Have you ever heard something on the radio or read something on the web and thought: “How did this get made? Who came up with this idea? What’s the story behind this story?” If you’re curious to know how our editorial ethics play out day to day, here’s a peek into some of what goes into KQED’s editorial process, before, during and after a story is broadcast on the radio or published online.
Step 1: The reporter has a question, gets a tip or asks the community what’s happening.
The reporter has a question: Why are cars parked in the middle of San Francisco streets on Sundays?
Someone gives the reporter a tip: Santa Rosa officials find a cancer-causing chemical in drinking water.
The reporter asks the community what’s happening: East Oakland residents say authorities are ignoring illegal dumping in their neighborhoods, creating unhealthy conditions for kids playing on streets and detracting from neighborhood cohesion.
Step 2: The reporter has a conversation with her editor.
They discuss a wide range of questions, such as:
What is her current knowledge of the topic? Who will she talk with to find out more? What are the challenges? How will she get access? How will she be perceived? How can she overcome any initial perceptions so that she can access the full story? What background does she need to understand this story? Can she engage the audience at the outset in the reporting? What are her blind spots?
Go, or no go? There are many reasons to green-light a story. It may serve a critical audience need for information; it may add useful history or context to an existing story; it may be fun or funny or surprising. A story may answer a question someone has posed to a reporter or editor. Or it may point out important questions or context that policymakers are failing to consider. There are always many more stories to tell than time or people, no matter how big a newsroom is. So editors and reporters aim to choose stories they believe will serve the audience now, and will often plan ahead for stories they know will become relevant in the future.
If the story is moving quickly, the editor will focus the reporter on what facts need to be gathered first in order to confirm the story. The editor may assign more than one person to it, or may assist the reporter by making phone calls or pulling in useful background material. The editor always reads up on the story and background research in order to become familiar with the subject, and this is particularly important to help ensure accuracy in fast-breaking news.
Together, they think about visuals, social media, broadcast and digital. In a fast-breaking story, the editor may do this thinking with several people, including photographers, videographers, and social media and online staff.
The reporter drafts a reporting plan and rough outline and asks: “How is this story meeting the needs of KQED’s audiences?”
In a fast-moving story, the following steps may happen very quickly. Longer-term strategies, such as data journalism and public records requests for documents that the government must legally turn over when asked, may wait a few days.
Step 3: It’s research and reporting time.
The reporter begins the research to understand the issues, calls people to find out who knows what, and then hits the streets to talk to sources and get multiple viewpoints. The reporter begins to outline the issues and potential approaches to storytelling. Sometimes this means talking with other reporters; other times it means calling sources and just bouncing off ideas and theories for where reporting could go. Not every person a reporter talks to, or emails or communicates with, will make it into the final story; the same is true for different reporting paths the reporter pursues. Just like a detective, sometimes a reporter will go on a wild goose chase for a comment or a story idea that turns out to be a bust.
Step 4: The reporter returns to her editor.
They talk about the best way to tell this story, what the reporter might have left out, and who else she needs to talk to in order to get the full picture. Have we heard all sides of the story? Is there a community voice that isn’t being heard? Are we taking into account all the biases of the reporter and editor, and getting alternate and diverse perspectives to fully contextualize the story? Is this story worth pursuing? Often, even though the reporter has put in a lot of legwork and time into a story, this step turns into a roadblock, and the reporter and her editor decide that the story itself isn’t worth continuing.
Step 5: The reporter deepens her research.
Armed with the questions and challenges from her editor, he reporter does additional reporting, such as data journalism, California Public Records Act requests for state and local documents, Freedom of Information Act requests for federal documents, and interviewing more sources. The story sometimes takes a surprising turn here, because the reporter is getting more perspective and context.
Step 6: The reporter begins to write the story.
For some reporters, this moment is their least favorite step in the process. This is an intensive period of time and can last several hours or several days or weeks, depending on the complexity of the reporting. Words are carefully selected, structure is worked and reworked — all in the reporter’s own head — before she ever shows it to anyone else.
Step 7: The reporter meets with her editor to go over her first draft, working on narrative structure.
Radio editors edit by “listening” to a reporter’s piece. A reporter reads his or her script and plays the interviews for the editor. The medium of radio offers the ability to bring the rich sounds of an environment into a story. Along with the written word, the editor is also listening to make certain that both the audio and words are clear and understandable to the listening audience. Sometimes the editor will say the story is in “good shape,” while other times the editor will tell the reporter to “start over,” “find more voices” or “rethink the entire thing.” With that feedback, the reporter returns to Step 6 and reworks her story. Then the reporter returns to the editor with a second, third, fourth or additional draft — which is line edited for clarity and understanding and fact-checked to make sure all figures, dates, names and facts are accurate and verifiable. For written stories, the reporter sends it to a copy editor for a final line-by-line edit.
Step 8: The story airs and/or is published.
This can be online or broadcast on KQED or on NPR’s national magazine shows, such as “All Things Considered,” etc.
Step 9: The story is shared with audiences on social media.
The social media editor works with the reporter, editor and other journalists to make sure the headlines, phrasing and copy used in social media is as accurate and contextualized as the reporting in the story itself. A tweet with an inaccuracy is as damaging to the credibility of a story as an error in the story on air or on the web.
Step 10: The reporting process never ends!
The reporter continues to stay in touch with the sources interviewed for this report for future stories, and monitors social media for any feedback. Sometimes sources or audience members will identify facts or statements they believe are wrong or untrue. If the reporter or editor is alerted to anything like that, they immediately investigate to see what the feedback is and if it’s accurate. If any errors are identified, they are immediately corrected both on air and online. See this example on the web. Significant corrections on the air are usually broadcast in the same time slot as when the original story aired. On corrected web articles, a prominent notice is posted about the changes to let readers know that we corrected an error made in an earlier version. We don’t “unpublish” stories from the web no matter how significant the error. All corrections must be approved by the managing editor.