Good stories provide context

What background would a newcomer who is affected by the story need to know so that they might care about it?

For example, on the issue of Medicare:

  • What is Medicare?
  • Where did the idea of Medicare come from?
  • What was life like before it?

Another virtue of asking “what does my audience need to know?” is that it can create new entry points into stories – such as asking, what background would a newcomer who is affected, or has a stake in the story, need to know so that they might care about it?

The news can often seem like something only for news junkies, spoken in a language that only the initiated understand, especially when wire copy is used as base material. What new entry points can be created for the reader to feel as though he has a stake in the story?

David Halberstam, a 1964 Pulitzer Prize winner for his coverage of the war in Vietnam for the New York Times and best-selling author of The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, and many other works of non-fiction, talked about the value of providing context in a conversation with Bill Kovach on Nov. 9, 1996.

We can make all kinds of stories interesting if we work at it…like the great Jimmy Breslin story: The day that John Kennedy was killed…everyone covered the funeral. He went and found the man who dug Kennedy’s grave. Use your imagination, be creative.

Making stories important. A sense of context. And what a journalist has to do in order to get stories into the minds of the people. To show why this particular piece of information, why a profile, is important. Why these things amount to something and provide a way to understand the world that helps you – the context of the stories is often more important than the event itself.

One of the reasons Bill Clinton was so successful is he spent his time designing a context within which he could embed himself. And the journalist needs to figure out how to provide a context outside of entertainment that works.

When I was in the Congo in ‘61 and ‘62, I could get into the New York Times every day. It was a terrific ticket for me. And the reason was, not that the public was interested in a poor African country…but Africa at that moment was perceived to be a pawn up for grabs in the great international struggle between us and the Russians. The moment the Berlin Wall comes down, it became once again just a bunch of poor black people no longer of interest. It suddenly became tribal again, and we’re not interested in a tribal struggle.

You can be passionate about your story and control that passion—not let the passion control you. You can trust in the reader that if you do it right the reader’s interest and involvement will be generated.

Listen, there is a hunger for good information out there. The Best and the Brightest was a huge bestseller, much to the surprise of the author and the editor who published it, because it took all those people who had flashed on the television screen all those times, and finally said, “This is who they are. And this is how they affect you. And this is what they mean to you.”

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.