Emotions are a principal ingredient in the photos, news and feature stories of professional newspapers, and a major reason why people read them. The most spellbinding newspaper stories are those filled with emotion or those that fill readers with emotion. Their emotional content derives from 1) a topic that is implicitly emotional, like sorrow or nostalgia; 2) what people in the stories say; 3) descriptions of emotional issues, situations and experiences; 4) the angle from which the story is viewed; 5) the reporter’s writing style; 6) the photographer’s talent for getting pictures that reflect emotion or create it in the reader.
Yet stories and photos with emotional content appear rarely, if at all, in most school newspapers, despite the huge potential for them in every high school. The eagerly read and meaningful school newspaper is usually one that contains in each issue at least a few stories that deal with the emotional aspects of life, or which emotionally affect its readers. It’s a paper with stories that readers remember and talk about. Keep in mind, though, that news stories as well as feature stories can have emotional content and draw an emotional reaction from readers. And while features may differ from news stories in their more creative writing styles, their angles and approaches, they must still be as free from editorializing as news stories. For features are news.
Topics and themes that will suggest ideas for news and feature stories with an emotional component.
News and Feature Stories With Emotional Content While all of these story types can stand alone as news stories or human interest pieces, they can also accompany larger straight news stories. For example, number 4 can be a side story to an article about the immigrant population in your school, and number 5 can accompany an article about the school play or a sports story.
1. Relationships between people working together, in and out of school.Any well-told story of this kind requires that at least part of the reporting be done where the work is done, and with a photographer along. Like all those below, this can be a first-person story.
2. Deaths of students and others. It's very important not to editorialize with words like “sad,” “loss,” “the entire school feels,” “our sympathies.” The sadness of the event must be conveyed through information; description; and the words, direct or paraphrased, of those who knew the deceased. Note: In newswriting the words to describe someone’s death are “death,” “died,” or “killed,” not “passed,” or “passed away.”
3. Noteworthy events in the lives of students, teachers or alumni, such as weddings, births and funerals. When possible, reporters and photographers should attend the event. As for births, don’t laugh; it’s only a matter of time before a high school reporter is invited to attend one; and a new father or mother’s first-person story of a birth is certain to appear even sooner.
4. Stories of immigration to the U.S., and experiences of students and their families in their native land and while adjusting to life in the U.S.Recent immigrants in your school have dramatic stories to tell. While interviews with them can, of course, be held in school, for more journalistic and livelier stories, reporters and photographers should visit their homes, if possible, at least as a follow-up to the school interview.
5. Backstage before or after a performance; or a locker room before or after a game.Go where the action is, to experience first-hand — and convey to the reader — the adrenalin and anxieties, the disappointments and successes.
6. Stories about people undergoing unfortunate circumstances in or out of school. When possible, part of the reporting and photos for stories like this should done where those experiences are taking place.
7. Stories of prejudice, racism or discrimination of any kind. Be extremely careful about attributing racially, ethnically or religiously negative attitudes or remarks to a named person, or someone who, even without being named, can be identified by readers.
8. Students who are parents. Whether the story is about a married or unmarried couple, or a single parent, consider whether this story should be done with the approval of the subjects’ parents.
9. Students’ family situations.Any unconventional living arrangement, such as a home without parents, or a residence other than a house or apartment, has story possibilities.
10. Illnesses, disabilities or other adversities faced by students, teachers and others. As with all the story types on this list, it is journalistically unacceptable to editorialize with sympathetic words, like “unfortunately,” or supportive words, like “happily.” Reporters must arouse sympathy or support for a subject through information; description; interviewing and story structure. An effective, memorable story of this kind requires that a reporter and photographer visit an ill or injured student or teacher at home or at a hospital or other health facility, if possible.
12. Non-athletic competitions such as school elections, tryouts and auditions. Capture the appearance, mood, tension, anxieties and atmosphere of these events through description and interviews.
14. Interviews with retiring faculty members and graduating seniors.To give readers something of substance, avoid the usual cliché responses of retirees and graduates by not asking questions like “What will you miss most about Woodlawn?” Instead, ask “What was your highest (or lowest) moment here?” or “How has this place changed you?” or “Can you tell me about some students you’ll never forget? or “Any regrets?”
15. Interviews with students or teachers who witnessed or participated in a newsmaking event unrelated to your school.This can be a concert, a demonstration, a disaster, an accident, a shuttle launch, a presidential convention or inauguration, a war, a film shoot, a crime, a sports event. The three main elements in these stories are the interviewees’ description of the event; their feelings about what they experienced, as drawn from them by the reporter; and the interviewee’s relevant background information.
16. Funny, dramatic or ironic experiences of students and faculty.Even a small school’s few hundred students and their teachers will have enough anecdotes to choose from for a column of six one-paragraph items in each issue, with the protagonist’s name in bold, perhaps. The people at the center of these little stories will almost never come to the paper with them — it won’t even occur to them; in most cases, they’re simply minor and often forgettable experiences in their lives. The paper’s editors and adviser will have to keep their eyes and ears open for these mini-stories. Even better, an entire staff or journalism class can be asked to bring in one anecdotal news bit like this per week, and one staff member assigned to select the best and write them up for publication.
19. In-depth interviews with people whose life experiences and feelings will touch readers and give them insights into their minds and hearts.Stories like this require knowing at least something about the interviewee in advance, if possible, so the reporter can ask thoughtful and informed questions.
20. Reporters’ first-person accounts of covering a story.The exciting or emotional experience of a reporting assignment can itself make for a great story.
Ideas for these kinds of stories will rarely be brought to the school paper’s attention by the subjects themselves. Editors, staff members and advisers must always be on the lookout for them and solicit ideas from students and faculty. That can be done by periodically placing requests for story ideas in the entire faculty’s main-office or electronic mailboxes; by having a network of people in school who know that the paper is grateful for story ideas; by requesting ideas from readers in each issue of the paper; and by everyone on the staff keeping their eyes and ears open.
Guidelines for stories with emotional content
You have to be ready to engage emotionally with the interviewee. Get into people’s lives during interviews.
Professional reporters are not immune to feeling emotional while covering stories. They even laugh or cry.
4. Reporters may use all the art and craft of objective journalism at their command to tell the story, but they may not editorialize. The emotion in a news story must come out of what the subject says or how the reporter explains, describes and quotes, but not from the reporter telling the reader that something is, for example, “sad.” Vivid descriptions of locations, activities and people are essential to evoking emotion in readers.
A straightforwardly-written story, structured to have an intentional effect, is always desirable over one written in a blatant, hit-them-over-the-head style. Less is more.
The emotional potential of some stories may not be seen until the reporting is underway.
Reporters must be sensitive, observant, reactive, intuitive, curious and open to an encounter.
Never assume that someone involved in an emotionally charged news story will not speak to you.
Do not allow interviewees to read your story before it is published. However, when the interview ends, you may offer to read back their quotes to give them the opportunity to revise what they have said, or even ask that something be deleted. This practice is not suggested for fact-finding news stories. But when people have consented to an interview about their background and experiences, and are being open and genuine with the interviewer, they should be allowed — and sometimes even encouraged — to hear what they have said to avoid embarrassment or regrets when it appears in print.
After a story is published, professional journalists sometimes call an interviewee to ask them if they got it right.
Do not ask a school administrator’s permission to interview someone.
Set out to tell a really good “story,” written and constructed in a way that you feel suits the story you are trying to tell. Experiment with writing styles and story structure.
Study the way professional daily newspaper reporters do it. All of them are your teachers.