Stories with holes: It’s not really journalism if you leave me with more questions than answers

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If your story looks like this, you’ve got problems.

Sunday morning had me facing my own level of mortality when my dad flashed the obituary section of the paper in front of me and asked, “Did you know this guy?”

Sure enough, I did.

Peter and I had gone to high school together and even been on the debate team at the same time. He was a year ahead of me and was wicked smart. He tutored me in geometry, a Herculean task to say the least, and he was the school’s valedictorian the year he graduated.

He went off to two Ivy League schools, earning a law degree and spending much of his career in patent law out on the West Coast. He died far too young, at age 47, which left me with the question I’m sure most people would have asked:

“How did he die?”

Despite my best googling and research skills, I couldn’t figure this out. I asked a couple people we held in common over the years, only to have them asking the same question I had. I even emailed his law firm and they didn’t have anything to tell me.

Which leads us to the point of this piece: Journalistic content shouldn’t have your readers asking crucial questions when they are done with the story. When I teach editing, I refer to stories that have this problem as having holes. The job of reporters and editors is to make sure the holes get filled or discussed before a story is published.

In the case of obituaries, we’ve discussed this before and explaining that they’re more for the living than the dead, so we need to make sure they serve as a complete telling of the person’s life. It should be clear that the story of the person’s life is the most important portion of the story, but it also remains the case that the only reason we’re telling it now is because the person has died.

(Side note: When I worked at a newspaper a long time ago, the local style guide dictated that an obituary written on anyone under the age of 70 included the cause of death whenever possible, as most people would be curious of what caused this person’s too-soon demise. I found an older edition of the style guide, which required the COD for those older than 60. Several of us surmised that our boss changed it when he got older, as he didn’t want to be in the “acceptable to be dead” demographic.)

(Second side note: I have told Amy that when I die, however I die, she needs to include the cause of death in my obituary. I don’t care if I died breaking my neck by falling off the couch trying to kiss my own butt as part of a TikTok challenge. If it mattered enough for me to die while doing it, tell people. I don’t need folks speculating…)

In the case of larger investigative stories, holes can unintentionally undermine the credibility of sources. When something is missing and readers have questions, they can become suspicious of the entire story.

Case in point: The Kansas City Star dropped a bombshell story of a former KU football player who stated that several of his former teammates harassed and threatened him and his family. The allegations included a teammate loosening the lug nuts of one of his car’s tires, teammates bursting into his apartment to threaten his family and the athletic department trying to buy his silence to the tune of $50,000.

The story mentions four players, but never names them.

I spent half the story wondering who these former KU football players were.

I spent the other half of the story why, if these allegations were credible, the paper didn’t name these dudes who attacked and threatened this kid.

Neither question got answered in the text, leading me to wonder more about the kid making the allegations and the author of the piece than anything else.

Filling in holes like this can allow the readers to make up their own minds about the credibility of sources, the seriousness of a situation and a dozen other things. However, when they are left hanging, they can’t exercise proper judgment.

I recall reading a story more than a dozen years ago about a small-town beef between a mayor and a city administrator over something the mayor had said. The administrator called it something like “the most offensive slur I have ever heard” while the mayor said it was something like “just a plain-folks saying that was being misinterpreted.”

I read the whole story, waiting to see what was said. The writer didn’t include it, didn’t clue me in on what it might be (a racial slur, a demeaning phrase describing people with disabilities, a sexist remark) and also didn’t tell me why that wasn’t included.

The fact I remember this, while I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, clearly demonstrates that holes can stick with a reader for quite some time.

Here are a few things you can do to find and fill holes that will have your readers thanking you:

CONVERSE WITH THE READER AS YOU WRITE: Journalism has long had a tradition of filling in 5W’s and 1H or checking off news values and considering the job done. Those elements still have value, but we really should be spending more time focusing on the needs of the audience.

After all, when those tenets were crafted, journalists usually knew their audiences intimately and the number of sources of information were far more limited than they are now. Audience-centricity was baked into the process back then and people couldn’t just hop on the internet and find answers to their questions elsewhere.

A good way to make sure that you’re working for the audience is to imagine a conversation with the readers when you are writing. You tell them the most important thing you can and then follow the thread of how you imagine that conversation will go:

You: Hey, your mom called. There was a fire at your house around 2 a.m.

Reader: OH NO! Is everyone OK?

You: No one got hurt because the smoke detector woke them up and they got out right away.

Reader: How bad was the fire?

You: The house is a total loss. Firefighters say more than $200,000 in damage.

Reader: How did this happen?

You: The water heater in the basement got a short circuit and started some oily rags on fire…

When you’re done going through the process, see if what you’ve written does what it needs to or if there are holes. Also, you can review the ordering of your content to see if it follows the pattern of what you think they’ll want to know first. This helps you avoid starting the story with “The Berlin Fire Department, assisted by volunteer firefighters from the town of Aurora, responded to a report of a fire at 111 S. Main St. around 2 a.m. Sunday…”

IF YOU GIVE THE READERS DIRECTIONS, MAKE SURE THEY CAN FOLLOW THEM: A number of stories will tell people to do something or avoid something or respond to something. These stories become problematic when people aren’t told how to do these things.

Back when the illness we were all freaking out about was the Swine Flu (H1N1), a local daycare had an outbreak and had to shut down. The people at the daycare told parents to watch their kids carefully for symptoms of the illness. In fact, the story on the outbreak mentioned this important activity at least three times in six paragraphs.

The problem? The story never said what the symptoms were, so that wasn’t really helpful at all.

A similar story I remember reading was back when Zoe was about 4 and she really had an interest in Santa. The local paper reported that breakfast with Santa, which was in danger of being cancelled, had been green-lit, thanks to a generous donor. The whole story talked about how kids were going to have breakfast with Santa and that it was so great we didn’t lose breakfast with Santa and how important breakfast with Santa was.

The story never once mentioned when and where the event was taking place. Did the writer expect parents to wander the streets of Omro, looking for a fat guy in a red suit?

In the digital age, we can, obviously, look up things like H1N1 symptoms or local events on a city website, but that’s not the point. If we’re supposed to inform readers about important things, we need to go all the way. Saying, “Well, they can look it up” is akin to listing Chicken Kiev on the menu at a nice restaurant, and then serving patrons bunch of raw ingredients and a recipe card.

IF YOU CAN’T (OR WON’T) FILL THE HOLE, ACKNOWLEDGE IT: Not all holes in stories come from poor writing and reporting. In some cases, information isn’t available. In other cases, a publication decides to err on the side of caution while reporting. Even more, the publication might have a policy that prohibits the publication of certain content.

In those cases, you’re going to leave a hole. When you do, explain what’s going on so your readers can follow along:

“At the family’s request, the name of the MegaJackpot winner will not be released.”

“The cause of death has not been determined, the medical examiner stated.”

“In accordance with the Daily Tattler’s policies, stories do not name assault victims and instead provide a first-name-only pseudonym.”

Explaining WHY the paper wasn’t naming names could have been really helpful Kansas City Star story:

“Due to the lack of supporting legal documents/At the request of the paper’s legal team/Because we believed the kid enough to run the story, but not enough to risk a libel suit, The Kansas City Star is not naming the four players accused of harassing Caperton Humphrey…”

At that point, I could figure out if this was a case of “The lawyers won’t let us, even though we have the goods” or a case of “This story’s hanging by a thread anyway, so let’s not make it collapse.” Knowing which way the wind is blowing on this story would not only satisfy my own curiosity, but it would also make me feel more or less willing to share it on my social media.

In the end, make sure you’re giving the readers the most complete picture possible, even if that means explaining why that picture is incomplete.

One thought on “Stories with holes: It’s not really journalism if you leave me with more questions than answers

  1. Thanks Vince, you have chronicled my pain as I finish every article published by USA TODAY WISCONSIN (caps make the difference, right?). Their “journalism” is horrible – I can’t say I get the full who, what, where, when, how, why of any story I read in that digital rag. And i can denigrate it as I pay for it! Yes – I want to know what’s going on and I still submit myself to this incomplete coverage.

    Clearly nobody is reading these stories before the go “live” and they should be read. Every story has the Twitter account for the writer, so I click thru and look at their photo – do they have permission from their parents to have such a job? They can’t possibly be over 18! This likely explains how thin the coverage is.

    mp/m

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