Why journalists need to double the five Ws

February 26, 2019 01:30

More fundamental even than Journalism 101 is the concept of the five Ws: Every story should answer who, what, when, where, why, and usually how, too.

At a time when the information landscape is increasingly crowded  with other types of content, including misinformation and opinion, competing with and threatening the integrity of responsible journalism, it’s becoming fundamental to answer those same questions not just about each story but about the journalistic process behind each story.

Who are the sources? What is known and unknown? Why and how was this story reported?

A new report released by the Center for Media Engagement, which worked with the Trusting News project and two newsrooms on the study, shows just how important process transparency is to earning news consumers’ trust.

Explain your process
According to the research, news sites which included an “explain your process” box showing why and how a story was reported alongside the text of a digital news story were seen as more reliable, transparent, informative and credible, regardless of the readers’ prior levels of trust and political ideology.

The concept of process transparency isn’t new, but is taking on increased urgency.

Build journalism differently
In May 2018, the American Press Institute published a white paper urging journalists to “build their journalism in a way that makes the reporting process and principles more explicit,” and to “think of a nutrition label for news, one that answers ‘What went into making this product?’”

At a time when the public is so manifestly questioning the journalism available to them, it makes sense to think about how to show the elements of good reporting differently, moving from ‘trust me’ to ‘show me’ journalism.” - American Press Institute

The report includes suggestions for the most common questions audiences may have about different types of news stories, including investigative reporting, they type of project traditionally more likely to include process elements, as well as for features, fact checks and other story types.

Try it in your newsroom
The Center for Media Engagement study tested including a text box in digital stories answering these questions, and showed improved confidence from audiences in the reporting.

How might this work in a broadcast format, where unlike the digital world and its essentially unlimited real estate, time is limited?
  • Take advantage of second screen opportunities. Many broadcast stories end with a note to “visit our app” or “go to our website” to learn more. Your newsroom can take advantage of that online space to share the type of “explain your process” box shown to be effective. Social media platforms are also an opportunity to offer more substantive “behind the scenes” content and even answer additional audience questions about the reporting process. Make it a goal to use these platforms strategically to be more explicit about your stories’ hows and whys.
  • Build process into your scripts more explicitly. Many broadcast packages may include hints at process. If you’re reporting on a car crash, for example, you may talk about ongoing safety issues at a particular intersection: that’s why you’re reporting on that particular crash. Take a moment to reword your scripts to state that explicitly.
  • Take the extra time. For longer form projects, investigative stories, or any packages where your story selection or process may be controversial or raise questions, it’s likely worth taking an extra ten or twenty seconds on air to explain your process fully in addition to including details with your digital versions of those stories.
  • Use process reporting. Occasionally, a story may warrant an even deeper dive into your process. If you need to issue an especially substantive correction or have made a particularly controversial decision, your audience could be well served by a separate, more detailed story: an entire piece about your process. (RTDNA took that approach on a story in late 2017).
This kind of radical transparency – adding five more Ws to your traditional reporting method – takes practice to do in a way that connects with audiences without being defensive or self-absorbed, but the evidence shows it can work, and is more important to do than ever.