The FAQ: Another way to tell a story

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Alternate story forms expand journalist’s toolbox

By Andy Bechtel
UNC-Chapel Hill

Readers of student media often have questions about things in the news. College journalists can provide answers using the “frequently asked questions” format.

Korie Dean, a reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, specializes in FAQ stories. She’s reported and written them about topics such as COVID restrictions, health insurance and bans on outdoor burning.

“You might find yourself asking questions about a new law that’s gone into effect, a confusing term that’s related to the news of the day, a viral post on social media or just about anything else,” says Dean, a 2021 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. “Those topics make for fantastic FAQs, because they’re things people undoubtedly have questions about and will be searching (literally searching on Google — SEO is key!) for answers on.”

So when should you try a FAQ, and how do you put one together? Here’s what you need to know.

Question: What is an FAQ post?

Answer: A news story, press release or web page that’s structured in a question/answer format. Just like this post.

Why use the FAQ format?

People often have common questions about an event, organization, issue or trend. The FAQ format is easy for readers to search and skim for information they are looking for.

“The common tie is that people will want the information in an easy-to-understand, digestible format that quickly equips them with the information they need,” says Dean, who wrote for student publications Media Hub and The Durham Voice while a student at UNC.

When should we use the FAQ format?

The FAQ format is handy for “teachable moments” — like a “how to” guide about a topic. It’s also useful for information about an announcement, policy change, etc.

How do we brainstorm an FAQ story?

Use the “how what why when where” of news judgment to anticipate reader questions. You can also solicit questions from your readers using social media. That brainstorming and information gathering will be the framework for your FAQ.

“You want your story to be a one-stop shop for answers about the given topic, making sure to address as many questions as possible, anticipating what questions readers will have to begin with, as well as additional questions they might have after learning the basic facts that you present,” Dean says.

How do we start an FAQ story?

Write a brief lead of one or two paragraphs to introduce your topic. Consider using the direct address, speaking to the reader like a friend or guide. Then go directly into the questions and answers.

How do you organize an FAQ story?

Order the questions in a way that makes sense. Start with the fundamentals — often a “what is” question works well. Each answer should lead naturally to the next question, like a conversation or interview.

“One of the first stories I did in my current job was an explainer on the Emerald Ash Borer, an invasive pest that’s killing ash trees across North Carolina. I could have easily started that story by jumping straight into questions about the bug and the harm it causes — but as I started writing, I realized that I, personally, didn’t even really know what an ash tree was or what one looked like,” Dean says. “I figured there was a good chance many readers would have the same experience.”

How long should each question/answer be?

Each question should be one sentence of no more than 30 words. Lengths of answers may vary, but aim to be concise. Don’t forget to check for Associated Press style, grammar, etc.

How long should an FAQ story be?

It depends. The more concise, the better. But sometimes people have a lot of questions! If your FAQ is getting long, consider dividing it into categories with subheads.

How should the FAQ end?

One option is to use a “call to action.” How can readers learn more or participate? Another option is to end with a “what’s ahead” or “what’s next” question, which foreshadows more news on the topic.

“I try to always list resources at the end of the story where readers can go for more information, if needed,” Dean says. “That could be contact information for someone at a government agency or just additional online resources.”

What are some examples?

Here you go:

What’s next?

Give the FAQ a try!


Andy Bechtel
Andy Bechtel

Andy Bechtel teaches writing and editing at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC-Chapel Hill. He joined the faculty in 2005 after about a dozen years in newspaper journalism. Bechtel is the author of two online courses for Poynter Institute’s News University: one on the fundamentals of editing and another on alternative story forms. He has also written reviews and articles for publications such as Journalism & Mass Communication Educator and Tracking Changes, the newsletter of ACES: The Society for Editing.

Legal analysis: Why Sarah Palin (still) matters for student journalists

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‘This is—and has always been—a case about media accountability’

By Carolyn Schurr Levin

You may be tired of reading about Sarah Palin and her potentially “groundbreaking” libel case against The New York Times.  However, so much has happened since our 2019 analysis of her case that I thought it was time for an update. I will focus on how the recent 2022 court resolution of this 2017 libel lawsuit impacts what student journalists do, and how best for campus media advisers to advise them.

First, a bit of background. On June 14, 2017, The New York Times published an editorial entitled “America’s Lethal Politics,” which stated that there was a connection between a 2010 advertisement by Palin’s political action committee and the 2011 Arizona mass shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Arizona, and others. The byline for the editorial was “By The Editorial Board.”

The New York Times changed the language of the editorial and published a correction two days later, on June 16, 2017, after readers noted there was no connection between the Palin advertisement and the Giffords shooting. The correction read, in full: “An editorial on Thursday about the shooting of Representative Steve Scalise incorrectly stated that a link existed between political rhetoric and the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords. In fact, no such link was established. The editorial also incorrectly described a map distributed by a political action committee before that shooting. It depicted electoral districts, not individual Democratic lawmakers, beneath stylized cross hairs.” But, The New York Times did not apologize to Palin. Continue reading “Legal analysis: Why Sarah Palin (still) matters for student journalists”

Session on conflict in Ukraine prompts timely discussion

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‘Disinformation, Dictators and The Undaunted: Covering the Ukraine/Russia War’

Continue reading “Session on conflict in Ukraine prompts timely discussion”

Shoot-out returns to NYC

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B&H Photo Video provides prize for top photographer

It’s been two years since photographers were able to participate in a Shoot-out as part of a national College Media Association convention. Two years ago, the headline was, “11 photojournalists document city in crisis.” This year, the 18 students were assigned to create “an image — worthy of a postcard — showing what life is like in the city that never sleeps after two years of the pandemic.”

And this year, they had an Apple Award as an incentive to win and a prize donated by B&H Camera Video —a Sony ZV-1 Digital Camera valued at nearly $900.

Some years, with the judges, a mixture of professional photographers, college photography instructors and media advisers as well as scholastic photography instructors and media advisers, the top entries are close. This year, 43 individuals judged the entries and all but 11 ranked the winning entries as one of their top entries. Nine of the judges said the winning entry was their choice for first place. No other single entry has scored so high in recent years. Continue reading “Shoot-out returns to NYC”

Applying Scanlan’s ‘The Coaching Way’ to media design instruction

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Editor, adviser can assume coaching role

By Melanie Wilderman

I first heard of Chip Scanlan’s “The Coaching Way,” in 2004 when I was preparing to teach my first college-level class, Introduction to Media Writing, as a very green master’s graduate and new adjunct instructor for my alma mater. I was 23 years old and, like many new instructors, terrified my students would think I was a fraud. “The Coaching Way” saved me that first semester. It guided me as a teacher as much as it helped guide my students.

SAMPLE 1
SAMPLES: In examples of students’ final designs for the basic business card assignment, note that they make decisions concerning color, font and placement of simple shapes to create the business cards. In doing so, they are primarily practicing the concepts of dominance, balance, hierarchy and space in their work.

For those who may not be familiar, Scanlan, a seasoned journalist and former writing instructor for The Poynter Institute, detailed his approach as an editor in a 2003 Poynter article. He said he approached coaching journalists first with the question, “How can I help?” Then he listened to the answer. Sounds simple, right? Even Scanlan admitted this, but it’s an important first step, and what follows is a more intense progression of open-ended questions throughout the writing process and a back-and-forth between editor and journalist (or, in educational settings, between teacher and student) that requires participation from both parties. He calls this style “The Coaching Way.” Continue reading “Applying Scanlan’s ‘The Coaching Way’ to media design instruction”

Review: ‘News for the Rich, White and Blue’

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Author Nikki Usher proposes a “post-newspaper consciousness” framework to viewing media today

Reviewed by Carolyn Schurr Levin

I live in a town where, while we do have local newspapers, none of them regularly cover school board meetings (or police or fire department or other town meetings, for that matter). I would venture an educated guess that many – if not a majority of – college newspapers don’t regularly send a reporter to cover student government meetings, either in person or virtually during the pandemic. This state of affairs, both on campus and off, no doubt, is not good. In her recent book, “News for the Rich, White and Blue,” Nikki Usher tells us why.

“Journalism anchors American democracy by connecting people to the places they live,” Usher writes, “providing them with critical news and information as well as a sense of cultural rootedness and belonging.” If journalists are not covering the day-to-day meetings and events that impact our lives, are we getting what we need to be an “active and engaged citizenry,” college students and adults alike? We are not, Usher forcefully argues. She shares with her readers studies reflecting the underlying premise that without local news, the public cannot make informed decisions Continue reading “Review: ‘News for the Rich, White and Blue’”

Research (Vol. 59): Maintaining and Framing Social Media

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A Multi-Method Examination of Award-Winning Student Newspaper Tweets

Emily A. Dolan
Slippery Rock University

Brittany L. Fleming
Slippery Rock University

Abstract: The current study examined how award-winning student newspapers used social media to maintain relationships with their audiences. We employed quantitative methods to examine 26,388 tweets for the presence of relational maintenance strategies. We then employed a qualitative analysis to understand how tweets featuring high levels of these strategies attracted audience engagement. Findings suggest that student newspapers employ relational maintenance strategies in their posts. Within each of these strategies, we identified patterns in the types of tweets that attracted high levels of user engagement. Broadly, our findings suggest that these strategies should not be centered on maintaining the relationships between audiences and newspapers, but instead should be centered on maintaining relationships between audiences and their university communities. We use these findings to propose a list of social media best practices for student newspapers and advisors. Continue reading “Research (Vol. 59): Maintaining and Framing Social Media”

Community newspapers the ‘lifeblood of every community’

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Local publications provide ample opportunities 

Yvonne Mintz is the editor and publisher of The Facts in Brazoria County, Texas.

It’s not a newspaper most readers would have heard of. The Facts doesn’t compete with USA Today or even the Houston Chronicle, which is right up the road.

It doesn’t need to.

The Facts is just as likely to cover a local softball game or a high school graduation as it is the latest controversy at the town council.

The paper’s motto reminds readers of its mission: “No one delivers local news like The Facts.”

While sitting on a panel talking to college journalists, Mintz expanded on this idea.

“Without us, officials in this community would be unchecked in their power,” she told the interns participating in the Dow Jones News Fund / Texas Press Association Center for Editing Excellence training program before they left for internships at publications such as the Houston Chronicle and patch.com but also the Azle News, Hill Country News, Pleasanton Express and Tyler County Booster, all in Texas.

Mike Hodges, executive director of the Texas Press Association, said of community newspapers, “They are the lifeblood of every community.” Continue reading “Community newspapers the ‘lifeblood of every community’”

CMR Research Annual Vol. 58 is available

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Back it up with data…

From the editor: I saw a photo of an adviser colleague on social media recently, proudly sporting a t-shirt that proclaimed “I BACK IT UP WITH DATA.” This year, College Media Review continues to uphold this sentiment by releasing Volume 58 of the print Research Annual of CMA’s flagship journal.

This past year’s scholarly publications have been compiled into a hard copy as a print-on-demand volume that can be purchased here for $5.

It features a publication by Katherine Fink of Pace University in a study titled “Freedom of Information in College: How Students Learn to File Public Records Requests.” Fink uses a qualitative approach to delve into the process of filing FOI requests and using those results to advance student reporting.

Continue reading “CMR Research Annual Vol. 58 is available”

Research (Vol. 58): The College Newsroom amid COVID

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A Statistical Assessment of Advisers and their work in College Newsrooms in 2020

Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver, EdD
Florida International University

Elizabeth Smith, EdD
Pepperdine University

Jody Kleinberg Biehl, MA
University at Buffalo

Research Associate: Lillian A. Abreu, MSW
Florida International University


Abstract: This research updates and explores the role and jobs of college newsroom advisers, the context of their work, and the newsrooms they advise. Using a survey (N=332) of student media advisers, the data provide important understandings for college journalism issues that have emerged, or re-emerged, in the past year: COVID-19, diversity, and prior review. Responses show, despite campus closures and some declining advertising revenues, COVID-19 did not halt the work of the vast majority of college newsrooms. On the contrary, data from this survey combined with national trends point to the growing importance of college news media across the nation. As local news outlets decrease, college newsrooms are filling the void.  Open-ended responses revealed anxieties among advisers about how the pandemic would affect newsrooms in the coming academic years, especially regarding budgets and advertising revenue. For the first time, this research collected information on race/ethnicity. Participants were mostly white, although community colleges had the largest group of advisers of color. Responses reveal that 87% of advisers report that they do not edit newsroom content, although responses raise questions about the role that faculty-guided class work plays in newsrooms and how advisers define prior review. Compared to past research, adviser salaries have increased in the past five years and 62% of advisers hold either a faculty or staff title. Overall, salaries have increased 12% among advisers since 2014.

Keywords: college media, student newsrooms, student journalism, newsroom diversity, COVID-19, prior review

Continue reading “Research (Vol. 58): The College Newsroom amid COVID”