Rethinking journalism's DNA

Posted on May 14, 2010 by Janet Coats

If reporting has a DNA code, it would look like this: 5Ws and an H.

It is drilled into all journalists from their days as a baby reporter. Every story needs to answer these six basic questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

But the simple truth of it is, most journalism dwells on just four of those questions – who, what, when and where. Most of the time, the answers to those are easily discerned.

Why and how – now that’s a lot tougher. We don’t get to the why and the how of things in an e-mail or telephone interview. We get there through expertise, through the patient cultivation of sources.

That’s hard to do in a journalism age that calls for multi-tasking and focusing on what is happening right now, this red-hot minute. But even before journalism’s financial crisis, good “how’’ and “why’’ reporting was hard to come by. I’ve judged five different categories of the Pulitzer Prizes, and the explanatory category was by far the toughest – not because everything was so good, but because there were so few true examples of journalism that really illuminated complex and difficult issues.

Good explanatory reporting needs smart journalists who are willing to spend the time to understand complexity. But there’s another factor we don’t think about as much – deep knowledge of the community we’re covering.

In 1996, the year that I judged the Pulitzer’s explanatory category, there was one entry that really stood out. It was the Raleigh, N.C. News & Observer’s coverage of corporate hog farming in the state, and the environmental impact of it. The stories were deeply engaging, not just because they were rich with data and strong investigative reporting, but because the reporters were really embedded in North Carolina culture.

They clearly understood the tension inherent in that story. North Carolinians love the beauty of their state and want to protect it. But hog farming had been part of the rural fabric for years, and corporate farms were an important source of employment and tax income.

Those stories won the News & Observer the Pultizer’s highest honor, the Public Service Medal. More importantly, they connected with the lives of the community the paper sought to serve.

The issue of providing answers to the “how’’ and “why’’ questions doesn’t just apply to news coverage. We also need to be more thoughtful about the “how’’ and “why’’ of how new media journalism is evolving in this social, digital age.

By learning from each other, by asking “how’’ and “why’’ about both successes and failures in building new networks of community coverage, we can create momentum for the kind of journalism that sustains civic dialogue.

I’m thinking a lot about that kind of learning – a network of journalism innovators who share their experience and their knowledge in real time. What would a network like that need to succeed? I’m interested in hearing what you think.

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