Written by Jaldeep Katwala
How do journalists spot a good story? What are the tell tale signs that distinguish fact from fiction? How do you know when you are on the right track? Journalist Jaldeep Katwala offers his top 10 tips.
1: Is it interesting?
This is perhaps the most important criterion. If it’s not interesting, why tell it? Your story should make the viewer, listener or reader stop in their tracks, look up from their breakfast, and want to tell the story to someone else. A good test here is if one of your colleagues says “so what?” – if you can’t answer that question, then it might not be quite the story you thought it was.
If it’s not interesting, why tell it?
2: Did you know about it before?
If you consume news voraciously, you’ll know if your story is fresh and original. Someone in your newsroom will have a fantastic memory for every story that’s ever been done. If they haven’t heard the story before, the chances are it is new.
Some stories will have done the rounds a few times.
3: Does someone want to keep it quiet?
If after you’ve done all your preparatory research and interviews, and the main interviewee avoids taking your calls or does not answer your questions, it’s likely that the person has something to fear about your story or has something to hide.
If someone doesn’t return your calls they my be hding a story.
4: How many people will it affect?
It might be the greatest story in the world, but it may only affect one person. That would not rule out telling the story, but the more people your story affects, the more likely it is to be of interest to your audience.
Is the story of interest to enough people?
5: Is the story difficult to tell?
A good rule of thumb, based on thousands of stories under the belt, is that the more difficult the story is to tell, the more likely it is to be a great story. Don’t ask me why, but if it were easy to tell, the chances are someone else will have had the idea before you.
If the story is hard to tell it’s probably worth telling.
6: Does the story make sense?
The more incredible the story and the more removed from reality as you know it, the more likely the story you have is simply not true. That does not mean that these stories are not out there. Just that you must be extremely sure of your facts before you publish or broadcast. Often the best stories are simply the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle – they make sense of what was already known before.
7: Are others likely to follow-up your story?
If it’s a really great piece of original journalism, your competitors will follow-up with their own takes on the story. If it’s an outstanding piece of journalism, governments, decision-makers, those with an interest, will do something. Remember Michael Buerk and the Ethiopian famine?
Great stories often get more follow-up.
8: Will there be related stories?
A really good story, will have at least three related stories for you to chase. You have a head-start on your competitors, so you should be anticipating where the story will go even before it is published or broadcast. Do not rest on your laurels. Keep the momentum going.
9: Will anything change as a result of your story?
If you tell your story, will anything be different? Will other people’s lives improve or get worse? If they improve, that’s a good sign. If they are likely to get worse for many people, think again about publishing or broadcasting it.
Consider what impact is your story likely to have?
10: Will you still be able to approach your contacts?
When you tell the story will you still be able to look your contacts in the eye and will they still talk to you? A controversial story told well and fairly will earn you respect. A controversial story told badly and unfairly will make it harder for you to work as a journalist.
It may not be worth losing valued contacts for one story – on the other hand…
Jaldeep Katwala has been a journalist since 1985. He has worked for the BBC, Channel 4 News and Radio Netherlands as a broadcaster. He has also taught journalism and run several media development projects and training courses around the world.