All entries for August 2010

August 29, 2010

Good interviews

Interviews are part and parcel of good journalism. They provide more than just additional voices to a story. They add facts, expertise, balance, depth and credibility. They can breathe vitality and vigour into dry, sterile information.

Good questions make for good interviews.

An interested interviewer draws out interesting angles and quotes that otherwise would lie dormant with those being interviewed.

But to conduct a good interview, you, the writer, must plan and focus and try to make your interview interesting for your interviewee too.

Always ask the obvious as well as stimulating questions. And don't jump to conclusions. The detail is as important as the earth-shattering facts you unearth.  The obvious means, for example, that you ask for the spelling of names, that you make sure your 'researched' facts are correct - and the fact a couple don't live together anymore doesn't mean they are divorced. They may be separated - or not married in the first place. So check your facts before you leave your interview. These potentially 'small' inaccuracies will erode your story's credibility.

As with most interviews - the skill is to get the person you are interviewing to drop their guard and talk. This is often when the more interesting facts, anecdotes and description usually come. Keep chatting even as you are packing up to leave. The person you are interviewing often relaxes at this stage. The formal bit is over. It's at this point that the best quotes often come. Or even new facts. Make sure you follow them up.

In order to make the most of the time you have for your interview, research as much as you can about your subject. Otherwise you will seem ignorant and uninformed to those you are interviewing. Background knowledge will be appreciated by your interviewee, and  having checked your researched facts are correct, you will have more time to ask other questions. 

Don't talk too much. Listen. Prompt and listen.

Most people love to talk, even shy people, especially if they have an attentive audience. Be that audience.

Before the interview, list your 'must know' questions - this keeps you on track.
Know why you are interviewing the person. What do you want to find out? 
Refer to your list of questions at the end of the interview to check you have covered all the main points. 
During the interview follow up new information but go back to your core questions.

Before setting off on an interview, it is worth considering why anyone would want to be interviewed by a journalist.

By asking yourself these questions and considering the answers, you will be in a better position to face your interviewee. Every interview is different. And every interviewee comes to an interview with a different set of expectations and a different agenda.

What would motivate a person to talk to a journalist?

He or she:

believes the journalist really cares

doesn't really want to, but it's their job - they have to

believes strongly in their cause

wants to get the facts right - to set the record straight

is outraged at something or someone and thinks it needs to be aired in the Press

wants to defend someone else

can't resist the exposure

wants to give their side of the 'story'

has a hidden agenda

thinks it's the right thing to do

getting paid by someone to talk

hopes the exposure will further their career or help their reputation

wants to publicise an event, or product or boost a business.

The skill in writing and the skill in interviewing go hand in hand.

How you conduct your interview will have more impact on the outcome of your story than anything else. And what you get out of an interview very much depends on what you put into it.

And remember the basic facts all stories need to contain: 
Who, what, why, when, where, and how?

What does it take to be a good interviewer?is feature writer Simon Hattenstone's take on interviews as part of a series of booklets Great interviews of the 20th century, published by the Guardian.

Interviewing victims of trauma

Some people ask if it is necessary to interview those who have suffered a traumatic event soon after it has happened?
What is the value of intruding on people when they are grieving, disoriented, shocked and frightened?
What should you discuss with someone before that person consents to an interview?

It is unrealistic to say that people who have been involved in a shocking event should not be interviewed. If that were so, the cameras and journalists would have stayed away from Haiti after the earthquake in January 2010 or the Indonesian tsunami disaster in 2004. They would not be in Pakistan at this moment recording the tragic loss of life and livelihoods as the floods continue to devastate a nation. The world would not have known about these disasters or the scale of the human tragedy - neither would the money have been raised globally to rebuild the shattered lives of these people.

Sad as it is, people who are traumatised often have stories to tell. And those stories may be helpful to broadcast their plight.

But journalists should seek interviewees in a thoughtful and respectful manner.

You, the journalist, must understand that not everyone involved in a news story fully realises how the press works, what an interview entails and its potential effects on them, their families and friends. Interviewees should also be told whether their names are likely be used in the story.

Read this blog by journalist, Chris Wheal,  who found himself as a 'member of the public' when his nine-year-old nephew was found dead in the family garden, hung by a swing rope last month. Another point of view is given in response by Dominic Ponsford, editor of the Press Gazette.

Characteristics of a good interviewer

Consider which of these attributes you will need when you are interviewing a person or persons over a sensitive subject. Maybe you need all of them?:

  • Interest
  • Attentiveness
  • Caring
  • Self-containment
  • Freedom from expectations or judgements
  • Respect

At the end of any interview, ask if you can have a direct contact number and email address, and ask if you can get back to your interviewee if you need to check facts. You shouldn't hesitate getting back to the person you interviewed if you want to check you have got certain details right. The interviewee wants to be portrayed accurately.

Conducting a good interview can allow you to grow in your own knowledge and, by sharing that knowledge, impact a wider circle.

Most memorable interviews is a series of videos showing the good, bad and ugly moments of interviews conducted by leading writers such as Observer feature writer Lynn Barber. 

Sally Ballard is the tutor for the accredited 25-week online certificate course, Writing for Publication, run by Warwick University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning  starting in October 2010. For details see

August 22, 2010

Get to know your readers

It may sound obvious but before you type your 1,000 word article, you need to know both your reader and the publication for which you plan to write.

Many writers fail to do this. And then they wonder why their idea wasn't accepted by the commissioning editor. The fact it was rejected wasn't necessarily because it was a badly written or badly researched article. It's more likely that what was proposed was inappropriate for that particular publication.

All editors will expect each and every one of  their writers to be familiar with both the publication and its readership.

How can you write in the correct tone, in the correct style if you haven't leafed through the publication, taken stock of what articles it covers, how it covers them (word or picture heavy, fact boxes, first person etc)?
And how can you deliver suitable content if you don't know the publication's readership - their age, gender, interests, the type of life they lead in terms of home and family, income and work, political, religious and social affiliations?

Writers also need to be market researchers. Research is absolutely crucial if you are to have any chance of success, and if you want to be taken seriously.

It is worth standing in a newsagent's and spending some time looking at the magazine and newspaper titles.

More than likely, you will be surprised at the range of subjects published. You will be so used to going to the same magazine rack, to the same section, and looking for the title you usually read, that it's highly likely you didn't know there was a magazine called Cardmaking, Bead Trends or CrossStitcher. How about: Home Farmer, Practical Fishkeeping, Bizarre, The Dolls' House Magazine? And in another section you will probably find EcoTraveller, A Place in the Sun and French Property News.

Search sites which list UK newspapers and magazines and you will find titles such as The Philosopher's Magazine, Girl Talk, Golf Monthly, The Drum, Today's Flyfisher, Outdoor Photography, Today's Railways, The Hat Magazine.

As a writer, it is vital to get an idea of the range of publications. These are all possible markets for you. Another excellent resource which lists hundreds of publications and describes who they are aimed at is The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook.

According to the Periodical Publishers' Association there are 3,212 consumer magazines and nearly 5,000 business titles in the UK. Some 200- 300 new titles are launched each year. Britons are the third biggest spenders per head on consumer magazines in Europe and UK consumers will spend £2.5bn on magazines this year. Nine out of ten UK adults read consumer magazines. UK publishers sell 40 million magazines outside of the UK every year.
Those are big figures, a lot of magazines, a lot of space to fill. So it's worth keeping up- to- date with what's out there be it magazines, newspapers (and their online equivalent), trade magazines, e-zines (online 'magazines' ) and online 'newspapers'.

Make yourself familiar with a number of publications which carry subjects in which you are interested.

Look at the articles, the adverts (this will help you understand to whom the magazine is targeted and what their interests are).

Look at the coverlines on magazines. These are the words on the front of a publication which gives readers an idea of the main stories inside.

The coverlines will tell you a lot about the content and the readership.

The same goes for the image on the cover of the publication. The cover will help you define the target audience (sleek and sophisticated, fun and fast, considered, mumsy, sexy, DIY fiend).

The design of the front cover tells you whether the publication is a quick read (are the colours bright and brash which say 'pick me up, read me and throw me away') or more sombre and studied (a glossy coffee-table style magazine with content you are likely to read and refer to again).

Quick-read publications are aimed at a readership who's in a hurry and only got time to read over a cup of coffee or a pint. The story lengths will be shorter. The content less ponderous. It will be written in a bright and breezy tone.

Another type of publication will aim at a readership who has more time. In that case, the articles will be longer and more considered. They will carry facts and argument which add to the content.

This goes for all publications whether an inhouse magazine for a business, or a parish magazine for a local community. A successful publication will have a tone and a style which will be consistent and relevant to their target audience.

Several publications, such as the BBC's Science and Technology magazine Focus, tell writers just what they should be aiming for when they are planning an article. This is obviously a great help. But as the magazines' guidelines say - all writers should get to know the magazine first.
In this way, you will be a far more effective writer because your article ideas and your writing will be tailored to fit that specific market and the specific reader.

Sally Ballard is the tutor for the accredited 25-week online certificate course, Writing for Publication, run by Warwick University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning  starting in October 2010. For details see

August 15, 2010

Getting started – a reporter's role

Surprisingly, a would-be journalist does not have to have any specific training or qualification to join the profession. Neither is there any definitive code to which a new reporter has to adhere.

While there are many universities running media courses and there are training schemes run worldwide that aim to guide and help the new reporter develop their craft, in reality, anyone can set themselves up as a freelance journalist be it as a feature writer, a news reporter, a video journalist, a photo journalist, a news blogger, citizen journalist, or even an online editor.

The internet and speed and ease of communication has made this even easier. Citizen journalism is a relatively new term but it reflects how the field of journalism has opened up to everyone.

In his article ‘How 7/7 democratised the media’, BBC correspondent Torin Douglas describes the rise of citizen journalism.

However, most people who earn their living from journalism either have regularly paid jobs on the staff of media companies or they work as freelances. Freelance journalists earn money from the stories or photographs they get published. Citizen journalists are rarely paid and do the work because it benefits their community, highlights something they believe in, or gives them the satisfaction of having their work published.

But whether freelance, staff or citizen journalist, all journalists are expected to maintain certain conduct that upholds not only their own reputation, but the reputation of the publications for which they write.

There are codes of conduct which are now part of journalists’ contracts of employment such as those laid out by the self-regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in its Editors' Code of Practice. Members of the public can, in the UK, turn to the PCC for advice or if they have concerns about any matter involving the press, such as harassment, intrusion or inaccurate reporting.

However, it is generally agreed among journalists the world over that all good and responsible newsgatherers aim to seek out the truth and deliver it to their audience in an accurate, objective, balanced and honest manner.

In order to uphold the highest standards, all journalists should set these goals as their own benchmark.

Accuracy is essential. Even failing to get numbers right, or the correct names and details of companies or individuals, will lose any journalist their credibility - and potentially their job. Certainly, as a freelance, they wouldn't be asked to write for that publication again. Some classic misprint howlers can be found on Hold the Front Page and the Faux Pas File. The answer is to check facts remorselessly. And then check them again.

Being objective means being able to stand outside the story or subject and report without prejudice - to give a fair and impartial account of the event or news item. This means also evaluating one's own background and culture and being able to report stories without that influence. A reporter's duty is to inform, to give the facts from all sides and let people make up their own minds.

To produce a balanced article the writer has to offer both sides of the story. This involves giving the person or persons whose behaviour (for example) has been questioned, the opportunity to respond to the allegations.

Honesty is an absolute. There are tales of reporters who make up quotes, lift stories from other news outlets and pass them off as their own, and even offer totally fictitious stories.

Daniel Jeffreys, The Daily Mail's New York correspondent, wrote an eyewitness account in 2002 of Tracy Housel's execution in Georgia, where the British prisoner spent 16 years on death row for rape and murder. The writer for the UK tabloid produced a riveting read, says the New York Magazine.
'What happened will haunt my dreams for years,' wrote Jeffreys solemnly. 'We could see Housel mouthing the words "I love you."'

Moving stuff. There's just one problem. It's all made up.
Jeffreys never actually witnessed this event. He wrote the account, he says, having spoken to Housel’s lawyer who was there.
This is Jeffreys’ original story filed to The Daily Mail.

A journalist should, under the International Federation of Journalists' code of ethics, only use 'fair methods to obtain news, photographs and documents'. Threats, bribery, and tricking people into giving information is an absolute 'no'. As is not identifying oneself as a journalist when gathering information or asking for an interview.

Some of the ‘tactics’ used by one UK Sunday tabloid have been questioned. The News of the World’s investigative journalist Mazher Mahmood (the fake sheikh) broke a number of exclusive stories having ‘exposed’ royalty, actors, criminals, sportsmen and presenters when interviewing them in his sheikh disguise.

So what characteristics should a journalist possess?

Ultimately, the key to your success is your:

  • Ability to write and research. A specialism, an interest, a degree or some indepth knowledge of a subject is likely to stand you in good stead. You can then write with authority, with confidence and with a background knowledge that will give your article credibility
  • Perseverance.You will be tenacious, want to seek out the truth, and not give up when faced with opposition or bureaucratic inertia
  • Curiosity. Your questioning will be deeper and your interviewee's responses more rounded if you are personally interested in the subject and curious to know the answers
  • Desire to get the whole picture, the truth behind your story. You will be persistent in your questioning and won't be fobbed off by those who think they can ride rough-shod over your interview
  • Ability to be relaxed with all types of people in all sorts of situations. People are stories. Mixing with people will lead you to yet more stories and story ideas. The more time you spend with people, the more they will give. Your stories will be richer for it.

Added to the above, all journalists need to cultivate a certain degree of scepticism. Information will come your way but you always need to question why your source has passed on these details. What's in it for them? Has that official or company press officer put certain information your way in order that their businesses are seen in a favourable light? Question everything.

But why write?
As a journalist you will write because you are interested in the subject, because you enjoy imparting information, because you have an enquiring mind and want to get the facts, because you want to meet people and see things they would otherwise not see, meet or do (writing gives entry to all sorts of venues).  But your role is always to represent the ordinary man in the street not to enjoy some sort of celebrity kick.

And your skill as a writer is in how you research the story and find the answers, how you then tell the story, how you structure it, accurately reporting the facts and detail, making your article readable and relevant.

And while you are writing, you’ll remember that all good stories whether 50, 500 or 5,000 words long share the same basic elements: what happened, when, where, to whom, why, and how?

What other qualities do you think a journalist needs?

Sally Ballard is the tutor for the accredited 25-week online certificate course, Writing for Publication, run by Warwick University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning  starting in October 2010. For details see

August 09, 2010

Trust your instincts as a reader

In this blog, we will look at what makes a good feature.  

In order to understand what makes a good feature you will need to trust your own senses - as a reader.

Take a moment to think about a particularly enjoyable article you read recently.

What was it that made you want to read beyond the first paragraph?

What made you want to read to the end of the page or the end of the screen?

Was it a feeling of satisfaction - a feeling you had been given new information?

Perhaps you felt the article shocked, horrified, saddened, uplifted, or amused you?

Did you turn to that article to add to the knowledge you already had on that subject, or was it because you knew nothing about the subject and were intrigued?

Perhaps you liked the style of the writer - found him/her engaging or authoritative?

As a writer it is important to think about this when you are looking at articles. You need to stand in the reader’s shoes and see the story from their perspective.  What do they want to know, what will interest them and get them to read to the end of your story?

You can try the same exercise with an article you don’t like. Think what it is that doesn’t make that particular article work for you. This will help you to be objective in your writing, to stand outside your words and see whether or not they work.

All the papers this weekend have been filled with columns of words describing the horrors, tragedy and losses of the floods that have swept Pakistan. Neil Tweedie in his piece for the Daily Telegraph - Pakistan in Crisis: left to help themselves - recounts recurring stories of bitterness and betrayal. He builds a picture of starving families grieving for their dead, their homes lost and livelihoods swept away, there's pending disease, a fractured aid programme, and anger mounts while the country’s prime minister continues his controversial visit to Britain.

Tweedie uses his words to paint a picture of what has happened, how it has affected the people of Pakistan, where the floods are to strike next, how people are coping with their suffering, why this disaster happened and who is helping.  His words answer the key questions the reader wants answering and put the disaster in context and make it relevant by associating it with the Pakistani Prime Minister’s visit to the UK.

So what are the magic ingredients for  a feature or an article?  Well, it upholds the best reporting traditions of solid, clear, accurate and visual storytelling.

In Saturday’s papers I particularly liked the feature: Women of the new Afghan Army.

I found the subject matter intriguing, the concept of women in the male dominated Afghanistan regime taking on perhaps one of the most macho roles conceivable was fascinating, and the article itself was well put together with a mix of personal stories, emotion and hard facts.

Then, on a completely different subject, there’s Jeffrey Kluger’s article in Time magazine: Inside the minds of animals? Kluger tells us about a study in the States to determine the linguistic intelligence of animals. The article tells us about his conversation over a cup of coffee with 29-year-old Kanzi, one of the main contributors to the study. Nothing unusual about that - except Kanzi is a monkey with a vocabulary of 384 words. This is a cleverly executed article with all the key facts woven around Kluger’s face to face with the formidible Kanzi.

Trainee journalists are always told to write their articles as though they were telling the story to their mates in the pub or the bar.

Standing among their friends, the young journalist will tell their story in a way to capture and hold their friends’ attention. They will start with the most important details. They will add description, more than likely mimic some spoken words, repeat some conversation. They will describe what happened, why and when it happened, to whom, where and how.

This is storytelling and they will be storytellers.

Just as the young journalist pitches his story to his friends, when you write, you will relate to your readers - they are your market, your audience. Your readers may be women, men, the young, the elderly, professionals, specialists or academics. Whoever they are, you will write with them in mind and have a written ‘conversation’ with them in their ‘language’.

What you write will be relevant to your readers. What you have to say will connect with them on either an intellectual or emotional level - or both.  And most importantly you will never leave your reader asking any questions.

And to ensure your article doesn’t leave the reader wanting; you as the writer will always make sure your article answers the questions: Who, what, why, when, where, and how?

Who is the article talking about? What happened? Why did it happen? When? Where? and lastly, how?

When you have dug deep to get answers to those questions - you will have mastered the basics to writing a good feature or article.

Sally Ballard is the tutor for the accredited 25-week online certificate course, Writing for Publication, run by Warwick University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning  starting in October 2010. For details see

August 01, 2010

When a 'joke' is no laughing matter

This is the first in a series of blogs about writing and communication. Good, clear, accurate communication is vital for us all to master as the range of different media outlets through which we can message, contact, inform, and educate continues to grow. In these blogs we will explore the pleasures and pitfalls of writing using these multi-media tools.

It is now so easy to communicate with pictures and moving images, through audio, and in writing. We talk about global audience, e-publishing, world-wide interaction, the conversation.

And we’re all doing it - especially through social networking sites such as Facebook which just two weeks ago announced it had notched up 500 million users.

Twitter, the four-year-old social networking site which lets users say something in up to 140 characters, yesterday (Sunday) announced its 20 billionth message had been posted. 

That’s a lot of posting going on - a lot of words being written and pictures being uploaded.

Because of the internet, we’re now all publishers. We are all authors. We can express what we like to our audiences which may number just six, sixty, or sixty thousand.

But can we really say whatever we want?

Be warned. We can’t.

This should be the first lesson for anyone embracing any form of social media, writing emails, putting up comments on websites, blogging, Twittering - even publishing articles in standard print media.

A lesson to be learned came last week when a Facebook ‘joke’ cost the author £10,000 in a High Court case which experts say highlights the dangers of posting even light-hearted material online.

Social networking sites are a great place to share your thoughts, words and deeds with all your friends, family and work colleagues. Sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter can be light-hearted and jokey places.

But there are jokes...and jokes.

Sending up your friends or colleagues on any social networking site with the intention of making them look stupid or inferring they are not what they seem, is no joking matter. It is libel. And it could cost you thousands.

The object of the Facebook ‘joke’ was British student, Raymond Bryce. He was awarded £10,000 in damages last Wednesday (July 27), after his former friend Jeremiah Barber posted an image of Bryce superimposed on a picture of child porn. Barber had also written a note which insinuated Bryce was a paedophile.

Bryce was devastated. The 24-year-old law student from Staffordshire said more than 800 people would have been able to view the page. Bryce told the High Court in London he was too scared even to leave his home because he didn’t know who had seen the image and read the post.

The judge, Mr Justice Tugendhat, said, ‘This was not only defamatory, but a defamation which goes to a central aspect of Mr Bryce's private life as well as his public reputation.

‘This post was deeply offensive to him, but also a cause for alarm.

‘He could not go out in public because he feared he would be a victim of violence, which is not infrequently the result for those accused of paedophilia.’

The judge added, ‘I can infer that the number of people who saw this Facebook page would have been in the hundreds. This post was clearly a malicious act.
‘Damages in libel actions are awarded as compensation, not as punishment, to vindicate reputation, to compensate for harm to that reputation and as compensation for injury to feelings.’

We all need to take note of the judge’s words.

We communicate in writing everyday through social networking sites, Twitter, emails, text, and ink on paper.

But we must take care with everything we write. We have to remember we are publishing to an audience and we have a responsibility not to bring any person’s reputation, or any business’s reputation into disrepute.

To do so, we are defaming them. This means others will see them in a poorer light. The only defence to a claim of defamation is that the words spoken or written were true.

When we speak in a defamatory way, we commit slander.

When we write in a defamatory way, we commit libel.

If you send a private letter to just one person and you are unfairly critical of them - that is not defamatory. But if you send that same letter to others - you have published it to a third party. In that case you could be sued for defamation.

What might appear as a light-hearted comment or a joke to you, might not be taken that way.

So, when you are posting on sites, emailing (and copying others in) or Twittering, think about what you are saying. Is it true? 

It is far too easy, particularly in this electronic age, to write something and quickly press the send button.

Pause for thought. Consider: Is what I have written accurate? Is it fair? Have I checked my facts?

Ask yourself: Have I clearly expressed what I wanted to say or is it open to misinterpretation? How would I feel if someone said this about me? Would I feel my reputation was harmed?

Then, and only then, should you post.

Sally Ballard is the tutor for the online course, Writing for Publication, run by the University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning starting in October 2010.

For details, contact the Open Studies office on +44 (0) 24 7657 3739, or email

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