How to develop story ideas on social issues

by International Center for Journalists
Oct 30, 2018 in Specialized Topics

When you cover a social issues beat, part of your job is not only to write or produce the most obvious stories but also to come up with interesting ideas or angles that haven’t been covered yet. In fact, if you’re doing your job well, you should be able to think of many more story possibilities than you could possibly have time to do.

Some editors assign stories that they’ve thought of themselves. Most also like it when reporters propose their own ideas -- and it’s usually better for you to do a story you like than one that someone forced on you. After all, it is the reporter’s job to stay in touch with sources, experts and others involved with the beat. And such contact, more often than not, is how story ideas originate.

The longer you cover a beat, the easier story ideas will come. You will understand better what should be considered news, why it is important or significant, and whom you should call to get more information. You will learn which sources to trust and which to treat with greater skepticism, which are interested in getting information out and which are only interested in getting their side of the story out and suppressing others.

Let’s say you have been assigned to cover the growing problem in your country of trafficking in humans, many of whom are women taken from one country to another and forced to work as sex slaves. You know some of the obvious stories: How does the trafficking network operate? What is your government doing to stop trafficking? What is life like for women who are trafficked?

But a good reporter would want to go beyond these stories to explore facets of the problem that have not been reported. Here are some ideas, courtesy of journalism trainer Carolyn Robinson, that show how the problem impacts more than just the lives of individual victims. Nearly any other social issues topic will have a similar wealth of untapped story ideas.

  • Business: What do traffickers do with their profits?
  • Health: How is the health care system fighting the problem?
  • Education: What are schools doing to educate young people about this problem and prevent young people from becoming victims?
  • Religion and Society: What are religious institutions doing about the problem?
  • Science and Technology: What new scientific or technological methods are being used to fight trafficking?
  • Politics: Have any political groups or parties joined together in the fight against trafficking?
  • International Relations: What international laws prevent trafficking and how much effort are other countries putting into enforcing those laws?
  • Labor: What industries use trafficked people other than sex-for-hire businesses? What are labor unions or businesses doing?
  • Transportation: How do traffickers transport their victims?
  • Crime and Justice: How do people become traffickers? What are their motives?

Story ideas can come from anywhere. Many spin off beat coverage or an ongoing story, like the one we talked about above. Some can come from random observations on your part or stories you’ve seen that you think might have more behind them. Many reporters develop “tickler” files, which hold dates of upcoming events on your beat or story leads that they don’t have to follow up on right away. One leading U.S. editor encouraged his reporters to carry two notebooks with them at all times – one for the story they were working on at the time, the second to jot down story ideas or keep notes on issues that might develop into stories later one. Reporters refer to this as “collecting bits of string” that can be assembled at a later date.

Probably the best place to get story ideas is just from talking to people on your beat and the people you interview for your stories. Ask them what they’re interested in, what they think needs to be covered, and take it from there. If you’re really stumped for story ideas, let yourself daydream for a minute. Go back through your old stories and see what you missed, or engage in exercises like “brainstorming” or “mind-mapping,” by yourself or in a group. While those are more often used for problem-solving, they can be helpful in stirring up ideas.

Many story ideas come from tips, either from a source or from an affected person. While these need to be checked out, rigorously, before you can present them for news, they have the advantage of coming from someone who’s already familiar with the issue you will be reporting on. A remarkable example of such a story was the Pulitzer Prize-winning series by the Washington Post on the shabby treatment of Iraq war veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which is supposed to be one of the premier military hospitals in the United States. Those stories did not come from a press release or from official sources – it came as a tip from a friend of a friend of one of the reporters on the story. (Read their discussion of how they got the story here.)

This post was originally part of an online course by ICFJ Anywhere, which supports journalists worldwide with free training on a range of topics. Courses are offered in a variety of languages including English, Arabic, Persian, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish and French. For the latest ICFJ Anywhere course offerings, click here.