Interview in Crack the Spine

I was recently interviewed in Crack the Spine’s Wordsmith series! They asked me how long I’ve been writing, what my greatest challenge as a writer is, and the best piece of advice on how to stay sane as a writer.

Read on to find out more about the main message in my short story in Crack the Spine, as well as important issues like my favorite word and the pressing question of chocolate or vanilla?

Read the interview.

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.

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.

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.

Holistic approach to editing: Read through the whole story, then focus on details

Alumnus offers editing tips to communications students

Marlena Chertock

MARCH 16, 2011

Sometimes she has three hours to work on a story and other times three minutes. But Assistant Director of University Relations for Alumni Communications Kristen Simonetti always reads through a story first and then edits it in more detail.

Simonetti, who graduated from Elon in 2005, offered editing tips to communications students on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.

“I try to take a holistic approach to editing,” Simonetti said. “I like to look at the whole thing, not little pieces until the very end.”

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

When she edits, she cuts up a story and tapes it back together. It’s a very visual way to show a better way to organize a story, she said.

Simonetti explained how important it is to have an open line of communication with editors and writers. Editors should treat reporters with respect, she said.

“The worst thing you can do as an editor is make an arbitrary change to a story without talking to the reporter,” she said.

Editors should have conversations with reporters about their stories. Working on a story together in a workshop is important, Simonetti said.

“It’s nice to have outside colleague or editor to be able to see and say what would be better and clearer for a story,” she said. “It’s also important for writers to keep an open mind. Editors are not trying to tear reporters down. They’re there to make work even better.”

Elon alumnus took grunt work, worked his way into Baseball America

Marlena Chertock

March 11, 2011

Nathan Rode uses a radar gun to check how fast a ball is going when it is thrown or hit in baseball. Photo courtesy of Rode.

Nathan Rode was willing to do grunt work to get where he wanted.

He took a position with a lot of data-entry at Baseball America, which is one way he got into the journalism business.

During his senior year of college, he interned at Baseball America for 20 hours a week.

“It was mind-numbing stuff,” Rode said. “But I wanted to work there, so I got my foot in the door.”

He was a part-time student and worked 30 to 40 hours a week at the magazine during his last semester.

“I paid my dues,” he said. “I was willing to do anything and everything to get me where I am now.”

When he graduated from Elon in 2007, there was an opening in the magazine and he went for it. He told the editors he’d been working with them for a while, gave them his work samples and expressed his interest.

Rode has always been a very sports-minded person. He played high school baseball and wanted to go into sports writing in college. He got interested in the reporting aspect when he came to Elon.

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

He served as a sports reporter on The Pendulum in his sophomore year, sports editor and editor-in-chief during his college career.

It’s important to keep stories fresh, according to Rode. The question is how to make each story different and not to write the same way, according to Rode.

“Maybe the players have similar statistics,” Rode said. “In terms of being a person, they’re really different.”

Rode wants to work his way up in the magazine, he said.

“I started there and I’m still there,” he said. “I’m in there for long haul. This is what I want to do.”

The editors-in-chief have been there for six years or more, so they will be there for a while, Rode said.

“Maybe one day that’ll be me,” he said. “That’s my goal.”


Nathan Rode talks about practicing writing to improve

Rode talks about giving your writing to different readers (Ex. his editors, his wife) to get responses and see if readers understand

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.

Informing the public of crime, the courts and abuses of power: Reaction to Chapter 4 of ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’

Chapter 4: Crime and Courts

MARCH 4, 2011

The fourth chapter of “America’s Best Newspaper Writing” offers an understanding of how to report on crime and court proceedings. Crime, the cop beat and court cases are very important to inform the public about.

The great writers in this chapter told powerful stories with moral messages. The reporters had a civic purpose for writing. This raises the level of the writing and the impact. Reporting becomes more important when there is a civic purpose for writing.

Stories about crime and the courts need to report on breaches in the social contract. Reporters are watching and reporting on behalf of citizens, according to Clark and Scanlan. Reporters must alert the public to any misuse of the public’s resources, abuse and corruption. These stories should “reveal effects of crimes on victims, families and keepers of peace,” the editors said.

Clark and Scanlan encourage reporters to practice immersion journalism. This is when reporters immerse themselves in the lives of their sources, interview them in-person, try to follow them and see how they live instead of merely interviewing them once or over e-mail or the phone. This type of journalism allows the reporter to delve deeper into the story and into the complex social issues that the story may be about. It is not just covering the events and putting out the stories, to keep up with deadline — immersion journalism is about writing the big picture and informing the public about misuses of power or corruption.

The writers in this chapter use details to help illustrate characters, instead of sources. They describe “flesh-and-blood characters,” as Clark and Scanlan said. Details help to show what a person looks like, does, speaks like and they show the sum of a person, as the editors said. The editors said good writers should have a novelist’s eye for detail, looking for and reporting the specific details. Good writing gives a sense of people, place, drama and tone, according to Clark and Scanlan. Good writers pay close attention to detail and work to include authentic dialogue. These details and techniques help to show the reader what a person is like and the events of a story. These techniques help the reader understand.

When reporters write against their fears, with courage and persistence, they write more effectively and powerfully. These stories often require reporters to write with courage, to not be afraid to write what they mean. Reporters must be persistent when they are interviewing and contacting sources. But there is also a level of understanding and patience that is needed. Reporters have to know when to push and ask tough questions and when to tread more carefully, but still determinedly. When reporters show empathy and are understanding with their sources, the sources are more likely to share more and feel more comfortable with the reporter — which all leads to more storytelling quotes, more details and more descriptive, better writing.

The structure a reporter chooses to write his or her story is also extremely important. The way a story is structured can vary greatly and can help the reader understand. Writers have to take the reader through a journey and arrange events in a way that can be understood, according to Clark and Scanlan. Where the reader is placed at first, the lede, the beginning of the story, is also very important. It starts the reader off in a particular place.

Clark and Scanlan describe the structure of a story almost like how a video is filmed and put together. In making a video, there must be wide shots and tighter or closer ones. The wide shots set up the scene, show where the video is going to take place and who it will be about. Then the close ups follow and offer the details, the facial expressions, the actions of people, a specific cup sitting on a table. Stories include these wide and close up shots, as well, and produce the same effect of setting a story up and then giving more details that help inform readers. The way a writer moves the readers through the story, from wide shots to close ups, bigger picture to details, helps the flow and way a reader understands.

Good writers should also go beyond the official sources of information and vary their documentation. This offers more credibility and brings more voices into the story. Reporters should get down to the street level, according to Clark and Scanlan. The sources of information should be varied, such as interviews, observation and public and private records. Cathy Frye, one of the great writers in this chapter, included transcripts of the instant messages her sources and subjects sent back and forth. This offers another way to understand the story.

The take-home message of this chapter is that covering the courts and crime is a very important and valuable beat. These beats also require experience to cover them completely and effectively. They also require that reporters be strong, persistent and patient. There will be gruesome crimes that a reporter will have to write about and possibly examine for the story. There will be people in the court system who have murdered children and mothers and there will be some who the justice system punishes wrongly — if they have actually not committed the crime but are charged for it. These stories must be covered and require a patient and determined writer.

Top 5 list of crime and court reporting articles:

1. Guilty verdict for man accused of painting swastikas on Olney synagogue, The Gazette

Nesa Nourmohammadi

This is a follow-up story on a crime that took place in a Md. suburb. A resident, Ian Baron, painted a synagogue and two houses with graffiti and swastikas.

Nourmohammadi uses specific details throughout the story. She describes the specific details of the crime and actions that Baron took. She includes the specific amount of time the jury deliberated and came to a decision.

It took the jury less than 30 minutes Feb. 23 to find him guilty of four counts of malicious destruction of property and one count of destruction of religious property.”

It is details like these that truly help the readers understand and make a story more interesting and important.

She also includes details about the vandalism and graffiti. She describes the anti-Semitic phrases that were used: “‘Sieg Heil’ and ‘Death 2 Zionists’ painted on the synagogue.”

Nourmohammadi doesn’t shy away from the complex social issues and nature of the crime. She explains that Baron was Jewish and vandalized the synagogue.

Baron was adopted from Honduras as a baby by white, Jewish parents and attended synagogue. Baron studied the Holocaust, visited Israel and had a Bar Mitzvah.

Nourmohammadi wasn’t afraid to talk to everyone involved and in the court room. She tried to speak to Baron’s father, though he declined to comment. But she still attempted and this speaks to the courage, persistence and determination that Clark and Scanlan were talking about.

She also structures the story in a way that helps readers understand. It is a form of reverse chronological order, with the most recent court proceeding first in the article and then further down the vandalism, crime itself is described in greater detail. This is almost a form of the close up and wide shots that Clark and Scanlan described in the chapter.

2. Crime Scene Beyond the Statistics, A Druggist Confronts the Reality of Robbery, The Wall Street Journal

Angelo B. Henderson

This Pulitzer Prize winning article is written very story-like, with flow and details and expert pacing.

Henderson positions the reader directly in the climax of the story, the gunman’s directions.

“Get on the ground,” a man holding a gun screamed. “I’ll blow your heads off if you move.”

This lede is extremely effective and powerful. It creates a sense of doom, dread and suspense.

Henderson also uses key details. He describes exactly how the store employee, Dennis Grehl, was lying on the floor and how he felt “a chump on the floor.” His description is clear and helps the reader understand the situation. Henderson describes the crime and moment where Grehl had the pistol on the back of his head as “the paralyzing weight of helplessness.”

Henderson seems to use the wide shots to close-up shots method of storytelling. He sets up the scene, the pharmacy where the crime took place, then gives the details of how Grehl felt. He then moves to a wide shot, explaining how after the crime Grehl brought a loaded gun to work and vowed to use it if he had to.

Henderson exhibits expert timing and pacing in his storytelling. “Then he crossed paths with Anthony Williams,” he writes, effectively foreshadowing and showing the reader that Grehl’s loaded gun would be used.

He moves from character to character, offering a bigger picture then more and more details about the person. This helps the reader get a better image of the source and understand him or her before he is put into the actual crime. It is like reading a short biography on the people involved before learning about the crime.

Henderson mentions a complex social issue when he writes about the store installing security measures. These measures “allowed Grehl to arm himself — a step that some consider extreme and others think is just common sense.” He is referring to gun laws, safety, security and the right to bare arms.

Henderson seems to go through a sort of chronology of the neighborhood of Old Redford and the crime that became more prevalent. “Soon, iron grates appeared across storefronts. Strangers, once welcomed, were treated with a new wariness,” he writes, effectively showing the details of how the crime affected the neighborhood and stores.

Henderson writes the story from several angles, several perspectives. The store employee, the gunman, the gunman’s mother and brother and shoppers who agreed with Grehl’s self-defense. This is a form of varying documentation, varying sources and the voices of the story. It offers more insight into the story and allows the reader to understand the story from varying perspectives.

The ending also leaves the readers with a different perspective sinking into them.

A teenager Mr. Grehl didn’t know entered the pharmacy alone. She asked: “Is this the place where the shooting was?”

Mr. Grehl replied: “Yes.”

The girl said: “I just wanted to see who killed my baby’s daddy.”

She was out of the store before her words could sink in.

Henderson also enters a bit of psychological territory in this story, by describing Grehl’s thoughts after the first armed robbery, the second when he and the gunman held their guns to each other and after he shot and killed the gunman. This is an example of immersion journalism, where Henderson didn’t stay at one level but instead kept digging for more and reported it.

3. District teen sentenced to 25 years in slaying of off-duty officer, The Washington Post

Keith L. Alexander

It’s not a happy story or ending and Alexander doesn’t shy away from addressing the complexity of the issue. He includes storytelling and powerful quotes, making sure to keep the authentic voice of the sources.

The shot police officer’s brother asks at the end of the article how his brother could be killed over taking a picture and the teenager could only get 25 years. This emotion comes out in Alexander’s writing, quote selection and attention to the complex social issues — for one, the relationship between cops and residents or delinquents.

One important quote is from Lavander Javon Williams, the teenager who shot the police officer. “I am not this terrible teen the prosecutors tried to make me out to be,” Williams said.

4. Man shot in ’92 dies, becomes latest city homicide, The Baltimore Sun

Peter Hermann

Hermann uses a bit of chronology to help readers understand the story and the time involved. James Fields was shot in 1992 and died this year due to complications related to the shooting.

Hermann describes the crime rate of the city more in this story than he goes into specific details about Fields and his shooting and death. This offers a different story, one more related about the patterns of crime in Baltimore and how homicide victims are updated on a count.

There are typically several so-called time-delayed deaths in Baltimore each year in which people die of complications from bullets fired long ago. Their deaths are added to the city’s homicide count in the year when they’re ruled homicides, partly to avoid updating statistics from previous years.

Hermann did digging, reporting — he worked to find the statistics and number of people who died and the year they were shot. He worked to find and report specific cases of people who were shot and the diverse medical effects years later. These numbers and descriptions add understanding and a broader level to the story, it shows how more people are affected and a pattern of crime n Baltimore.

He also describes the law in Md.

The law has only recently caught up to medical advances that can keep injured people alive for years. Maryland used to have the “year and a day” law, which stated that a death must occur within 366 days of the original injury for murder charges to be filed. It was designed to ensure that suspects were charged only in crimes that directly resulted from an assault, rather than from prolonged medical problems.

This description of the law helps readers understand the justice system, how crimes are dealt and the numbers more clearly.

This interactive graphic by The Baltimore Sun is not from Hermann’s story specifically, but it shows patterns of different crimes, such as rape, theft or suspicious vehicles. The reader can choose different dates and crimes to look into.

5. Study Finds Criminal Pasts of Nursing Home Workers, The New York Times

Robert Pear

This story uses statistics as its backbone, as its main detail. More than 90 percent of nursing homes employ one or more people who have been convicted of a crime, Pear writes. Five percent of all nursing home employees have at least one criminal conviction.

This is the lede Pear chooses to write, the place he chooses to situation and start off his readers. They come into the story being informed of the big picture, of the potential wrong and number of people who are convicted of crimes who work in nursing homes. Readers are alerted to the conflict and social issue right away — criminals taking care of the elderly.

Pear seems to use the wide shot to close-up shot in his writing, as well. For a while he remains higher up with the statistics and numbers and laws. But further down in the story, he addresses people and, more specifically, the elderly who are affected by employees slipping through the cracks and finding ways to be employed even if they have committed a crime.

He suddenly calls the criminals “predators,” casting them in a negative, shady light and alerting readers to their danger.

Predators can easily evade detection during the hiring process, securing jobs that allow them to assault, abuse and steal from defenseless elders. The most common types of conviction were for crimes against property, like burglary, and drug-related offenses. But some nursing home employees had been convicted of crimes against persons, like assault.

Pear writes that no federal law or regulation requires nursing homes to check federal or state criminal history records for prospective employees. He goes on to describe the law in other states, showing that he conducted deep reporting.

Ten states require a check of F.B.I. and state records, while 33 require a check of state records and the remainder do not have explicit requirements.

The use of these numbers show the reader there is a bigger story, that this could be opening up to a bigger investigation.

Pear alludes to this when he writes, due to “the patchwork of requirements, people convicted of crimes in one state have been able to obtain jobs at nursing homes in other states.” He is alerting the public to miscommunication, to abuses of power or laws, abuse of people and the elderly, faulty laws and regulations and the lack of the same laws across the board, across the nation, which allows people to slip through the laws.

This story is informing people of the faulty hiring process of nursing home employees, the oversight of the F.B.I. to include criminal records to all employers for background checks and the problem nursing homes are experiencing in retaining employees.

Working the beat: Reaction to Chapter 2 of ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’

Chapter 2: Local Reporting and Beats

The second chapter of “America’s Best Newspaper Writing” offers a nice introduction to local reporting and beats.

Local reporting is covering events in a local region, in a closer in proximity region.

Local reporting can also have beats. For example, if a reporter was covering education in a town, Burlington, N.C., he may have beats such as: Town beats, county beats, school boards, town council.

The New York Times Media Decoder blog had a post on March 25, 2010 about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting working against the decline in local journalism. CPB set up funds for seven regional reporting projects.

Beats are a topic or similar topics that a reporter focuses on in several articles. The reporter has to go to the location of the beat.

The New York Times describes beat reporting here.

Chip Scanlan of the Poynter Institute describes beat reporting here.

Some beats include:

  • Crime, cops
  • Health, medicine
  • Education (Ex. higher education, elementary education)
  • State government coverage
  • Religion
  • Business
  • Technology
  • Science
  • Cars, automobile reviews
  • Literature
  • Theatre
  • International affairs

Editors Roy Peter Clark and Christopher Scanlan explain and show the importance of focusing on a topic and gaining experience on the beat.

The great writers included in this chapter seemed to have followed a pattern of tightly constructed articles. This focus makes a topic more understandable for readers.

Clark and Scanlan make a point of how important the lead is to a story. The lead offers a point of entry into a story. How a reporter starts the story, when and how a reporter chooses to bring the reader in is extremely important, Clark and Scanlan said. The article’s lead sets up the tone and theme from the outset.

When writing a lead, ask yourself, ‘How do you bring the reader into a story?’

The length of a story should also be given much thought. Brevity can be a powerful and effective technique, but it doesn’t work with all topics or stories. Some articles can be short and be just as effective as if they were 400 words longer. The writing and story must remain accessible and comprehensible. Writing doesn’t have to be dry, formal, dull and lengthy all the time, according to Russell Eshleman Jr. Eshleman Jr.’s articles about the state government were very concise and brief, but the story was still strong.

Articles should have an authentic, distinctive and powerful voice. This gives the story flavor, flair and personality — it makes it different from any other story. Sometimes, directly addressing the reader can work to give the article voice. “You have no idea what that means to a kid like Dewon,” Mitch Albom said about compliments given to a black teenager who grew up in the city. “The bullet life goes on every day in Detroit, right under our suburban noses. But you can’t get it behind you.” This direct address serves to bring the reader into the story, helps push Albom’s point of the column. He ends the column by saying youth have learned the lesson that guns are not toys and shouldn’t be so accessible, from experience, by what’s the excuse for the rest of us, for adults? The direct address makes the reader feel a bit guilty. Boswell also uses this technique when he tells the reader to pick up “a back page of The Sporting News and squint down at the onetime headline names now just fine print at the very bottom of a column of averages.”

Articles that include metaphors and allusions help to broaden cultural knowledge and make stronger connections with readers. Thomas Boswell alludes to a poem by Dylan Thomas and Emily Dickinson in his sports writing. These references and comparisons help readers’ understanding.

The great writers in this chapter also made use of very descriptive, showy details and anecdotes. This figurative language, detail and description helps readers see events, see people, hear dialect and voices, hear the atmosphere, smell the atmosphere and feel. Readers live vicariously through articles, stories and writing, so writers must include many details to help readers along. Writers work hard to set scenes and show places, instead of merely telling readers what happened. Telling is bland, showing is where the details and good writing are found. Writers work hard to allow their readers to see, hear, taste, smell and feel like they were at the event or witnessing the source speaking. Writers work to describe.

The editors mentioned the resonant detail that is evident in good stories, good articles. The resonant detail is a part of the showing of events and people, it sticks out in the article, it remains with the reader after they have finished the article and walked away. It sticks.

There were many resonant details in Jonathan Bor’s article about the first resident in Syracuse to receive a heart transplant. One that was extremely vivid was, “Doctors had used a power saw to cut through his sternum, and a clamp-like retractor to spread his chest apart.” The description is very detailed and offers readers an image to help them be there, in the moment, and not just read about it.

These tightly constructed articles of the great writers is planned and implemented carefully and with rigorous discipline, like Neil’s articles. The construction of the sentences within the article is a key element to good writing. Varying up how sentences are constructed offers relief to readers and keeps the story interesting. Some of the great writers in this chapter varied their sentences by writing one or a few long sentences and then one short one. This creates a sort of rhythm that is so beneficial to writing, to conveying information. Pacing and rhythm is created when a writer provides sentence length variation. Rhythm can give sentences and articles a sense of music, but it also helps the readers to not read the same sentence construction again and again — that can become boring and lifeless. Putting a musical quality in stories, crafting stories with rhythm is more interesting and effective.

The flow or pacing of a story is also important. When crafting an article or story think of telling a story, learn from the great storytellers who told “long, beautiful stories with drama and danger and great detail,” like Rick Bragg did. The flow is an essential part of the story as it helps weave together the complex issues. Journalists must translate complex issues for readers, according to Clark and Scanlan, and their stories must move readers toward a feeling or action. Writing can’t just be telling a good story, it must be reaching for something more, trying to get under the surface level, trying to push for something better or reform or a change. When a journalist writes an article, he must think about the common good, he must think about ethics, he must think about how influential his writing can be.

The take-home message of this chapter is not that writing is easy and one can use these techniques to always create a great, informative story. The message is that a writer isn’t ever done and set in his ways. Writers must always continually learn new ways, better or other ways, how to select quotes and details better, how to describe better, how to tell a story more effectively, how to get more detail and storytelling quotes from a source. Writing and being a communicator, a journalist is being involved in a perpetual learning process.

Top 5 list of local reporting and beat writing articles:

1.Family of Fairfax teen suicide victim wants changes in school disciplinary policies, The Washington Post

By Donna St. George

This story is an example of local reporting, and possibly beat writing on education or local high schools. The article opens up and reveals a debate going on in the education community, about high school rules and enforcement policies and what violations should be given a certain level of disciplinary action. It also brings up suicide caused in part from the pressure and stress of the disciplinary actions and hearings and expulsion of a sophomore from his high school, friends, teachers and football team.

The lead brings the reader directly into the story, into the most recent event: the suicide of a local high school student. This sets up a somber and serious tone immediately. The tone helps push George’s, the student’s and his family’s and a school board member’s point that the disciplinary actions need to be reviewed.

The family of a Fairfax teenager who took his life as he struggled with the fallout of a high school suspension called for changes in the county’s disciplinary policies, in a letter sent Monday to school and county officials.


George has storytelling quotes in this article. George quotes a school board member who completely critically questions the effectiveness of disciplinary actions against students, of requiring disciplinary school transfers

One particularly strong and emotional quote is from the father of the student who committed suicide. The father said he and his wife “are not looking for a pound of flesh,” he said. “It doesn’t get us anything. Nick is still not going to be with us.”

Their goal, he said, is policy change so other families do not “have to endure an abusive system” or face similar tragedy.

The article is shorter compared to others in The Washington Post. George’s article fits on one Web page, while other articles often go on for three or five pages. George’s article is example of brevity, but it still manages to give a lot of information.

The pacing of this article is deliberate and thought out. George gives the reader a background on the Fairfax student’s “stupid decision” as he called it in a letter, the disciplinary actions, his letter that the expulsion was too extreme of a punishment and then his eventual suicide. The pacing and timeline of the article allows the suicide to be more understood by readers.

2. New hope for halting a killer illness, The Baltimore Sun

By Diana K. Sugg

This Pulitzer Prize winning article for beat reporting is about sepsis, a serious medical condition. Sugg provides a short description of the article up front, “Sepsis: In their efforts to fight a degenerative, often-lethal infection, doctors explore a new drug treatment.”

The article uses a character, not just a source, to tell the story through. JoAnn Barr’s experience with sepsis provides the detail, information and tone for the story.

Sugg’s lead sets the serious and grave tone of the article, of how the illness begins and affects people.

She thought it was just a cold. Her throat was sore, and she felt tired all over. But as JoAnn Barr got her son ready for school that morning in March, she started gasping for breath. Within a few hours, Barr was on a ventilator in intensive care, her blood pressure bottoming out, her kidneys failing.


The lead uses details and one woman’s experience to help tell the story and get the reader into the article. It’s very effective.

Sugg describes “the fast-moving, often-lethal condition known as sepsis” through Barr’s experiences. Using such details allows the reader to live vicariously through the writing, to see and feel what Barr did, to understand sepsis better.

Sugg uses strong descriptions throughout the article. One description is, “It’s an illness that rages through the victim’s bloodstream, unleashing a fury of reactions that kill tissues and shut down organs.” Descriptions should work to make the reader understand and have clear images. Sugg’s descriptions do this.

Another strong description is, “the illness explodes with symptoms including violent chills, delirium, a spiking fever or faintness. When Barr felt short of breath, she called a neighbor, but when they arrived at Carroll County General Hospital’s emergency room 10 minutes later, Barr’s blood pressure was so low she was almost unconscious.” Sugg first explains the symptoms of sepsis, but she goes on to show how it manifested itself in one woman, in Barr. This truly helps readers to understand better and connect with the illness, connect with Barr.

Sugg also alludes to an author’s description of sepsis, furthering the reader’s understanding of the medical condition.

One author described sepsis in 1881 as “the rude unhinging of the machinery of life,” said Dr. Gordon R. Bernard, a Vanderbilt University professor of medicine and founding chairman of the International Sepsis Forum.


Sugg’s use of storytelling quotes is extremely powerful in this article. She quotes Barr, many doctors and Barr’s husband.

One doctor’s quote is very emotional: “It’s the most awful, scary thing to actually take care of,” said Dr. Trish Perl, Johns Hopkins Hospital’s epidemiologist. “You just watch people die, and it doesn’t matter what you do.” It took a lot of deep reporting and time on the medical beat and hospital to get such quotes.

3. Government blind to child-care fraud, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

By Raquel Rutledge

Rutledge’s article is one of a series of Journal Sentinel articles about people who con the child care system of Wisconsin. This is an example of local reporting and possibly beat reporting about child care and fraud.

The lead brings the reader into the story at a crucial point, months ago when Sue Meyers, a child care caseworker awarded more than $700 a week of state child-care subsidies to a woman known to be scamming the system. The woman was a convicted cocaine dealer. Meyers retired soon after that. The reporter lets the reader know that Meyers denied to comment for the article, further showing her in a negative light.

Rutledge focuses part of the article on Katria Wright, the cocaine dealer and woman who conned the publicly funded Wisconsin Shares program, a child care system, out of thousands of dollars. This offers many details and personal experiences for the article. The other sections of the article are broken up by subheads and offer different points and perspectives on the story. For instance, one section details the lax oversight of Washington, D.C. of child care fraud.

Rutledge writes with much authority in her voice, with a strong, powerful voice. She isn’t afraid to accuse government officials, especially child care caseworkers, of sharing the blame of fraud.

While unscrupulous parents and providers steal from the system, government officials – from caseworkers and data-entry clerks to lawmakers and Gov. Jim Doyle – share the blame.

They haven’t stopped it.


The construction of these two paragraphs is deliberate. Rutledge chooses to make the second graf one sentence, a brief sentence with a punch. She varied the construction and length of the sentences, like the great writers did in the chapter.

She interviews many people from different perspectives and parts of the story, including caseworkers, government officials and state representatives. She is holding people accountable. “Accountability dissipates,” Rutledge writes. “Many counties haven’t reported any cases of child-care recipient fraud for years. Investigators who consistently find fraud in their counties say investigators elsewhere simply haven’t been looking.”

Rutledge also effectively chunks the information. She uses subheads, bullets to break out the information, many infoboxes or infographics, pictures, a graphic of documents and legislation, an infographic of a timeline of important dates in the story when the child care system was conned and there was neglect from caseworkers.

4. Serious crime on Metro hits 5-year high, The Washington Post

By Ann Scott Tyson

Tyson uses statistics, interactive graphs and storytelling, descriptive quotes to tell the story of crime rates rising on the Metro transit system in D.C. and Md.

The lead gives sufficient background to the readers. Tyson explains that serious crime has increased in the Metro by 12 percent last year. She also includes what the crimes have mostly been: robberies of electronic devices and aggravated assaults.

This is Tyson’s beat — Metro and crime.

In the article, Tyson breaks down the statistics to show how individual types of crime have risen in number.

Tyson also includes descriptive quotes and resonant details. One in particular is of a woman who recalls being robbed on the Metro, how a thief took Jennifer Schell’s iPod so fast the iPod buds were “still in her ears and a dangling wire left where the device should have been.” It is these details that stick with the reader and help him understand the story better.

Tyson also reaches to connect the story to nationwide statistics and trends. “The electronics thefts, following a nationwide trend among big-city transit systems, became so prevalent,” she writes.

5. Montgomery College sued over illegal immigrant policy, The Gazette

By Erin Cunningham

Cunningham starts the story out in a great place. The lead includes a personal anecdote about illegal immigration, education and how one student at the local community college couldn’t afford to go to school without paying the lowest tuition rate available. The ability for illegal immigrants to pay the lowest rate is being threatened in a lawsuit. The lead is one sentence and offers an emotional pull: “Yves Gomes has been supporting himself since his parents, who were in the country illegally, were deported in 2008.”

Gomez is attending community college and getting an education — but several government officials and Md. residents believe he is cheating the system and taking away tax dollars. Three Md. residents filed a lawsuit against the college “seeking to overturn its practice of granting the lowest tuition rates to some illegal immigrants, like Gomes,” Cunningham wrote.

This article is an example of beat reporting and local reporting. The beat is education and falls under an issue of much debate — illegal immigrants’ rights and education.

Cunningham includes storytelling quotes from Gomez, other students, lawmakers and officials from Judicial Watch, the watchdog group that is representing the residents in the lawsuit.

  • “It’s taxpayer waste, fraud and abuse,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch.
  • “Basically, they are trying to make it hard for us,” Gomez said.

The voice in Cunningham’s piece is clear and sure. Toward the end of the article, Cunningham writes, “Montgomery County Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said helping make college affordable for all students will benefit the local economy.” Allowing people with differing opinions to have a voice in the article is important. But Cunningham makes the choice to have Ervin end the piece. Ervin’s opinion sticks with the reader.

Ervin’s quote is especially powerful, and Cunningham again made the deliberate choice to construct the article to leave the reader with her voice and opinion. “I see no problem with allowing children of immigrants to attend college and not make it cost-prohibitive for them to participate in our economy,” Ervin said. This construction may show that the reporter believes more strongly with Ervin’s side, so the construction was chosen this way. But the reporter does not show bias in any way or through voice, it is through selection and construction that the message and story is told.