How to Write a Profile Feature Articles a student journalist, your mission is to inform your peers. Your fellow students look to your work to help them understand the nuances of the environments they inhabit, and to accurately represent their experiences and views. Here are a few guidelines that should help you report and write for the national audience you will have if your submission is selected for publication on The New York Times Learning Network.
1. Know the rules of attribution. You must identify yourself as a reporter before beginning any conversation with a source. If you don't, his or her comments will not be considered "on the record" -- and therefore they will not be useable in your article. A source cannot retroactively take his or her comments "off the record" -- so if a source says at the end of an interview, "but that was all off the record," that person is out of luck.
2. Ask open questions, be a good listener, and probe for anecdotes. Get a source talking by asking questions that begin with "how" or "why." Once a source starts talking, try to keep him or her going by asking follow-up questions like, "What do you mean by that?" or "Can you give me an example?"
3. Prepare for your interviews. Come to any interview armed with a basic list of questions you hope to ask. If the conversation goes well you can (and should) toss your questions and go with the flow, but if you have a terse source your questions should be a big help in keeping the conversation going. When interviewing leaders and experts, you should always have a basic understanding of the work they have done which has prompted you to look to those people as sources.
4. Interview with breadth and depth. Interview as wide a range of people as possible, and probe them for thoughtful answers. You don't need to use quotes from every person you interview -- but having a diverse collection of interviews in your notebook will give you the best possible selection of quotes. Plus, good interviews should help you expand your understanding of your topic.
5. Write for a national audience. Obviously, your story will be grounded by your familiarity with your own school. But you should seek a variety of perspectives and several expert opinions. Try to interview students from at least three different schools, and look for recent research studies that may help illuminate some of the points your article makes. Interview the authors of the studies if you can.
6. Keep an open mind. Don't assume that you understand all the nuances of your topic. Expect that your understanding will evolve as you report. If it doesn't, you may not have reported thoroughly or aggressively enough.
Once you're ready to write:
7. Decide on an approach. Outlining your story is the best way to start. This means reviewing your notes, marking the most interesting or articulate quotes, making a list of important points, and creating a structure into which you can fit your information. Spend extra time of the beginning of your story. Readers will decide whether to proceed based on the capacity of your lede to grab their interest.
8. Focus on what's most compelling. Before you start writing, think through all the information you have and all the points you plan to make. What's surprising? What's important? What's useful?
9. Show, don't tell. It is tempting to describe a room as messy or a person as nice. But carefully-observed details and well-chosen verbs make a much stronger impression than adjectives.
10. Put your story in context. You must help answer a reader's biggest question about any story: Why should I care?
11. Don't overuse direct quotes. Sometimes you can best capture a mood with your own prose. Think of direct quotes as icing on a cake -- they enhance, but they shouldn't form the substance of your story. The quotes you do use must be attributed, always. The reader should not have to guess who is talking.
12. Fill holes. Are there questions raised by your story that you have not answered? Ask a friend, teacher, editor or fellow reporter to read through your story and tell you what else he or she would want to know.
13. Triple-check for accuracy. Spell names right. Get grade levels and titles right. Get facts right. If you are unsure of something and cannot verify it, leave it out. Before you turn in your story, ask yourself these questions: Have I attributed or documented all my facts? Are the quotes in my story presented fairly and in context? Am I prepared to publicly defend my facts if they are questioned?
14. Proofread. Do not turn in a story with spelling or grammatical mistakes. If you're not sure of grammar, consult a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, or read it online at http://www.columbia.edu/acis/bartleby/strunk
A "profile feature" is a newspaper article that explores the background and character of a particular person (or group). The focus should be on a news angle or a single aspect of the subject's personal or professional life. The article should begin with the reason the subject is newsworthy at this time, and should be based (not exclusively) on an extensive interview with the subject.
Biographical material is important, but should not be overemphasized: the biography is background to the news. Readers should be allowed to better understand the subject by seeing this person in the context of his or her interests and career, educational and family background.
When reporting a profile feature article, observe your surroundings carefully. Pay attention to your subject's habits and mannerisms. Subtle clues like posture, tone of voice and word choice can all, when presented to readers, contribute to a fuller and more accurate presentation of the interview subject.
When interviewing, encourage your subject to open up and express significant thoughts, feelings or opinions. Do so by asking open-ended questions that are well-planned. Make sure to research the subject of your profile before beginning your interview. This will help you to maintain focus during the conversation and to ask questions that will elicit compelling responses.
The article should open with the subject's connection to the news event and should deal later with birth, family, education, career and hobbies, unless one of those happens to be the focus of the story.
Interview at least five other people, representing a variety of perspectives, about the subject of your profile. Ask them for telling anecdotes. You don't have to quote, or even mention, all of these people in your article. But each may provide you with information that will help you ask better questions of your profile subject, or of the next person you interview.
Make a list of people you would like to interview for your article. Contact them early, and often. If sources you think would be useful don't return your calls or notes, be politely persistent. Ask again, always explaining who you are, the topic of your article, and why you think they would be helpful. If they won't talk to you, ask them to refer you to others who might.
Profile features should include the major elements of hard news stories, but should also provide readers with details help to capture the essence of the person you are profiling. Contextual information should clearly show readers why the profile subject you have chosen is relevant and interesting.
Since features are typically reported and written over a much longer period of time than event-driven news, they should be carefully researched and supported with as much background material as possible. Check the library, the Internet and experts for previous news coverage and references to key information.
Profile feature ledes are often more creative than news leads. They don't always need to contain the standard "five w's (and h)": who, what, when, where, why and how. (These elements should, however, be aggregated somewhere in your article in what has come to be known as a "nut graf," the paragraph that clearly explains to readers who your profile is about and why this person is interesting.) A profile feature lede can take one of many forms. One is a "delayed lede," in which a person is introduced before his or her relevance is revealed. An example:
As a young girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Mae C. Jemison watched telecasts of the Gemini and Apollo spaceflights and knew that that was her destiny. No matter that all the astronauts were male and white and that she was female and black. She simply knew she would be a space traveler.
Now a 35-year-old doctor and engineer, Dr. Jemison has realized her dream, launching into orbit yesterday as one of the shuttle Endeavor's sever-member crew. In the process she has become the first African-American woman to go into space. ...
When structuring your story, don't feel tied to the "inverted pyramid" style of writing, in which the most important information is placed in the first paragraph and proceeds retrogressively from there. Consider weaving background material with details and quotes, and when choosing an order in which to present your information, move thematically rather than chronologically.
Don't end your article with a conclusion. Consider saving a particularly resonant quote for the last sentence. This way your article will end with a voice the reader may be left hearing long after he or she has finished your story.
Germelina Lacorte & D J Clark
Structuring a feature article
Begin your feature article with a lead, which gives a particular focus on the subject of your story. The feature lead, which can run from two to three paragraphs, can be a short narrative, an anecdote, or a descriptive lead which draws the readers’ attention to your subject. The feature lead also immediately brings the reader to the ‘nut graf,’ a statement or two giving the reader an idea of what the entire story is all about. The ‘nut graf’ also serves as the ‘hook’ to the story and lends perspective to it.
Following the ‘nut graf,’ is the body of the story, where you begin to tell the narrative in a logical order. Your feature usually ends with how you started, or with a memorable quotation which ties the different strands together.
You may start your feature story on the Ogiek activist attack by describing the Ngongogeri village at 2:30 in the morning when everyone was asleep and the stillness was broken by shouts. You may do this through the point of view either of the victim or a neighbour.
Or, you may also start it with a quote from the victim himself. What was he doing when the men broke into his house? Get the most striking part of what he said and put it in the lead.
If you happen to talk to an elderly woman who brought the man to the hospital, you can start with an anecdote beginning how she heard a commotion and a cry for help, and found the activist James Rana sprawled on the floor with machete wounds.
Whichever of the three feature leads you happened to choose, make sure you give it a single focus that immediately leads to the nut graf, a statement or two that tells the reader what your story is all about.
If your story is about the targeting of activists fighting for Ogiek land rights, your nut graf situates this attack in context to previous attacks on Ogiek activists. How many attacks had taken place and for how long, how many months or years? Does existing evidence show that Ogiek activists were specially targeted?
Remember, the nut graf brings your readers to the bigger picture of your story. Your nut graf may run like this:
‘Rana is the fourth Ogiek activist attacked in Ngongogeri village in two months. Last month, another activist was assaulted on the streets. Groups fighting for land rights call these attacks an "attempt to silence Ogiek people fighting for their land".’
With your nut graf written, you can now proceed to the body of your story. Substantiate the points you made in your nut graf by presenting the arguments in the body of your story. This is where you use quotes, statistics and counter-arguments to back up what you have previously written in your nut graf. Arrange your facts in a logical order, or according to how the arguments develop.
You may wrap up your story by going back to your opening lines, tying your pieces together. If you started your story by describing the shouts that broke the stillness of the Ngongogeri village in the dawn of the attack, you might want to end by going back to this description, adding that with the attacks still unsolved, sleep may not yet come easy for most of the Ogiek villages fighting for land rights.
Do background research and familiarize yourself with the subject before setting up the interview. Knowing how the attack against Ogiek activists began and the provisions in the new constitution that guarantee indigenous people’s rights in Kenya will make it easier for you to understand and put in context what your source will probably say in the course of the interview. This will avoid unnecessary interruptions as he recounts his story. Make sure to keep your interviewee at ease throughout the interview. It is possible that the Ogiek activist who just survived an attack may still be suffering from trauma and might be suspicious talking to reporters he does not know. Establish rapport first, before you proceed on to your questions. You need to win his trust first before he can answer your questions and divulge sensitive information that he knows. Touch on the easy subjects first before moving on to the more difficult ones.
Listen carefully to what your source is saying. Avoid interruptions except when you deem it extremely important, but ask questions when you do not understand.
Encourage people to speak what is on their minds, even to the extent of abandoning your prepared list of questions. Avoid loaded questions.
Basic investigative journalism
Investigative journalism refers to pieces of journalism that provoke people to action, correct an injustice, or right a wrongdoing by exposing facts that not known to the public. It demands long hours of digging, tenacious research and hard work.
After you have identified the subject of your investigation, define the problem, form a hypothesis how or why it happened, plan your approach and proceed to prove or disprove your story.
Start your investigation working from the outside in, which means first questioning secondary sources to identify the primary documents you will need as you inch closer to your subject. Learn how to use public records to build up your case. Follow up relevant paper trails and contacts you may come across. Most investigative journalists complete the paper trail first before interviewing the people in their story.
Triangulate by checking the facts told to you by a source with two or more other sources, to find out if they are saying the same thing. Only when you have come full circle and you have proven everything in your story, do you finally interview the subject of your investigation.
Going back to the Ogiek activist story, you can start your investigative piece by asking who could have made the attack? Are the claims by activists that they are being targeted based on verifiable facts? You can check this out by digging into the previous stories written about the Ogiek attacks, making your own inquiries.
Based on what you have found, form your own theory of what took place. If you feel there is enough evidence to believe that they are really being targeted, and that those backing the attacks are powerful people out to grab Ogieks’ land, you may have a subject of an investigative piece to prove or disprove.
Your hypothesis will run like this: Powerful people are behind the attacks of Ogiek activists fighting for land rights. Proceed by building up your case, working from the outside going in until you are ready to try and interview the subject/s who you believe committed the crime. If your subject/s agree to an interview then present them with your evidence and ask them to respond.
Reference (for Basic Investigative Reporting):
Cribb, R., D. Jobb, D. McKie, F. Vallance Jones. (2006). Chapter 2: The Nuts and Bolts of Investigations, 'Digging Deeper: A Canadian Reporter's Research Guide' (Oxford University Press)
Ethics of feature writing
Except in extreme cases when public lives are at stake, never lie, steal or deceive your sources. Make sure your subject knows you are interviewing them for publication and that any disclosure that they make could be made public.
Respect off-the-record comments and anonymous disclosures. Be sensitive in handling your subject, especially when it involves minors or women victims of sexual abuse, or suspected criminals who are not yet tried in court. Think of the impact that publishing the story might bring to your subject’s safety and security.
The Ogiek activist might have been traumatized by the incident, so it pays to be extra sensitive in asking your questions. You do not have to include information that might compromise your subject’s safety.
Putting the 'story' together
In writing long investigative pieces, it pays to use a working outline to allow you to focus on what is important to your story. To avoid getting overwhelmed, treat each section of the outline as a story in itself and write them separately. Only after all the sections have been written, start arranging them to create a logical narrative. This way, it is easier to piece the whole story together and make it understandable to your reader.
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