Covering the unimaginable: Taking a multi-angle approach to involve and influence readers
This article is part of a series from a 1999 edition of Communication: Journalism Education Today. Also in this series:
- Policies help ensure unbiased coverage for newspaper and yearbooks
- Establishing a rapport with law-enforcement agencies facilitates gathering information
- The role of student publications depends on healing process
By Linda Puntney, MJE
More than anything else, scholastic journalism should create an opportunity for understanding. By providing fair and full coverage, the student media can serve as a conduit for telling the story of every individual in the school.
Journalists such as Kevin Koelling mass communications graduate student at Middle Tennessee State University, suggest the mission of scholastic journalists ought to be “to go out and get understanding. Bring it back and write it up so we can provide it to readers.”
Story assignments should always be based on these questions: “How does the event or policy being covered affect our readers?” and “What are the truths about our school?”
One truth of every school will be diversity of the students. It is the responsibility of every student media staff to tell the story of all groups and to allow them an outlet for expressing their views.
“Ask the wearers of trench coats, jock jackets, Goth garb or any other different apparel what they believe in. Tell them what you’ve heard, and ask for their response to any rumors going around about them,” Koelling said. “If their answers scare you, get a trusted adult involved. It just might be they’re more normal than they appear and that giving them a chance to be heard could defuse feelings like those which led to the Littleton shootings.”
In addition to broad-based representation of students, media staffs should consider multiple-angle coverage. The whole story is more apt to be covered completely if the reporting includes a triad approach that uses news accounts, feature stories and opinion pieces to inform, involve and influence readers.
News vs. feature
The facts of an event are naturally best covered in a news story. The reader needs to know what happened, when it happened and how it happened. If the elements of timeliness and proximity can be answered in your coverage, then straight news coverage is the best type of story to develop.
When human interest, conflict and consequence dominate the information gathered by the reporter, then a feature story may be more appropriate. The feature story can personalize coverage and touch the readers’ emotional buttons in ways straight facts never can.
In the Sports Illustrated article “It Doesn’t Get Any Tougher Than This,” Rick Reilly tells the story of Dawn Anna, the 110-pound volleyball coach at Columbine High School. Anna, who could have died twice on the operating table, and has survived ovarian cancer and brain surgery, Reilly, though, recounts the tough days that started on April 20. Wrote Reilly: “That’s when she found out that last year’s captain, Lauren Townsend, the school’s 4.0 valedictorian, had been murdered while studying in the school library. Lauren was Dawn’s youngest child.”
In that one paragraph Reilly shows the reader the horrific tragedy of Columbine. And in one quote Anna sums up the unbelievable circumstances that took her daughter’s life.
“You know, I always told my kids to be careful crossing the street, and I told them to be careful riding their bikes,” Anna said, “but I never thought to tell them to be careful studying in the library.”
Often the story of a tragedy can best be covered through the microscopic view of one person or one aspect of an event. Those up-close-and-personal views make coverage of tragic events more real to the reader.
Opinion pieces complete the coverage package by offering the staff’s position on the event. Editorials offer calls to action, influence by expressing a staff position or inform by interpreting survey results.
Tragic events often generate action to change things so the tragedy might not be repeated. Action editorials might call for the administration to take a closer look at policies, for gun-control legislation to be enacted or for individuals to be more receptive to the opinions of others.
Editorials also offer an opportunity to express the collective voice of the publication. The Stinger, Emmaus (Pa.) High School let its readers know in the March 26, 1999 issue how the staff felt about security guards being added to the school.
“If we’re going to open the school to the community, we need to protect the students from all possible dangers. Officers in the school would make students feel safer by at least making someone think twice before entering the school….”
At Pleasant Valley (Iowa) Community High School, the Spartan Shield staff suggested a dress code might relieve tensions at the school. To support their argument in their April 30, 1999, edition, they made reference to Columbine. “If a dress code had been in effect at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., would the tragedy have occurred? Take away their trench coats, and there would be no Trench Coat Mafia.”
In Chesterfield, Mo., the staff of the Parkway Central Corral used the editorial page to inform their readers by reporting the results of an April 30, 1999, survey that showed 78 percent of the 100 students interviewed felt safe in their school but believed the district needed some kind of plan to evacuate the building or grounds in an emergency.
The kind of tragedy and the timeliness must shape wise decisions about the form of the stories. Whatever the approach, the editors must insist on thorough reporting and sensitive word choice.