Tricks of the trade

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Tricks of the trade

NPR's David Eads writes that locating a database that's relevant to your story is just the first step. Next, you have to examine the data in detail, look at the values, and ask some basic questions: "Good questions to ask when researching data: Who created it? Who is responsible for maintaining it? What point in time or time-range does it apply to? How was the data collected? How was the data processed after being collected? How was each field collected or calculated?"

Ryan White reports on a talk by New York Times computer-assisted reporting team editor Sarah Cohen, who offered tips for finding and fetching government data: "As a reporter covering health care in Florida, Cohen asked the state health agency for a copy of every blank form they had. When the agency later told her they didn’t keep records on nursing staffing levels, she went to her box of blank forms and found the state’s form requiring hospitals to report such data."

Poynter excerpts a chapter of a book by its writing guru, Roy Peter Clark, who explains how to figure out what your story is really about: "It’s really about fear, or comfort, or home, or family, or courage, or loyalty, or denial, of the hundred other themes writers depend upon most often. Remember, a topic — exotic pets — is not a story. A story is when a woman’s pet chimpanzee attacks and disfigures her best friend and neighbor – and then tries to kill the owner."

Joseph Lichterman writes about the Tow Center's new Guide to Crowdsourcing, which explains how outlets like ProPublica, WNYC, and the Guardian engage the public: "While many publications will scour social media sites for stories ('Twitter reacts to X'), the report specifies that crowdsourcing requires direct engagement from newsrooms, and 'the people engaging in crowdsourcing need to feel they have agency in contributing to a news story.'"

Even the great John McPhee can stuggle for the right ending to a story. Robin Meadows asks writers and editors how they find theirs: "Steve Volk looks for the ending and beginning as soon as he starts researching a story, and he often finds them at the same time. 'The best endings echo the beginning in some essential but surprising way,' he says. 'So, often, realizing where a story should end immediately triggers a thought about where it should begin, and vice versa.'"

Alexios Mantzarlis calls on statistician and science writer Regina Nuzzo for a list of tips for fact-checking science stories. The suggestions include focusing on transparency and replicability, and understanding basic statistical tools: "Most fact-checkers have a basic knowledge of the p-value, the standard statistical tool scientists use to assess whether their results were due to an identifiable cause or could occur by random chance. They should not trust it blindly."

European power plants are burning wood pellets from U.S. forests instead of coal from Europe. John Upton explains how a team of reporters combined investigative reporting with science writing to put that story into context: "Few readers would find it inherently interesting that wood releases more carbon dioxide when it burns than coal. What’s more interesting is that coal power plants release more climate-changing pollution after they’re converted to burn wood."

As she reaches her 40th year on "Fresh Air," Terry Gross is profiled by Susan Burton, who describes how Gross gets her subjects to open up: "Over the years, Gross has done some 13,000 interviews, and the sheer range of people she has spoken to, coupled with her intelligence and empathy, has given her the status of national interviewer. Think of it as a symbolic role, like the poet laureate — someone whose job it is to ask the questions, with a degree of art and honor."

Longtime New York Times sportswriter Gerald Eskenazi discusses some of his hardest interviews and how he got winning quotes from some of the sports world's surliest stars: "As a sportswriter, about half the time I was interviewing someone who’d just lost. So sportswriters must have — or at least show — some empathy. And yet you’ve got to ask questions that could be embarrassing or even highlight the subject’s weakness. The point is that you need a response, a quote."

Erik Larson discusses the art of choosing a book title, and how he sometimes considers and rejects hundreds before picking one: "Titles are important. They should convey not only a sense of the book’s subject, but also a feeling — will this be a funny read, or a contemplative one; is it a book I’d like to read at poolside, or in the dentist’s chair waiting for the Novocaine to kick in; will it transport me to an imaginary realm, or knock me flat with trauma and despair."