Multiple voices better than a single source

By Jim Pumarlo

Most reporters can likely relate to this scenario.

Someone appears before a city council or other governing board to unleash criticism about an individual or organization. Reporters have little difï¬ï¿½culty presenting a balanced report – recording all sides of the story – if the accused is at the meeting.

But what happens if the individual is not present? And what if deadlines do not permit time to get the other side of the argument? It’s the classic case of a “single source” story. These types of stories are no doubt the easiest to write, and they are the most likely to prompt calls of “foul play” from readers.

A quick review of newspapers or a simple brainstorming session at a staff meeting can reveal additional opportunities for broader coverage.

The more voices in a story, the more balanced the report.

Labor disputes are a case in point.

A union goes on strike and issues a two-page release on what it characterizes as unfair labor practices by the employer; the story runs without any response from the company. Or a company announces a major reorganization, which results in the layoff of numerous employees; the published report is void of any comment from the affected employees and their families.

Coverage of public affairs affords ample opportunities for including multiple voices.

A school board is prepared to act on a recommendation to switch from half-day to all-day kindergarten; the packet of materials accompanying the agenda details the reasons. A preview of the meeting is a chance to provide the range of “pro” and “con” arguments including interviews with a variety of individuals. Follow-up reports on a variety of board actions present similar opportunities.

Review other standard fare in newspapers as well.

A community’s selection of a “citizen of the year” is an automatic feature story – usually a one-on-one sit-down with the honoree. Inject some ï¬ï¿½avor to the story by including comments from other individuals.

A big-box retailer comes into a town with great fanfare. A sidebar is appropriate to capture the sentiments of those who believe local retailers will be helped or hindered.

Most items in police blotters are sufï¬ï¿½ciently summarized in a few sentences. On occasion, take the time to quiz police on some incidents, and the circumstances can lead to an interesting story.

Tracking down all the voices – all the perspectives – of a story is just the ï¬ï¿½rst step, however. Two other points are important in the spirit of fairness.

  1. Give the opposing voices equal prominence. Court proceedings are a great example. In other words, don’t put the prosecutor’s arguments on Page one and bury the defense’s rebuttal on jump page. Readers’ attention is limited on the Web, too; present the opposing viewpoints in the first few paragraphs.
  2. Don't be afraid to hold a story if it means delivering a more complete – and more fair – report. That's especially the case with non-daily newspapers where it can be a few days to a week before readers receive the "other side." In these cases, the Web is a great friend. Newspapers can wait a few hours to pursue all the voices and still deliver a timely report.

Seeking and incorporating the many varied – yet pertinent – voices in a story is not always easy. It can take time and hard work – solid journalism that benefits the newspaper and readers alike.

© Jim Pumarlo 2010

Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on Community Newsroom Success Strategies. He is author of “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper.” You can contact him at http://www.pumarlo.com.

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