor appears Thursdays in the Steamboat Today. Send questions to Scott Stanford at sstanford@steamboat or call him at 871-4221.


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