What are the telltale signs that distinguish fact from fiction? How do you know when you are on the right track?
The following are some tips for helping you ensure that you spot real news stories and dig out important facts:
1: Is it interesting?
This is perhaps the most important criterion. If it's not interesting, why tell it? Your story should make the viewer, listener or reader stop in their tracks, look up from their breakfast, and want to tell the story to someone else. A good test is if one of your colleagues says "so what?" - if you can't answer that question, then it might not be quite the story you thought it was.
If it's not interesting, why tell it?
2: Did you know about it before?
If you consume news voraciously - and you should - you'll know if your story is fresh and original. Someone in your newsroom might be able to help; there is often someone with a fantastic memory for every story that's ever been done. If they haven't heard the story before, the chances are it's new. So don't be afraid to ask around to find out whether anyone has any more information. You could end up with some important new angles to follow.
Some stories will have done the rounds a few times.
3: Does someone want to keep it quiet?
Once you've done all your preparatory research you will be ready to set up the interviews. However, you might find that the main interviewee avoids taking your calls, refuses to take part, or doesn't answer your questions. If that's the case, it could be that the person at the centre of the story has something to fear or something to hide. Of course, that is not proof that the story is true, nor is it proof you are on the right track. There could be many reasons the person wants to remain silent. However, it could indicate that there are issues that you need to investigate further. Don't jump to conclusions.
If someone doesn't return your calls, they may be hiding a story.
4: How many people will it affect?
It might be the greatest story in the world, but it may affect only one person. That would not rule out telling the story, but the more people your story affects, the more likely it is to be of interest to your audience. And even if it affects only one person, your job is to think through and explain whether it could or does have any wider significance. There are usually other people in a similar situation who might benefit from your research and fact-finding.
Is the story of interest to enough people?
5: Is the story difficult to tell?
A good rule of thumb, based on the hundreds of stories I have covered in my time, is that the more difficult the story is to tell, the more likely it is to be a great story. If it were easy to tell, the chances are that someone else will have already done so. This also underlines the importance of not giving up too easily. When covering an important story you might get to the point where you feel like giving up. Don't. It's okay to walk away from it for some time, but try to figure out why it's proving difficult, because that blockage might be the nub of the story.
If the story is hard to tell, it's probably worth telling.
6: Does the story make sense?
The more incredible the story and the more removed from reality as you know it, the more likely the story you have is simply not true. That does not mean that such stories are not out there, it just means that you must be extremely sure of your facts before you publish or broadcast. Often the best stories are simply the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle - they make sense of what was already known before.
A story that doesn't stand up isn't a story.
7: Are others likely to follow up your story?
If it's a really great piece of original journalism, your competitors will follow up with their own take on the story. If it's an outstanding piece of journalism, politicians, campaigners, decision-makers, and those with an interest in the issue, will do something. This is why you should always have your own follow up plan. If, once your story breaks, others follow your lead, then you need to be ahead of the game again. Jotting down a few follow-up angles is always a good idea (see next point).
Great stories often get more follow-up.
8: Will there be related stories?
A really good story, will have at least three related stories for you to chase. You have a head start on your competitors, so you should be anticipating where the story will go even before it is published or broadcast. However, when your story breaks, they, too, will be looking for that fresh angle to follow so that they take ownership of the story. You need to be ahead of them. When carrying out your initial fact-finding, write down a story plan with ideas of how it could develop and who the other characters in the story might be. Find those people, talk to them, gather more exclusive material, and develop new angles. Your job is to keep the momentum going.
Most stories will continue to develop, make sure you are on the case.
9: Will anything change as a result of your story?
If you tell your story, will anything be different? Will other people's lives improve or get worse? If they improve, that's a good sign. If they are likely to get worse for many people, think again about whether to publish or broadcasting it. This is all part of the public interest test, which can help you decide the strength and validity of your story.
What impact is your story likely to have?
10: Will you still be able to approach your contacts?
When you tell the story, will you still be able to look your contacts in the eye, and will they still talk to you? A controversial story told well and fairly will earn you respect. A controversial story told badly and unfairly will make it harder for you to work as a journalist. This doesn't mean you should compromise or water down your material. But what it does mean is that you need to be fair, honest, objective, impartial and accurate in all you do. See the training modules in our editorial ethics section.
It may not be worth losing valued contacts for one story - on the other hand...
Jaldeep Katwala has been a journalist since 1985. He has worked for the BBC, Channel 4 News and Radio Netherlands as a broadcaster. He has also taught journalism and run several media development projects and training courses around the world.
This post first appeared on Media Helping Media (MHM) and was first republished on IJNet with permission on September 3, 2014.
MHM is a training information site that provides free media resources for journalists working in transition states, post-conflict countries and areas where freedom of expression and media freedom is under threat.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user gerlos with a Creative Commons license.