Good stories connect to deeper themes

“The best stories reach us on some elemental level. They talk about a mother’s love for her children, a husband’s pride in his country … There’s something very important that’s always going on in a very simple way in good stories,” says NBC correspondent John Larson.

Look for the story of why things happen the way they do and then look for a way to tell that story.

Sometimes someone behind the scenes is more important than those in the public eye. Pulitzer Prize winning historian Robert Caro tells how a bureaucrat and urban planner, Robert Moses, essentially re-made New York City, though he never won an election. Caro’s The Powerbroker isn’t just a biography, it’s a story about how power works.

Imagining an image that may be ordinary but representative, can help the journalist decide what the essence of the story is.

Thinking visually about an iconic image or a brief “picture in the mind” can also help.

In the aftermath of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, a Washington Post columnist declared that the bomber, Tim McVeigh, had, in effect, become the country’s most influential architect.

The proof was iconic and immediately recognizable to readers – the cement jersey barrier, thousands of which had been placed around government buildings across the country to deter truck bombs.

It’s not always easy to find an iconic image that represents the core of a story. But thinking visually, imagining an image that may be ordinary but representative, can help the journalist decide what the essence of the story is.

The iconic image can also help the journalist find ideas for stories. We see these images all the time in our daily lives but often don’t ask ourselves what they might mean. Construction cranes punctuating the skyline, commuters at a bus stop all reading their mobile devices, pieces of re-tread truck tires littering the side of a busy highway. What questions might these images raise?

Thinking visually is what photographers do all the time. Thinking like a photographer can help journalists focus on the core of a story as they navigate their way through the fog of detail collected in the reporting process.

This guide, like many of the others in API’s Journalism Essentials section, is largely based on the research and teachings of the Committee of Concerned Journalists — a consortium of reporters, editors, producers, publishers, owners and academics that for 10 years facilitated a discussion among thousands of journalists about what they did, how they did it, and why it was important. The author, Walter Dean, was CCJ training director and former API Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel who previously co-chaired the committee.