Reporters and writers working on newspapers and magazines earn their daily bread by reporting and by writing.
They contribute to the editorial machine by submitting ideas that eventually get discussed, developed, researched, reported and written up for publication. The number of ideas a journalist submits per day or per week depends on the kind of publication, the size of the staff and the frequency with which it comes out.
One of the biggest headaches young reporters and writers face is how to generate, on a regular basis, ideas that will eventually be developed into tangible editorial products ideas that their editors will not shoot down. I know this for a fact because I am constantly besieged by former students and colleagues in the media for ideas. They complain that after a while you run out of ideas. Here, I am talking about interesting, newsworthy, topical, controversial, significant ideas that deal with issues that preoccupy people, interest them, worry them, amuse them, give them sleepless nights and agonising days. Ideas that sell, in other words.
I do not think ideas are that difficult to generate and I say so all the time. I have gone on record as saying that the only people who cannot have an idea are dead people. At least, they have an excuse. After all, their brains stopped working when they died. That is why I do not, as a matter of principle, spoonfeed others with ideas.
Like I said, ideas are not difficult to generate, especially if you have a brain. Everyday, we see, hear and experience things that shock us. We read about things that stimulate us or disturb us. Our curiosity is piqued by much of what we see, hear and experience.
But very often, journalists do not imagine that these experiences have editorial potential. Even when they do, their approach to these experiences is onedimensional and unimaginative. 1
2. Generating Ideas: Seeing vs. Perception
In my view, ideas come to receptive minds. Minds that are able to think beyond the obvious. Remember that when Isaac Newton sat under a tree and saw an apple fall and thereafter formulated an idea that later became known as The Law of Gravity, he was mentally prepared for that experience. Many people before him had seen apples fall from trees, but only Newton saw beyond the obvious event and enriched the world with the clarity of his vision. I believe journalists can do the same.
When you think about it, we don't GET ideas; we RECOGNISE them. And we recognise workable ideas because we perceive rather than see things. Journalists must perceive rather than see. Seeing, as far as I am concerned, is a reflex action. We see because we have eyes. When we perceive, we think about what we see and formulate impressions. These impressions can be converted into tangible editorial products, once they have been experienced, researched and investigated.
To generate ideas, journalists must:
• form impressions
This way, they are able to make a logical progression from what they see, what they perceive, what they know to what they can find out and prove in the public interest.
According to James Heffernan and John Lincoln, once you have chosen a topic, you can begin to discover its editorial possibilities by "triple viewing it or by seeing it in three different ways: as a particle, as a wave and as part of a field". They write in their book, Writing: A College Handbook (1982):
To see a topic as a particle is to see it all by itself, self contained and fixed, isolated for special scrutiny... To see the topic as a wave is to see if as part of a process, to ask how it came to develop in time and if the topic is a historical situation or event what resulted from it.. To see the topic as part of a field is to consider its relation to other topics that surround it.
The more you view ideas this way, the more multi dimensional your approach is. Not only that. The more questions you raise, the more you get to penetrate your topic.
Let me work around a tangible example.
Ever since, Lusaka was hit by a serial killer whose modus operandi is battering people to death, the press has been reporting the grisly finds by the police and how the man has eluded capture. In a Times of Zambia article (8 February, 1999), Sam Ngoma provides an artist's impression of the serial killer as well as the testimony of witnesses and those bereaved by the grisly murders the Police have attributed to him. Apart from this, there is very little else.
Now, if we had to triple view the topic of the serial killer, we would need to see it as a particle as a series of murders committed by someone or some people who are obviously deranged.
But even so, we need to be mindful of the possibility that there could be other people imitating a certain criminal's style to draw attention away from themselves. There have been known cases of copycat murders. For instance, there was Jack the Ripper, then the Yorkshire Ripper in the United Kingdom.
It would be necessary to establish serial killings as a criminological phenomenon that surfaces ever so often. Back in the 1980s, there was the Lusaka Strangler. What kind of social environment breeds serial killers? How come ever so often, they emerge and leave a trail of bodies in their wake? There is a school of sociological thought which argues that criminals are born, and that criminals tendencies are hereditary. Others argue that criminals are nurtured by socio economic conditions.
It is essential for journalists reporting issues to be familiar with the theories, studies, findings and case studies around a subject. Research helps in the process of intellectual and journalistic empowerment.
Serial killing, as far as I know, has been extensively studied by psychologists and psychiatrists.
One thing that I know is that in Europe and America, police psychologists are able to establish a psychological profile of suspected serial killers on their basis of their trademark methods. From what they put together, police are able to know what kind of individual they are looking for, how he is likely to react to pressure once he or she becomes aware of police intervention.
There is a lot that can be learnt from the expertise of people like Russian Professor, Aleksandr Bukhanovsky who has done extensive research on the serial killers he has successfully managed to catch and have convicted. Bukhanovsky hails from the Southern Russian city of Rostov on Don where 29 serial killers and rapists have been caught over the last 10 years.
Newsweek (25 January, 1999) describes Rostov as the serial murder capital of the world on account of the statistics cited above. In a report headlined "City of the Dead", Newsweek's Owen Matthews traces the city's grisly legacy back to 1978 when Andrei Chikatilo, known as the Rostov Ripper, stalked the area. From that time to 1991 when he was arrested, Chikatilo killed and cannibalised 56 people.
It was Professor Bukhanovsky who provided the psychological profile of the Rostov Ripper that led police to finally capture him. Initially, authorities dismissed his findings until Chikatilo was finally caught and the Professor's profile was proved right.
On the basis of psychological records and case studies, can potential killers be identified before they actually murder anyone? As things stand, Bukhanovsky is walking a thin line between medical ethics and the law by treating admitted serial killers who are not in police custody. One of his patients was brought to him by his own parents after he began to exhibit violent and anti social behaviour sometime last year.
The point I am trying to make with this lengthy example is that by triple viewing issues, we as journalists can extend their peripheries way beyond the obvious. Issues such as the ethical considerations of Bukhanovsky's approach to psychiatry began important to investigate because we are likely to confront them in our dealings with our own serial killers. Are serial killers mentally disturbed? If they are, should they be tried, convicted and hanged or admitted to an asylum for psychiatric treatment?
In short, what may have seemed like a routine assignment on the Lusaka serial killer could explore criminology, psychology, the law, and medical ethics, and draw views from experts to ordinary citizens. Obviously, such a report is likely to be more comprehensive than the feature article written by Samuel Ngoma.
3. Where do ideas come from?
Everywhere. If you are a beat reporter, you are limited to a perimeters of an institution. For instance, Joy here has covered the courts for a long time. Her editorial assignments are defined and determined by what is happening in court, nothing more. If she has to be creative, she has to see beyond the actual cases and perceive trends of certain crimes and develop hypotheses based on these and pursue these from a feature story perspective.
At this point, I want to move away from institutional sources of "ideas" to the more interactive and experiential types of sources. Broadly speaking, ideas that come to us from:
• the local media
• history: unofficial vs. official versions
• conversational and intellectual interaction with others.
• cultural and religious value systems and socialisation
• "foreign" sources, such as foreign publications etc.
4. Pretesting Ideas for their Workability
What may seem like a good story idea to a novice reporter or writer may not survive close examination from a hard nosed editor or someone with a very critical mind. This is why it is important for journalists to pre test the ideas they want to pursue. Pre testing, simply put, is the process of assessing whether an idea will make editorial sense, is capable of being and will, in the final analysis appeal to readers.
For me, pre testing involves asking myself a number of questions.
Is the idea too vague? Many times, novice reporters and writers fall into the trap of writing about subjects that are too general or too vague to be developed precisely. For example, a student came up to me one day and said he wanted to write an article on religion. I told him that religion was too broad a topic to deal with in, say 1,000 words the average length of an article. I suggested he restrict the subject to something more precise and specific. Religion, I told him, includes hundreds of esoteric systems of belief, from Hinduism, to Voodoo to animism) could be restricted to something much smaller. Even Christianity has many countless denominations, the differences among them being a source of major conflict and disagreement. For the sake of an article that focuses on a single, specific thing, why don't you focus on the latter day evangelical type ministries which seem to be mushrooming everyday. In fact, we could go a step further and restrict it to focus only on the face of televangelism in Zambia today. Notice how I break some broad and formless into something definite and more focused. That is how I expect journalists to think. When you become editors, you should be able to help novice reporters go through this process of restriction to make ideas more feasible.
Is it capable of being developed? Unless an idea has scope for development and research, a reporter would be wasting valuable time dealing with intangibles.
Is the idea fresh? Journalism has got no room for stale and hackneyed ideas about things we read about over and over. of course, the world as we know it is timeless, meaning that there are virtually no new things worth writing about. What brings freshness to otherwise old ideas is the approach, the way in which the issue is perceived and developed. Last month, I wrote about corporal punishment in schools, using the death of a schoolboy who was flogged 11 times by a teacher in Kamanga as a news peg. By looking at my own experience as a schoolboy and the experiences of others, I was able to convey the pain pupils have to endure in the name of discipline and ask questions about children's rights, about human rights. It would help the reporter to find out how the idea has been dealt with in the past to give him/her some insight into how to tackle it from a new angle. 6
Will it appeal to readers? The best way to find out how viable ideas are and whether they will appeal to readers is to develop a habit of testing them informally through conversation and interaction with others. Note how people respond and react to the issues you introduce into conversation. In my experience, I know what idea will ruffle feathers and stir up controversy because of the vibrations I get when I air them during conversation and test what people feel about them. The extent of their emotionalism and the strength of their reaction is a litmus test for me to pursue an idea. In Africa, sex is a sacred cow, something people choose not to discuss publicly. But if you are as observant as I am, you will notice used condoms in the strangest of places. In bushes, in the backseats of people's cars, on pathways and the backstreets of town etc. What does that tell you?
Another way is to get your ideas from what you hear people talking about. Most weekends, I like to ride on the mini buses into town. I eavesdrop on conversations not so much because I like to listen in on people's conversations but because people are exceptionally communicative (and loudly so!) on the bus. Same thing happens in the pubs. When you develop this capacity, you begin to appreciate one basic fact about the psychology of readers, of media audiences: people only read what they can identify with and relate to because that is a measure of their humanity.
5. In Search of Ideas: A Final Word
When I look through my files and my drawers, there are lots and lots of cuttings of articles I have kept over the years. Most of what I keep are articles that have made a lasting impression on me either because of the way in which the subject matter was treated or because of the peculiar manner in which it was written.
This says a lot about the amount of creativity that goes into conceiving the idea that eventually becomes the editorial product that people read. I want to believe that we all have it within us to create those ideas that become articles that will live after us. 7
For a Stylistics, Research and Advanced Newspaper Writing course held at ZAMCOM from 19th to the 30th of June, 2000.
1. James Heffernan and John Lincoln, Writing: A College Handbook. (1982).
2. Brendan Henessy, Writing Feature Articles :A Practical Guide to Methods and Markets. (1990). 8