Guest Blogging: Context Counts (or when an airline cuts flights)

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, we are fortunate to have Jessica Sparks, an experienced journalist and assistant professor at Savannah State University to discuss the importance of context in journalism. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.

In the first few weeks of my entry level course in media writing, I introduce students to three specific values the media has traditionally held- fairness, diversity and context. Without these three pieces, we become Rush Limbaugh- pick apart the facts to support your opinion and forget all those pesky statements that completely oppose it.

Context, to me, is one value many novice journalists tend to forget. There are two possible explanations for this: They know the context, but forget to include it in the story so the audience can see the information they way they saw it; or they didn’t ask enough questions to really understand the information given to them and therefore don’t have enough context to explain it thoroughly.

In class, I often pose this question to my students:

An airline announces it will cut half of all its flights from a mid-size airport near your media outlet. Is this news?

Without posing follow-up questions for context, you cannot definitively say yes or no.

As Vince points out in his book “Dynamics of Media Writing,” a good story applies to a mass audience- it’s interesting, timely and informative. In addition, it has at least some of those characteristics (conflict, impact, proximity, prominence, novelty).

For this example, most students picture an airline such as Delta cutting hundreds of flights, which could affect thousands of travelers and hundreds of jobs. Yes, that is news.

However, what if it’s a regional airline that flies twice a month with a 20-person plane? The announcement isn’t nearly as newsworthy as the aforementioned scenario, and it might not be worth a full report.

During my “Back to the Newsroom” fellowship with the Wall Street Journal, I was placed on The Numbers blog team. My job, essentially, was to identify data that would intrigue an audience and build visual elements to accompany short blog posts about that data. One of the most memorable of these pieces for me was “More kids born outside of marriage, but fewer teen births.”

In terms of context, this story stuck out to me because the numbers provided by the Census Bureau pointed to a traditional generational process. As the world has changed, so has the core family experience. This headline pushes that agenda.

However, the statistics still showed, the majority of new mothers were married when birthing their first child.

That’s context. The headline grabs the reader, but the story must still make clear that the data is showing a possible trend- not a rule. There’s not rule from this data saying children will be born out of wedlock. All it’s saying is that there is a possible trend emerging through the numbers.

What can you do to make sure you have the context around each fact, number and quote?

  1. Make sure you understand it yourself. Don’t write about something you don’t understand, and don’t feel silly asking a question of a source because you think it will make you look dumb. Sources would prefer you get the story right. (Though, you should do your best to come prepared and knowledgeable.)
  2. Continually ask yourself if you are misleading your audience. Are you choosing to omit information because it contradicts something else in your story? Don’t. It’s better to write that there was some confusing detail than to seem opaque in your reporting process.
  3. Read it out loud to yourself. Sometimes hearing the fact instead of reading it forces you to notice missing- yet important- details.

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