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How much or how little control are you given in researching and reporting stories?
Posted by Aaron Fahrmann on November 7, 2008 9:43 AM | Permalink
I think this varies greatly. Personally, I have lots of control over what stories I do and how I approach them. Some of my colleagues have very little control. In many cases, editors come up with a list of things that need to be covered and then assign them to people. I will say that some people prefer a job where they don't have to ponder what to cover. They take assignments from the boss and then go get the basic facts. And there's probably a need for those people and that kind of coverage. But, to me, the more important / interesting coverage is the stuff that's actually generated out of curiously, out of someone (usually a reporter) truly wanting to know something. That could be as big as "What is really happening in Iraq?" down to "Why do people love bacon?" If stories are prompted by an actual desire to know something, they (in my opinion) usually turn out better. Still, there is a lot of coverage that comes out of the editors not wanting to look like they missed something. If one newspaper covers it, the other will cover it. Which is why we probably see all these stories about things like the first flu case of the year or carbon monoxide kills. Of course, these things aren’t unimportant and can be good stories given context or history or the right treatment. But they often stop at the reporting of the fact that the first flu case happened. It's a dictation of a situation, not a report. Those are the types of stories I don't think reporters would come up with on their own, but are assigned by editors who want to look like they're on top of things.
November 13, 2008 11:10 AM
I think the key to having more control over which stories you get to do is to always be working on a story you came up with yourself. That way when an editor comes to you with some lame idea you can say you have to do interviews for the story you're already working on (and you won't be lying.) With any luck, the editor will then assign the story to another reporter. The other approach is to always have a better story to propose when an editor comes around assuaging stories. If you don't have any ideas, you won't have any way to get out of whatever the editor comes up with at any random moment. The final advice is to accept, say, one out of every five stories the editor proposes. That way it looks like you're being a team player. It's all about picking your battles.
November 13, 2008 5:41 PM
How much freedom you have depends on lots of things. How long you've been at the company. How much experience you have. How many mistakes you’ve made in the past. How much the boss likes and/or trusts you. And, a factor people often forget about, what your beat is.
Reporters who cover things like politics and business tend to have much less freedom. News stations consider these things "hard hitting." They are also the beats that tend to upset people most, those people usually being politicians, political staff, CEOs and reps of big business. Because of that, managers seem to want to control the reporters on these beats much more. They want to cover themselves and the organization.
Then there are the beats that editors either don't care about or don't know anything about. Beats like art or human interest. Rightly or wrongly, people don't take those beats as seriously. Bosses pay less attention to those beats, which means the reporters on those beats get lots of freedom.
There is one other thing I've noticed. It's much easier to get the ok to do a story if some other news organization (usually the New York Times) has done the story. I've had bosses who are afraid of ok-ing stories they haven't already heard or read. They're afraid the story may not be a story. Or that the reporter is reading too much into something. But if the Times has done the story, bosses believe it's a story. This can be very frustrating.
November 13, 2008 10:57 PM