Simply being there

I couldn’t help but keep coming back to how Samuel Freedman in Letters to a Young Journalist discusses the idea of showing up in reporting. We spend a lot of time discussing how the Internet has changed news and how news outlets can find new ways to profit from the Internet. But it has also helped diminish the need to go out in the world.

Now I don’t think it is all a bad thing. The Internet can make for much more comprehensive reporting, especially with data. But we can’t forget the importance of having, “scuffed up shoes.” What Freedman means is that reporting is more than taking what press releases give you. There’s more than showing up to all the White House press conferences and staged photo-ops. As the Washington Post reporter, Walter Pincus, won the Columbia Journalism School award for outstanding political reporting, he wasn’t just regurgitating information fed to him by the press office. Pincus was asking the important questions and getting other information as to what was really in Iraq.

What’s even more interesting about the Pincus story is that his stories weren’t even showing up on the front pages. The stories created by the press office were. Pincus on the other hand, was engaging in his basic reporting skills to get to the answer.

I also liked how Freedman discusses in addition to showing up, the need to use all of your senses in reporting. There’s more to it than just showing up and writing about what you see. What’s it smell like, sound like or even taste like are sometimes more valuable questions to the story than the visual aspect. For example, with the story of the reporter walking through the New York neighborhood with the man who grew up there, he asked him what it smelled like. This in turn evoked a nice little anecdote from the man’s childhood that I’m sure led to other information the subject could recall. It was a great example of showing up and asking the more than just visual questions.

Semester in review


The first and most important thing I learned this semester was how to look at situations/stories with a critical eye. Before this semester, I had never been put in a reporting situation where I had to look at something already established (The EEZ) and smartly question the program.

Covering the story, I’ve had to take into account the truth/effectiveness of their quotes about the EEZ. There are two strong sides to the argument that stem from beliefs on the government’s place in economic development. Spending the entire semester with this project has kept me on my toes and been a great opportunity to ask these sources the great question, “How they know what they know.”

Second thing I learned was how to not always take no for an answer. Sometimes people are just immediately apprehensive with taking to journalists, but many of them will come around. The key here is to establish a level of trust with the sources quickly. I learned how to talk to sources who don’t want to talk to you and how to make them feel like you’re also a friend, not a journalist out to hurt someone.

The last notable skill I learned these last few months was how to look at data and develop a story from numbers. Sometimes numbers tell a story that you wouldn’t normally find. The trick here is to make it readable. Translating the statistics into meaningful and useful information for readers. It wasn’t easy at first, but I learned you sometimes have to put in a significant amount of time with these things to comprehend what the numbers truly mean.


The thing I struggle with most going forward is letting myself give up too easily. Being held accountable by my editor and the Missourian has helped to learn how to get around this, but it’s something I’m still tempted to do, especially with difficult stories.

Another thing I struggle with is how to balance the old school with the new school. As a young journalist, I know I may not always agree with my superiors as I enter my career. I have to better learn how to balance some of my views about journalism with the wisdom of the veterans. This is similar to many careers, but particularly pertinent to journalism since it such a quickly changing and growing career.

Lastly, I’ve found I struggle with asking hard questions. I’ve learned to get better at asking tough questions, but there is still quite a bit of apprehensiveness I have about possibly making a source angry. While I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone, I dont’ feel the same about pushing sources out of theirs. It’s good to be a little apprehensive when in these situations, but I need to find a better balance. A lot of this has to do with the wording of the questions, something that will come with time and experience.

Sources and friends

As I was working on my profile piece for Mitch Richards a little more than a week ago, he brought up an interesting issue for journalists and sources. I don’t remember the exact quote, but it was something along the lines of journalists are journalists and politicians are politicians. What I mean by that is that Mitch was talking about how he wanted our relationship to remain professional and not cross the friend boundary.

This came up when I was walking door to door with him and talking about what he wanted to do with his degree in History before he entered public office. I don’t think we ever came close to crossing that boundary, but it brings up an interesting topic when covering people in the public spotlight.

My response to Mitch was about how when working on profiles, it’s a little different. The goal is to get to know the person behind the politician. What makes that person tick and how to they operate outside of being in public? To do this, I think you have to be more friendly to the subject than in a run-of-the-mill news story where all you need is a few quotes.

But Mitch made a good point. He went on to say that he doesn’t want to put himself of another journalist in a position where they are asking a professional favor because of a friendship between the two. This is highly undesired because a situation like this would put both sides in uncomfortable situations. Can you imagine calling up someone and saying something like, “C’mon man, just do this for me this one time, I’d really like to get that information.”

Those are situations both sources and journalists want to avoid. While working on profile pieces, you get to know the sources on a little more of a “friendship” level, you should never cross the line of being more of a friend than a journalist. This didn’t happen as I was working on Mitch’s profile, but it was a reminder of how journalists always have to be on their toes in the professional world. Sometimes you have to be more of a human being than a closed off, unresponsive journalist, but you also need to be aware of sticking to the journalist title.

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.

A little on EEZs

The question is simple: How effective are EEZs at creating jobs?

However, the answer isn’t so easy. In fact, it’s quite hard. There are just way too many factors in determining how effective something is at creating jobs. Sure, it could have been because of the EEZ, but it could have also been the natural flow of the economic system or a number of other factors. At some point, the question boils down to what type of economics you believe in and whether you think government involvement in job creation is a good thing.

But that is a debate for a different day.

I think this has been  one of those cases where you have to start thinking about approaching a story with a different mind set. I think I need t go into the reporting of the story from now on with a more open mind. Marie and I are currently working on getting perspectives from businesses in a few of the 122 EEZs in Missouri. While reporting on these businesses, I’ve been trying to think of their comments with the thinking of how effective they are. This is where I think I’ve gone wrong. What needs to be done is to just take these stories from business owners and tell those stories. Their “effectiveness” I think will come out through these little business vignettes. I hope.

That’s the first problem with trying to tackle this story. The second is the fact every time I bring up the letters, EEZ, with a business, they start to shut themselves off from me. It feels like it’s one of the most taboo things to talk about with these businesses, but it’s one of the most important. This has by far been the biggest struggle. I can understand if they’re uncomfortable with me coming by with a photographer, but even a phone interview should be acceptable. It’s amazing how they start to warm up when you tell them you will accuracy check everything before you publish. Yet, they still remained tentative to talk.

I’ll keep working on them, but eventually time will run out. It seems to be a case of the more businesses you call, the better chances you’ll have at connecting with someone.

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.