Putting a ‘Spotlight’ on follow-up stories

Oct 30, 2018 in Journalism Basics

In the widely acclaimed movie “Spotlight,” Boston Globe reporters documented sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The investigation won a Pulitzer Prize and won best picture at the Academy Awards in February.

This investigation highlights the importance of follow-up stories as part of the news agenda. Yet, in today’s media world, this kind of reporting often is ignored.

“News organizations were never good at this ... but the situation has gotten worse,” says Jon Talton, economics columnist for The Seattle Times. Thinner staffs, slashed newsroom budgets and the warp speed of the Internet age are partly to blame.

But Talton argues that follow-ups are more important than ever. 

"Information is thrown out quickly and often never pushed to find out 'what happened next?' or 'how did it end?' Not only do these avenues help readers, they can also give a trove of potential stories to a good reporter,” he said in an email interview. “The follow-up should play as importantly in online media as [in print] – maybe more so, given its insatiable appetite.”

The Boston Globe took follow-up journalism to new heights with its Pulitzer Prize-winning series. The Spotlight Team built a database to help document how many priests in Boston had molested children. They explored key questions: When did the church’s hierarchy learn of these crimes and were they part of a cover up? 

By publishing hundreds of follow-up stories, the series blew open a scandal that stunned the country.

During my years as a reporter, I often wrote follow-ups to provide context and shed light on important issues.

Case in point: In the mid-1980s, a farm crisis in Iowa left rural families decimated. I worked at The Des Moines Register at the time.

Business reporters chronicled declining crop prices, farm foreclosures and businesses shuttered in rural communities. I wrote follow-ups that portrayed the crisis’ human dimension. 

I attended auctions where families watched in agony as their possessions were sold to strangers, and wrote about proud farmers left penniless and stripped of dignity. When white crosses signaling foreclosures showed up in yards, there always was a story to be told.

I treated each follow-up as a separate entity and always added at least one paragraph of background information for context. Each one featured fresh angles and new sources. My goal was to illuminate how the farm crisis affected ordinary Iowans.

Talton suggests reporters should keep track of “touchstones” on their beats – important companies, issues and big stories that generated heavy online traffic.

“These are ideal targets for following up on stories that tell readers what has changed, been resolved or become worse since the original news,” he said.

He offers these approaches to writing follow-ups:

  • What was last year’s biggest story in your community? Don't let it just go away. Go back and look at what was published, then check the new data and talk to the key players.
  • What about the aftermath of a merger? Were jobs cut? Did well-known executives move on? Did the merger fulfill its promises in terms of revenue?  Are investors happy? What were the consequences?
  • Important dates in history: If a manufacturer shut down 10 years ago, find workers who lost their jobs. What are they doing now? How is the old space being used by a new company or is it an empty lot?
  • Accountability: Whether you’re dealing with regulation, corporate governance or white-collar crime, the follow-up is an essential tool to keep the heat on and reveal what’s working and what hasn’t changed.

“Having command of your material, including aggressive follow-ups, allows you to set the news agenda,” Talton says. “You don’t just react or take dictation from the press release. You make the competition follow you.”

For an example of how to craft a follow-up story, check out this blog by veteran journalist Tony Rogers. He advises placing the latest developments up high and tying them to background information from the original event.

“This way, even a reader learning about this story for the first time will easily understand what happened,” wrote Rogers on his blog. 

Ideally, follow-ups fill information gaps left by earlier stories. As with Iowa’s farm crisis, they often show, rather than tell, how the news affects human beings.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Xiaojun Deng.