In this chapter, we describe what follow-up stories are, why we use them and how we write them. We also give advice on how to use your diary to plan follow-ups and pre-lims.
A follow-up is a journalist's term for a story which is written so that you can report more of a story which has already been published or broadcast. Those extra details can be new facts, later developments, reactions or new issues which have been raised by the original event. What all follow-ups have in common is that they depend for some of their news value on a story which has gone before.
Why are follow-ups needed?
Follow-ups are needed because one story on its own may not cover all aspects of an event or controversy properly. Although life goes on second-by-second, day-by-day, journalists cannot report it all. Journalists have to concentrate on bits of life and report them to their readers or listeners in 20 centimetre stories or 40-second news reports, three-minute current affairs segments or half-page features. Journalists impose space and time limits on their reports which do not always reflect how important the event is in the real world.
Journalists also attempt to show continuing events in self-contained "chunks" called news stories. With the amount of information now available from throughout the world, you have no alternative if you are to share out your limited time effectively.
However, just because you as a journalist have described an event in a single-column story or a 30-second report does not mean that the event itself has been described completely. There are often side-issues which have not been touched or later events which will need reporting themselves.
We have to distinguish follow-ups from what we call breaking stories, which are reports of events (or controversies or debates) which are still happening as we report them. The hourly reports on a hijacking are part of a breaking story, the report of the eventual trial of the hijackers is a follow-up.
We normally catchlines the latest version of a breaking story UPDATE (for example "HIJACK UPDATE") because it still relies on the same news angle (what is happening at the hijack) but gives us a more up-to-date report. By contrast, we would normally catchline a follow-up according to the angle of the follow-up story itself. For example, we might write a follow-up story about the Transport Minister announcing new security measures to prevent further hijackings. We might catchline it "SECURITY PROMISE". (For more details on this, see Chapters 44 and 45: The breaking story.)
Because events are often connected, it is not always easy to know the difference between a follow-up and a new story or an update of a breaking story. However, a special feature of a follow-up is that it relies for its significance or interest on at least one previous story. Remember though that just because your follow-up describes the effect of a previous story, you cannot expect all of your readers or listeners to remember the original story, even if they did see or hear it. Later in this chapter we will discuss how you should use background information to remind your audience of the original story.
The term follow-up will have no meaning to your readers or listeners; it is simply a label we use as journalists.
We use follow-ups for a variety of reasons:
Follow-ups show how different parts of life are connected. Whenever we finish writing a story, at that point we limit our report of the event or debate to a single moment in time. Follow-ups help us to set stories in context over a longer period of time and to explain cause-and-effect. Most events are like dropping a stone into a pool of water: the stone forces ripples to spread out, disturbing the water in all directions. Just because we stop reporting an event (such as the stone dropping) does not mean that the ripples themselves stop spreading. We must watch and report the ripples too.
To satisfy curiosity
When we arouse the reader's or listener's curiosity with a news story, we have a duty to satisfy that curiosity. With issues or events which are self-contained, a well-written news report or feature article will tell your audience everything they want to know. However, very few events and issues can be packaged so conveniently. Many news reports raise questions, particularly: "But what happens now?" Having given your audience an appetite for the story, you have a duty to provide answers to those kinds of questions. Every time you think that you have finished with a story, put yourself in the place of your readers or listeners and ask: "Is there anything else I want to know about it?" If there is, perhaps you should research and write a follow-up.
To add balance
Because of a shortage of time or because sources were not available when you needed them, you are often forced to run stories which are not properly balanced. The follow-up gives you a second chance to provide that balance.
If the Finance Minister announces a controversial new tax, you need to report what the opposition and people affected by it think. If you cannot get them in time for the first story, you must write a follow-up which concentrates on the reaction rather than the measure itself. Such reaction stories are vital in maintaining your reputation for fairness.
Also, major events or controversies produce large amounts of information. Your readers or listeners need time to absorb all that information. Giving it all in a single story may only confuse them, so you can split it up into a series of follow-up stories run over a number of days or weeks.
To cover missed stories
No matter how good a journalist you are, you will occasionally miss stories which the competition gets. Perhaps the first you know of this is when you hear the story on another station or read it in another newspaper. By that time, it is usually too late to report the same story yourself. It is usually best to accept that you have been beaten for this story, and try to produce a follow-up.
The follow-up in this case still needs to have the information from the original story (which you did not carry), but should have a fresh news angle. For example, the competition may beat you to a story about a government decision to deport someone. Rather than repeat this in your next edition or bulletin, try to interview the person or a relative, to get their reaction for a follow-up. The story will be up-to-date, and anyone comparing your story with the competition's will not think that you are copying from them.
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The structure of follow-ups
Although follow-ups rely on previous stories for their news value, you should still treat them as separate stories when writing them. They should be written in the inverted pyramid style, with the most important aspect (the news angle) first, in the intro. Although the news angle will usually refer to a previous story, your story will not be news if it only reports something your readers or listeners already know. The strength of the follow-up is that it tells your audience about a new aspect of an old story, preferably in a refreshing and lively way.
For example, the original story may have been that the Finance Minister imposed a consumption tax of 10 percent. In the follow-up, the opposition attacked the tax, so you would write:
The Opposition has attacked the Government's new consumption tax as unworkable.
Labour leader Filo Toro said the 10 percent tax would be a nightmare to administer and impossible to collect.
Finance Minister Jo Hero announced the tax in an emergency debate in Parliament on Wednesday etc...
All follow-ups must contain at least one paragraph of background to put the whole story in context. That background can come anywhere in the story. The more essential it is to understanding the latest aspect, the higher up the story it should come.
If the follow-up is full of new and very important material, you may have to put the background near the end of the story, even in the last par. If you do this, it is sometimes useful to insert a few words of background higher up the story, again just to place the story in context.
For example, in your consumption tax story, the third par on Hero's announcement is enough to set the story in context. The real background details (what will be taxed and how) can come at the end of your story.
With major events or arguments, you may have to do several follow-ups over a period. You could use the same background pars, but it is more usual to shorten the background as you get further away from the event. Besides, each follow-up may provide material which needs including as background in subsequent stories.
Some follow-ups, such as a reaction, automatically suggest a different source to that used in the original story. With other kinds of follow-ups it may be more natural to go back to the original source for more information.
Such stories could be news of a plan, with the follow-up a story about the plan in action. In this case, you might go back to the same source for new information.
However, it is better to find new sources for follow-ups. They not only add variety (with a new name or voice), but they also add a different view, even though your new source may only be another spokesman from the same department.
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A journalist without a diary is totally at the mercy of events. The diary allows you to plan ahead and keep track of current events and controversies. If you see the chance for writing a follow-up some time in the future, make a note in the diary to remind you. (You must, of course, look at the diary every day, otherwise the reminder will be useless.)
It is important to enter details of possible follow-ups whenever they suggest themselves. The police may announce that they are charging a man with murder. If you run the story, you should also make a note in the diary of where and when he will appear in court. An association may launch a charity appeal; you should make a note to check how much they raised.
If you are working with other journalists, it is a good idea to keep one central newsdesk diary so that everyone is kept informed about what stories might be coming up. In such a case, your entry needs to be slightly longer than a single word, but not too long that it wastes space - a reference to the original story is usually enough. A diary entry for Monday, June 12 could look something like this:
Check Alfred Nagi appearing in Central Magistrate's court on Chinatown murder charge (See story of May 23).
It is also useful to do the process in reverse - to go back over old stories to find ideas for follow-ups and updates. One useful method is to go through the diary, cuttings or copy files for six months, a year or five years ago. There will be many stories which have developed since, but you have not covered recently.
Anniversaries are a useful time to update stories. If a politician promised action a year ago, now is the time to ask him what he has achieved. If police were hunting a murderer six months ago, ask whether they have any new clues.
Some people regard this as manufacturing news. This would be true if all you are doing is rewriting old stories. However, events often have long-term effects, promises should be kept or explanations provided as to why they were not. Journalists have a duty to monitor the consequences of events or controversies which we regarded as newsworthy in the past. Very often, the journalist will be the only person who tries to make people accountable and reminds them of their responsibility to keep promises.
Preliminary stories (called prelims) are the opposite of follow-ups. Prelims are stories you write before the event happens. When you are told about an important forthcoming event, as well as putting the date, time, place and other details in your diary, you can also write a preliminary story. These are particularly useful on "slow news days", when there is not much happening elsewhere.
Be careful, though, to guard against giving free publicity to any forthcoming event which is not itself newsworthy. The organisers of a sale, a concert, a demonstration or a conference will want you to write a prelim story to promote the event. If it is newsworthy, write your prelim story. But if you have any doubts, you can always wait till the event happens, when you can judge the newsworthiness directly and decide whether or not to write a news story. Remember that your job is to serve your readers or listeners, not the organisers of events.
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Follow-ups are stories you write so that you can report more of a story which has already been published or broadcast.
- Journalists write follow-ups to:
- show how different parts of life are connected
- answer questions left unanswered by earlier stories
- provide balance and reaction
- cover missed stories.
You should still treat follow-ups as separate stories. They should be written in the inverted pyramid style, with the most important aspect (the news angle) in the intro.
All follow-ups must contain at least one paragraph of background to put the whole story in context.
Some follow-ups, such as a reaction, can use different sources to those used in the original story.
Make a note of possible follow-ups in your newsdesk diary whenever they suggest themselves.
Make a note of any possible anniversary follow-ups.
When you are told about an important forthcoming event, as well as putting the date, time, place and other details in your diary, you can also write a preliminary story.
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