Reporting on green energy

Through the years, I’ve been carving out my beat of green energy. It’s what I’m interested in, not only for the implications on the economy, the electric grid, and technology, but also because I’m a science fiction nerd and believe green tech and renewable energy can help us realize better, cleaner futures.

I’ve been blogging mostly about my creative writing, but I also produce freelance articles as a journalist. Years ago, I interned at Electrical Contractor Magazine, and I’ve been freelancing for them ever since.

EC Mag, published by the National Electrical Contractors Association, covers the latest news about the electrical construction industry. It’s a niche publication, and I learned a lot about magazine writing and design as an intern.

Some of my recent articles cover the nearly 30 cities that have committed to renewable power, how to harness solar power during an eclipse, and the benefits of green energy for rural America.

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The renewable energy industry in America, and worldwide, is growing. And it’s been great to follow it.

Check out EC Mag for all news about the electrical construction industry, especially features on the evolving role of the electrical contractor, safetycodes and standards, green building, and more.

News21 Gun Wars blog

Follow the News21 Gun Wars blog for updates on gun rights and regulations in the United States. I am a Fellow reporting for this year’s project.

News21 is a national student investigative reporting project funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Carnegie Corporation of New York and other foundations. The newsroom is headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. News21 journalism appears annually in media outlets around the United States. 29 fellows from 16 journalism schools and an experienced staff of editors are reporting on gun rights and regulation for News21’s fifth national investigation.

You can learn more about the project, see what we’re reading each week about guns, inform our reporting and follow us on our social networks.

The full report is coming in August.

My 10-week Phoenix adventure

Tomorrow I will begin working at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University for a 10-week fellowship through the News21 Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education.

This year, News21 reporters are focusing on gun laws in the nation. We are reporting on the diversity of gun laws and cultures in America. I will be producing articles, interactive graphics, data journalism and blog posts for the fellowship.

I flew into Phoenix early Saturday. The heat is the first thing I noticed. One-hundred-plus-degree  days are typical here. And while it is what everyone describing Phoenix calls a “dry heat,” instead of the incredible humidity back home in Maryland and D.C., it is punishing. The next is the lack of grass. It is a desert, after all. I’m looking forward to continuing to report for News21 as well as exploring the area, taking hikes, swimming in the apartment pool, taking trips on the light rail (the city’s version of the Metro, except it is all above-ground) and getting to know my talented peers.

Check back for updates on News21, interactive graphics and articles I produce for the program and my adventures in Phoenix.

Editor for News & Observer encourages writing with authority

By Marlena Chertock

May 4, 2011

Steve Riley is an editor at the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. He manages a team of investigative journalists. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

Steve Riley, an editor for the News & Observer in Raleigh, pushes reporters to write with authority. Riley manages a team of three investigative journalists and spoke to communications students at Elon University on May 4.

“Be very assertive, very confident in what you present,” said Riley, who has been in the newspaper business for 31 years. “A fair picture. But not necessarily a balanced picture.”

Continue reading Editor for News & Observer encourages writing with authority

Learning from the greats: Reaction to Chapter 9 of ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’

Chapter 9: The Classics

APRIL 15, 2011

To be a reporter, to be a good reporter, one has to have a passion for the craft of writing. Reporters must have a passion for journalism.

Journalism is often a quest for social reform. Good reporters whose writing is powerful report on injustice, corruption, social issues and issues that need reform. It’s important for journalists to be the watchdogs of social reform, to alert the public to issues that require reform. They shouldn’t be afraid to write for social change, social reform. Reporters educate the public. And a public that is not aware of these issues, that is left in the dark is an uninformed and endangered public — it’s more possible for a public to be controlled and manipulated when they aren’t aware.

Reporters should “go beneath the actual events to explore their meaning,” Clark and Scanlan said.

There have been and still are untold stories in America and people whose voices are stifled. So reporters must report on these stories and offer a voice for these people. “The great writer struggles out of the cocoon of self-censorship and self-doubt to fly to a place where difficult truths can be examined, expressed and exposed to the light of day,” the editors said.

Good reporters must be aware of the political and cultural effects of new media, the Internet and other forms of media. This helps them know the impact and influence they’ll have on others, on the public. Reporters should also be aware of the capability of organizations, politicians and others to control the media and influence and manipulate the public. Being aware of this potential power will help guide media professionals in their work, life and ethical decisions.

Journalists have a role to be a social and media critic, according to Clark and Scanlan. They must be critical of the media, their own work and others. This ties into the watchdog role of journalists, to watch out for government and business corruption and other social issues. Journalists need to educate citizens and influence a culture of media literacy and critical thinking.

This questioning and critical thinking keeps people free, empowered and protected from tyranny and corruption, Clark and Scanlan said.

Reporters have a powerful role, they should embrace it and acquire a powerful voice. The reporters included in this chapter on classic reporting, stories that were classic, had powerful writing voices.

Voice and powerful writing comes from determined, strong reporting. Reporters should observe, gather details, direct experiences and reactions of people and include those in their stories. Reporters should describe scenes and events and people’s emotions so readers can connect to the story. Clark and Scanlan said reporting should include honest emotion.

Get out of the office and on the street. You’ll find an interesting story. So go tell it.

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

Writers practice writing and revising for years, working to improve. Reporters must work to improve their reporting, interviewing, inclusion of details, writing and voice. Start by imitating other great writers and their writing style. Read a lot of great writing. As one of the writing greats listed in the chapter, Red Smith, said: “Your own writing tends to crystallize, to take shape. Yet you have learned some moves from all these guys and they are somehow incorporated into your own style. Pretty soon you’re not imitating any longer.”

Top 5 list of classic journalism stories:

1. Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration At Army’s Top Medical Facility, The Washington Post

Dana Priest and Anne Hull

These reporters write several articles about the failings of the army hospital, Walter Reed. They focus on specific people who are affected by the bureaucracy, neglect and lack of doctors at the hospital — the returning soldiers.

The average stay in the hospital is 10 months, but some have been stuck there for as long as two years, they write. Their word choice, description and depiction of the hospital work to show the damning evidence against it, as Clark and Scanlan described in the chapter.

Priest and Hull include specific details about the hospital, rooms, people, even bathrooms in their articles.

Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan’s room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.

They include sensory details,  to ensure readers can smell, hear, see, taste and touch the hospital, its age and neglect.

The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out.

Duncan and other soldiers recover in Building 18 of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The reporters said it was “not the kind of place where Duncan expected to recover when he was evacuated from Iraq last February with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, nearly dead from blood loss.”

Priest and Hull report to show the need for reform in the hospital, to show a social issue. They find soldiers who want to speak out about the issue, people who are upset, tired, in need of help and angry.

Marine Sgt. Ryan Groves, an amputee, lived at Walter Reed for 16 months. “We don’t know what to do,” he said. “The people who are supposed to know don’t have the answers. It’s a nonstop process of stalling.”

2. Two Worlds Paired by War, The New York Times

C.J. Chivers

Chivers writes with a strong voice. When reading, you feel as if you start to know him. He often inserts himself into the writing, into the article, but remains objective. He is showing the human side of war and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He is writing to connect people across seas, from different cultures (American and Afghanistan, both engaged in war).

Just when you thought you had figured something out, you were proved wrong. You always risked missing the most important moments, because you were looking for something else.

He writes very descriptively, describing the Afghan landscape and people around him.

When a porter asks him where he’s from, and Chivers answers New York, an interesting moment happens and Chivers describes it with incredible detail.

When he spoke again it was in the slow diction of a man on an excursion into an unfamiliar language, but who wanted to be heard. He nodded, deep enough to be a bow, before raising both hands to eye level and letting them flutter to his waist.

The meaning was obvious, even high in mountains in a distant corner of the earth. Towers falling down.

“New York,” the Afghan porter said. “Very sorry us.”

He uses powerful structure to get across the theme of war happening in both countries, affecting many people in different ways.

New York and Afghanistan, paired worlds of rubble, work and grief.

Chivers uses a unique way to structure his writing, quotes and descriptions — he writes specifically about newspaper, radio and television stories about the war. This gives the article a strange feeling and context. He often writes about a notebook (a reporter’s notebook) with notes, but how no single scene can capture the devastation in New York and Afghanistan.

New York. A tremendous platinum-and-gold flash where the jet disappeared into the tower, and then the explosion’s roar and screams from a crowd breaking into a run. Mothers on a stairwell in the smoky Trinity Church day care center, cradling children and getting ready to step outside, unaware that the remaining tower was about to go. An old woman in a wheelchair being pushed down Greenwich Street, visible one moment and lost the next as another stampede began and the second wave of stinging dust swooshed through. A fire chief limping as he escorted out the bagged remains of one of his battalion’s dead. A National Guard captain walking by flashlight through the lightless World Trade Center basement, his beam briefly illuminating the face of the Bugs Bunny doll at the ruined Warner Brothers store.

Afghanistan. A teenager tossing a grenade into a brown river — ga-loomph, a geyser of spray — and then wading in to look for stunned fish. A haze of dust at sunset as the Northern Alliance infantry moved from Bangi to Khanabad, the restless soldiers hoping to claim the city in time to break the Ramadan fast. Two Taliban soldiers on their backs in the Kunduz bazaar, the dime-sized bullet holes in their foreheads showing the manner of execution hours before. A 10-year-old boy whose home was destroyed by American bombs describing pain in two limbs he no longer had.

3. A People of the Sea

Katrina took away Coast Vietnamese’s life, work, Sun Herald

Joshua Norman

Norman uses a literary technique from creative writers in the beginning and end of his article on Hurricane Katrina. He tells a mythical story that he was apparently told by a Viatnamese person.

A Vietnamese folk legend says in ancient times, the sea dragon Lac Long Quan married the mountain fairy Au Co and she gave birth to 100 children. Half of the children went with their mother back to the mountains, and half stayed to live off the sea.

From these 100 children came the Vietnamese people.

The 50 children who stayed with their father became fishermen. Thus those who make their living off the sea have an honored status in Vietnamese society.

But he then goes dramatically into the article. “The sea rose and took away much from the Vietnamese community along the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina,” he wrote. The folk legend now becomes grim and sinister. But it remains a strong motif in the piece.

Norman brings the folk legend back, and a sense of hope and not only desperation, to end the story.

South Mississippi’s pleasant climate and ties to the sea are what keep many Vietnamese here. While the sea took so much away, many said there is much that it can give back and that is their hope for the future.

4. GOP Security Aide Among Five Arrested in Bugging Affair, The Washington Post

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

This is one of the first in a series of articles by the famous duo of reporters — Woodward and Bernstein. They reported on the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.

Woodward and Bernstein reported for hours, calling countless people for information and to track down names and money, going to people’s houses to interview and researching in the library.

They stuck with the clear, simple and direct news writing style. It is extremely effective and necessary for a story like this.

Their lead exemplifies the direct style. But it also shows that news writing’s clarity quickly shows fault and the facts to readers.

One of the five men arrested early Saturday in the attempt to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters is the salaried security coordinator for President Nixon’s reelection committee.

The suspect, former CIA employee James W. McCord Jr., 53, also holds a separate contract to provide security services to the Republican National Committee, GOP national chairman Bob Dole said yesterday.

The reporters included numerous sources, quotes and information. They were sifting out the meaning behind the events, as Clark and Scanlan said, and what had actually occurred.

It is evident in their writing that they contacted several sources, or at least tried to. When people refused to comment, they wrote that, adding credibility and accountability of journalists to track down leads and ask questions.

Police sources said last night that they were seeking a sixth man in connection with the attempted bugging. The sources would give no other details.

“We’re baffled at this point . . . the mystery deepens,” a high Democratic party source said.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Lawrence F. O’Brien said the “bugging incident . . . raised the ugliest questions about the integrity of the political process that I have encountered in a quarter century.

“No mere statement of innocence by Mr. Nixon’s campaign manager will dispel these questions.”

The Democratic presidential candidates were not available for comment yesterday.

5. Ten Days in a Madhouse, The New York World

Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly’s investigation into the mental institutions of New York were a breakthrough in the social reform of the institution. She investigated and wrote about Blackwell Island Insane Asylum.

Her articles prompted a critical look at the mental institutions and how mentally ill people were treated.

She writes in a first-hand account, which brings the harsh and unjust treatment of the patients out more. She allowed herself to be admitted to one of the asylums for the insane in order to witness for herself and be able to write about her own real, disturbing experiences in the institution.

Bly writes with conviction and an authority in her voice. Her writing holds a reader’s attention.

On the 22d of September I was asked by the World if I could have myself committed to one of the asylums for the insane in New York, with a view to writing a plain and unvarnished narrative of the treatment of the patients therein and the methods of management, etc. Did I think I had the courage to go through such an ordeal as the mission would demand? Could I assume the characteristics of insanity to such a degree that I could pass the doctors, live for a week among the insane without the authorities there finding out that I was only a “chiel amang ’em takin’ notes?” I said I believed I could. I had some faith in my own ability as an actress and thought I could assume insanity long enough to accomplish any mission intrusted to me. Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would. And I did.

Bly includes details that only she could uncover, since she was going undercover in the asylum. She also includes several scenes with doctors, nurses, police officers and quotes from them as well as other women in the asylum.

I was to chronicle faithfully the experiences I underwent, and when once within the walls of the asylum to find out and describe its inside workings, which are always, so effectually hidden by white-capped nurses, as well as by bolts and bars, from the knowledge of the public.

Bly was writing for social reform of the mental institutions. They were often mismanaged, kept people for long amounts of time and mistreated patients. She writes with clarity and great descriptions. And she inserts her thoughts of the system and life of the mentally insane in these institutions.

I shuddered to think how completely the insane were in the power of their keepers.

Former Times-News reporter offers tips for covering courts and crime

Marlena Chertock

APRIL 13, 2011

Keren Rivas, who reported for the Times-News, gave tips on reporting about the courts and crime to communications stuents on April 13. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

You have to be compassionate and show your personality when reporting, Keren Rivas said.

Rivas was a reporter for the Times-News for six years and a 2004 Elon alumnus. Now she “has come over to the dark side to public relations” as Assistant Director of University Relations for Academic Communication, she said.

Rivas gave tips for reporting on crime and the courts to budding reporters at Elon University in a reporting class on April 13.

Rivas, who is originally from Peru, wrote on the court and crime beat for the Times-News. At first, one of her editors thought she might not be capable of the job, since there is so much legalese and court jargon and the U.S. court system differs from her home country’s, she said.

But another editor of hers had faith in her and took her under his wing, she said.

“This is the beat you want to do because it’s always different,” she said.

Police scanners are a great source for crime stories, she said.

But reporters need to be careful because the initial reports are not always accurate.

“I know we’re used to Tweeting, getting it out in the paper and online,” she said. “Don’t rush, check the facts.”

Just because a name is written in an official document, Rivas said reporters shouldn’t rush to put that name out in the world.

“Words carry a lot of weight and affect a lot of people,” she said.

Descriptions from the scanner can be hilarious and wrong, according to Rivas.

A caller can say the suspect is a white male in a black car, but it can end up being the opposite, a black male in a white car, she said.

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

Or a reporter can write the suspect was in a car that was red in color, police speak, when they meant to say they were in a red car.

Reporters and stories must also treat every side and everyone involved with the same level of respect to be fair to people in the community. People should make their own judgments.

It’s important not to put bias into a story, to talk about the accused and accuser in the same way, she said.

Reporters should develop relationships with sources, attorneys, lawyers, judges, police officers, security guards, clerks and others. Important information might be shared with a friendly, compassionate reporter who wants “to get the story right, not just first,” she said.

Introduce yourself to judges and others, let them know you’re reporting on the story, Rivas said. It’s good for them to know you’re there because then they may be more open to giving a quote after the court proceeding and confirming information or court terms.

Rivas mentioned a few websites that Times-News reporters and she use:

View Rivas’ slideshow here.


Rivas on reporting compassionately

Rivas on reporting with fairness

Reporting on disasters and crisis: Reaction to Chapter 8 of ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’

Chapter 8: Terrorism, war and disasters

Writing about terrorism, war and disasters is tricky, has to be accurate and on tight deadlines and is difficult to write. It’s hard to witness disaster, but people need information about what happens and the response to it. So reporters must go, witness, observe, interview, research and report.

These stories have vivid storytelling. They incorporate details, images, scenes and emotions to help readers understand the impact and what people are feeling and going through. This helps readers know what happened and feel some of what others are dealing with. These stories should “communicate the reality of the horror,” as Clark and Scanlan said.

Reporters who write about disasters and war must be somewhat hardened or able to deal with the tragedy themselves. They must find a way to check their emotions at the door and not let them infiltrate the story — because it is essential that the reporting remain objective. This takes a great deal of strength and resolve.

A lesson this chapter tries to teach is that reporters don’t have to strictly follow the five W’s and the H structure (who, what, where, why, when and how). The great writers in this chapter often wrote against or didn’t follow this strict structure, in how to set up their leads or the story. They went instead for a narrative lead, a scene-setting lead or a sentence that set the tone. This can work better than the structure of the five W’s and the H.

Like Richard Zahler, reporters should make the five W’s and the H work for them. Zahler wrote in ways where “Who becomes Character; What becomes Plot; Where becomes Setting; When becomes Chronology; Why becomes Motivation,” Clark and Scanlan said.

There’s a moral dimension of journalism that this chapter touches on. Journalism can offer stories about injustice, inequality, danger, conflict, war, disasters, corruption and so on — and the public has the right to know about these issues. This can be referred to as reporting for the public good. These stories can and do have power, with how the reporters write them, the details they use, who is offered as a voice in the story, the impact that is shown and the connection to readers that is made.

Stories should focus on the universal. They should show and connect the human aspect of a disaster, war or other event. This can help readers connect if they’re reading about tragedy from a faraway place, for example if they’re reading about the Rwandan genocide in Washington, D.C.

Anthony Shadid, one of the great writers mentioned in this chapter, tried to humanize the impact of war.

Sometimes it’s important to step back and listen, observe. Sometimes journalists don’t need to be talking and asking questions all the time — watching and listening can give them insight, details and events that they might have missed if they were focusing on asking and having a conversation with a source.

For Shadid’s story on the 14-year-old’s funeral in Baghdad, he “stepped back like a photographer to ‘capture the scene,’” Clark and Scanlan said.

Reporters also need to report — stories would not be stories without words, quotes from people. Without information and research. But acting like a photographer at times can be extremely worthwhile.

Additionally, sometimes it’s best not to follow the pack, not to go where the rest of the media is going and to search out your own stories. This is what Shadid did when he was in Baghdad. He went around the city, finding and writing stories that journalists otherwise wouldn’t have known about or reported, but nonetheless as important.

Research is extremely important. It helps the reporter know what he’s writing about and offers readers context they need to understand the story. Reporters should also be critical and practice creative thinking. It’s important for reporters to connect readers to stories, to natural and human-caused disasters, even if they are occurring far away from them. Clark and Scanlan said reporters and stories should bridge the gap between the reader’s experience and those on another continent.

Research includes interviews, observation and eyewitness accounts, reading, looking at databases or websites or journals, interviewing experts and more.

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

There are tools and techniques that the editors and great writers explain and use.

Clark and Scanlan describe the reporter’s tools as: curiosity, observation and empathy and the writer’s techniques as: analogy, metaphor and unforgettable imagery. Writing in this way will convey the human consequences, they said.

The little tricks that Mark Fritz, another great writer listed in this chapter, uses are: writing in your head, jotting a transition, hunting for precision detail, putting away your notes to think about what your story is about and what example you have that most compellingly explains your story.

Top 5 list of terrorism, war and disaster stories:

1. Boy, 13, Shot by Sniper at School, The Washington Post

Serge F. Kovaleski and Michael E. Ruane

In 2002 there was a rash of sniper attacks in Md. and Va. These reporters cover one of the shootings. They certainly conducted a lot of research for the article and provide context for the reader. They visit the issue of the sniper from many sides.

The snipers were found to be John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.

This Washington Post graphic offers a map of where the shootings took place.

The reporters focus on the injured boy, his hospitalization and surgery. They also give scenes from the school where the shooting took place, providing details of parents and school officials gathering anxiously.

The reporters offer details of a police chief’s eyes becoming moist and his voice quivering with anger, while they give his remarks.

Speaking to reporters in Rockville, his eyes moist and his voice quivering with anger, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose said: “Today it went down to the children … Someone is so mean-spirited that they shot a child … Now we’re stepping over the line. Shooting a kid. I guess it’s getting to be really, really personal now.”

The reporters offer context and background of the past sniper shootings to readers. This helps them understand if they have missed the previous reports, informs them that this is an ongoing string of attacks and keeps them up to date.

They also provide details of what the victims were doing when they were shot — ordinary, everyday activities. This raises a level of intensity and danger.

The boy is the youngest of eight sniper victims. The first, a 55-year-old man, was slain Wednesday night in Montgomery. Four people, ages 25 to 54, were killed Thursday morning in Montgomery, a 72-year-old man was fatally shot Thursday night in the District and a 43-year-old woman was wounded in Spotsylvania on Friday afternoon.

All the victims were in public places going about ordinary activities — mowing a lawn, filling a gas tank, walking into a supermarket. But the shooting of a teenager in front of his school jolted parents and school systems across the region and raised an already intensive police investigation to a new level of urgency.

The reporters provide a human element and help readers understand the severity with many quotes from people in various departments.

It’s a horrible tragedy,” Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said. “You get nauseous thinking about how cowardly, how inhumane this is.”

The reporters try to make sense of the shootings for the readers to be able to understand them better. They quantify and give updates from several, they include that witnesses saw a white van speeding away after one shooting. The reporters give the context from the personal level of the boy who was shot, his family members and then law enforcement.

They express the fear of the community through description and imagery of the schools in the area having lockdowns, Code Blue and Code Red drills and police stationed in the schools.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said at one of numerous news conferences he held yesterday: “The community is in a state of fear, a state of anxiety … It’s a very fearful time.

“People are very nervous and very anxious, but they are going to work,” he added. “As people are very fearful, they’re going about their routines as best they can. Working together, we are going to crack this as soon as we can.”

2. Hurricane Katrina: The Rescuers; ‘First Go for Life,’ Workers Are Told, The New York Times

Ralph Blumenthal

Flood waters rose drastically in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Houses, schools, businesses and streets were flooded. Photo courtesy of

Blumenthal focuses on the rescuing of people after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans. He gives multiple accounts and descriptions of what the chaotic, dangerous rescuing was like.

He describes in detail the scenes from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He gives vivid descriptions and explains by showing the reader what he and people he spoke to witnessed.

Natural gas bubbled up from severed lines. Petroleum fires flickered on the water.

Power lines dangled onto roads, and telephone poles teetered, snapped like matchsticks.

Levees breached in several places poured water from Lake Pontchartrain into the city.

These one sentence paragraphs add effect and show the intensity of the situation, much like Jim Dwyer did in the chapter.

Blumenthal includes storytelling quotes in his article, that offer a description and image to the reader.

All the folks that are easy to rescue get rescued right away,” said Dr. Joe Holley, a physician from Memphis who directs medical operations. ”The problem is the guy in the attic. That’s the one we’re looking for with infrared and listening devices.”

This shows the difficulty the rescuers faced in finding people who needed rescuing.

He describes the emergency worker teams who went out to rescue people, the equipment they had, their sleeping conditions (cars, no bathrooms) and their responses.

The teams, 70-member groups of firefighters and medical specialists, arrive with 18-wheelers and other trucks loaded with generators, chainsaws, tents and dogs that can sniff out the living and the dead.

His last phrase “sniff out the living and the dead,” sets the tone of the story. Blumenthal treats this subject matter and issue seriously and with respect, as it should be. He shows empathy in his reporting.

Blumenthal includes quotes from survivors, people being rescued, rescue workers and administrative executives.

‘It’s worse than I thought it was,” said Jim Strickland, the team leader for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Including these quotes helps readers see how different people reacted to the natural disaster and searching and rescuing of survivors.

His lead is extremely powerful. It is a snippet of a conversation among rescue workers.

‘If we come across a body floating?” Sgt. Chris Fisher of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office asked.

”Let it go,” Maj. Bobby Woods replied, as Sergeant Fisher and other rescue workers prepared for the day’s mission. ”Let’s first go for life.”

By putting this in the beginning, Blumenthal sets the tone of the story, shows readers how serious the disaster is and the philosophy of the workers.

3. About New York; For Old Armenians, Sorrows Arrive With Spring, The New York Times

Michael T. Kaufman

The Armenian genocide occured from 1915 to 1917 and countless Armenians were marched for miles and killed. Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

It’s clear that Kaufman did research for this article. Often times, people are not aware that this genocide even occurred. The Armenian Genocide occurred from 1915 to 1917, where the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire was greatly decreased.

More than a million Armenians were forced to walk across the Mesopotamian deserts into Syria, Kaufman writes. Many drowned and died of hunger. Many were shot to death. The estimates of the dead range from 600,000 and 1.5 million.

Kaufman helps give the reader context and background with this graf.

Until World War II and the destruction of the Jews, it was the sufferings of the Armenians, well documented by journalists and writers, that set standards of horror and contemporary barbarism.

Kaufman writes with description, vivid details and quotes that connect readers to the situation.

We don’t talk to each other about it because everybody has their own terrible stories,” said Alice Dosdourian, who is 89 years old.

“For four years I was hungry, and beaten,” said Hagop Cividian.

These powerful quotes show the sadness that remains with older Armenians. This shows readers that the tragedy still goes on.

To make the tragedy clearer and set the tone, Kaufman creates a stark contrast in the lead.

The forsythia at the Armenian Home in Flushing are blooming cheerily and the dandelions wink from the lawn, but for the old people who live there, April remains a time of heavy sorrows. They sit silently in sunny rooms, keeping to themselves what they saw and heard and smelled 80 years ago when their people were scattered and killed in the first of the century’s many genocides.

It seems that Kaufman spent much time observing the older Armenians in New York, spending time with them, talking to them, not pushing them because it is a touchy and difficult subject for them to talk about. They don’t even talk about it to each other, as Kaufman said. But in this quote, it’s clear that Kaufman was empathetic while reporting about this. “The old Armenians eagerly took advantage of a stranger’s visit to tell what they had seen and endured as children,” he said.

“But I never forget,” Mrs. Dosdourian said. “I think about what happened all the time. Sometimes I dream about it and I wake up and I hold myself and tell myself, ‘No, you do not have to worry, now you are in America.’ ” Mrs. Dosdourian has been in America since 1924.

Kaufman wanted to make clear to readers how this tragedy that happened long ago still affects the Armenians every day, even if they are away from the place where they suffered.

It seems that Kaufman strongly believes in the moral sense of reporting. He said the older Armenians should testify, should recount their experiences because they are among the last survivors, they need “to have the facts acknowledged.”

He also follows Dwyer’s writing tips by leaving an important quote for the end: “The only time I knew freedom was when I came to America five years ago,” Mr. Cividian said. “Only here I can do what want. I can think, speak and remember.”

4. Last Defense at Troubled Reactors: 50 Japanese Workers, The New York Times

Keith Bradsher and Hiroko Tabuchi

Japanese workers stepped in radioactive water at the Fukushima nuclear plant and were shielded with a tarpaulin on their way to a hospital for treatment. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.

These reporters give numerous details to help readers see what the dire and dangerous situation is like in Japan after the 9.0 earthquake, tsunami and failing nuclear reactors.

They crawl through labyrinths of equipment in utter darkness pierced only by their flashlights, listening for periodic explosions as hydrogen gas escaping from crippled reactors ignites on contact with air.

They breathe through uncomfortable respirators or carry heavy oxygen tanks on their backs. They wear white, full-body jumpsuits with snug-fitting hoods that provide scant protection from the invisible radiation sleeting through their bodies.

These details set a scene for readers to latch onto and understand.

The reporters highlight the workers who had to stay behind in the nuclear reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. They describe them almost as heroes, “braving radiation and fire.”

A small crew of technicians, braving radiation and fire, became the only people remaining at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on Tuesday — and perhaps Japan’s last chance of preventing a broader nuclear catastrophe.

The reporters explain the danger and how this is a natural disaster. They describe the workers having to make “escalating and perhaps existential” sacrifices. This sets the tone for readers and also helps show to gravity of the situation for those involved, the workers, the government and the citizens of Japan.

There was definite research and reporting done for this article. The reporters write that the workplace in Japan is a source of community, that the 50 volunteers are seen as heroes and the last chance to save a greater number of people.

Japanese are raised to believe that individuals sacrifice for the good of the group.

This explanation offers context and an understanding of Japanese culture for readers, adding to their understanding of the story, the disaster and the human response to it.

The reporters also give a well-known example from history to help readers further understand and relate to the disaster. They write about Chernobyl and compare the Japanese nuclear situation as lesser than the Ukrainian disaster, but workers are still exposed to radiation which can cause long-term health effects.

Daiichi is not synonymous with Chernobyl in terms of the severity of contamination. The Ukrainian reactor blew up and spewed huge amounts of radiation for 10 days in 1986. But workers at the plants have a bond.

5. American killed in Uganda was dedicated to service, CNN

Chris Reinolds Kozelle

Nate Henn volunteered with Invisible Children, a nonprofit organization that advocates for child rights for child soldiers in Uganda. Henn was killed in a bombing in Uganda in 2010. Photo courtesy of

Kozelle writes about North Carolina native Nate Henn who dedicated most of his life to service. He was 25 when he was killed last year in a bombing in Uganda.

Kozelle makes a conscious choice to focus on Henn and his service, and not as much on the news aspect of the bombing. This is a human story that focuses on a person. It shows the human impact of a disaster, like Clark and Scanlan say is important to do.

Henn was in Uganda to advocate for the rights of children forced to be child soldiers. He volunteered with Invisible Children.

Invisible Children last year and spent much of his time as an unpaid volunteer, traveling with the group around the United States, said spokesman Jedidiah Jenkins. He became close friends with one of group’s success stories — a 20-year-old Ugandan named Innocent.

Kozelle offers storytelling, powerful and sad quotes in the story. They help the reader understand who Henn was, what happened to him and others and why it is a tragedy. Sometimes it’s stories like this, that offer a human element, that help a reader understand a larger disaster, war or terrorist attack than one that focuses on the attack in general.

Henn had arrived to Uganda last week on his first visit to the country. “Now that he had shown Innocent his country, Innocent was going to show him his,” spokesman for Invisible Children Jedidiah Jenkins said.

It’s clear that Kozelle worked to try to understand why Henn was so dedicated to service and what he believed. He does his research and talks to many people involved, including friends, family and Invisible Children representatives.

Nate loved kids and he just loved people in general,” said Brenda Kibler, a longtime friend of Henn’s who lives in Wilmington, Delaware. “He was always one of the first people to sign up for community outreach like Habitat for Humanity, missions, whatever.”

This quote offers insight into Henn’s life, beliefs and passions. Many of the quotes and descriptions of Henn show how he lived a selfless life.

Kozelle touches on the sadness that Henn worked with the nonprofit for one year before he was killed.

OPINION: Two sides to the story: NPR deserves to stay

NPR provides a vital service and reducing funding will undermine good journalism

Marlena Chertock

MARCH 30, 2011

Since 1971, National Public Radio has offered news to listeners across the United States.
The organization employs more than 300 reporters and staff members around the world, not including those who work at the member stations that make it possible for NPR programming to reach the households, workplaces and cars of millions of listeners daily.

But last week, the organization’s future was put in jeopardy when the House of Representatives voted to cut funding.

NPR is a cultural haven. There are shows and stories about science, international news, education, books, technology and various genres of music. No other radio station in the United States is as well rounded as NPR.

Continue reading OPINION: Two sides to the story: NPR deserves to stay

Writing to show: Reaction to Chapter 7 of ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’

Chapter 7: The Profile and Feature Story

Feature and profile writing has been called the art of journalism, the art of journalistic writing. The feature story can be about diverse topics and issues. But what all good feature stories have in common is rich details, possibly metaphorical or figurative language and a person at the center of the story. Feature stories are about people — they are about issues and events, but they are truly focused on people. Feature stories offer the human side of a story. Features writers try to show the faces, the people behind the faceless institutions, as Clark and Scanlan said.

The profile offers a deep, detailed look into a person’s life. There are moments and scenes in the story that describe a person in extreme detail, that show who they are. These stories can get into the universal concepts and events that cross all our lives, that connect all of us. But these stories also show how people are their own, as well.

The great writers Clark and Scanlan chose to include in this chapter exemplified many of these qualities. They included storytelling quotes, several voices and sources. They wrote with details, many details. They worked to make their writing place the reader in a situation, in a moment or scene where he could understand better.

The writers didn’t only tell readers the details or points of the story. These great writers practiced one of writing’s great mottos: Show, don’t tell. Good writing doesn’t tell readers everything, it does show them, though. It shows them through details, descriptions, scenes with dialogue and settings and characters that come alive through the words.

As David Finkel, one of the great writers included in the chapter, said, “No matter whether he was at fault or not, there was so much tragedy in what had happened to him since the day he hit that bridge. But I didn’t want him to say that to me. I wanted to be able to show it in the things he did, by the way he carried himself, by his posture, by the conditions of his life.”

Finkel wanted to show the tragedy of John Lerro, not just have Lerro say, “It’s terrible. It’s sad.” He wanted to show readers. Showing can be a more effective strategy.

Sources should also be treated with fairness, honesty and thoroughness, as the editors said. This will give reporters access to places and events and sources’ homes or jobs, to get to know them better, to get to know all sides of them. But reporters should realize that this access is gained, and should always work to represent and write about sources truthfully, accurately and fairly.

One of the most important parts of writing a story or interviewing is listening. Writers, journalists, have to be good listeners. Allowing a source to talk, picking out the way he speaks, his dialect, how he acts, if he has nervous hand gestures or habits, these quirks and details go into feature stories and profiles. Letting a source talk and then listening to him is so important in feature writing and all writing. Writers gather so much information from listening and observing a source.

Top 5 list of profile and feature stories:

1. Pearls Before Breakfast, The Washington Post

Gene Weingarten

Weingarten describes a violinist through scenes, through moments and details. His description and portrayal of the violinist at a metro stop helps readers see, hear and know more about him.

The Washington Post set up a sort of stunt with a great violinist — Joshua Bell. He would wear street clothes and perform to unaware commuters.

Weingarten offers an interesting question to readers: “In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

In this article, Weingarten is helping readers get to know this violinist, without meeting him. They get to know him through several moments Weingarten included in the article, through the details. Readers walk away feeling that they know the violinist. He even describes the violin in detail, comparing it to the human voice.

Weingarten not only offers a picture of this man’s life, but also the passersby, the thousands of commuters who walk past him every day. He gives fragments of potential thoughts:

Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?

This sort of creative strategy of rhetorical questions helps the reader understand, places the reader in a situation he has most likely been in before, or if not, he can understand.

Weingarten goes into details of how Bell plays the violin, “he’s almost dancing with the instrument, and his hair flies.” He writes to show readers the violinist and Bell as a person.

2. The girl in the window: part one The Feral Child, St. Petersburg Times

Lane DeGregory

Danielle was emaciated, thin and wore diapers when investigators found her. Photo courtesy of

DeGregory gives many scenes and details to describe this difficult, saddening topic. He wrote a series of articles about a malnourished girl who was neglected by her mother. The first few paragraphs describe the terrible condition of the house and the girl’s room when investigators went in.

“I’ve been in rooms with bodies rotting there for a week and it never stunk that bad,” Holste said later. “There’s just no way to describe it. Urine and feces — dog, cat and human excrement — smeared on the walls, mashed into the carpet. Everything dank and rotting.”Tattered curtains, yellow with cigarette smoke, dangling from bent metal rods. Cardboard and old comforters stuffed into broken, grimy windows. Trash blanketing the stained couch, the sticky counters.

The floor, walls, even the ceiling seemed to sway beneath legions of scuttling roaches.

“It sounded like you were walking on eggshells. You couldn’t take a step without crunching German cockroaches,” the detective said. “They were in the lights, in the furniture. Even inside the freezer. The freezer!”

This writing is descriptive and highly detailed to give readers the sense of the house, the extent of the child abuse.

When DeGregory writes about the daughter, he doesn’t hold back any details. He isn’t afraid of showing the truth to the readers, though it may be hard to get through and difficult to understand that this neglect could happen and be allowed.

She lay on a torn, moldy mattress on the floor. She was curled on her side, long legs tucked into her emaciated chest. Her ribs and collarbone jutted out; one skinny arm was slung over her face; her black hair was matted, crawling with lice. Insect bites, rashes and sores pocked her skin. Though she looked old enough to be in school, she was naked — except for a swollen diaper.

These scenes include storytelling, powerful quotes from several people involved in the child abuse case.  DeGregory takes care in writing these articles, he finds out all the information and gives it to the reader clearly. This topic can be confusing or difficult to read, but DeGregory writes honestly, with thoroughness and care.

3. At a certain age, nothing is more important than fitting in, The Oregonian

Tom Hallman Jr.

This series of articles details a 14-year-old boy’s life living with a vascular anomaly, a mass of tissue that deformed the right side of his face. The articles focus on the boy, Sam.

Hallman uses details, figurative comparisons and pictures to show Sam’s deformity.

A huge mass of flesh balloons out from the left side of his face.

His left ear, purple and misshapen, bulges from the side of his head. His chin juts forward. The main body of tissue, laced with blue veins, swells in a dome that runs from sideburn level to chin. The mass draws his left eye into a slit, warps his mouth into a small, inverted half moon. It looks as though someone has slapped three pounds of wet clay onto his face, where it clings, burying the boy inside.

In many ways Sam Lightner is another normal 14-year-old boy. He is a Boy Scout. Photo courtesy of

The articles are framed through different scenes of Sam. Hallman starts out with, goes into Sam’s birth and follows him on his many medical journeys — doctor appointments, surgeries and potential surgeries.

Hallman includes many scenes throughout the article. He describes Sam’s difficulty keeping up with others in sports, exercise and play. He shows how Sam struggles to keep up with his younger brother when they go bike riding.

Hallman also gets several emotions across without completely declaring them. For instance, he shows Sam’s shame or sadness about his deformity with this line, “He must imagine what he looks like. There’s no mirror to examine his face.” Hallman doesn’t flesh out all the details of how Sam feels, but this detail is enough.

While Hallman shows the difficulties and differences that Sam faces, the stares and people calling him “ugly” or “different, throughout the article he also shows how Sam is a normal 14-year-old boy. He includes details of Sam’s breakfast, cereal topped with chocolate syrup, and how the girl he has a crush on makes his palms sweat. Hallman includes details of the struggles as well as how he is another adolescent boy. In this way, he doesn’t sensationalize, he doesn’t glorify a life with deformity, he shows Sam more accurately and honestly.

4. The Umpire’s Sons, The Sun

Lisa Pollak

Pollak writes about a family’s struggle with a genetic disease. The disease kills one of John Hirschbeck’s, an American umpire, sons.

Pollak explains how baseball was comforting to the Hirschbeck family. She uses scenes and emotions to help explain the disease and its effects to the reader.

When the worst thing happened to Hirschbeck, when his children were diagnosed with a deadly neurological illness, he was thankful for baseball. Not just for the season off, or the fund-raiser where famous players sold shirts and signatures to help pay medical bills — but for that simplest of baseball pleasures: games to watch with his son.

Pollak uses parallel structure, a technique often used in creative writing or literature that helps to get a point across and serves as a clarity tool. The same sentence structure is repeated throughout the sentence or paragraph. Pollak uses the technique in several paragraphs.

The Hirschbeck boys shared. They shared a big bedroom in a warm, tidy house in Poland, Ohio. They shared a mutated gene, passed silently from grandmother to mother to children, silently because it didn’t kill girls, silently because it is so rare few people have ever heard of it. So difficult to say that it goes by initials: ALD.

The various sentence structures Pollak uses are very deliberate. She becomes direct in her writing, in what she wants readers to feel and get out of the story with her sentence structure. She uses brief, terse sentences when giving sad information. “The diagnosis was ALD. A year to live. No cure.”

Pollak describes scenes and moments to help the reader see, feel and understand.

Years later, Moser would still remember how the umpire cried. How he sobbed, inconsolable. How he held the doctor’s hand and begged him to say it wasn’t true, that he wasn’t going to lose both sons, not John, not Michael, too.

Again, the sentence structure here works to produce an effect, an effect of hopelessness and sadness that parents feel when they find out their children have medical problems, don’t have long to live. That feeling is so raw, so terrible, and Pollak decided to describe it through sentence structure.

5. One Man’s Trash, The New York Times

Kate Murphy

Dan Phillips makes affordable housing out of recycled material that would end up in landfills. Photo couresty of The New York Times.

Murphy offers a great example of a profile story. She profiles Dan Phillips, a man with a very interesting job. He takes trash, recycled material and extra material to make low-income houses.

Murphy describes Phillips’ reasoning for constructing low-income houses. “He was disturbed by the irony of landfills choked with building materials and yet a lack of affordable housing.”

She gives details about the building materials Phillips uses, from picture frames to cattle bones from nearby farms.

A few houses stand out: their roofs are made of license plates, and their windows of crystal platters. They are the creations of Dan Phillips, 64.

80 percent of the materials are salvaged from other construction projects, hauled out of trash heaps or just picked up from the side of the road.

Murphy describes Phillips as a person and by what he does. She includes in the article that he is a self-taught carpenter, electrician and plumber, helping readers understand that he did not go into this job at first. Murphy call’s Murphy’s life “astonishingly varied.” He has worked as an intelligence officer in the Army, a college dance instructor, an antiques dealer and a syndicated cryptogram puzzle maker. It was a deliberate choice for Murphy to include these details that add to the reader’s understanding of Phillips and that he teaches himself and gets involved in different projects.

Murphy gives the reader insight into what Phillips values and thinks is important, such as sustainability and using recycled materials. She describes Phillips’ biggest reward as “giving less-fortunate people the opportunity to own a home and watching them develop a sense of satisfaction and self-determination in the course of building it.”

An example is Kristie Stevens, a single mother of two school-age sons who earned a college degree last spring while working part time as a restaurant and catering manager. She has spent the months since graduation hammering away on what will be her home.

“If something goes wrong with this house, I won’t have to call someone to fix it because I know where all the wires and pipes are — I can do it myself,” she said. “And if the walls are wonky, it will be my fault but also my pride.”

While Murphy quotes another person other than Phillips, Stevens describes him as she describes her new home and her pride in being able to build it. Incorporating other voices and people in Phillips life is important to give readers a more conclusive view of Phillips.

Writing to Explain, to Understand: Reaction to Chapter 5 of ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’

Chapter 5: Explanatory Journalism and Business Writing

MARCH 10, 2011

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

Explanatory journalism is when a reporter writes to explain a topic, issue or event that people don’t know much about or that people aren’t aware of. The topic can be complex, complicated or confusing. The articles show that the writer has researched and reported on the topic and now knows or understands it, and so can write about it and inform readers.

Business reporting is reporting on issues in the business world, stores and companies filing bankruptcy or doing well, new companies, companies merging, stock markets and many other issues and topics.

In this chapter, Clark and Scanlan explain and show how important it is to craft a theme for a story and then build on this theme. The theme is what a writer focuses on. The theme helps the writer and story remain focused, but also developed and detailed.

It is important to gather much more material, information and details than necessary. If a writer has more to work with, the story will be better. A writer can’t be sure which detail he’ll use once the story is actually written or what information is needed and what is extraneous.

While it is important to gather more material during the information-gathering phase, reporting and researching process of the article, it is also important to use the theme to cut out the irrelevant information before it goes into the article.

Articles, and especially explanatory journalism and business reporting stories, need to be carefully reported. This means finding experts who are knowledgeable about the topic, who can help explain it, finding numbers, data and statistics that can explain a part of the topic or help readers see more clearly. It also requires reporting from the field to gather details. Business and explanatory reporting does not mean boring, dull and dry — these stories should be richly detailed and contain revealing details. Just like when Peter Rinearson, one of the great writers included in this chapter, puts in what he calls “gold coins,” little nuggets, little details to keep the reader interested and the story alive. In a story about the creation of a new airplane, Rinearson included a detail about how the engineers tested the windows — by throwing anesthetized chickens into the windows to test against puncture. It is these details that help explain the story to readers, that keep readers interested.

One of the great writers in this chapter, William E. Blundell, believed that a viewpoint is essential to a story. Viewpoints are like main arguments, main points — the message of the article and the writer. Viewpoints can be built through repetition, alliteration or word play. Use repetition to make a point more than once, in different ways. The theme and point shouldn’t be repeated in the same way, as readers will grow bored or it will seem too pushy. The reader will understand better if a point is made repetitively in one of these ways, but it should not be overused.

Another great writer included in this chapter, Rinearson, had a goal for every article: he wanted to understand the material so his readers would understand. Aim for clarity and comprehension. For a writer to understand the material and information, he must research and talk to many experts. Then to help readers understand the information, he must translate technical language and use numbers and statistics to help illustrate information for readers. Numbers can also create confusion, so writers should be cautious and careful when using them. Choose the important numbers to include in the article. Don’t use too many, as this will be jarring and confusing for readers. There is a rule of thumb in journalism and business writing: don’t use more than two or three numbers or statistics in one paragraph. More than two will begin to overtake the words and be hard for readers to comprehend. The writer may also start to be confused by all the numbers, which would be detrimental to the article and clarity. In order to have comprehension as a goal, a writer should always think of the needs of the reader.

One way to ensure readers will understand articles and the story is to use simple, clear prose. If writing becomes too flowery or technical, it is more likely that students will not understand. Additionally, if the theme is too broad or if the writer did not cut out irrelevant information, the reader might be confused of what the article is really about.

Writers should also tirelessly and ruthlessly revise their articles. This will act as another way to cut out irrelevant information, like the theme helps to focus. Revision ensures that all of the material, information, numbers, statistics, quotes included are necessary to the story. Revision helps to keep the story clear, concise and focused.

Top 5 list of business reporting and explanatory journalism articles:

1. The Burger that Shattered Her Life, The New York Times

Michael Moss

Moss opens the article in what seems like the best place for a reader to understand. He writes about how one woman’s life, Stephanie Smith, was affected and ravaged by tainted beef, by E. coli. She has become paralyzed from eating a hamburger. He makes this point repeatedly, and it is very strong.

Moss definitely thought about how this story and issue impacts people, impacts Smith. He focuses on how the E. coli affected her at first, then years later and now, how she is paralyzed and consumed with anger at her condition and how she became paralyzed.

Moss includes several cases of E. coli in the article and how many people were affected or killed by the outbreaks, throughout several years. This data and these numbers are very helpful in reader’s understanding. Numbers and data help illustrate the severity and danger of food contamination. Moss uses these numbers to help explain the story and issue to readers.

2. Selling the farm or working the land?, The Gazette

Katherine Heerbrandt

Heerbrandt clearly did a lot of reporting and research for this article. It is clear in her writing that she understands the issue and the topic.

The condition is that participants must try for five years to sell a permanent easement on the property under the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Program, or another government land preservation program, to ensure the property is never developed.

When that is accomplished, the farmer repays the county with state money.

This is clear, direct writing, the kind of writing that is only accomplished if a reporter understands her material. Unnecessary information and wordiness can creep into articles if a reporter does not truly understand the topic. It seems like Heerbrandt is writing a sort of cause and effect relationship, when this happens then that will result, “when that is accomplished, the farmer repays.” This is a very clear style and structure of writing.

Heerbrandt explains both sides of this issue, of a farmer who wants to keep his family farm but is perhaps profiting off of it through taxpayers.

Blickenstaff wants to pave a portion of his 122-acre Burkittsville farm on the backs of county taxpayers

— according to former Frederick County Commissioner John L. Thompson’s complaint to the county Ethics Commission

She explains the reasons Blickenstaff has to develop and pave part of his farm. He wants to be a part of the Frederick County Critical Farms Option Program, which is a program that loans money to farmers so they can buy at least 50 acres of farmland at 75 percent of the land’s value, if it is developed, Heerbrandt explains.

Heebrandt includes many percentages, numbers and explanations of these numbers. But she also includes the human side. She helps readers understand the issue through these numbers, in various ways. She uses Blundell’s repetition.

3. Blockbuster Avoids Liquidation, The Wall Street Journal

Joseph Checkler and Mike Spector

Checkler and Spector help explain Blockbuster’s bankruptcy and subsequent liquidation in a simple, clear way. They explain the multiple sides, the angry movie studios that are owed money for DVDs they sold to Blockbuster.

Blockbuster’s lawyers and lawyers representing the movie studios worked out an arrangement that would steer payments to them from the proceeds of a sale in a way they found more palatable.

The reporters explain the business arrangement in clear terms, with as few numbers as possible, so as not to confuse readers.

The reporters described the business arrangement that was taking place in a judge’s courtroom, between Blockbuster lawyers and movie studio lawyers, as an auction. This description helps the readers understand the tension and what the situation was like.

Checkler and Spector also explain in clear terms that Blockbuster wants to sell parts of the company in order to help pay back the movie studios. They explain the process of liquidation, bidding and paying back owed money very clearly.

Some of those possible bidders are different players teaming on potential offers. Some are interested in pieces of Blockbuster — its stores, vending business or digital operations. In those cases, Blockbuster hopes it can join those disparate interests in a single bid for the company.Blockbuster will use proceeds from the sale to pay the studios for money owed, and the studios will continue shipping DVDs to Blockbuster stores.

4. Families Slice Debt to Lowest in 6 Years, The Wall Street Journal

Justin Lahart and Mark Whitehouse

From the lede, Lahart and Whitehouse set up this story to be clear, easy to understand and full of personal examples.

U.S. families — by defaulting on their loans and scrimping on expenses — shouldered a smaller debt burden in 2010 than at any point in the previous six years, putting them in position to start spending more.

They include numbers, percentages and statistics to explain U.S. household debt and how it rises or falls. The reporters break up the numbers, to ensure clarity. They don’t use more than two statistics in one sentence, and no more than three in a paragraph.

They also include reasons for the decrease in debt and a sense of before and after, cause and effect. “With the help of rising stock prices,” they said, “the decrease in debts put average household net worth at $505,000 at the end of 2010, up 5.1% from 2009.” Then they include that this figure is still below the peak of $595,000 in 2007, before housing prices plunged. This information is important to include and offers context. Irrelevant information is not included in the article.

The numbers and statistics they use in the article are important and help give context to the story. When the reporters give personal examples of people decreasing their debt, they included statistics about personal savings rates rising in 2010 from 2005, giving context.

The personal savings rate averaged 5.8% in 2010, up from a low of 1.4% in 2005, and back to a level last seen in the early 1990s.

While Lahart and Whitehouse give some reason for readers to be content with the lowering debt rates, they also don’t sugarcoat or make the issue seem nonexistent. They make sure to give all sides of the issue. They explain that solace cannot and has not been found in improving debt numbers because there are “worries over rising commodity prices, Chinese trade and the threat to Middle East oil supplies.”

This is not a simple story where one group of people are affected, and Lahart and Whitehouse don’t try to simplify it, though they do explain it to readers clearly and effectively. They make sure to address all the groups involved and impacted. The reporters explain that the “shrinking debt burden” can cause U.S. consumers to buy more, which can contribute to world-wide recovery.

At the end of the article, the reporters give a personal detail about one woman struggling to pay her monthly expenses. She lost a high-paying job and spent her retirement on living while she was looking for a job, she said. Lahart and Whitehouse include this personal anecdote at the end of the article to leave the reader with the way the economy and debt is affecting some people, more than we know. They first explain the issue, describe some signs of improvement and then repeat the point that this can’t be a call for celebration, as not everyone is out of the debt hole and not everyone can spend.

5. Part One: A Difficult Journey; From Rural Hardship to Urban Adversity, The Washington Post

Leon Dash

Dash wrote a series of articles for The Washington Post about poverty. He focused on the interrelationships between poverty, racism, illiteracy, lack of education, drug abuse, crime and why these persist through generations.

This is a great example of explanatory journalism because it is an extensive, in-depth look at how people fall into and remain in poverty, and how their children and grandchildren remain in the cycle. He reports on and researches several aspects of the story, searching to understand so he can explain it to readers.

He writes these articles about the choices one poor woman in D.C., Rosa Lee, had and made. These choices show how poverty and all of the other interconnected aspects cause and contribute to poverty and lack of options. Dash tries to understand and research the connections between these aspects of poverty and how the cause it.

He focuses on Lee and her several children and grandchildren that live in her small apartment in D.C. Dash includes many details, and many revealing details, about Lee and her family.

He describes Lee as a safety net for her children, a great image and concept that helps the reader understand.

One revealing detail Dash includes in the article is:

Bobby, Ducky, Patty, Ronnie and Richard live a kind of nomadic existence, bouncing from friends’ apartments, to jail, to the street, to Rosa Lee’s. All five are addicted to heroin or cocaine. On this particular day, Ronnie, 38, is staying with one of Rosa Lee’s brothers; Richard, 36, is in jail on a parole violation.

Dash explains that Lee also has other sons who have somehow escaped the cycle of poverty and don’t rely on her.

Dash breaks up the articles into several parts, calling them chapters. Chapter One: A Survival Network, Chapter Three: Sharecropping Days, Chapter Four: Segregated City, Chapter Five: Emergency and so on. The other articles in the series are also broken up into chapters, or sections.

Breaking up the articles in this way helps readers understand the important, heavy, complex information. The sections almost serve as different scenes in a movie, much like offering a wide shot then close-up shots of Lee and her family and how poverty manifests itself.

In this first article of the series, Dash goes directly into the reasons for Lee’s poverty and continued struggles. He explains her past.

Stomach pains awaken her every morning by 6:30, an enduring reminder of her years as a heroin addict. The cramps linger until she can get to the city methadone clinic for the 55-milligram dose that curbs her craving for the drug.

Through these articles and this article, Dash is trying to understand and explain to the reader why “poverty is a phenomenon that has devastated Americans of all races, in rural and urban communities.” But he also takes his research and reporting a step further by trying to understand why and how poverty “has disproportionately affected black Americans living in the nation’s inner cities.”

He aims at understanding, and thus helping the reader understand:

  • The differing outcomes of African Americans who migrated in the first half of the century from rural poverty in the South to cities.
  • How and why some migrant families “prospered against considerable odds,” he said.
  • How and why other families, like Lee’s, “became mired in lives marked by persistent poverty, drug abuse, petty and violent crime and periodic imprisonment,” he said.

He uses first person at times to aid in the narrative construction of the article. There is also a musical quality in his words and writing. These stories and articles are crafted.

Dash writes in a way that is unusual to most journalism. He includes himself in the article, drawing attention to him being a reporter, Lee becoming more comfortable with the tape recorder he uses. He also draws connections between Lee and himself, which help the reader understand.

When she was selling heroin on the streets of Northwest Washington in the mid- 1970s, I was writing about the devastating effects of heroin trafficking on some of those same streets.

Dash definitely thought about who was impacted and affected by poverty while writing this article. He looks at several reasons and contributors for poverty and why lawmakers have not been able to make headway on lessening poverty rates.