Six tips from prize winning journalists

When people carp about the quality of local TV news–and they often do–my standard reply is that  there’s still great journalism being done out there. You just have to know where to look.

The Sigma Delta Chi awards from SPJ are a good place to start. The latest edition of Quill lists all the 2008 winners and shares many of the stories behind their stories. The honorees come from markets and news organizations of all sizes, from Anchorage to Memphis, but they all share a commitment to producing solid journalism under often difficult circumstances.

A few lessons worth sharing:

Overcome obstacles. Sometimes roadblocks that make your job harder can make your story better. Reporter Laurie Davidson of Bay News 9 in Tampa couldn’t get to the scene of a tanker truck accident but that didn’t stop her from reporting on her own experience:

It is absolutely a traffic nightmare out here…We have been stuck in traffic ourselves for more than an hour, so it’s very difficult to get anywhere in this area of Manatee County right now.

Treasure teamwork. WBIR-TV photojournalist Gerry Owens credits “a real team effort–several people working to get the different elements we needed to tell a compelling story” about a dike collapse at  a coal-burning power plant.

Be persistent. WREG-TV investigative reporter Keli Rabon “kept digging until she uncovered the documentation and the inside witnesses to get to the truth” of a charity scam. Rabon called the series of reports “an everyday reminder that the work we do is not just something to fill a newscast.”

It’s work that impacts someone’s life, their well-being, the decisions they make, and their families. It has made me appreciate the potential impact a story can have, because the words and pictures are so much more than ‘a story.’

Follow leads. Brian Conybeare of News 12 Westchester uncovered corruption at a New York casino. He says he “learned to listen to my sources no matter how far-fetched their allegations may sound.”

Trust your sources, follow the leads, verify everything, and you never know what may happen.

Cultivate sources. KTUU-TV’s Jason Moore and Scott Jensen told the story of a young boy’s agonizing wait for a heart transplant. Says Moore:

The most difficult, and most important, aspect is the relationship cultivated between the family and the journalist. While it’s important to keep a certain emotional distance from the subject, in this case I couldn’t help but become close to the family as it endured this struggle. Because of that relationship, we gained the access necessary to tell the story, and I think it provided an extra emotional connection that came through in the interviews.

Make a commitment. When Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens went on trial in Washington, Anchorage station KTUU sent reporter Jill Burke and photojournalist Carolyn hall to DC to cover it. The station felt the story was too important to local viewers not to assign a hometown crew. The team spent a month on the story, producing more than 35 live shots and 78 stories. Burke says it was a huge logistical challenge but well worth the effort.

This is the kind of in-the-trenches journalism that we feel the public deserves. It’s our job to be there when they can’t be, to be their eyes and ears and to contribute to their understanding of people and events to the best of our capability.”

Absolutely right.