Category Archives: journalism

one year later

A year ago, a graduate student at the University of Missouri began a hunger strike. He told me about it. I broke the story. Soon it was national news.

Anniversaries are a time when people reflect. I could write that post, reflecting on what it was like to report on a man who stopped eating. What it was like to watch this man physically grow weaker and weaker while I had to maintain a professional distance. What it was like to try and wrap my head around his faith in God, which was so strong, a faith that I still cannot comprehend.

But I’m not ready to write that post. My chest still pinches when I think about it.

So I’ll just say this: My life has changed immensely since then. The city where I live, the office where I work, the people in whom I confide, next to whom I wake. That week, one year ago, was still the most challenging of my professional life. It was the week when I learned that the best reporting can come from a place of empathy. In some cases, it must.

I’m grateful I got to write the first draft of that story. I’m thankful for the people who were in my life. Most importantly — I’m glad that student is still alive.

good riddance 2014

We’ve been in 2015 for six days now. I don’t think I’ve truly registered that. Here’s a post to say goodbye to 2014. 

The night before I left for my parents’ home this Christmas, the few of us who were left over met up for some tacos.

We were all journalism students–most of them photographers, and a couple of us writers showed up too. The end of 2014 was a mere two weeks away, and this seemed like an appropriate time to reminisce.

“What happened this year?” someone asked.

“Well, a whole lot of police violence…” I said.

“Right. There was Michael Brown in Ferguson, obviously, but also Eric Garner and Tamir Rice,” said another.

“And there was Ebola,” another person offered.

“Russia annexed Crimea…”

“ISIS beheaded those journalists…”

“Eh, ISIS in general was pretty bad,” I said.

“There was that Rolling Stone article about campus rape…”

“Boko Haram has been reeking havoc in Nigeria…”

“Guys, this is bad,” said a friend. “Can’t we think of anything good happen this year? Did anything good happen this year?”

I paused. “Well, Germany won the World Cup…”

“Oh, come on!” protested everyone else in the room. I guess none of them had German family members. They probably weren’t Bayern Munich fans.

More silence. I could on my friends’ faces that they were legitimately digging through their recent memories. Finally, somebody spoke up.

“We’re all safe and happy. And I guess that’s what’s really important.”

Everyone nodded in agreement, but I still felt frustrated. The answer was true, of course, but it seemed like a cop out. Things might be going well for me, but for millions upon millions of people in the world, the world was becoming an increasingly dangerous place. How are you supposed to avoid being weighed down by the news when your job is to study and write about it?

I’m going to leave that question dangling, because I plan to find how to answer it in 2015. Here’s to the new year, a year of digging and learning and staying on top of the news.

On a lighter note, how about this for a Transformation Tuesday? A year ago, I had dark hair and bangs. Now they’re long gone. R.I.P. high maintenance hair.

sadder than fiction

This is tough. Really tough. My brain is struggling to structure the information, much less to process and analyze it. Let’s do it this way.

Here’s what we know:

Rolling Stone journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely reported that Sept. 28, 2012, a young woman named Jackie attended a party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus. Erdely wrote about how Jackie was brutally gang raped by several frat brothers.

We know that since then, the pieces of the article presented as fact are now being questioned by other news organizations such as the Washington Post. The fraternity claims never to have had a party on the day of the alleged rape. Evidently, no Phi Psi man fits the description of “Drew,” Jackie’s rapist. And further, Erdely is being criticized because she did attempt to speak to “Drew.” One of the friends who ran into Jackie the night of Sept. 28 said that she was found a mile away from the frat houses, and that she was shaken but not physically injured. There are other apparent discrepancies, which you can read in the Rolling Stone apology letter.

So much credibility is being given to the agents who are pushing back on Jackie’s story–the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity especially. Critics are blaming Jackie for fudging details or making up the ordeal entirely. They are also blaming Rolling Stone for mistakes in fact-checking.

Here’s what Rolling Stone investigative reporter Matt Taibbi has to say about fact-checking at the magazine:

But in Rolling Stone‘s apology, Editor Will Dana changed the assertion that the magazine “misplaced” its trust in Jackie to: “These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie.”

Where does this leave us? Concerning the facts of the story, I’m not sure. I’m not sure. I’m not sure. But here’s what I do know. The backlash I’ve seen against this story is the most vicious I’ve seen in journalism. Why? I assume it has everything to do with the topic.

An estimated 1,929,000 women are raped per year in the States, according to the National Intimate Partner and Violence Survey. And yet every time a woman (or man) who has been raped is brave enough to come forward, society’s first instinct is to call her a liar. The percentage of rape allegations that are false is difficult to pin down, but it’s still very small.

We see the consequences with Jackie. Everybody’s favorite Twitter psychopath Chuck C. Johnson published her last name and is calling her a flat-out liar. Now, he’s opened her up to a world of harassment.

Here’s a Twitter vignette from Ta-Nehisi Coates that makes an insightful comparison with the notion of “crying rape”:

And what’s most infuriating is that since Jackie has been so ferociously hassled and ridiculed online, other rape victims are going to stay locked in silence. They look at what happened to Jackie, and they don’t want to live through the same consequences. So instead, they’ll stay under their blankets to try and find respite from painful memories. They’ll wonder what they could have done differently to avoid being raped. They’ll blame themselves, hate themselves and sink further and further into depression.

The system is rigged. No matter what, the loser will always be the victim of rape. 

lately

Things that are difficult:

Keeping your mouth shut when your political views on a topic are just begging to be shared with the whole world. You’re a journalist, Kasia. People can dismiss your credibility if you have an opinion, even if it’s backed by evidence. People don’t listen, not really. They divide the world into dichotomies and place you on whatever side makes the easiest sense.

Realizing that the dark bags under your eyes are slowly taking over your entire splotchy face. “Whoa, look at those circles under your eyes!” I was told yesterday. Three times. Who cares, who cares, who cares. I’ll get sleep tonight and I won’t look like a monster tomorrow.

Watching horrible things happen in the world and knowing that right now, at least, I feel utterly powerless.

Things that make the difficult stuff not-too-terrible:

Being assigned a story that excites you. Not feeling entirely powerless any more. (Stay tuned.)

Being able to have a conversation and ask insightful questions.

Getting good grades for hard work.

Doing cartwheels with friends in public spaces because it’s midnight and you’ve still got hours of work to go, so why not, really?

Playing with my dog.

re: jian ghomeshi

Having a stressful day? Easy relief: switch on NPR.

Listening to the familiar voices of Garrison Keillor or Terry Gross or Ira Glass is comforting, even ritualistic. Radio is made up of disembodied voices, free from the faults that come with being human.

This is Jian Ghomeshi, one of those radio hosts.

jian

Photo Credit: Nightlife.ca

He hosts–excuse me, used to host, as of two days ago–a radio show on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called Q. I discovered it when I was apartment-hunting around Kansas City in the summer of 2013. It was a hot summer, and my car didn’t have air conditioning. My comfort during hours of driving and sweating was listening to Q on NPR.

But Ghomeshi’s voice isn’t one of those disembodied comforts any more.

The CBC fired Ghomeshi this week, after some incriminating “information” was brought to their attention.

Ghomeshi didn’t leave quietly. He’s suing the CBC for $50 million for breach of contract and bad faith. To boot, just a few hours ago, he published an open letter on his Facebook page. Here are some bits and pieces from it: 

I’ve been fired from the CBC because of the risk of my private sex life being made public as a result of a campaign of false allegations pursued by a jilted ex girlfriend and a freelance writer. …

We saw each other on and off over the period of a year and began engaging in adventurous forms of sex that included role-play, dominance and submission. We discussed our interests at length before engaging in rough sex (forms of BDSM). We talked about using safe words and regularly checked in with each other about our comfort levels. She encouraged our role-play and often was the initiator.

Bold move, getting his story out before CBC could release the findings of its own investigation. According to him, all the freaky bedroom stuff was consensual. According to his “jilted ex-girlfriend,” apparently, it was not. According to Ghomeshi, he was fired due to his private life. According to a whole lot of people, he’s a creep.

I’m not writing about this to gossip. I’m writing because of the implications of this situation. The crux of the story–do we believe Jian Ghomeshi?

If he’s not lying and the CBC fired him for the potential scandal that could grow from his private sex life, that’s obviously problematic. Ghomeshi is a journalist, and it’s a horrible phenomenon when journalists become the story. It’s a scary thought, that my professional life could be damaged by rumors and reputation. Reporter Gary Webb allegedly took his own life after this happened to him.

But what if the ex is not lying?

False accusations of sexual harassment and rape do exist. The percentage of rape accusations that are untrue is an incredibly difficult statistic to pin down, with estimates ranging from 2 percent (largely debunked) to 41 percent (thanks to men’s rights activists, so not a trustworthy number either).

And what about all the women who do endure sexual harassment who don’t speak up? They often choose not to, because their remarks will immediately be written off as false by the accused. They’re labeled as “attention-seeking whores,” demonized, having to relive that moment of violation every time they are verbally attacked. No wonder they don’t want to come out with their stories. Because of the gendered power relations of our culture, people are more inclined to doubt the accuser and believe the possible rapist.

Ghomeshi has already received hundreds of comments of support on his Facebook page. When the ex’s name is revealed, I guarantee you, she’ll receive hundreds of comments of the opposite sort. Hate, definitely. Threats, maybe.

So, I implore you. If you’re going to be skeptical of the ex-girlfriend, be skeptical of Ghomeshi too. He knows a lot about narration and molding stories to fit his frame. He is a journalist, after all.

UPDATE: The Toronto Star is reporting that it conducted extensive interviews with three women who claimed that Ghomeshi was sexually violent with them without their consent. He allegedly hit them and choked them. Another woman, one who worked at the CBC, said that Ghomeshi groped her buttocks and said that he wanted to “hate fuck” her.

None of these women were willing to give their names. They don’t want to be the object of threats and ridicule. In journalism school, we’re taught to never go with sources who speak off the record. It hurts credibility. But I believe protecting sources who are victims is even more important.

Talk about an ethics moment. This is tough.

UPDATE, Oct. 29: Eight women. Eight.

sourcing: a dance

Start the waltz with a phone call, maybe an email.
The first steps: Sometimes with a secretary  sometimes with a voicemail, and sometimes “I am currently out of the office” automatic reply.

Follow up, follow up, follow up.

Finally, reach the source–the first twirl.

“When can we meet? Are you available today or tomorrow?”
“Oh, you don’t have time until next week?”
“And you won’t have the data until the week after that?”

Again, again, again. Beginning to get dizzy.

Show up at the office. Time for the interview.
“So you’re saying that you need to reschedule?”
The first misstep. Clumsy! Hide that frustration. A proper performer never shows that she’s made a mistake.

But the waltz goes on, following this same pattern, twirling and missteps–weeks, weeks.

A proper performer never shows her exhaustion.

She’s not the only one. Everyone’s tired, everyone’s busy, everyone’s booked. She reminds herself to be understanding. Still, she wishes that she didn’t have to draw out this waltz for so long. She wants a quick tango, then to move on to the next one. She would rather sit down and write.

Dizzy, feeling ditzy. But: Follow up, follow up, follow up.

BOOM (a comparative study in reporting)

*Note: another blog post brought you by graduate school! Too blessed to be stressed, everyone.

Take a look at two different articles on Texas’ natural gas boom, and chances are, you’ll be first be struck by the photographs. Both stories are visually stunning, even though they are printed in different platforms.

The piece in Texas Monthly, called “‘Y’all Smell That? That’s the Smell of Money’” has photographs taking up entire pages. You can see oil rigs and pump jacks juxtaposed in front of blank blank blue skies, or maybe a sunrise lighting the landscape in gold. It’s a compelling contrast–nature and machine, that is–and there’s something beautiful about it.

Copyright Jeff Wilson Photography

Copyright Jeff Wilson Photography

Now, turn to the piece from the Center for Public Integrity. The portraits are grim, people staring solemnly into the camera. One woman holds up the mask that helps her breath. Machines make an appearance in this photos too, but the sky is no longer painted in blue or gold; it looks more like mud than anything else.   The Center for Public Integrity makes great use of multimedia on the web, showing different frames that move as you scroll down. There’s a horse galloping behind dead trees. There’s a rusty swing in an empty playground. The visitor can’t help but wonder, ‘where are the children?’ Perhaps the title of the story will clarify: “Big Oil, Bad Air.”

Copyright, Center for Public Integrity

Copyright Center for Public Integrity

You don’t even need to read a single word before you realize that these two stories have very different takes on the oil boom.

…But you do decide to read the stories, after all, because you’re curious. Good. The differences don’t stop at the photos.

Bryan Mealer, the author of the Texas Monthly piece, does not just report the facts. He writes from the first person and doesn’t shy away from a literary style of narrative. Mealer begins with his own experiences with the oil boom as a child, but remains a part of the story arc throughout the duration of the article. It’s personal, but not self-indulgent, which adds to a sense of suspense.

Mealer interviews several people who have received the financial fruit of the boom–oil men, people who found work after years of being unemployed, others from the Hispanic town of Cotulla who finally saw money being poured into their schools. It’s a celebration economic prosperity! When Mealer does interview people who have been negatively affected by the boom, it seems to be more of an obligation or an afterthought. “Oh, by the way, this person lives in a tent. The wealth gap is growing increasingly large. But, you know, winners and losers, right?” This isn’t to say that Mealer’s story is completely without nuance, though. After he begins with story of his father losing  his wealth after an oil boom, the whole article gives off a foreboding feeling that those indulging in oil-soaked cash are gambling with their livelihoods.

Let’s switch gears and consider the research piece from the Center for Public Integrity (CIP). It begins with an anecdotal lead too, but in a completely different manner. There’s a distance between the narrator and the subject–that’s called third-person narrative voice–and it gives a sense of authority over the entire article. Once you’ve finished the lead, you might notice something else that sets it apart from Mealy’s story: the content.

Sure, both are about the oil boom in Texas, but the CIP story (authored by three people) is focused on a consequence of the boom that Mealy barely mentions: the environmental impacts, both immediate and long-term. CIP is highly critical of the environment policies of both Texas and oil companies. Yet it manages to avoid moral judgment and prop up its sense of authority by providing statistics to back up its research. The article has breadth and depth, covering  both the science between the detrimental environmental effects of the industry and the regulation of the industry (or lack thereof). CIP interviews numerous people suffering from the immediate health consequences of the oil boom. Further, any dissenting viewpoints seem only to be included in order to sharpen CIP’s own argument rather than offer a legitimate perspective.

But that’s all right, I think. CIP is not trying to avoid debate; on the contrary, they are trying to stir up objections from the dominant ideology. Plus, with such thorough research, CIP does make a convincing case.

So, which story is more persuasive? You should read them and decide for yourself, Reader. You could even learn something new.