How do you get the story right?

How do you get the story right? by David Lias Mark Trahant can boil the definition of journalism down to a simple word: Storytelling.

"I think we're talking about storytelling," he said to participants of the American Indian Journalism Institute, currently in session on The University of South Dakota campus.

"After the story is told, we can ask all of the other questions that pop into our mind," he said. "A journalist storyteller is out there trying to capture the events that have actually happened. So we have to ask enough questions to get the story right."

Be curious

Trahant, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe of Idaho, said he had an opportunity to develop his sense of curiousity by spending time with elders, particularly his grandfather. He listened as they swapped stories, and eventually he, too, participated by engaging in conversations with them.

"Journalism is a profession for the curious. If you want to excel as a journalist," he told the students, "develop, hone and pay attention to that thing called curiousity."

Trahant's thirst for knowledge and ability to share information in news stories has taken him far in the journalism business.

He began his newspaper career at a small weekly newspaper, The Navaho Nation Today.

He was later hired as reporter for the Arizona Republic, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist as co-author of an investigative review of federal Indian policy.

He has worked as executive news editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, and was editor and publisher of Idaho's Moscow-Pullman Daily News.

Today, Trahant serves as editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Not a smooth career path

Trahant's career path has had rough stretches from time to time. He was fired from his job as editor of a tribal newspaper.

"My view was that I worked for the readers, not for the tribal council, so I went into with that mindset," Trahant said. "Sometimes I made people uncomfortable. But I think it's absolutely essential that you figure out who you work for, and for me, it's for my reader.

Knowing that gives you the freedom to make decisions that you might not be able to make if you're not sure who you work for.

Tell me a story

"Everytime you craft a story, think about what it means to craft a story," Trahant told the AIJI participants. "Journalism cannot be a dry accounting of what happened. We choose what to write about, and that changes everything.

"We reveal problems," he said. "Think about four words that have been told to people for generations: Tell me a story."

Journalism is storytelling with purpose, Trahant said. That purpose is to provide people with information they need to understand the world.

Trahant has honed his craft by writing every day. He has kept a daily personal journal for nine years.

"It makes you think differently," he said. "Scribbling down thoughts, you often discover ideas you didn't know you had, and that's the most useful part of writing every day. Writing is a process of discovery."

He told the young people they can also better develop their writing skills by sharing their written stories with friends, co-workers and family members.

"What version generates the most discussion? What can you learn from criticism?" Trahant asked.

It's natural to hate to be criticized, Trahant said. "But in the craft of journalism, a word from someone you respect, even a tough word, matters a lot.

"Seek it out. Look for criticism. Look for people to tell you where you went wrong, and then learn how to improve," he said.

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