To get good stories you need to start with simple questions. The answers will be complicated.

Reporters at a press conference raise their hand to ask a question.

Reporters at a press conference raise their hands to ask a question. (Credit: Comstock)

What’s your question?

Journalists ask questions. Lots and lots and lots of questions. A good reporter is like that three-year-old child who tugs at the sleeve of her parent’s shirt and asks, “Why mommy?” and, “Why daddy?”

Even the most complicated stories start with one basic question. Let’s see how that works in the journalistic process.

Take this story, “When nurses cannot do their job” by our correspondent Rafiullah Nikzad about nurses in Afghanistan who are losing their jobs. The reporter might have started with this question:

How has the health system in Afghanistan changed after the Taliban retook the country?

Or take this story by student Annette Khosravi, “From caviar to conservation: Saving the Atlantic sturgeon.” That might have begun with this question:

Can a fish on the brink of extinction be saved?

Or this question: 

How important is my local river to marine life?

But where does the initial question come from?

Nailing down a question

You might hear about a problem from people complaining about something, or from a news story or a rumor mill, or you observe something happening around you. 

News Decoder correspondent Sarah Edmonds wrote a climate change story off this question:

Will advances in technology cool down our planet?

The answer is no: but the reasons why are complicated. 

Once you have a question you look for someone who can help you answer it. Khosravi’s question about pollution in her local river led her to the organization Delaware Riverkeeper Network and to a complicated story about local industry, pollution and environmental reclamation.

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From the WHAT comes the WHO.

Nikzad’s question about the healthcare system in Afghanistan led him to a nurse whose job is becoming more and more difficult under increasingly restrictive laws. And from that interview, he produced a complicated story about power, politics, gender and religion, as well as the state of healthcare in an impoverished country.

You see, complicated stories start from this basic question: What is going on here? 

That leads the reporter to ask WHO is involved in whatever is going on. The WHO might be the people affected: nurses who are losing their jobs or fishermen who can’t make enough to support their families because there aren’t enough fish in the river. Or it might be organizations like Delaware Riverkeeper Network, who are trying to solve a problem.

Then the story will take shape because all good news stories are about people, and once you find the people you find the story. 

But you start with a question. Because you won’t get any answers until you first ask the question. 

Three questions to consider:

  1. How can a simple question lead to complicated story?
  2. What types of people do journalists seek out to get their questions answered?
  3. What question do you have about something happening around you that might be the basis for a good story?
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