People care most about things that affect them.
On one level, the relevance of a story can be a function of geography. The reader is more interested in his local weather forecast than the national outlook. He is more interested in knowing why a police officer is taking a report on his block than somewhere else in the city.
A different kind of proximity involves emotions or interests. The reader may identify with a range of life experiences, from the emotional shock of losing a job or worrying about a sick child to mundane tasks like the weekly trip to the grocery store or filling the car with gas. Readers also identify with their own special interests, whether a hobby or sport or an important pocketbook issue like taxes, interest rates, school quality, crime and safety, health care, or economic development.
Good stories don’t just assume relevancy; they prove it. They make the case that, “you should take the time to read this story because it’s potentially important to you personally or to your community.”
Often this is done by illustration or comparison. The reporter might assume, for example, that the reader will be among a large segment of the audience comprised of stakeholders in a story – “taxpayers,” “consumers,” or “parents.” The weakness of this approach is one of degree. While it may lay the foundation of relevance, treating the reader as a member of a large group or class may not be enough to demonstrate that the issue or event is personally relevant.
The anecdote, however, helps bridge that gap by offering more detail –specific facts, opinions, or experiences the reader can compare to his own knowledge and beliefs. The anecdote might focus on a person, in a story about Obamacare perhaps someone previously without insurance who is signing up. Or the anecdote may focus on a situation, perhaps observing the person trying to sign up for healthcare navigate a government website.
The strength of the anecdote is in the detail. The reader gets a set of specific facts or thoughts with which to compare or contrast his own experiences. If a connection occurs, the story becomes relevant on an emotional, as well as intellectual, level. Good stories don’t just “ring true,” they’re also engaging and compelling.
Using data is another way to prove relevancy. In a story about the impact of recession, the proprietor of a candy shop in Tampa, Fla., can accurately be described as a “small business owner.” This assumes, however, that the audience can understand the significance of small business in the economic life of the community.
An alternative is to use two statistics from the Census and describe the shop “as one of 15,000 Bay area business run by mom and pop that overall account for 10 percent of local business activity.” The statistics establish the appropriateness of the example, the credibility of the owner as a source on local business activity, and telegraph to readers that the story involved a higher level of reportorial effort.
A reporter can also use maps, calculators, and other software to establish relevance. A “big” topic like an approaching hurricane can be made more personally relevant by a map showing the chances of low-level flooding in a community or even neighborhood. Calculators allow readers can plug in their own data to determine how rising or falling interest rates might affect their auto loans or mortgages. And crime maps not only help people determine where incidents are occurring, but figure out how alert they should be.
Finally, for a story that is obviously relevant, data can serve as an exclamation point. When Target revealed that hackers had stolen the personal data of 70 million credit card holders, several journalists pointed out that one-third of the country’s 240 million adults were thus affected.
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.