Exercise 1
Skill Building--Develop a Story Idea

Topics in the news aren't really stories until they're told in a way that makes people care.

For this exercise, you need to choose one of the following topics as a starting point.

  • State students outscore national average on SAT test.
  • High levels of tree pollen plague allergy sufferers.
  • Government gives taxpayers one extra day to file income taxes.

Now ask these questions about the topic you've chosen: Who has something at stake and what is it? What's the problem? Where does [did] this story come from and where is it going?

Based on your answers, write your story idea. Begin your story idea with this phrase: "Let's find out if…"

Also list three to five sources you would consult to further develop your story idea.

Questions--Turning a Topic into a Story Idea

  • My story idea:
  • The sources I would consult:

Remember that you can approach a topic in any number of different ways. It's often useful to begin by listing stakeholders, people who are involved or who would be affected by the story. Their perspective may give you an angle to pursue and help you pose a "Let's find out…" question. To show you what we mean, we're going to do this for each of the topics on our list.     


Exercise 2
Discover Reporting Strategies

Reporter Byron Harris of WFAA-TV in Dallas, Texas, finds stories in lots of different ways. Watch one of his stories, and read how he found and reported it. Then answer the questions below.

Gypsy Cops--WFAA-TV, Dallas, Texas


Reporter Byron Harris of WFAA-TV in Dallas, Texas, got a phone call one day from a man who claimed that a local small-town police chief was involved in child pornography. Harris' first question was, "Who cares?" "It's an interesting story in itself, this guy's corrupt, but there's corruption everywhere in the world," he said. "Why is this important?"

Harris knew that a state commission monitors police officers in Texas, so he requested the police chief's file. It turned out the man had been arrested twice and stripped of his "Master Peace Officer" certificate for claiming a phony college degree, but he still managed to get a job as a police chief. Harris now had the answer to his first question.

"I care about it because--number one--small towns conspire to cover up the records of police officers when they leave," he said. "They will fire them or in most cases give them a chance to resign and the reasons for their resignation are never delineated so the next police department down the pike doesn't really know what it is, in this person's background that makes them questionable."

Harris contacted other police officers around the state who had complained about the chief. He obtained copies of key documents. He even talked to the chief on the phone more than once. But he couldn't air the story without getting the chief on camera. That turned out to be the hardest part of the story.

"The little town where he worked is an hour and a half from here, and every time I went down to catch him on duty, to just walk in on him, he wasn't there," Harris said. "And we would hear that he was coming to work that day so we'd drive down and he wouldn't show up."

The state commission file listed a home address, but it turned out to be a mailbox at a postal service store. The man who ran the place said the chief lived with his mother. "I staked out his mother's house for a while. I knew that wasn't going to work. I found that he'd taken a security job at an apartment house and I couldn't find him there.”

Eventually, Harris learned that the chief sometimes worked after hours at a topless bar. He took a small camera and staked him out there, but at 4 a.m. the man snuck out the back door. At that point, Harris said, he gave up on the story. "I said we've spent too much time on this. I'm not going to do this anymore. And all of a sudden, out of the blue, the mailbox guy calls and says 'I got his address, don't tell anybody.'"

Harris' persistence paid off. He got the story and exposed the common small-town practice of hiring "gypsy cops." The police chief was forced to resign.


Super Doctors--WFAA-TV, Dallas, Texas


Curiosity plus experience can often equal a great story. Super Doctors, reported by Byron Harris of WFAA-TV in Dallas, Texas, grew out of two stories he'd reported earlier.

First, he'd learned that magazines sometimes use flawed "studies" to determine who's the best or worst at something. When "Men's Health" magazine named Dallas the fattest city in the United States, Harris reported that it was based on only one measurement: the number of health clubs per capita.

Second, he'd covered the story of an oncologist in Dallas who had two patients die in his care within a few months of each other; they both died from overdoses of chemotherapy. Some time later, Harris noticed that doctor's name on a local magazine's list of "super doctors." Harris wondered how that could possibly have happened, and he knew enough to ask how the magazine came up with its list.

"It turns out that 'super doctors' is not anything except a marketing company in Minneapolis," he said. "And they say they have a rigorous scientific selection process, which is really nothing. They just make it up. They say 'we have a board' of this and that, and I said, 'Who's on the board?' They wouldn't tell me. And I said, 'What questions do you ask?' Well, we ask one question: which doctor would you go to yourself. I said, 'Is that really an index of quality?' Ultimately they quit talking to me; they hired a PR guy. I sent him three pages of questions. That guy helped me a lot because he was a jerk."

Harris knew enough about methodology to know that the survey was bogus. "There are people who purport to be journalists who have only a tangential contact with methodology, and this magazine editor was one such person," he said. "He couldn't understand why, if he sent out questionnaires, wasn't that good enough? Well, no, it's not good enough. What's the demo[graphic] of who you're getting answers from, how do you choose them, do you just ask one question? Are you kidding me?”

"These magazines will say 'we got 25,000 votes.' Well it's technically true but what that means is, they got responses from 1,000 doctors, each of whom answered 25 questions [about different specialties].”

Harris didn't stop there. Knowing that at least one of the doctors on the list had been sued for malpractice, he and a producer took the list of 643 "super doctors" to the county courthouse and spent 4 hours looking them up. Harris calls the story that aired "conventional wisdom exploded."

Questions--Reporting Strategies

  • What story did you watch?
  • How did Byron Harris find that story?
  • List three of the steps Harris took to develop the story.


Exercise 3
Follow-up Stories

Look at the local newspaper from 2 weeks ago online. Find as many stories as possible that make you ask: What happened next? Provide the URL of three stories that you think should be followed up and explain why.

Story Idea #1

  • Web address
  • Why is this story worth following up on?
  • List three questions you would want answered in a follow-up story.

Story Idea #2

  • Web address
  • Why is this story worth following up on?
  • List three questions you would want answered in a follow-up story.

Story Idea #3

  • Web address
  • Why is this story worth following up on?
  • List three questions you would want answered in a follow-up story.