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The thoughts of a young journalist in southeastern Michigan

Lights out: How to cover a breaking news story

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There’s just something about CMU’s Charles V. Park Library, late production nights and breaking news that just can’t seem to avoid me.

On Feb.21, 2010, while driving to Moore Hall to do my work as Central Michigan Life’s online editor, I noticed a lack of lighting around the Park Library. I continued driving and noticed all of the lights in and around the library were out. I called the newsroom to inform them and they had already realized what had happened. After I arrived in the office, it was decided that someone(s) needed to go to the library and start figuring out what happened.After myself and University Editor Eric Dresden walked out of the building, our reporting challenge began.This is where my main point of this post is going.

Covering breaking news is an experience all in itself. It’s all about fast thinking, fact-checking and quick reporting. Here, I break down the five skills I’ve found useful in doing breaking news reporting, including my “adventure” in the Park Library:

1. Get excited.

Most important aspect of covering breaking news is loving it. Great journalists live for going out and covering a fire, a murder, or other emergencies. While the end result of most breaking news is negative, it is the best time for journalists to show what type of reporter they are. When your editor says, “Go!” there’s no reason to hold back. That’s why (I assume) you went into journalism.

2. Talk to as many people as possible at the scene.

This can be difficult if there aren’t that many people there, but it will definitely give you the best viewpoint of what happened, especially if you did not witness the breaking news yourself. But talking to more people can piece together a vivid setting of what happened, and can give you different sides of the story. Talking to officials at the scene will give you the official voice your story will need, which leads me to my next point…

3. If it’s not confirmed, don’t print it.

If the scene is chaos, then that means you can get several different stories about what happened. Everyone thinks they are an expert in what happened, but never trust their word as the golden truth.Only go with information you see yourself and officials there as factual information.Unless your quoting someone with something, don’t assume what they say is the truth. The human psyche can skew facts at a time of crisis.

4. Pay attention to detail.

If there aren’t many officials there to tell you what happened, using your own senses can help tell the story of what happened. For example, in the Park Library, I took note of when everyone said the power went off and when everyone was evacuated. I continued to monitor the clock and noted the time when a police officer arrived, when the emergency lights came on, and when the elevator mechanic came to try and get two graduate students out of the elevator (that also allowed us to keep track as to how long they were in there, which was about an hour). Details like that can add depth to your story.

5. Be prepared to write a follow up.

Just because the action of the news event is over doesn’t mean stop reporting about it. Chances are, there are plenty of questions about the event that need to be answered. For example, in the Park Library power outage, it wasn’t just the power that went out. Some of the Internet and some of the security cameras were also out from the back-up generators not firing up, a detail that gets explained in my follow up in the Feb. 24 edition of CM Life. Not only do you get to learn more about what happened, but you get the opportunity to impress potential future employers with your reporting skills. It’s one thing to report breaking news, but it’s another thing if you can dig to get more info on it after the fact.


Written by David Veselenak

February 27, 2010 at 3:41 am

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