Better Writing with Bart Pfankuch
A major goal of news reporting is to keep readers abridged of things, so it makes sense that uncovering and understanding trends should be part of any writer’s toolbox.
Editors — and readers — love trend reporting. Editors puff up when their outlet is first to report on anything. Readers use trend reporting to appear insightful during conversations at cookouts or the coffee shop, and it provides critical information for them to live well, be safe, find financial success or avoid pitfalls.
One firm fact about trend reporting is that it has never been trendier. Yet trend reporting is timeless and if you want your material to land on the front page or the home page, it is a skill worth mastering. Here are six tips to help you spot and illuminate trends in your community.
Trendspotting — finding the news peg
Finding trends is like any form of reporting in that it requires curiosity, thought and legwork. Reading, listening, asking questions and wondering why are key components. Some trends pop up quickly and require hustle to break the news: new musical or dining options; overly hot, cold, wet or dry weather; new policing or medical techniques; a rash of snake bites, car wrecks, infections or successful new businesses. Other trends ooze out over time: gender, age or racial changes in business or government; housing prices or availability; new methods of farming or manufacturing; epidemiological, birth or death patterns; or systemic environmental and education issues.
Find a fact, think about how it fits in (or doesn’t) to the big picture and ask those in the know what they’re seeing. Always hunt for reasons why a trend arose in your reporting.
Clip check for context
Once you’ve spotted a trend, or just have an idea, it’s time to see what’s already been written. This is exponentially easier in the internet age. Search a variety of ways and with multiple terms for background. Look for meaningful news accounts, government reports or scientific studies. Take note of the sources quoted (studies with sources cited or references are a gold mine of potential sources) and consider re-interviewing people who are especially on point. Dig deeper to find historical context that reveals a trend’s path. Be judicious when pulling data from past reporting, especially by other journalists or from reports that appear to be on the outskirts of rational or contemporary thought. What’s new now may be at the heart of your thesis or nut graph, but what came before or led to the trend may be just as revealing.
Go local, regional, national and global
Readers want to know what’s happening in their communities, but they also want to know how they fit into the rest of the world. Once you nail the local trend, find background materials or sources that reveal how things play out elsewhere. Use a couple quick data points or examples from elsewhere to support the trend. Most times, your community will be a bit ahead or behind the curve, so be sure readers know where they land on the trendline and why.
Facts and figures provide the fuel
Most trends are supported by data collected by government, industry, watchdog groups or concerned individuals. Seek out current or contextual data to reveal the trendline. Find the most relevant data points and use them to support the nut graph high in the story. Sometimes a strong or startling piece of data can even become the lead. Use data to create boxes and break-outs to quickly illustrate the trend.
Case studies provide evidence
Finding “real people” to illustrate the trend can be tough, but it is critical to showing how the trend plays out on the ground level. Ask every source you encounter for ideas on who to call, and visit them in person when possible. Interviews with someone who has experienced the impacts of a trend is where the color and storytelling opportunities arise, and it is often where the good art, video, audio and details reside.
Don’t fear the trend-buster
In any trend, there are trend-busters — people, places or populations where the trend does not exist and in fact may be on a wholly opposite path. Never leave this material out of your story. Readers and editors will scoff if a piece is overly secure in its thesis, or if something appears to be happening on too large a scale. Everything in life is gray in some way and openly sharing the outliers gives the piece more power, not less. Remember, not everything is a trend — sometimes the vagaries of life are just how things are and if so, you may have to pull the plug on the idea.
With these tips in mind, give trend reporting a try, and it won’t be long before your material is popping up on the front page.
Bart Pfankuch, a Menasha, Wis., native, is an investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch. During his time in Wisconsin, Pfankuch had stints at the Fitchburg Star, The (Madison) Capital Times and the (Eau Claire) Leader-Telegram. Before joining News Watch, he served as editor of the Rapid City (S.D.) Journal.