Zingers, quotes, anecdotes and other things that make your writing great

Published on
January 22, 2011

When we think about how to get eyeballs on our reporting these days, we talk a lot about Twitter and Facebook and online branding.

Image removed.Tracy Weber, senior reporter at ProPublica, took California Health Journalism Fellows back to the basics of getting and keeping readers: great writing. (Listen to Weber introduce her talk below.)

Weber was part of the Los Angeles Times team that reported the 2004 Pultizer Prize-winning series The Troubles at King/Drew, groundbreaking reportage that led to the closure of a major urban hospital. Here are some of the major lessons she learned while telling blockbuster health stories.

Even with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), Weber says, "there are all manner of ways to find out what it's like in a hospital." Documents can get you more than dry day -- they can proved the fodder for great stories. Weber offers several examples of how documents gave her great leads:

-Employee disciplinary records -- which become public when an employee makes an appeal -- often have graphic details about employee conduct, medical misconduct. Weber once discovered that a nurse had a janitor administer medications this way. 

-Workers compensation records revealed that King/Drew had a surprisingly high rate of "chair falls," giving color to a story about hospital funding. It also gave Weber and the rest of the team an excellent lead for a section of the piece: "Vast sums at King/Drew go to workers injured in encounters with seemingly harmless objects. Take, for instance, the chair."

-Public hospitals have records of how many surgeries and procedures are being done. Couple that with salary information and you might find inconsistencies. This is how Weber discovered information about the salary of King/Drew's neuroscience chief: "As neurosciences chief, Locke made a total of more than $1 million over the last two fiscal years. That includes his hospital salary and a stipend he receives from King/Drew's affiliated medical school, records show. Top county officials can't say what Locke does for all the money he earns."

-Nursing boards, medical boards and other oversight agencies' records are powerful tools. Weber, with a ProPublica team, reported on the misconduct of registered nurses in 2009 and offered a tutorial for how you can do similar reporting.

-Criminal records can provide information about health care providers. Weber visited six courthouses to get records about one of the nurses in her 2009 ProPublica report.

Telling stories is a process that begins when you are reporting. "Don't leave this until you're back at your desk," says Weber. "You need to be thinking along the way, is there color?"

You can use a straight lead  -- it can be really effective way to get to the heart of a story. But Weber says that a great anecdote can get to the heart of complicated subjects. "What I look for in an anecdote is something that can tell your entire story," says Weber. "I try to look for one that is a small version of the bigger story." She offers the example of a 2009 ProPublica report by Robin Fields about the risks of dialysis. The story has a paragraph that begins with data and facts, but what readers remember and comment on most is an anecdote about bugs:

Conditions within clinics are sometimes shockingly poor. ProPublica examined inspection records for more than 1,500 clinics in California, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas from 2002 to 2009. Surveyors came across filthy or unsafe conditions in almost half the units they checked. At some, they found blood encrusted in the folds of patients' treatment chairs or spattered on walls, floors or ceiling tiles. Ants were so common at a unit in Durham, N.C., that when a patient complained, a staffer just handed him a can of bug spray. 

"If the quote's boring, don't use it," says Weber. Avoid the "tendency to quote from the official document because it's official, or quote an official." If the quote is unclear or unengaging, call back for another quote or quote an expert somewhere else.

Your reporting doesn't have to be a big project. Even one amazing story in one document can give you a single quick and powerful story.

"I like to have a good, solid end on story that's a real zinger," Weber says. "I think the purpose of the ending is to leave the reader with what the story means." A story about severe medical errors at King/Drew ends with a powerful quote: "She lives in King/Drew's shadow. She can see it from the rear window of her apartment. 'Every time I look at that hospital I think about what happened to me,' Clemons said. 'That hospital took my life away from me.'"

Write a great lead. Weber says she went through 75 leads with her editor at the Los Angeles Times on the King/Drew medical errors story.

Pay attention to your bullets and don't use them if they are not impactful. "Your bullets have to be so incisive, but also have a zinger," says Weber. Bullets help get your points up at the top, but also adds color and helps you outline a big project.

Sections should be each be mini-stories with "a saucy lead and a saucy end," Weber says. "You're going to have an arc for your whole story, but also for each section."

Keep sources on the record and get documentation for everything to help shield you from lawsuits, says Weber. (Learn more about legal resources for journalists from a prior post.)