By Gregg McLachlan

At some point in your career, you have faced spot news. Maybe it was a fire, car crash, murder, robbery or drowning.

These events can happen at any time: day, night or weekend. For some reporters, spot news gets the adrenalin flowing. For others, it forces us outside our comfort zone to a pace that’s fast and demanding to get THE story.

It’s how you react and what you do that separates strong spot news reporting from weak reporting.

The successful reporter uses news sense, resourcefulness, initiative, planning, creativity and determination to get the job done.

1. Look beyond the obvious
After a tornado ripped through a community where I once worked, I went to the scene of a destroyed barn. Wood was strewn about. The owners were devastated by the destruction. The angle that immediately jumped out was obvious: Mother Nature’s destruction of a building. The physical destruction jumped out at me. But it struck me as odd that no animals could be seen at the scene of what was obviously a hobby farm. Through questioning, I learned the family found their horse in a neighbouring field about 100 yards away after the twister struck. The horse was dead. The details were gut wrenching. The family found ripped flesh and scratch marks on the side of their pet. They believed that the tornado either dragged the animal or carried it 100 yards. Unlike the demolished barn, I never saw the horse. 

2. Get the five Ws
Get the five Ws: Who, What, When, Where and Why. When you get the five Ws, you’ve got the nuts and bolts of your story at the very least and will be able to file a story. When you get the five Ws, you’ll never miss a crucial basic detail and hear an editor shout, “Hey Bill, where did this event happen? Who was involved?”

3.  What would you do?
It’s a Saturday and you’re the only reporter on shift. There’s no editor in the office today. It’s August and harvest is underway on hundreds of farms. You look out the window and notice ominous black clouds. Large hail starts. High winds begin blowing debris. A severe weather advisory is broadcast on the local scanner. It’s a good test to see how you would be prepared.
There are two kinds of reporters in this scenario:
Reporter #1: He/she looks out a window and remarks to a co-worker or janitor, “Hey, check this out. Pretty bad storm, eh? Better go roll up my car windows.”
Reporter #2: He/she uses news sense and realizes impact — not on himself/herself, but on the community. This is the reporter who gets out of the office and gets to the scene of breaking news.

4. Go to the scene
You can’t cover spot news from your desk. If there’s a drowning, go to the river, creek or lake. Family and friends may be at scene. Witnesses may be at scene. If there’s a violent storm, go seek out the damage. Don’t wait for Mr. Johnson to call to tell you there’s a tree toppled on Main Street. Your initiative should tell you that trees may be toppled. Get out and scan the community. Use your eyes.

5. Look & listen
Always observe what people are doing at the scene and around the scene. This requires wideangle vision. In one real-life situation, one of my reporters was at a creek to report on the drowning death of a teen. At the scene, police officers dragged the creek in search of the body. While that action was unfolding, the reporter observed a scene 100 feet away on a bridge overlooking the creek. It was family and friends sobbing, hugging and awaiting the inevitable. Powerful stuff.

6. Yes, you can have a plan
Even with spot news, you can develop a plan. The odds are that such a plan may change, but at least it helps give you a focus as a starting point. If you want to use a narrative style, decide what characters you need, jot down details about the setting, listen for dialogue at the scene, think about your plot. But be prepared: plans can change fast.

7.  Knock on doors
Arriving at a spot news scene minutes after the action may mean that many people have left. This doesn’t mean that you can return to the office and use the excuse: “Nobody was there!” Unless you’re in the middle of the Sahara Desert, people are always nearby. You may have to go to them. Knock on doors of homes. If there’s a coffee shop nearby, go there. For some unusual reason, people like to talk over a coffee. They might be talking about what they witnessed.

8. When you must use the telephone...
When you don’t know who to call, start with some of the institutions in the community where people know everybody. One reporter that I remember always found it helpful to phone hardware stores. After all, he used to say, the folks in hardware stores know everybody. These same folks can usually help in pointing you in the right direction. And don’t forget the telephone book. If you know the street, look up neighbours and call them.

9. Go ‘around people’
Occasionally you will hit a roadblock: the victim of a house fire refuses to talk; the victim of a store robbery is too distraught to be interviewed; the hero who doesn’t want any attention and declines an interview. Good reporters find ways around obstacles. If a hero doesn’t want to speak, that’s fine. Others will likely talk about him/her. If a fire victim doesn’t want to speak, neighbours may. In the Holly Jones murder case, reporters at the Toronto Star logged onto and retrieved the accused man’s profile (hobbies, favourite music, life goals) and located classmates.

10. Co-workers may have tips
When you’re stumped, tips might be available from people who work in your own newspaper office. It’s amazing who knows who. We don’t say, “Go ask Bob in advertising, he might know” for no reason. At least they might be able to point you in a direction.

11. Brief or story?
If a hail storm hits your farm community during harvest, is it a breaking news story? A two-vehicle crash kills a mother and daughter. Do you file a brief? Or do you write a story? The answers are obvious. Don’t wait for an editor to assign the obvious. Use your initiative. And always ask yourself: What will my readers expect? Chances are that your readers expect a full story in your newspaper, not the competitor’s newspaper. Spot news isn’t something that can always be assigned. Spot news happens close to us, within our view, or we receive a tip.

11. Have the right attitude
Spot news is big news in communities. Especially small communities. People will be talking about it at Betty’s Diner, Jack’s Garage and the grocery store. Take this spot news test: If a dumptruck lost a load of manure and caused a road to be closed for two hours, would you write a brief or a story? (Actually, what I’m trying to say is: Would you turn your nose up at the assignment?) It’s a good reminder that spot news happens and can take many forms. In our small communities, spot news isn’t about just crime and fires. I remember a reporter who once rolled her eyes at being assigned to report on 30 deer that escaped from a farm. Police were called to the scene to help round up the herd. She didn’t think it was news. Whether it’s 30 deer escaping from a farm, or a dumptruck losing a load, the fact is simple: It’s news. Isn’t it funny how we all chuckle about footage on TV news about police trying to catch pigs on the loose or other animals? Our readers would do the same. . . if only they could read about it.

12. Be respectful
The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma’s Guide for Effective Coverage has excellent tips: For interviewing victims, the guide advises:
1) Always treat victims with dignity and respect – the way you want to be treated in a similar situation. Approach survivors with sensitivity, including knowing when to back off; 2) Clearly identify yourself. If you receive a harsh reaction, do not respond by reacting harshly; 3) You can say you’re sorry for someone’s loss, but never say “I understand” or “I know how you feel.” 4) Don’t overwhelm with the hardest questions first. Begin with questions such as, “Can you tell me about Jerry’s life?” Or, “What did Jerry like to do? What were his favourite hobbies?” Then listen.

13. Remember your verbal story
When you return to the office, high on adrenalin, the first thing you’ll likely do is tell someone about the event. Your exciting verbal account captivates your co-workers. Then you write your story. Thud. It bears no resemblance to your exciting verbal tale when you returned from the field. Always remember your verbal tale. We can always speak the best part of the story. But sometimes our fingers forget to type it.

13. Get dialogue
Ask questions that get people to remember dialogue from a point in time. Examples: “Tell me what you remember saying to the person when it happened.” “Tell me what was going through your mind at the time.” When people are retelling the events, ask them, “What did you say?” These are just a few techniques to draw out details to recreate the drama and emotion as it happened.