Rethinking political “B-matter”

Yesterday in our Advanced Reporting lecture, we (unsurprisingly) discussed everything about election coverage. While we talked about what worked well, we were pushed to think of ways we could better report election results.

Sometimes, actually probably more times than many would like, acceptance speeches can become mundane. The conventional way at reporting on these watch parties consists of three things.

  1. Add some color about the candidates watch party
  2. Include some brief biographical information
  3. Insert a quote or two from the candidate

But how can these ways be improved?

As I was covering the watch party for House District 47 candidate, John Wright, and intriguing vignette arose. Wright wasn’t sure if the election numbers were final. The website said 29 of 29 precincts had reported and he was up by about 700 votes. Yet Wright still looked to me, and other members of the media, if he had won.

I was certainly not ready to be put in that situation. However, isn’t that even a little bit interesting to read about? Wright didn’t want to celebrate prematurely so he was looking to us for guidance. With some creativity, it could be turned into a neat vignette about election parties and can be more fun to read than the conventional methods.

So I wrote up a little vignette for Tom Warhover, executive editor here at the Missourian. With some of Tom’s creative touch and editing, we turned it into a interesting story to read. (Keep in mind a story CAN be only a few paragraphs)

You can read the story on Tom’s blog post.

I’m rather fond of this thinking because it offers the reader something more. Something different. It may not always work, but it’s something to think about for future elections. Plus, it’s also 50 words shorter than the original.

Warming up to sources

I spoke with a business owner this week in Mexico, MO for an upcoming story regarding EEZs. However, I knew something was up when he kept pressing me to tell him what kind of story I was working on. I at first repeated myself a few times in case I wasn’t making myself clear. When he asked me a few more times I tried to rephrase how I am looking at a few of Missouri’s other EEZs to understand how effective/beneficial they have been.

Then he told me why he kept asking me the same question. After about 5 minutes of rehashing the same topic, he told me he really just didn’t want to talk to the media. So in typical journalist fashion, I asked if he could tell me why. His reservations about the media come from this KOMU story. He was upset because of the way the story was publicizing his temporary lay-offs. Frank Cordie, the owner, told me that every winter construction drops so he has to downsize. I can’t speak on behalf of the reporter or Cordie, but it seems like this could be a case of unwanted publicity which resulted in a reduction of business for Cordie.

Cordie said he shortly after started getting calls about companies asking if he was closing and other companies wanting to handle the liquidation of his inventory. He also said companies expressed interest in canceling their contracts with his business.

After hearing his story, I told him how I would run all the facts and quotes by him before publication. I also told him the story would be more beneficial than harmful, if at all. The story is about how his business utilizes the EEZ tax credits and wouldn’t have any impact on his business. Nevertheless, I tried to be as accommodating as possible. The conversation ended with him letting me know he’d sleep on it and give me a call back. Now comes the question of how long to wait? I talked with him on Wednesday and am unclear on how long to wait. I think waiting until Monday would be best because he’s already a little tentative with any media outlet.

I think this is a case where journalists have to walk the fine line between being overbearing and too passive. His business would be a great addition to the story and I would love his input, however it’s not integral and the story’s publication doesn’t hinge on him speaking with me. Most of the time people will talk with you, but sometimes you have to keep in mind how they might have felt wronged by other members of the media in the past and express some level of sympathy toward them.

Details, details, details

Details are essential to any type of reporting, but even more important when it comes to profile writing. This is something I’ve struggled with and have to constantly remind myself in interviews.

I bring up the topic of details because I went through my profile rough drafts with Scott yesterday. After almost every paragraph, Scott had written comments along the lines of “Give me examples” or “Need more details.” In my head, I thought there were enough details in the story. I think that’s because I have gotten to know the candidates on a personal level, but the problem is the reader doesn’t know the candidates like I do. People actually want things that don’t stand out to me as necessary to put in the story.

It’s details such as what types of books are on the guy’s bookshelf at home, what he specifically learned in previous job experiences and details as to how the person was feeling at a particular teaching moments in their childhood. When I wrote the first drafts, these details didn’t stand out to me, but now I know they’re probably the most important parts of the story.

Including seemingly minor details like these give the profile its personality. They provide depth to the person and can let the reader know the candidate without even meeting them in person. In some cases I had these details in m notes and in other cases more questions needed to be asked. This is where interviewing experience and skills come in handy. It takes experience and a self-awareness to think about asking these detailed questions — something I’ve been trying to get better at but still need the practice.

Opening up

I’ve heard it all the time. The best way to get sources to open up to a reporter is just to spend time with them. Sure, I’ve had sources tell me things in the one interview you do for a story (and the accuracy check) but you can’t really see the effectiveness of developing trust with a source until you try it.

Last week I posted about how to get political candidates to open up to you. At that point, I only had about one interview with each candidate. I learned through those interviews that you can’t just ask them for anecdotes of their childhood or professional life. Those memories have to come about naturally. If they don’t, they won’t tell you the story in a genuine manner and it won’t come across well in the published story.

In just one week though, I got  these sources to open up. Going door to door with the candidates can be pain-staking at times. They are out there to get peoples’ votes. Not give their undivided attention to a reporter. But it’s a great way to spend time with a candidate.

Earlier this week, I tagged along with a candidate to ask them some follow-up questions from our interview. What I didn’t realize until the three hours were over was that I probably did just as much talking as they did. I talked with the candidate about where I was from, what I did in high school and why I went into journalism. Simply doing this, we realized we had more in common than we thought in terms of sports we played, music and family life.

This had tremendous benefits. I just didn’t realize it until I started writing. The candidate had given me great stories about playing little league baseball and stories about his Mom and Dad. This is what you need in a profile. Stories that show the true character of the person. I might have talked just as much as the other that night, but it was completely worth it. By doing this, I was able to put a personality to the reporter/subject barrier and develop a trust with the source to get them to speak to me in a completely different way than when they’re on the campaign trail.

Removing the mask

As I continue interviews for District 47 profile stories, I’ve found the most difficult obstacle is to get the candidate to talk to you as more of a friend than a politician. That might not be the right characterization, but what I mean is getting the candidate to open up to me. I don’t want comments full of buzz words like “great community” and “education/economy/healthcare.” Those terms are useful, but I can get them from just about any speech they make.

So here’s the question: How do you get a candidate to essentially tell you about who he is as an individual instead of a politician? In the couple of interviews I’ve completed, I tried the therapist approach. I tried to find common ground and share some of my personal stories with the candidate. This worked…sort of.

I have plenty of information from the candidates, but the most valuable information is going to come from other people who know the candidates. This is how it works with many profile pieces. The other person will give me a bit of an outsiders perspective, which is what I, as a journalist, am anyways — an outsider looking in.

The next challenge in these profile pieces is to figure out how to not make it like an advertisement for the candidate. People, and especially me, want to say good things about people. So if I write a profile piece talking about positive aspects of the candidate (because that’s pretty much what they like to talk about), does that make it like a campaign ad? These are just a few things on my mind as I work through the candidate profiles.

Fact from fiction

As I’ve been wrapping up the reporting on this Amendment 3 story, I’ve found it harder and harder to do what I wanted to avoid. That is the all-too-easy habit of relying on a “He said this/the other said that” kind of mentality. I think too often some papers and especially some of the major broadcast stations end up simply replaying what political candidates say. There isn’t really any fact checking behind these claims political candidates make and it results in rhetoric being tossed back and forth.

I’ve dealt with a little of this in covering Amendment 3. When I started interviewing sources that had strong interests in the outcome of Amendment 3, I started to see two polarizing sides. The attorneys are very against the amendment while organizations such as Better Courts for Missouri and various senators who have sponsored similar legislation, advocate strongly for the amendment. I can’t tell you how many quotes I have that boil down to accusations against the issue’s opposing viewpoint. But should I include these in the story? And how do I determine what they’re telling me really is true?

Some proponents tell me the amendment will provide more accountability to the judicial selection committee, while the other side replies with something along the lines of how it would politicize the selection process and allow for campaign contributions to effect selection decisions. So I could easily just place these quotes back-to-back in a story, right? That’s what the struggle is with political reporting, because they are quotes. But sometimes us journalists can get too carried away with quotes. As a result, I’ve been trying to find less accusatory quote to include while I paraphrase most of these one-sided quotes. I hope paraphrasing these will help cut down on the rhetoric and the conservative vs. liberal accusatory statements.

I’ve also received quite a bit of literature on the subject from each side with all sorts of data. But here I have to be very careful again. Data, with a certain context, can be manipulated to say almost anything you want. So while one report might say 46% of judges polled felt like their judgement would be effected by campaign contributions, this also means there was a majority that didn’t feel this way. So how do I share this information? These are just a few of the problems I’ve come across as I try and present as fair and balanced of a story as possible.

Mom’s my Facebook friend

*Originally published September 7, 2012.

Yes, Mom is my Facebook friend. That’s not the issue, (although I thought simply being friends with her was the uncool thing to do in high school). Now our Facebook interactions have taken a turn I didn’t think would ever happen.

My mother, who is also a journalist, finds pleasure in posting everything she reads related to newsroom struggles on my wall. I’ve determined this could be one of two things. It’s either a subtle hint to steer me away from journalism, or (and I think this is the real intention) to show me the mistakes newsrooms are making today so we young journalists don’t do them when we graduate.

My personal favorite posts are those related to egregious editing errors.

NBC Briefly Kills Off Neil Young

Today’s Unfortunate Byline Typo

Then there’s the newsroom layoff theme.

New Orleans Paper Said To Face Deep Cuts and May Cut Back Publication

Denver Post to lay off copy editors, shift copy-editing to ‘content-generating level’

The Bathrobe Era: What the Death of Print Newspapers Means for Writers 

Next comes the problems with plagiarism.

CNN and Time Suspend Journalist After Admission of Plagiarism

Journalists Dancing on the Edge of Truth

And to wrap it up, the career advice.

I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.

I think some of the most interesting articles have come from those regarding plagiarism. Especially David Carr’s piece. We live in an era where information is everywhere and people are bound to take information from others. However, that also makes it a lot easier to catch plagiarism. But what’s most striking to me, some can make a living reporting on information produced from others. Is this considered plagiarism? As Carr says, not if you’re using that information to make your own argument and correctly attribute the information. It’s not hard to simply attribute the information, but so many journalists neglect this simple task.

I thought Carr also brought up another interesting issue with the reporting of Jonah Lehrer. Is it wrong for him to use articles he published previously with another publication at another news outlet? I thought this was absolutely unacceptable when I first thought it over. But what if Lehrer attributed the information he used in the other articles to the new article? Transparency is key here. It’s amazing how many problems with journalism today could simply be solved by being transparent.

I’m sure I’ll appreciate Mom filling up half my wall with cautions of entering the journalism world. Right now, it makes me a little worried. But it will teach me a few things. What NOT to do in newsrooms and to understand how business models suffer when English majors are allowed to make the important business decisions.

Advanced or Beginning Reporting?

*Note: These are posts from the Fall 2012 Advanced Reporting Blog. They will now also be posted here. Originally published August 24, 2012.

You can call me an, “advanced reporter” now, but it sure hasn’t felt like it yet. Moving from the education beat to the public life beat has been quite a change. So much so, that I feel it’s like starting beginning reporting all over again. I’ve had to familiarize myself with all city and county government resources. Especially how to find information online open to the public.

Covering education, I don’t think I used one spreadsheet to analyze data. Much of the reporting was feature and profile writing. So I can’t tell you how many times this past week I’ve heard of some tax or government policy term and had no idea what it meant.

I switched beats because I wanted to take advantage of all the chances the Missourian has to offer before I graduate. I’m just now getting started on the topic of Enhanced Enterprise Zones, or EEZs. This has been a much bigger topic than I first expected and as a result, haven’t yet published anything. But it appears this is how Advanced Reporting goes.

What looks to be the struggle with EEZs is getting people to give me correct and useful information (instead of bureaucratic jargon). I’ve received a lot of feedback from the previous reporters who covered this topic and this was one of their biggest struggles. Obtaining good and useful information from the Department of Economic Development seemed to give them the biggest challenge.

But the best piece of advice I have received so far was about going out and finding REAL people. People who live in these neighborhoods that could be effected by EEZs and present a human perspective. I hear this all the time from superiors at the Missourian, but like with many things, it seems to stick even more when you hear it from a colleague.

After being away from the Missourian for almost nine months and working in public radio, getting back into the print mindset will be a challenge. Which is why I’ve dubbed my the class “Advabeginning reporting.”