Cronkite always stuck with Five W’s in reporting

Posted July 26, 2009, at 6:37 p.m.

The recent death of broadcast news pioneer Walter Cronkite has some reporters reflecting on how reporting has changed. Today, those who walk for quality in reporting often come upon swamps of mediocrity flashing as if they were something, but they are only the moon reflecting the sun. The publishers and editors under whom I learned were of the old school. They trained me in fundamentals, which I brought with me to Calais and Washington County.

One fundamental was that you never intruded yourself or your views into the story you were reporting. There was a line between reporting and opinion, and opinions were attributed to those about whom you were reporting and you had to back up the attribution. Nor would you let reporting itself dominate the story, with stuff about the First Amendment and how the government wouldn’t tell you what you wanted to find out. The First Amendment became noisy — it was, quietly, with us all along — after Watergate and movies such as “Absence of Malice.” And, if the government won’t tell you, a simple “declined to say” is what you want; for how you applied under the Freedom of Information Act is about the reporter, not the clammed-up government.

In this connection, this big thing these days about an “exclusive” might have been laughed out of the room. For — as any reader, viewer or auditor knows — if the story is coming from one source, it is suspect, and you’re better served in a democracy if you’re getting it from several reporters.

Another fundamental — and they’re saying Mr. Cronkite adhered to this — was getting out the Five W’s: Who, Where, When, What and Why. In all reporting, this was essential. In print reporting, we had what was called the inverted pyramid, designed so that, if some of the later paragraphs had to be cut, there was enough in the early ones so the story would stand and inform the people.

In Calais, I applied this principle to reports of council meetings. I thought people in this democracy were entitled to know which councilors they had elected showed up at the meeting. So, after the What (what the council’s main decision(s) had been), I went right into Who was there for the people of the town, and then the other W’s. Then, to the decision(s). I tried to get all this in the early paragraphs. There is nothing more disturbing, I think, than the disconnect between a heading that announces the decision of a council or that a local kid has made the dean’s list and the decision or the kid’s name coming in toward the end of the story.

I believe Mr. Cronkite would agree with another practice of the earlier reporting: You respected your sources and used Mr., Mrs. and Miss — and later, Ms. This calling people by their last name shows, I think, a decline in manners and respect, a loss of the civility found with Mr. Cronkite. But maybe this is only a concern about style.

Mr. Cronkite and other leaders of the mid-20th century were products of a liberal arts education. They were literate. They could bring in classical references. This would not be the flashy, “The efforts of suicide bombers to intimidate the people of the town blew up in their faces”; that’s clever and superficial and flash for the moment. Rather, it might be the reference to the Greek tradgedian Aeschylus, made by Sen. Robert Kennedy the night Martin Luther King was assassinated; that’s below the skin, shows the continuity of history and how it repeats itself.

Often, in reporting, Mr. Cronkite would have to make comparisons. Reporters know about comparisons: You have to steer your way through skillfully. Many years ago, when sharing reported views with the BDN’s editor, the late Marshall “Mel” Stone, on comparative views of the United States and Canada, I knew that Mr. Stone knew how to steer the course — as did Mr. Cronkite.

Keeping out of your story, keeping the line between reporting and opinion, attributing opinion to your sources, bringing in the Five W’s early, civility, literacy, steering the course among comparisons — all of these we remember about Walter Cronkite, the man who, many say, set the model. He was a giant among broadcast news pioneers, many of whom will be remembered for their service during World War II and after. He, Edward R. Murrow, Walter Winchell, H.V. Kaltenborn, Gabriel Heater, John Cameron Swayze and others brought broadcast reporting into its own. What those after them have done with it history will tell; but, walkers for quality in reporting, reflecting on the passing of Walter Cronkite, are seeing the real thing among swamps of mediocrity flashing as if they were something.

Ron Cuddy, a former news and parliamentary reporter, editor, news bureau chief and columnist, lives in Calais.

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