Create a guiding vision for your reporting
Journalists regularly talk about wanting to have an impact with our reporting. While we often don't want to prescribe a particular agenda or outcome for our work, it's important for journalists to consider that our reporting doesn't exist in a vacuum and that we have the potential to inform decisions, shape the way people see the world, and affect systemic change.
System: A set of interconnected and dynamic forces that have a collective function or purpose. Examples: transportation system, the rainforest, a school, a basketball team
This exercise is geared to help you reflect on your own metrics for success, the motivations driving your reporting, and the potential for impact within the systems you're reporting on.
Review core outcomes
This exercise will give you the opportunity to:
Orient your journalism in ways that support healthier systems;
Consider your potential for impact and determine metrics for success;
Develop a focusing question that can guide your reporting.
Materials + Set-up
This exercise can be done on your own or with your reporting team. You can use it to set goals for a story or project you're working on or to think about opportunities for your beat.
You will need: Paper and pen or marker. You can also use sticky notes and flip charts.
Here's what you need to get started
Imagining a healthy system
Journalism often focuses on accountability for past actions. This exercise asks how you can focus your journalism on possibilities for the future.
For the beat, issue, or topic you're working on, ask yourself:
EX: If your beat is education, you would ask:
"What are the features, outputs, and functions of a healthy education system?"
What are the features, outputs, and functions of a healthy ______ system?
In 10 minutes, write down as many features, attributes, or qualities that your system might have if it was functioning to the benefit of all involved. Write one per sticky note and put them on a wall or at your desk.
For instance, you might write: "All students can read at their grade level," "Kids across our school district have access to the same learning resources," "All students graduate with an opportunity for college," etc.
Outlining your motivations
Now that you have a better idea of what an ideal system could produce and how it would function, consider the role your reporting plays and your high-level goals and motivations. Behind every story idea or series, there's a reason for covering it. Whether spoken or unspoken, uncovering that reasoning can help better position what you're hoping your story will achieve.
If you're working with your team, you can discuss these questions as a group. If you’re doing this exercise on your own, take a few minutes to jot down your answers.
Why is your reporting on this topic important?
How can your reporting make a difference?
What personal values, beliefs and experiences drive your understanding of this topic?
How does the diversity of your team affect the way you think about or approach this issue?
Identifying possible outcomes
Getting specific about your own goals for the story, beat, or project you're working on, ask yourself and your group:
If you're working with a team, have everyone write down two outcomes. Pair up with a partner to share what you wrote and then share with the full group. Have someone capture all the outcomes on a piece of paper.
What are two specific, bold outcomes that would constitute success for your reporting?
EX: If your beat is education, two goals could be:
"Our reporting leads to a more equitable local school district."
"We highlight the importance of civic education, leading to its adoption into state curriculum."
Surface common themes
Take a look at what you’ve written for all of the above prompts. Search for common themes across the answers. On a piece of paper, write down recurring phrases and key themes.
Identify your North Star
Use your list of common values and goals to develop your North Star. This is a 2–3 sentence description of the individual or collective vision for the system and your role within it. It can be something you refer back to as you strategize and report on your topic.
EX: If your beat is education, you could write:
"Our North Star is an educational system that provides equal access, quality education to every child in our city. This educational system teaches children about equity, civic engagement, and how to be lifelong learners."
Develop focusing questions
As a group or on your own, use your North Star to come up with two overarching questions that summarize the direction you want your reporting to take: a "why" question and a "how might we" question.
EX: If your beat is education, you could ask:
"Why, despite local and national efforts, is the quality of education not equal from neighborhood to neighborhood?"
"How might we better inform and evaluate efforts to address equity in education?"
The "why" question should describe what you're hoping to uncover with your reporting.
The "how might we" question should reflect the healthy system that you've imagined.
Keep these questions displayed somewhere within view so they serve as a reminder of what you're working toward.
Following your North Star
Organize your North Star, focusing questions, and outcomes and write them on a sheet of white paper that you can post by your desk or in your office. As you report, revisit them to make sure what you're working on aligns with what you're working toward.
You can also share your North Star and focusing questions with your audience so that they understand the motivations behind your reporting, what they can expect, and how they can help. For example, The Correspondent offers brief mission statements > for each reporter's beat.