(Not So) Basic Journalism Skills: The Follow-Up

by - September 26, 2013

If you work in the news business, you've probably experienced this feeling at least once in your career: getting beat on a story.

What makes it even worse is knowing that one phone call you didn't make would have prevented it.

I'm talking about the follow-up. I touched on it earlier in this series when we talked about creating context for readers/viewers. The follow-up story is just another step in that process.

There are different kinds of follow-up stories: immediate, periodic and long-term.

The immediate follow-up story is the one you do the very next day. This happens often with elections. Night of you talk to the person who wins; next day you talk to his constituents about the outcome.

The periodic follow-up is seen most often in investigations. For example, right now my station is covering an investigation into alleged voter fraud. This isn't something we run every night. Instead, we run updates when new information comes out.

The long-term follow-up story can happen months or even years after the original story. For instance, we'll do look-back pieces on the anniversaries of big events - i.e. the September 11th terror attacks, mass shootings, deadly tornadoes.

Few stories we cover are one-day stories. Businessjournalism.org says it best: "The well-done follow-up is a critical element of coverage." Unfortunately, though, it's become an all-too-common practice in newsrooms across the country to let a story die after just one pass.

If you cover a story in which someone makes a promise, you have to re-visit that story at some point to see if they made good on that promise. If you don't, you're doing a disservice to your readers/viewers.

Developing ideas for follow-up stories can be tricky, especially when it seems like you've already poured everything imaginable into the story today. Tomorrow is the day you want to start asking questions about your original story. Why did this happen; how did it happen; what are the consequences of it; who will be impacted by it; and anything else you didn't answer in the original story. As long as there are questions lingering about the story, it's still a story.

If you have unanswered questions about a story, chances are your viewers/readers do as well, and that's what we're here for - to keep our audiences informed. If we don't complete the story, was there a reason in us covering it in the first place? As I said earlier in this series, the only times we should leave our viewers/readers hanging is in a tease or continues on page 3.

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