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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 June 2007, 15:46 GMT 16:46 UK
Alan Johnston on the art of journalism
BBC News reprints an e-mail Alan Johnston sent last year to the Director of the BBC College of Journalism Vin Ray, who had asked correspondents for their tips on radio reporting.

What I'm about to say isn't anything remotely new. Anybody who goes near the new BBC College of Journalism will surely already know all this. But for me, so much of this job is about how well you work the human element into any given story.

Alan Johnston
BBC staff have been holding weekly rallies for their captive colleague
I normally never tell war stories: "When I was in Jalalabad with the mortars coming down ... blah, blah, blah." But, on this one occasion, there is something I can remember from Grozny that illustrates the point.

I was with a journalist, not a BBC bloke, who very much liked being in a war zone, and during the battle for the city we were in an abandoned block of flats.

We went into an apartment where a shell had come through the living-room wall. And this guy immediately started talking about whether it had been a bazooka shell or a rocket-propelled grenade that had done the damage, and where the soldier who fired it must have been standing on the street outside.

When you are with one side from the conflict, you have got to put to them the very best arguments of the other side - the toughest questions
But if you looked around the room for a minute, you could see the life that used to go on in it.

You could see the books that the family used to read, and the sort of pictures that they liked to hang on the walls, and, from photographs, you could see that they had three kids and that the oldest girl had graduated from university.

Of course, their story, what had happened to them - what they were, and what they had lost - was what the war was all about. It did not really matter whether it was a bazooka or a rocket that had turned their world upside down.

So much of the job is about trying to find the imagination within yourself to try to see, to really see, the world through the eyes of the people in the story.

A nurse attends a newborn baby at Shifa Hospital
Alan Johnston told the human stories behind Gaza's decline

Not just through the eyes of the Palestinian who has just had his home smashed. But also through the eyes of the three young Israelis in a tank who smashed it.

Why did they see that as a reasonable thing to do? What was going through their minds as their tank went through the house?

If you can come close to answering questions like that, then you'll be giving the whole picture, which is what the BBC must do. And when you are with one side from the conflict, you have got to put to them the very best arguments of the other side - the toughest questions.

Avoiding formulaic balance

But the aim is absolutely not to smother the story with a search for some sort of formulaic, 50/50-style balance. If the truth is that the Israelis, or the Palestinians, have simply acted appallingly, then of course that is exactly what the piece must end up saying.

You've got to try to put the listener right there in the alleyways with the kids and the donkey carts - or on Gaza beach with the surf and the wind
And that business of putting yourself in the shoes of the people in the story can only be done if you listen and listen to them. If the people involved are willing to put up with your endless presence, then the details start to emerge.

It is often the details that make it work - images, or turns of phrase, or ways of seeing that become key parts of the way you tell the story. That is what can bring the thing alive.

How do you structure the piece? I guess that the answer is that once you have got the whole, powerful, human story, you have got to put yourself in the shoes of a listener in Lagos, or Lima, or Luton who has not had to know much about Gaza at all.

If you were in his position, how much background would you need? What would be the easiest way to have the flow of events put before you? That is surely mostly what the structure is all about.

You always know what you would like to have done, given the time and the right contributors ... and a bit of luck
Finally, you have got to try to put the whole thing together in a way that makes the very most of what radio can do.

You've got to try to put the listener right there in the alleyways with the kids and the donkey carts - or on Gaza beach with the surf and the wind.

The best pieces ride along on sounds and stand-ups and atmosphere that are always building a sense of place and setting for the story.

And that means that you need to have thought about the structure well in advance. You need to know where your stand-ups are going to sit - what they follow, and what they will lead into.

But you know all this. There are no secrets left under the sun, least of all in journalism. And it goes without saying that so very often, for one reason or another, you do not end up doing half of the above things.

There are all kinds of limitations, and often the piece is not nearly as good as you wanted it to be. But you always know what you would like to have done, given the time and the right contributors ... and a bit of luck.






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