‘The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook’ Summary of Chapter Six

March 2, 2009 at 2:06 am Leave a comment

By Patrick McCabe

Written March 1, 2009

Writing the Compelling Investigation

Newsroom reporters divide journalists into “reporters” and “writers.” Reporters collect the information while writers put it all together to make a strong story. It is good to be strong a both reporting and writing and a journalist’s writing will be much stronger if it is based on research,  interviews and document review.


Writing an Effective Story

·      Keep the outrage in sight

·      Put people in the foreground

·      Talk to readers – do not lecture them

·      Let graphics carry more of the load

           * Each one must make a point

           * Make graphics stand out

·      Do not forget the interested, impatient reader

Getting Details

Investigative reporters must answer the “so what?” in addition to the who, what, when, where, why and how. Only details that move the story forward should survive writing and rewriting. They should form a chain of facts rather than a stack of facts.

Avoid Clichés and Stereotypes

An investigator who avoids clichés and stereotypes is likely to chronicle the larger context and universal themes behind a story.By doing this the reporter will create a story that is better then competitors and has more depth.

Writing from Chronologies and Outlines

A chronology is more than a way to keep track of information. It is a writing tool. A journalist should start building a chronology from the first week of reporting.

It may be helpful to write a first draft without using your chronology so that you are aware of where the holes need to be filled.Outlines are extremely helpful to writing a good story.

Story Structures

When a journalist begins their story they should choose a writing style.

·      Inverted Pyramid: organizes information from most important to least. Bring audience highlights quickly but audiences have little incentive to finish the story.

·      High Five Formula: News (what happened), Context (background), Scope (local as part of national event), Edge (where the news is leading) and Impact (why should anyone care).

·      Wall Street Journal Formula: specific to general. Soft lead, summary paragraph, backup for those two elements, supporting points, explanations and an ending that ties back to the lead.

·      Hourglass Story: important news at the top, and then proceeds chronologically.

·      Pyramid structure: consists of a lead, foreshadowing, chronological storytelling and climax

·      Sections Structure: similar to a book, well-crafted chapters, each with a lead, body and kicker. Should compel readers to move from section to section.

Focus and Resolution

Journalists should write and rewrite a one-sentence, 25 word summary.

A focus statement should contain tension and resolution. Tension can be between individuals, an individual and an institution, an individual and the larger society, an entrenched belief and a newly discovered fact, or what is being done versus what should be done.

Resolution is sometimes real and sometimes an imposed dramatic device to better the story. Avoid stories that lack a basic complication or that has no resolution.

Leads: The Opening Sentences

Write the ending first. Hard-news leads are best on complicated projects.

There are many types of leads that include:

·      Descriptive lead: paints a picture of what is going on.

·      Narrative lead: recounts action of a person or event.

·      Anecdotal lead: detail of an uninsured person who was denied treatment to show healthcare system shortcomings.

Gauge a lead’s effectiveness with a few questions.

·      What one thing does the reader need to know more than any other thing?

·      What surprised me when I was reporting the story?

·      Where is the conflict?

·      What is the appropriate voice for this story?

·      What point of view should the story be told from?

·      Can the essence of the story be captured by an anecdote, image, metaphor, quotation?

Middles: Flow and Momentum

The middle of the story is often where journalists often loose reader interest. One way to maintain readers is by writing in scenes that entertain as well as explain. Pacing the story is also another key element in effective middles. 

Problems in pacing include:

·      Words that do not roll off the tongue

·      Rhythms that clash

·      Clichés that must be rephrased

·      Language that is encrusted with made up words of bureaucrats and social scientists

·      Attributions that give long, meaningless job titles instead of conversational job descriptions

Point of View and Tone

Point of view can describe conclusions reached by reporter after gathering information and signify who will narrate the story. Point of view can be chosen before you decide on the story’s tone. Tone can include formal, conversational, dramatic, skeptical and ironic. Choosing the right tone means the difference between a reader feeling manipulated or empathizing a honest portrayal.


An ending should leave deep thoughts and emotions in the minds of readers without preaching. Some close with a quote but others end with a anecdote involving one person. Endings must be strong.



Entry filed under: Journalism. Tags: , .

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