TYPES OF REPORTING II: INTERPRETATIVE REPORTING
The limitations of straight news reporting inevitably gave rise to other methods of reporting, the first of which we will consider in this post. It is called interpretative reporting. As its name implies, it is the method of reporting that seeks to add meaning to news reports by breaking down the issues raised in them. The skeletal report given in straight news is often unable to answer many of the readers’ questions. For example, you read a story that Nigeria’s Central Bank (CBN) has banned cryptocurrency accounts in the country and you want to know what cryptocurrency is. You wonder how it differs from regular currency like Naira and Pound Sterling. You also want to know why the CBN took this stance. In other words, you are curious about the benefits and dangers of dealing in cryptocurrencies and what the position of other countries is on it. You are not likely to find the answers to all these questions in a straight news story. But an interpretative story will furnish you with them and more. As we consider the characteristics of interpretative reports, their similarities to and differences from straight news stories and their usefulness will become apparent.
Characteristics of interpretative reports
• Just like straight news stories, interpretative reports are written about important matters which people are eager to know more about- symptoms of a new disease, ways of preventing its spread and treatment options available or in the works; the provisions of a new bill in parliament, who will benefit from it, who is sponsoring it, who is opposing it and why?
• The interpretative report is not written with the straight-forward approach of straight news. The writer can decide to use a preamble to introduce the subject of the story. For example, a story that explains how kidnapping negotiations are done can start with two or three paragraphs narrating the experience of a family whose member was recently kidnapped, showing how heart-wrenching their ordeal had been before getting to the issue of negotiations that determine the fate of victims.
• Interpretative reports are not written with the simplest language possible as straight news stories are. The writers can use slightly elevated and adorned language but they are not to use hi-falutin expressions or grandiose language that make their reports incomprehensible to many readers. Literary devices, like familiar, not obscure, figures of speech, are welcome in interpretative reports. The attractive language helps to keep the interest of readers since the explanations might get lengthy and would be boring if presented in plain language.
• Interpretative reports are not usually as timely as straight news reports. When something important happens, the first stories on it would usually come in straight news format. Subsequently, reporters in that area (politics, education …) take some time to research the matter and write fuller reports on it.
• Interpretative reports are not as objective as straight news stories, not because the writers are allowed to clearly editorialise but because in writing such long reports, they have more latitude to add from their own store of knowledge and choose sources in such a way that weights the matter less evenly than straight news writers would.
• Interpretative reporters are not bound to any order of writing unlike straight news writers who use the inverted pyramid. An interpretative report can start with, among other things, a quotation from one of the sources in the story, an epigram, a figurative expression or a narration of a key scene from the original event that warranted the report. Sometimes, deciding how to start the report can be tasking as the options abound unlike straight news which has a laid-down format.
Beyond his choice of a lead, how the vast volume of material gathered for the report is woven together is left to the discretion of the writer. The bottom line is that the report must carry the reader along from start to finish since unlike a straight news story where reading the beginning gives one the gist of the story, the interpretative report needs to be read through to be totally useful.
• The interpretative report is usually lengthy. As stated earlier, it seeks to elaborate on the issues raised in straight news or, as some have stated, add flesh to the skeleton of straight news. What are the things it adds?
Elements of news interpretation
By elements of news interpretation, we mean the things the interpretative report needs to include to be comprehensive. This refers to those points which help to give the reader a broad and deep understanding of the subject of the report often lacking or only briefly touched in straight news reports about it. Note that the interpretative report should contain the 5Ws and H of the story it is elaborating on to avoid talking over the heads of readers who may not have the basic facts of the story. They are presented hereunder as things the journalist should do.
• Explanation of meaning: In covering issues and events, journalists come across unfamiliar terms, some of them technical or foreign. The absence of a proper explanation (in terms a lay person can understand) of what they mean invariably hampers the understanding of the story at large. My example on cryptocurrencies in the Introduction refers.
• Ranking: Interpretative reports help readers to understand the relative ranking of persons, events and other things in the news. This is not only done by how much time or space is devoted to them but by the use of words that clearly spell out how significant they are, like “history-making event” and “the most critical decision of this administration.”
• Backgrounding: Interpretative reports help show the history of what they discuss. If someone wins a public office, for instance, their family, education, professional career and political journey to date would be provided to the public. If a war breaks out, the beginnings of the conflict will be chronicled down to the escalations that resulted in the war, along with efforts at mediation along the way.
• Building of context: There are interrelationships between many people, issues and events that are not obvious to the average person. Individual stories written separately in straight news fashion do not always show these interconnections but interpretative reports do. What is the link between a political conflict and religious divisions in the country affected? How does the devaluation of a country’s currency affect the rest of its economy? Since no event occurs in a vacuum, showing its interrelatedness with other events is an important aspect of interpretative reporting.
• Tracing of precedence: This involves finding out if the event being reported is the first of its kind and if not, has it happened locally or elsewhere? Also, how regularly has it happened? Using the current news of the kidnapping of over 300 girls from a secondary school in Zamfara State, Nigeria, the reporter goes back to the kidnapping of 276 girls from a girls’ secondary school in Chibok, Borno State in April.2014 and the other incidents of mass abduction that have taken place since then. It is also important to tell the reader if this is a uniquely Nigerian problem or if mass kidnapping of school children is also experienced in other countries with problems of insecurity.
• Advancing likely causes and effects: One question that rings in the minds of readers of many stories is, “Why?” The straight news story does not often have the correct or full answer because it is too close to the event in time. Further digging helps the interpretative reporter to arrive at more accurate and comprehensive answers. For example, in the case of what appears to be a suicide but where no note has been found, friends and neighbours may proffer what they think may have led to the deceased taking his life, say, financial or health troubles. But by the time the interpretative report is published, more information may be available, say, through a file in the deceased’s laptop, that shows the actual cause of the suicide to be romantic trouble or that even suggests there was foul play, requiring a homicide investigation. In adducing possible causes of a matter, the reporter should rely on facts and authorities and not make wild or biased guesses. Still, he should leave the door open to further discoveries down the line that may question his conclusions.
The same goes for advancing possible effects or implications of an action or event.
• Localisation of the story: It is important to show readers why they should be interested in a story by showing the relevance of the issue it is about to their lives. If you discuss a disease like Lassa fever without showing people they are living in an area where there is an outbreak or that certain circumstances which they live under or are oblivious about could predispose them to contracting the disease, they may feel unconcerned. If you do not explain the full ramifications of a new government regulation to show people how it may affect them and their families, they may not be interested. It is called bringing the story home to the reader.
Another way of doing this is showing how the story affects the readers’ compatriots, faith community, racial group or idols (such as celebrities and political icons they admire). This evokes an attachment to the story or what in news values is called psychological proximity, no matter how far away the story took place. For example, in reporting the recent winter storm in Texas, if a Nigerian singer was caught in it while holidaying abroad, merely mentioning that will ignite the interest of Nigerian readers.
Localisation can also be accomplished by including the local equivalents of things in the story (like weights and other measures). This would require conversion from pounds and ounces to kilogrammes and grammes, from foreign currencies to local, for instance. This enhances understanding of the story.
• Presenting diverse opinions: An important part of any news report is people’s reaction to the issue covered. While straight news stories do include the opinions of sources, interpretative reports contain more of these by virtue of the research process that precedes their writing and the length of the resulting stories. Take the Nigerian military’s clashes with the Eastern Security Network (ESN) formed by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) as an example. A story on that, beyond the accounts of those directly involved or affected, would need the views of supporters and opponents of IPOB, both those who share ethnicity with it (Igbos) and people of other ethnic groups in Nigeria. It would need the views of military and federal government sources, state governors in the South-East geopolitical zone where IPOB operates, IPOB leaders, human rights advocates and constitutional experts too who will weigh in on the constitutionality of IPOB’s formation of this security outfit or otherwise.
Goal of interpretative reporting/Role of the media it serves
As can be deduced from the discussion so far, interpretative reports do not merely provide information. They go the extra mile to provide education. They help to produce an enlightened citizenry by going beyond the superficial accounts in straight news to deepen understanding of the issues in the news and broaden people’s access to ideas and viewpoints concerning important current events.
They also entertain by virtue of the impressive language used to craft them and the beauty of their organisation because, as stated earlier, the writers draw on their skills to keep readers engaged to the end irrespective of how long the stories are.
Popularity/availability of interpretative reports in Nigeria
Interpretative reports can be found in news magazines, inside pages of newspapers and in news and current affairs broadcast shows that do not focus on breaking news but news interpretation and analysis.
By their very nature, interpretative reports appeal to more educated and professional readers- the more intellectually curious. As the literacy level of society rises, there is a corresponding increase in interest in such reports. Many ordinary Nigerians are not literate enough to easily follow interpretative reports and the prevailing poor reading culture even among the literate here means that the more lengthy interpretative reports do not get the same attention as straight news stories.
***Supply the ways in which the interpretative report is similar to a straight news story.
***In what ways is an interpretative report different from a straight news story?
***How can a journalist localise a foreign story for his readers/audience?
***With one example of a story each (as I did in this post), show how a journalist can add the following to his interpretative report:
a. Background b. Precedence c. Diverse opinions
***Write an interpretative report on one of the following topics:
a. School in the midst of COVID-19
(focusing on the changes made by schools due to the disease)
b. Kidnappings and banditry on the increase in Nigeria
c. Incessant strikes in Nigeria’s educational sector
MacDougall, C. D. (1982). Interpretative reporting. New York: Collier Macmillan.
Ohaja, E. U. (2005). Feature writing simplified. Enugu, Nigeria: El ‘Demak. (Chapter Two discusses news interpretation, explaining the historical circumstances under which it arose, its benefits and how it is carried out.)
Paper, S. & Featherstone, S. (2006). Feature writing: A practical introduction. London, England: Sage Publications Ltd.