B. Pradeep Nair

Reporting News

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Think of journalist and the picture of a reporter with a pad and pen, or with a mike flashes in your mind. Here you read about the various nuances of reporting news for a newspaper. This is the text of a talk I gave on Gyan Vani, the FM channel of IGNOU, on January 20, 2003 

You all read newspapers and listen to news on radio and television. But have you ever tried to find out what is meant by the term news? Well, it is essential to know that in order to report news.


We shall discuss:

a)      What constitutes news

b)      What qualities a reporter must have

c)      Types of news and

d)      How a typical reporter does her job




One of the basic definitions is that news is a piece of information that is new, which no one knows about. The term "breaking news" that one hears so often on TV, is closely associated with this definition. For example: "Eminent poet Harivanshrai Bachchan is dead" or "Three associates of Veerappan arrested" or "Dr Abdul Kalam is India's new President."


On the contrary, if a politician says population of our country is increasing, it is no news; because, we all know that. Similarly, during winter the fact that north India is freezing is also no news. But if many people have died due to cold, or if there has been a major disruption of air and rail traffic because of fog, then it becomes news.


Another definition is that news is something not routine, which does not happen always or something out of ordinary. First thing a reporter learns is: if dog bites man it is not news, but if man bites dog it is news. Rival politicians criticising each other is no news. But if they agree on a controversial issue then it is news. Once upon a time, increase in petrol price was big news. Now, since it happens every two weeks no newspaper flashes it on the front page. But just makes a mention of it.


These are only two basic definitions of news. There are a few other criteria to determine what constitutes news. Some of them are: a) timeliness, b) proximity and c) relevance. Lets us examine each of them.




Timeliness has different implications for a newspaper reporter and for a TV reporter. Newspaper comes out only once every day in the morning. But 24-hour TV news channels after putting out breaking news, keep updating it as and when they get more information. For a newspaper, an important event that took place in the morning is stale by the next morning. So, its reporter has to project a new angle, which TV or radio wouldn’t have highlighted.




The second point that determines news is proximity of the event to the place of publication. I shall explain this by way an example. Consider a road accident. Its importance is determined, of course, by how bad the accident is. But equally important is where it took place. A Bangalore newspaper will ignore a car accident in Paris in which five people died. If it took place in Delhi, then too, it will be of no importance for us. But if it took place in Karnataka, then it becomes important. And, if it was in Bangalore itself, it becomes all the more important.




The third point is relevance. Just now I said a Bangalore newspaper would normally ignore a car accident in Paris. But a few years back, a car accident in Paris did become big news not just in Bangalore but all across the world. That was the death of Princess Diana. So, one has to consider not just the place where the event happened but also its contextual relevance in terms of how it will interest the reader.


Many events, statements by renowned people and government policies have social, economic or political relevance. If a minister unveils a government plan to check population growth, it is important. As a reporter, you will have to find out the details and how the government proposes to implement it.


Like newspapers; radio, TV and web editions also take care of these factors to decide on news. Internet has two advantages. One, unlike radio or TV and like a newspaper, one can decide what to read and when. And two, unlike a newspaper, radio or TV, there is no limit to space available. Any topic can be covered to the extent one desires.


Let us go back to the example of the Paris road accident involving Princess Diana. Radio and TV covered it almost live. On the other hand, newspapers the next day had detailed reports. But the Internet was able to combine the two. Like TV, it posted new information as and when it got them. And like a newspaper, it had lot more details than radio or TV.




We discussed what makes news. Now we shall see what qualifications you need to report them. I can identify four important ones. They are curiosity, perseverance, courage and imagination. Let us go over them one by one.




First, curiosity. Have a nose for news, as they say. You should be able to sense news. Any thing unusual should arouse your interest. For example, a traffic jam in mid-afternoon on a highway, ambulance or fire engines whizzing by, clouds of smoke rising into the sky, a prolonged and unusual power failure, people crowding around on a busy street etc. Following up on these leads may often provide the reporter a good story. An unusual traffic jam or a crowd of people may indicate an accident.


News need not always be negative. It could be also be that Anil Kumble got held up at a traffic intersection, and people, especially children, who identified him crowded around his car holding up traffic for some time. In such situations, a camera will help you. Or at least you should have the presence of mind to call up the photographer and ask her to rush to the scene.


But, a word of caution. Remember you shouldn't be too curious that you could land in trouble. There is this old story of a reporter who saw a number of people jumping off a bridge into the stream below. Curious to know what it was all about, he too jumped and got drowned.




The second quality you must have as a reporter is perseverance. Information is a powerful tool. Just as some people will approach journalists, some others will also avoid them. Suppose 100 people fell ill after taking lunch at a well-known city hotel. It will be difficult to get its manager to talk to you. But keep trying and get at least some representative of the hotel to explain their position. A media-savvy manager, will, on the other hand, contact reporters himself and set things in perspective.




The third point is courage and confidence. While covering social disturbances like riots or war, you have to be bold enough to take risks. You shouldn't get intimidated but be confident. But, this does not mean foolishly rushing into places of danger in the name of freedom of the press. When covering riots, reporters take the advice and help of police.


Some adventurous ones disguise themselves, but they run the risk of being caught. In Sri Lanka, some of you may remember, many reporters took the help of LTTE cadres and secretly went to the North to report the war from there.




Finally, you need imagination and creativity to put together the report in the best possible manner that will attract readers and sustain their interest. The language has to active and lively. The usage of words and style are important. Most news items are written in the narrative form, in the order of the most important point first. This is called the inverted pyramid structure. Feature articles are written in a more colourful way, where the objective is not to convey any particular news.




We have learnt what makes news and what qualifications you need to be a reporter. Now, we come to different types of news. Two broad categories are hard news and soft news. Hard news is any significant development. For example, accidents, deaths, major policy announcements, etc. Soft news refers to interpretative articles, news analysis, profiles etc. Suppose there has been a train accident. The report of the accident is the hard news. Other reports like, the description of the accident scene, an analysis of why accidents still happen or how travel can be made safer, etc fall in the soft news category. Remember Your priority as a news reporter is always the hard news. Soft news can wait.




Now we come to last section, on how you go about your job. First, look out for news. Keep your ears and eyes wide open. In a way, you are paid to chat up strangers in restaurants or even eves-drop. Look up other papers, announcements, readers’ grievance column etc. Press releases are also good sources of news.


Once you have identified a topic, you need information. For research you will get at just a few hours, or even minutes. Try to dig out the maximum amount of information in the available time. You interview people, refer back issues, or search the Internet. PROs liaise with journalists and are good sources of information. For a city reporter, hospitals and police stations are mandatory contacts.


After enough material has been collected, the report is written and handed over to the editorial desk, which then decides on its importance, edits and puts it on the page. The details of how the editorial team works, we shall see another day.


So, to sum up, we can say that reporting is basically conveying information to your readers or listeners. It may be about an event or an institution or a place or an issue. The job can be exciting if you yourself are excited by people and happenings around you. The thrill that one gets by chasing information, gathering them, putting them in the form of an article and seeing it printed, is unique in itself. I hope you have got a fair idea of what is news and how reporters report them.

January 20, 2003