Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Localizing national and international stories

An earthquake strikes Chile, killing hundreds of people and displacing thousands. The federal government passes new health care legislation that will extend coverage to millions. Israeli and Palestinian leaders gather at an Egyptian resort in an attempt to forge a peace plan. A gunman takes 15 hostages at a college campus halfway across the country.

Every minute, important news stories break around the nation and around the world. Is it the job of your student news organization to cover them?

It depends. Certainly, your primary responsibility is to cover your campus and immediate community. But there are times when you should localize national and international news, putting it into context for your readers. There’s no clear answer on when your news organization should step in, but here are some guidelines and some examples of how student news outlets have covered national and international news.

What kinds of national and international stories should you localize?

Stories that have an impact on your readers. How will the new health care legislation affect your readers? How do students feel about a proposed increase in the federal minimum wage? What do your readers need to know about a national recall of eggs?

Stories that break on another college campus. When a student at California State University, Chico died in a hazing incident, student newspapers around the country took a hard look at fraternity pranks on their own campuses. Suicides, campus shootings, and drinking deaths are other news events that may be worth localizing because such stories are likely to resonate with your readers.

Stories that people are talking about. When Michael Jackson died or Sarah Palin resigned from her position as governor of Alaska, college campuses were abuzz with the news. If a lot of people are talking about an issue, you probably should cover it.

Stories with a local angle. If a current or former student or faculty member makes news, that’s grounds for coverage, even if the story breaks thousands of miles away. When a big story breaks check to see if members of your campus community are planning service or political activities in response.

Stories that affect a particular political, ethnic group or special-interest group on your campus. If you’ve got a sizable LGBT community, there’s likely to be heightened interest in gay rights issues. Does your campus have a large number of immigrants from Mexico, China or another country? Keep a special eye out for news from home that might interest them.

Stories similar to major events that have happened on your campus. When there’s a campus shooting anywhere in the United States, The Collegiate Times pays special attention because such events may spur memories of the shooting at Blacksburg, Va. campus.

What can your news organization add to the coverage? When deciding whether to localize a story think about what your news organization can contribute to the discussion. Will experts on your campus be able to provide analysis or context for what has happened? Will you offer an opportunity for community members to vent on an issue they feel passionate about? Can you report the news in a way that will make it more meaningful to your readers?

How do you find local sources for a national or international story? Social media tools are a good way to start. When a major earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, Emily Stephenson, then community manager for The Daily Tar Heel, posted a Facebook message asking if anyone from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill community had been affected. She didn’t expect much response. “As it turned out, the School of Public Health had a student there who was trying to get home, and another student had just returned from a mission trip,” she says. “The second student wound up in the lede of the story.”

Suzanne Yada of The Spartan Daily also struck pay dirt with social media tools after learning that John Patrick Bedell, who had been shot to death after firing at two guards in front of the Pentagon, had attended San Jose State University. Yada, then the online editor for the paper, scoured social media sites looking for information about Bedell and his connection to San Jose State University. “Bedell was quite tech-savvy and had accounts on LinkedIn, Wikipedia and Amazon that mentioned SJSU and revealed more pieces of his character,” she says.

Another strategy for finding sources is to search for campus experts. If a coup breaks out in a distant land, look for professors who have done research on that country and its politics. If a major earthquake strikes, ask your geology department for someone who can explain the science behind seismic activity. Many university public information offices list professors with expertise in particular issues who can speak to the media.

Campus ethnic, religious and service groups may also be good sources for commentary and reaction to national or global news. Leaders of Jewish, Palestinian and Muslim student organization groups will often have comments on new developments in Middle East politics, for example. Think, too, about whether any individuals or groups on your campus may help in rescue efforts or take political action in response to a news event. College service groups often plan fundraisers or service trips to help survivors of natural disasters. Campus political groups may stage political activities in response to an important court ruling, crime or other news event.

If a major newsmaker has a connection to your campus – an alum is appointed to a high-level position or a former student engages in a high-profile crime – try to find professors, students and alumni who knew the person. When Elena Kagan was nominated to the Supreme Court, The Daily Princetonian provided extensive coverage of the Princeton alum, providing insights about her political activities and beliefs as an undergraduate. Reporters didn’t have to look too far to find evidence; Kagan had been a news writer and editorial chairman for the “Prince” and had penned a number of unsigned editorials, “many of which took decidedly liberal stances on national and campus issues,” The Daily Princetonian wrote.The Daily Princetonian even republished a column Kagan wrote after the national election of 1980.

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