As mantras go for writers, "earn your reader" sets the bar quite high. Taken to its extreme—that is, viewing each story merely as a series of sentences where every comma, semicolon or period is a station for readers to hop off your train of thought—is just plain horrifying. Perhaps the better saying, and certainly less hostile one, is "love your reader" (implying an audience that wants to ride that train). Indeed, here love is conscious. We could also say be empathetic.
Or: be considerate. Or: they are on your side.
Yet this modification covers only one leg of the journalistic triangle. Two other mantras—"honor your sources" and "be curious"—form the remaining relationships that, taken together, constitute the whole of reporting balance. So, while it is tempting to give your reader all the scoop (which, provided your curiosity aligns with your readers', also satisfies "be curious"), make sure to consider those you're writing about. I don't say this to advocate hesitant, reluctant writing but rather to stress that how one treats sources—and the information they give—is key to running the triangle. Below is an example from summer development league ball (i.e. internship) to illustrate the point. (Note: the situation has been altered to maintain leg number two above.)
To begin, imagine you're writing a story on a skyscraper-painting family business. Their job is dangerous, and it intrigues you that they've managed to cover the market in your city so well for so many years. At the end of the interview, after you've discussed various experiences in the field, you ask if there's anything else they'd like to add. One member of the family, who hasn't talked much during the interview, speaks up. "There is one thing," she says. "Sometimes, when we're painting, members of the smaller companies will make their way into the buildings and protest our work with signs and chants. I know it's entirely their right, but it really bothers me."
Now, flash forward to you, at your desk, writing the story. This offhand fact about rival companies intrigues you—and, out of love for your reader, you wish to include it in the piece—so you do a follow-up call to inquire more about these protests. Your source becomes uncomfortable, insisting that if those comments are included, they don't want their name in the piece. So here, as you run the journalistic triangle, you are toeing a line on the court. You need their name and quotes for the piece, yet this information, although would make for an interesting layer to the story, would take them out of it. What to do?
There's no hard and fast rule, but in my case I found it pays to look at how essential the information is to your core point. Oftentimes these interesting side notes can embellish your reporting but at the same time detract from your focus. And you can always use these pieces as leads to other stories where you don't reveal the initial source. Then you're running the triangle.
Nick Cunkelman '11 is a ColbyCollege philosophy major who starting reporting as a sports columnist for The Colby Echo during his freshman year. He plans to pursue a journalism career and his dream job would be to write articles examining trends in politics, the environment, music, and sports for magazines across the globe.