Tag Archives: reporting

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.

juxtaposition

Kitchen scene in Donetsk, Ukraine, August 2014. // Sergei Ilnitsky

Kitchen scene in Donetsk, Ukraine, August 2014. // Sergei Ilnitsky

“In her 1977 collection of essays, ‘On Photography,’ Susan Sontag identified a feeling of helpless voyeurism that comes over us as we look at photographs of people in the midst of conflict. She also wrote about how repeatedly seeing such images could anesthetize the vision and deaden the conscience. Sontag understood photographs of conflict to be making a utilitarian argument — that they could bring us into a state of productive shock — and showed that they seldom did what they claimed, or hoped, to do. The more photographs shock, the more difficult it is for them to be pinned to their local context, and the more easily they are indexed to our mental library of generic images. What, then, are we to do with a thrilling photograph that is at the same time an image of pain?

In Ilnitsky’s photograph, taken last August in Donetsk, a major city in the eastern part of Ukraine, a length of white lace is swept to the left side. Like a theatrical curtain, it reveals a table with a teapot, a bowl full of tomatoes, a can, two mugs, and two paring knives on a little cutting board. It is a still life, but it is in utter disarray. Broken glass and dust are everywhere, and one of the mugs is shattered; to the right, across the lace curtain, the shards of glass and the table, is a splatter of red color that could only be one thing. Domestic objects imply use, and Ilnitsky’s photograph pulls our minds toward the now lost tranquillity of the people who owned these items. How many cups of coffee were made in that kitchen? Who bought those tomatoes? Were there children in this household who did their homework on this table? Whose blood is that? The absence of people in the photograph makes room for these questions.”

– from Teju Cole’s essay “Object Lesson” in the New York Times Magazine

A lot to learn here, in writing and reporting too, I think.

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.

let’s talk leads

Today’s blog post is brought to you by: Blog Posts I am Assigned to Write in Graduate School! Read on if you’d like to learn a thing or two about journalism and the art of starting a story, because I’m about to deconstruct three leads.

Lead Numero Uno: 

You and your wallet have a big stake in huge tax-dodging deals being crafted by big American companies, like Burger King merging with Tim Hortons, the Canadian  coffee and doughnut chain.

From David Cay Johnston’s “Corporate Deadbeats” – Newsweek, 4 Sept. 2014.

Well, look at that. No time wasted getting to that second person pronoun “you.” Not a typical move by journalists, but a good one for Johnston to make. This article is about a merger, and most of us lay people who don’t have a degree in finance start snoozing at the first sign of a business story. Business a tough beat because it involves so much specialized knowledge and vocabulary, and many average readers are turned off by that. Right away, though, Johnston implicates the reader, tells her why this story is so important. Just because you don’t understand the legal lingo of a merger doesn’t mean you’re not affected, Missy. In addition, Johnston spends the rest of the article effectively arguing his point–that the average person’s wealth is tied up with these giant corporations.

Verdict: A+. A good start.

And on to Number Two: 

Barely a year removed from the devastation of the 2008 financial crisis, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York faced a crossroads. Congress had set its sights on reform. The biggest banks in the nation had shown that their failure could threaten the entire financial system. Lawmakers wanted new safeguards.

From Jake Bernstein’s “Inside the New York Fed: Secret Recordings and a Culture Clash” — ProPublica in association with This American Life, 26 Sept. 2014

This lead starts a fantastic story about Carmen Segarra, a former bank examiner and current whistleblower of the New York Fed. She made secret recordings of conversations between executives, who spoke about how “perceptions” are more important than the realities of the banks they were supposed to be regulating. It’s a fascinating piece of investigative writing… but does the lead live up to the rest of the article?
Close, but not quite. It sets up the scene and an intriguing conflict right away, as any good story should. But remember that bit about business reporting I wrote earlier? This lead doesn’t necessarily draw the typical news reader in. It sounds like a business story, directed at business-oriented readers, which is a shame–this is a story that everyone needs to read (or hear, if you prefer). If an organization like ProPublica aims to democratize the news, they should write in a way that does so.

Verdict: B+. Good writing, but keep the audience in mind.

Final lead:

“It’s a funny day to be on the air,” mused 96.5 The Buzz morning host Afentra on Monday.

From Tim Engle’s “96.5 the Buzz hosts ‘thrilled’ to have jobs after $1 million ‘porn star’ verdict” – Kansas City Star, 29 Sept. 2014
This lead is different from the first two for several reasons: it comes from a straight news story, it’s from a local newspaper, and it’s about porn stars. Two morning show radio hosts were sued after they put together a list of Kansas City’s porn stars–except that one woman, the one doing the suing, wasn’t a porn star at all. (I would know. I went to college with her.) She won her case, and now these radio hosts owe her $1 million in damages for defamation.
But what’s even more shameful is that the Star began their article with a quote. To make it worse, the attribution of choice was “mused.” Mused? What’s wrong with good old “said?” Here’s the real problem with beginning a news story with a quote–besides the fact that it sounds clunky, instead of inviting the reader, it confuses the him by making him guess who’s speaking. If the quote had more of an impact, it’s okay to break the rules–but here, the quote is seriously lacking in punch.
Verdict: D. Sorry KC. I’m still a devoted reader, anyway.

interview with a reporter, perpetually stuck under the weather

“Whoa whoa whoa. Kasia. Where have you been for the past week? Not one post. You promised consistency.”

Yeah, I know, Imaginary Blog Critic, but I’ve been sick.

“All week?”

Yes! Since last Sunday. Going on Day Eight.

“You couldn’t have whipped a brief post while you stayed home, in bed?”

See, that’s the thing. I haven’t actually taken a day off yet, unless you count after 11 a.m. Friday.

“Well, that’s dumb.”

Yeah, I know. Probably the reason I’m still not healthy. I’ve been fueling myself with loads of tea for the past few days, but my nose is still runny, my throat is still scratchy and my cough is still… cough-y.

“So why didn’t you just suck it up and stay in bed until you were better?”

A few different reasons, Critic. I’ve got meetings, I’ve got classes, I’ve got interviews, and most importantly, I’ve got deadlines. There are 24 hours in a day, and the news won’t patiently wait for me to catch up. When you wake yourself up in a coughing fit at 4 a.m., Nyquil’s failure has killed your trust in modern medicine, and the to-do list written in your planner has made its way to your dreams, you might as well get up and be productive, right? And feeling ill makes it that much more difficult, because it seems as thought the pace of any progress is like moving through molasses. My motivation suffers, my energy suffers, and my quality of work suffers (case in point: “cough-y”).

So here’s my question, Imaginary Blog Critic (and non-imaginary blog readers): how on Earth does one handle being a reporter and graduate student while being sick?

at the crossroads of literature and reporting

I should be studying my business reporting textbook. It’s called Show Me the Money, which is a great title, and I don’t want to be embarrassed tomorrow by showing my lack of knowledge during Business Terms Bingo.

I used to have a Tumblr, but I deleted it before journalism school required a social media peer review. Too many personal thoughts, too many journal entries, too many paragraphs that belonged in a diary instead of in the public forum on the Internet. It was strange to delete something that became a record of my Self for the past five years. I was sad, but only for an hour. Delete the baggage. On to the new. It’s healthier that way, after all.

But I miss having a space to write about my personal thoughts. Feeling stressed, conflicted, so anxious that I haven’t eaten in three days… let the word vomit spill on Tumblr, and feel a little better.

Now, I need to curate my Brand.  I’m a reporter. I need to work.  So I create an image of myself online.
It’s terribly dishonest.
I feel as though there are sharp rocks in the bottom of my stomach.

I wrote my first full-length book when I was six years old, I think. I told my father that I was going to grow up to be a writer. He said, “Do you know what a journalist is? You can be a writer, but you should be a journalist.”
And here I am. Studying for my master’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri. Same place where my father received his PhD.

If I’m going to construct this Brand for myself, I don’t want to be dishonest. I come from a literary background. I spent my childhood in the company of books instead of other kids. I studied literature in my undergraduate years. I read novels that I’ve torn through four times before instead of copying down business terms from Show Me the Money.

Reading, for me, means visceral pleasure. So does reporting, though. Trying to write about socially significant current events in a way that doesn’t flatten them ain’t easy, but the challenge gives me an adrenaline rush.
I don’t think literature and journalism are mutually exclusive.
Literary devices create ambiguity and represent complexities in a way that the Standard Model–featuring that old friend/fiend objectivity–can’t.
I’m going to use literature to build a new kind of journalism. I’m going to figure it out. No gimmicks, I’m not a hack. I’m going to figure it out.

I’ll start here, with this blog. I’ll still write about reporting and the news, but I’ll play with words and structure.
It might even get personal. Build that Brand. Turn myself into human capital, as one might say in Business Terms Bingo.

Okay. On to the new.