Write a story, step-by-step

Step 1 – Finding a newsworthy story

Human rights affect every level and area of life, and there are stories around us all the time. At the level of power, there is what governments do and what they do not do. The quality of government shapes and guides human rights, and government actions affect the human rights of individuals and groups. Is the government ruling properly? Are human rights protected? Is there respect for the rule of law? Is the economy being managed in ways that protect our ICESCR rights? Are the elections being properly managed so that everyone can exercise the right to vote? Are prisoners treated fairly? Are the courts independent and fair?

Corporations also affect human rights in the way they treat workers and affect the environment.

Journalists are also concerned with local and everyday issues and interests. Is there discrimination in the community? Are criminals violating people’s human rights? How are children treated? Are the schools adequate and open to everyone? What are the levels of poverty? Do people have access to health care? Who is excluded? Are local businesses and industries treating workers fairly? Are there any groups who feel unjustly treated?

Incorporating human rights angles into stories can make ordinary issues more newsworthy and more interesting. Potentially, knowledge about human rights issues can make you a better reporter.

Think of a story idea that involves human rights. Write down a few notes about the story.

Step 2 – Check the story idea for news value.

Make notes:

  • What is the likely impact – how relevant is this story to people’s lives?
  • Public interest – do people have a right to know more about the issue or event? Do people need to know? Will telling the story prevent harm or save lives? Will it inform the decisions they make?
  • Timeliness – does the story include information that people need to know in order to organize their lives?
  • Proximity – is the story close to home? If not, can you draw links that will make it more relevant to your community? Does the story fit into a regional trend that has been identified by others?
  • Currency – is it a “hot” topic? What’s “hot” about it?
  • Novelty – is it unexpected, unusual, surprising?

If you can answer most of the above questions positively, the story is newsworthy.

Step 3 – Search your conscience

This is a crucial step and the one that sorts out good journalists from bad ones. It is where you begin to consider some of the ethical issues.

Before you finally decide that your story idea is a good choice, search your conscience:

  • Is this story really in the public interest? Will further investigation result in positive outcomes for the general public? Or are you just satisfying curiosity or a need for sensation?
  • Who are the people in the story? Will the story cause them any harm?
  • How much is your interest just to impress your news editor? Besides impressing your news editor, is the story likely to do any good?
  • How are the public / your community / readers / audience likely to react to the story?
  • How do you feel about the story? What are your own attitudes towards the people / events? Are they positive or negative? Do they matter? Will they affect your judgment?
  • Final question – is it “doable”? Is it realistic and possible? Think about time, budget, skills, the languages spoken, and any other logistics.

Step 4 – Prepare your pitch

If after all this, you still think the story is newsworthy, prepare to pitch the story to your news editor.

“Pitching” simply means arguing that your story is newsworthy. To do this successfully, you make the case that the story idea has news value. You will have to make a strong argument, because you will be competing for space and airtime with many other story ideas.

In most news organizations, decision-making happens at editorial meetings. The main people at these meetings are the news editor and reporters. They develop the daily news diary; select stories and angles and allocate tasks. The set the news agenda and decide what news and information the public is going to receive.

The people at these meetings will also decide whether to follow-up and publish a human rights story, or to take a human rights angle in a story.

If you attend these meetings, this is where you will “pitch” your story idea. Alternately, you may pitch your idea directly to a news editor or editor, who will either immediately agree or disagree, or who will represent you at the editorial meetings.

Based on your answers to the questions under Step 2, draft your argument here:

Step 5 – Analyze what you know

Well done! You have the go-ahead. Your news editor likes the story and has added it to the news agenda. Ideally, the news editor or other colleagues will have made some suggestions to strengthen the story or added to your idea. Take note of them.

Now analyze the story. Write down everything you know. What is fact and what is opinion? Which facts are you confident about? Which facts need checking and confirmation? Are there any assumptions in the story?

  • List what you already know; the facts you feel confident about:
  • List the facts that you are unsure about; analyze why you feel uncertain.
  • What are the assumptions in your idea? Why are they assumptions rather than facts? Can you convert them to facts? How?
  • What are the opinions? Whose opinions are they? Are they important to the story?
  • How can you make sure you are putting facts in the correct context? Whom can you speak with to help you understand the bigger picture around the issue?

Step 6 – Background research

What are the wider issues – the issues of public interest? This is very important when working with human rights. One of the main criticisms of the way in which journalists cover human rights issues is the lack of context and accurate human rights information. Which rights are involved; is there any particular treaty protecting them? Is your country a states party? How are the rights reflected in the laws of your country? If the story is about a violation, is the violation widespread? What kinds of people are involved? There are many, many questions….

You may not have a lot of time, but if there is anything you can research and read that may help you, now is the time to do it so that you are properly prepared for your first interview.

  • What sources are you going to use for your research?
  • Make notes of important points from your background research.

Step 7 – Draft a list of potential interviewees and informants

Step 8 – Analyze your list of interviewees and informants

What are their strengths and weaknesses?

Step 9 – Decide whom to interview first

This is an important step because it will shape the future of the story. It is usually best to try to interview someone who will give you the most information. Ideally, your first interviewee should be able to give you information that you can publish. But sometimes, it may be strategic to interview someone for background information that is confidential or off the record.

The information you get from your first interview will guide you in deciding the order of future interviews and point you to new sources.

  • Whom am I going to interview first?
  • Why is s/he the best person?

Step 10 – Plan and conduct your first interview

  • For this interview, and all the interviews that come after it, you should consider: What information am I likely to get from the interviewee? This means doing background research about the interviewee.
  • It is important to try not to ask questions that the interviewee may be unable to answer, for two reasons:
    • Firstly, doing so might anger the interviewee, or scare them off;
    • Secondly, the interviewee may begin giving opinions or information they aren’t sure about.
  • If you ask questions that go beyond the knowledge of the interviewee, the information you get (if any) becomes harder to verify.
  • Always ask interviewees whom else they suggest you speak with.

Draft a list of appropriate open-ended questions, consider the best approach, and do the interview.

Step 11 – Conduct three or four more interviews

Step 12 – Assess the information, find the key issues

Time for a reality check. Based on the information that is emerging from your first few interviews:

  • Is this really a story? Is it really newsworthy?
  • What are the central issues that are emerging and can you build a story around them?
  • Based on good news values and good journalistic ethics and standards, should the story be published?
  • Is it in the public interest?
  • Will anyone be harmed by it?
  • Is the value to the public more important than any harm done?

Step 13 – Structure and write your story

The best way to structure your story is around the central issues, keeping your audience in mind. As you write, reconsider all your facts.

  • Which facts are essential to the story?
  • Which facts have you verified?
  • Which have you not verified?
    • Are they essential? Could you leave any of the unverified facts out?
    • If not, what do they add to the story? Will they cause any harm to anyone? How will they influence the readers? How can you let your public know that you are uncertain?
  • Have you given the context? Have you included enough information about the relevant human right/s?
  • Have you included unnecessary detail that could hurt the victim or make the story too sensational?

Step 14 – Final eye

Once you have completed your draft, check for quality and check your facts again. Here is a very thorough checklist based on the Society of Professional Journalists’ “Accuracy Checklist”:

Check your emotions

Start with your emotions. Human rights stories always create emotional responses. So check your feelings and your conscience. Ask yourself:

  • Am I feeling too passionate about my story?
  • Is anything troubling me?
  • What are my doubts?
  • What parts of the story make me feel uncertain?
  • Am I feeling confident – or perhaps a bit overconfident?

Ask someone who is less involved for help

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, and you have doubts and worries, ask a colleague or senior who is more detached to read the story. Discuss your concerns.

Then double check

With your completed story and all your notes in front of you, work through the questions below. You can do this alone, or you can do this with a colleague or senior.

  1. Do I have a high level of confidence about the facts in my story? Am I confident about my sources?
    • If not, can I tell my story in a more accurate manner?
    • If I have doubts about my sources, can I replace them with more reliable, trusted sources?
  2. Have I attributed all facts to sources – either documents or humans?
    • If not, can I find someone/somewhere to attribute them to?
    • To what extent would deleting the unattributed facts weaken the story?
  3. Have I double-checked the most important facts?
    • If not, double-check them.
  4. If asked, can I provide the properly spelled name and accurate telephone number of all my sources?
  5. Am I highly confident that all the factual statements in my story reflect the truth?
    • If not, can I get closer to the truth; be more accurate?
  6. Would I be able to defend my facts publicly? Would I be able to convince others that I had checked my facts and taken all possible measures to verify my story?
  7. Have I presented the quotes in my story fairly and in context?
  8. Am I quoting anonymous sources? Why? Are they essential? In the event of a challenge, would I be willing and able to defend publicly the use of those sources?
  9. Am I using any material (documents or pictures) provided by anonymous sources? Why? How confident am I that this material is valid and real? Would I be willing and able to defend publicly the use of that material?
  10. Have I described people, minority groups, races, cultures, nations, or segments of society, for example, business people, women, workers, soldiers, using stereotypes? What is the possibility that I will offend people? How can I rework the descriptions to avoid stereotypes?
  11. Am I using potentially offensive language or pictures? Is there a compelling reason for using such information? Would the story be less accurate if that language or picture were removed?
  12. Do my headlines or broadcast promos accurately present the facts and context of the story?
  13. Is my story balanced? Have I fairly reflected different viewpoints?
  14. Is the information I have included about human rights accurate and properly contextualized? Am I referring to the correct rights and treaties?

Based on the Society of Professional Journalists’ “Accuracy Checklist” and other sources.

Finally, revise/rewrite your story

Based on the answers to the questions you ask yourself and a careful review of your draft, you may want to revise or rewrite the story to put in additional details. Reporters rewrite their stories a few times before moving to the next step.

Step 15 – Submit your story

If there is anything to which you need to alert your news editor or colleagues, do it before the story is published or broadcast.

Human rights stories are always controversial. Everyone needs to be aware of possible consequences. Your news-editor and editor will be in the frontline to respond to criticism and questions about your story.

Step 16 – Consider what other stories you can you write based on this one.

In particular, consider a human rights angle. Is this the beginning or part of a trend that you could revisit periodically?