Incident at Ohio State holds valuable lessons about storytelling, breaking news

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Reaching your audience is all about telling an engaging story. As technology has evolved, the tools available to tell stories have expanded exponentially. Journalists and other communicators now have the ability use tools that enhance parts of their messages (visual, auditory or text) in ways that didn’t exist even a few years ago. These changes necessitate the need for urgency to publish information, especially when stories are changing minute by minute.

As students at Ohio State were returning from Thanksgiving break, a student drove his car onto a crowded sidewalk, got out and began stabbing passers-by. Within minutes, campus police responded and shot the suspect. A university-wide text alert said an active shooter was on campus and students were asked to shelter in place.

This story, which quickly gained national attention, provides an excellent lesson in storytelling and breaking news coverage. This article, told through the perspectives of student editors at The Lantern (Ohio State’s student newspaper) details how the publication’s staff reacted to the news and spent the next few hours and days providing coverage. It’s also illustrative in the lessons it teaches about storytelling.

As a student publication, it’s essential to “own” the coverage of your school. That doesn’t just apply to major breaking news events. It includes the mundane parts of everyday life. But whenever your school is involved in a major news event, your publication needs to be on top of it. Students and others should be able to look to your publication as a primary source of information and updates.

It can be tough to balance the demands of breaking news coverage with the realities of school life, but it’s an essential skill to learn. Create procedures and plans that rely on a chain of command to assign responsibilities when news breaks. You may never have to deal with a school shooting, but other stories demand immediate coverage. Even the students at Ohio State prepared for this very scenario in a class exercise just a few weeks before. Little did they know how soon they’d have to use what they’ve learned.

Storytelling happens now. Audience engagement is at its highest when news first breaks because people are looking for information so they can understand what’s happening. As time passes, they look for more context to enable them to make sense of what’s happened. No matter what type of publication you have, your online presence enables you to keep your audience informed as the story evolves.

First you plan, and then you amend. The Lantern publishes in print several times per week. Tuesday was one of its print days. The staff tore up their plans for the next day’s paper and reworked the layouts to adapt to the breaking story. Their coverage included multi-faceted approaches that spanned a range of digital and print coverage over the following days that not only provided a summary of events but explored reactions and fallout.

Breaking news demands quick thinking. One of the editors dropped what he was doing to get to the scene. Another made the decision to work remotely because commuting back to campus would have proved prohibitive (roads were shut down around campus) and the travel time would have wasted valuable opportunities to cultivate sources and plan coverage with other reporters on the ground.

Any breaking news environment is prone to rumor and confusion. Part of your job as reporters is to dispel rumors and to provide clear, accurate information. Never overstate and be open about what you don’t know. It’s tough sometimes for the truth to win out amid so many conflicting ideas, but it’s a necessary fight. The Lantern staff worked to dispel rumors—that an active shooter was on campus (compounded by the campus text alert), that the shooter had an accomplice, that several students had died, and that someone purposefully pulled a fire alarm to get students outside prior to the attack.

For more guidance, consult On the Media’s guide for breaking news. Planning today will make your job easier when the time arrives to put it to use.

Harness the power of editorial writing

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This is the second year I’ve judged editorials for a state scholastic press association contest. I was impressed with the improvement from last year’s entries. The topics were better overall, and the writers’ use of logic and research improved as well. I’d like to think all of those comments and suggestions I made last year weren’t in vain.

However, some problems still persisted. I found it discouraging to see students wasting such a valuable opportunity to speak decisively about important matters to the student body and wider community.

Students love to write opinion. Some think they can throw away the rules of solid journalism by simply inserting the phrase “I think” (or in the case of a staff editorial, “we think”) before stating their viewpoint, which they believe is “true” just because that’s the way they feel.

Part of it may stem from the proliferation of opinions floating through society. People’s ability to share their thoughts about any range of topics has profoundly expanded because of free and accessible online tools that enable average people to offer their take in any number of conversations.

This preponderance of opportunities is the perfect reminder about why advisers need to teach opinion writing as part of any journalism or publication class. Anyone can say anything, but a solid piece of journalistic opinion writing requires research, facts and logic to ground its arguments. Below are some reminders about editorial writing I’ve compiled from my observations as a contest judge.

What are editorials? Editorials represent the consensus viewpoint of the publication’s editorial board, usually composed of top editors and staff leaders. The group’s opinion represents the official view of the publication about a given issue. Thus, editorials use “we,” never “I,” and they never include a byline. They can serve multiple purposes: to commend, criticize, explain or persuade. Editorials often stem from a news or feature story the staff covers elsewhere in the publication.

Borrowing from an article in C:JET by Don Bott, an adviser from California, editorials must contain three C’s: controversy (open to multiple reasonable interpretations and stances), context (relevance to the school and the audience) and confinement (narrowly drawn to focus on a specific point or stand within a larger problem or concern). Topics like “gun control” and “school violence” are too broad. However, if one’s own school board is considering a plan to provide teachers with guns in the classroom, that would be a perfect topic.

I’ve noticed when judging that even controversial topics don’t work if they’re missing one of the other C’s mentioned above. They simply turn into broad persuasive essays that don’t resonate with the students because they lack context.

Most of all, good editorials avoid triteness and clichés. Telling the audience to overcome fears, to make their school year productive, or to avoid making excuses are worthy topics for a piece of commentary, an editor’s note or a column. They’re not suited for an editorial.

Editorials spark action. They encourage change. They take a stand. No riding the fence. The staff needs to pick a side and describe why it’s the best course of action. Of course, to do this, the editorial board needs to do its research. If the staff feels a school policy isn’t working, offer an alternative. Editorials need to offer logical, solid evidence for their stance.

How are editorials structured? Begin by stating the problem, offer the staff’s opinion about a specific course of action (keep the policy, change the curriculum, etc.) and then present evidence about why that’s the best course. All the while, offer rebuttals to the opposing side’s arguments. End by summing up the staff’s opinion and presenting logical solutions. Others can and will disagree with the staff’s viewpoint. That’s OK. The purpose of the opinion page is to inspire discussion and debate. The staff is merely using its voice to advocate and to throw ideas into the mix.

These are some additional resources about writing editorials:

Tips about the writing structure of editorials

More about writing structure and purpose of editorials

Pulitzer Prize-winning editorials (for inspiration)