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Six Habits of Effective Journalists

Opinions are a penny a pound these days: in Washington, on the campaign trail, and on seemingly every campus in the country. Facts are harder to come by—but far more valuable. An opinion without any facts behind it, after all, is essentially meaningless. It’s certainly not going to be persuasive.

That’s why well-researched and well-written news stories can be so powerful. They can expose wrongdoing and corruption. They can help untangle a knotty issue or identify a new but important problem. And they can provide fodder for scores of arguments.

Investigative journalism requires a special set of skills. The good news is that gaining facility in them won’t just make you a better news writer—it will make you a sharper observer and critic of the world around you. So anyone interested in ideas and politics should consider these six habits of successful investigative journalists.

1. Keep your eyes open

Journalists spend hours every week trawling Twitter—along with more traditional media, like newspapers and magazines—for story ideas. But don’t turn your antennae off once you step away from your computer. Stories are everywhere, so develop a habit of making yourself open to them. A legal notice posted in your neighborhood could alert you to a local zoning fight. A discussion you overhear at a power lunch spot might point you toward a budding controversy. Even small talk at a party can lead to a new story or source.

Writers are always at work—even while grocery shopping. That’s where I stumbled onto the issue that led to a cover story in the Weekly Standard. A sign at my local grocer informed shoppers that the store had stopped handing out balloons to children because of the “national helium shortage.” After posting the image to social media with a laugh, I looked seriously into the subject and found every political writer’s dream: a problem caused by government ineptitude on both sides of the aisle that could have wide-ranging and deadly consequences. And all I’d gone there for was an avocado.

2. Develop sources, on and off the record

When you’re in the midst of writing an article, you know you need to talk to stakeholders and experts, people who have a vested interest in, and who know a lot about, the topic. (They are often one and the same.) And you talk to multiple sources, looking at every side to the story. But don’t delete their phone numbers and e-mail addresses as soon as your piece is published. Cultivate contacts, especially if they’re knowledgeable about a field that fascinates you, and check in with them now and then. Even people reluctant to be quoted publicly—government officials, for example—can be pleased to share their know-how and help a reporter set the record straight. Build relationships, and who knows? One day someone might come to you with a real scoop.

3. Know the difference between on and off the record—and beyond

“On the record,” “off the record,” “not for attribution,” and “on background”—these terms are not jargon journalists use to show off their special status. They delineate the ground rules that apply to every communication with a source. And they can get tricky. As soon as you identify yourself as a journalist, you can assume anything a source says to you is on the record. But a source might ask to go off the record or on background.

These terms mean slightly different things to different people, but here are the basics: “Off the record” means you can’t use in your piece anything a source says to you. “Not for attribution” means the source is willing to let you use the information, but not with his or her name attached. (This is why you often see news articles referring to an unnamed “senior administration official.”) “On background” means the source is happy to provide you with information, but you can’t attribute it to him or her in any way, not even generically. You’ll often use such information to dig deeper, with the hope you’ll get it verified on the record elsewhere.

4. Keep things on the record when you can

Don’t let a source go off the record if you don’t have to, however. If you’re in the middle of a conversation and your source says something he wishes he hadn’t, he can’t retroactively take the conversation off the record. You might decide not to use it—but it’s your decision.

5. Find the human angle

We tell stories because we’re human, and the best stories illuminate some aspect of human nature. You might get into the weeds in a piece—digging into the arcane details of tax policy, say, or explaining the various technical uses of helium—but always bring the story back to something to which your reader can relate. This will not only help the reader absorb the information; it will keep him or her reading. Listening carefully to sources can help here. An insightful or moving quotation and a pertinent anecdote can keep your story, no matter the subject, from putting the reader to sleep.

6. Be clear and concise

Don’t mistake a complicated or flowery style for a lively style, though. You’ve investigated a subject, found something interesting to say about it, and want the world to know. You’ll ruin all your hard work if you write in a way that makes your material difficult to understand. I’ll end with someone else’s advice, as the English Romantic poet Robert Southey put this point better than I could: “If you would be pungent, be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams—the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.”


Kelly Jane Torrance is deputy managing editor of the Weekly Standard.


Complement with Tim Carney's how to write like a columnist and Derek Draplin's six things you should know to work in media.

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