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Checklist: One Journalist's Notes on Reporting Responsibly

Sep 28, 2011

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Continuing our conversation on the Mall of America investigative series, Andrew Donohue, editor of the Voice of San Diego, wrote us a response we found worth sharing.

"This is the kind of reporting and storytelling I want more of both as a journalist and news consumer," he wrote. "I didn't come away confused or unenlightened as I do with too many news stories. Instead, I came away with a strong emotional reaction that's probably directly related to my worldview."

Playing off of Jay Rosen's recent criticism of an NPR story as "he said, she said" journalism, Donohue offered this checklist for quality reporting:

Being Honest With What We Know — and What We Don't Know

There is another problem: Sometimes we can't get to the 100 percent honest truth. We have restraints and restrictions that hold us back. Sometimes the truth hasn't been realized yet. So what do we do?

Admit it. Be open and honest with people that there isn't a truth or that you haven't arrived there. One thing we don't particularly do well as journalists is set up clear signposts for readers as to why and what we're actually telling them.

Here are some guidelines I've come up with:

* Make sure people know why you're doing the story.

Ask a journalist why they've done the story they've done and they'll often give you the most eloquent and interesting sentence you could imagine. It's just often not in the story. Make sure that line is in the story!

* Concede when something is confusing or unknowable.

If you confuse readers but don't let them know they're supposed to be confused they're going to be, well, confused. And they'll blame you.

* Tell us what's next or the questions remain.

Just as you need courage to write authoritatively, you need to be humble and honest when you haven't answered all the questions. Tell us what to look for and the next questions you want to pursue. Tell us your limitations.

Read his full letter here and share your thoughts in the comments section.

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