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Good stories empower the reader

The purpose of journalism is to give people the information they need to make better decisions. In other words, journalism is supposed to empower.

This definition implies that while journalists certainly inform, there is an assumption the reader will sooner or later use the information to make a decision or engage in some kind of activity.

Viewing the reader as less a consumer or audience member and more a decision-maker is a good place for the journalist to start.

Empowering the reader thus involves anticipating how the information might be used and what questions the reader might have about the issue or event.

Often it’s obvious and easy. A story about an eclipse will almost certainly include where it can be seen and when.

Questions and answers about other stories are more difficult.

Political coverage, for example, focuses on issues, personality, or the campaign process. Often, however, stories leave out information the voter needs to make informed, as opposed to emotional, judgments.

Issue coverage may fail to raise, much less answer, questions people care about. The candidates decide what they want to talk about in the campaign while citizens are relegated to being observers.

Personality coverage must compete with the carefully crafted images portrayed in advertising, strategic communications, or political theater.

Coverage of a candidate’s strategy and methods can make the horse race more interesting but does little to help the voter make a decision about issues or beliefs.

Viewing the reader as less a consumer or audience member and more a decision-maker is a good place for the journalist to start. In one sense it’s about self-respect – an assumption the reporting will have some utilitarian value – and respect for the reader, a belief that the audience really does want to make the best possible decisions.

This guide, like many of the others in API’s Journalism Essentials section, is largely based on the research and teachings of the Committee of Concerned Journalists — a consortium of reporters, editors, producers, publishers, owners and academics that for 10 years facilitated a discussion among thousands of journalists about what they did, how they did it, and why it was important. The author, Walter Dean, was CCJ training director and API Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel formerly co-chaired the committee.

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