2: Reporting and Writing Skills
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"If your mother says she loves you, check it out."
That's a funny line up there about your mother; though, maybe if you think about it too much, it moves from funny to kind of desperately sad. But that's why it's such a perfect quotation for this chapter on reporting. Because when you report a story, what you are really doing is hunting to find the honest truth. Not the cliché truth, or the popular wisdom, or the thing that someone said was true, but the real truth—frank, weird, ugly.
And I shouldn't even say your job is to "find" the truth, because that implies the true story is out there somewhere, intact and gift-wrapped with a pretty, little ribbon, waiting for you to "find" it and bring it home to the newsroom. Yes, the truth is sometimes like that. But, most of the time, it isn't—it's a lot messier, and it's usually scattered around in bits and pieces. Furthermore, the truth changes over time, and it looks different from different angles.
So if you ever believed that fiction was the place for complex truths while journalism was the place for simpleminded chronicles of life's surface, think again. Truth can be stranger than fiction. Indeed, truth is often stranger than fiction by far. And it's not that easy to discover.
At the country's big newspapers, the most experienced and talented reporters are called "Investigative Reporters," and they tackle large and complex stories, often working in teams. But the title "Investigative Reporter" could rightly apply to every reporter at the paper—even the baby cubbies, even the student reporters—because reporting is essentially investigating. When you report a story, you work just like a private eye.
First you gather information, which is called "doing legwork," and yes, you must use your legs to get out of the newsroom and dig around, see things for yourself, ask people questions, and track down documents. Of course it is possible to gather information on the Internet. But you can't report a story from your desk, on your butt. You must learn things firsthand. And when your legwork is done, you must double back and verify everything you thought you knew to begin with or learned along the way. If your mother said she loves you, now's the time you check it out.
And all the while that you are reporting, you must keep your mind supple enough to follow the story where it takes you—that is to say, your work is both physical (up you go, out the door) and intellectual. A story is a puzzle, and you are the investigator who must gather the pieces and fit them together, and you can't squish the pieces where they don't fit just because you want them to. That's another way of saying what you already learned in the introduction to this part of the book: you mustn't "steer" your story.
Instead, as you work, you might find your initial hunches were correct, but you might also find you were barking up the wrong tree entirely, and the story that is emerging is different than the one you thought you'd be writing. You must let that story emerge. Furthermore, you must be aware at all times of your own biases, and course-correct as you go, to keep the bias out of your way and out of your story.
Finally, you will be doing all this work against a deadline, and that pressure will help you concentrate, but it can also cause panic and mistakes. Thus, you must be constantly aware of the element of time, as you race against it to capture as much of the truth as you can find before you must stop reporting and start writing. The story may continue to unfold, but you can catch up with it the next day, in a follow-up story.
And how to do all this? To be perfectly honest, you will learn how to report a story only by going out and reporting one. For my first story at Columbia Journalism School, for example, I was sent to a polling place on Election Day. I was excited and eager and started interviewing voters. I walked right up to them in the polling place and asked whom they'd voted for and how they felt it was going out there, blah blah, and all at once a nice policeman came over to inform me that the press was not allowed within 100 feet of a polling place and I was most welcome to go to jail. I talked him out of that, but I was mortified and a little frightened. And you too will learn how to report a story only by bumbling your way through it a few times until you finally get the hang of the process. I'll describe that process in the next section, but you won't really register what it says; the information will lurk around blurrily in your mind's eye until you go out on your first story. Then it will come into focus.
Let's practice. Let's report an imaginary story. Let's look at the problem of teenage sexuality. Oh wait, there's already a bias in that idea: who says teenage sexuality is a "problem"? For that matter, what the heck is "teenage sexuality"? Okay forget that story, it's too fraught already. Let's tackle something important. Let's look at the parking situation at the hockey rink.
No, seriously, there is quite a bit of grumbling around town about how there aren't enough parking spaces in the lot beside the hockey complex on the south edge of Andover's campus. Maybe the problem is simply that there are two rinks there, which means lots and lots of skaters on the ice, most of whom aren't Phillips Academy students (who would walk to the rinks); they're young skaters, pee-wee hockey players (pee-wee skaters? Note to self: Find out what they are called) driven to the rink by parents who couldn't carpool even if they wanted to because the skaters might be wee, but their gear isn't, and you need pretty much an entire SUV to hold just one bagful of it, not to even mention the sticks.
So you must find out what's going on here—what is the problem? And maybe it's simply that the lot isn't big enough for all those kids and their gear. Now this would be a nice news story: whoever designed and built the complex screwed up in a big way. On the other hand, maybe there is plenty of parking, it's just that the primo spaces near the building are always filled, so the parents must lug those duffels a long way in the freezing cold. In which case, who could blame them for grumbling, but that's a different story. Literally.
So you wander out there to see for yourself how many rinks there are (two), and how many kids on the ice (plenty, but lots of them are figure skaters—with tiny white skates! and tiny leggings!), and how many SUVs are parked out back, and where exactly they're parked.
And you note that while all the spots are taken, no one has parked in the handicapped zone, no one has plowed onto the curb, no one's idling in the circle waiting for a space. So tonight, anyway, there appear to be enough spaces, just exactly enough—unless someone has dropped off his kid and driven home, and will drive back after practice, which is quite the polluting way to raise the future Michelle Kwan and extremely irksome to the ferrying parent who is hardly out of the bloody car before he has to get back into it—but that's another story, again. And indeed, maybe there's no news story here after all—there seems to be enough parking—but maybe there's a feature story here about the living hell of schlepping your kid endlessly to sports. So here's what you have learned from this tale, and what you will study in the upcoming part of the book:
How to report a story: You will learn lots of techniques for reporting, but the basic idea is simple: Go To The Hockey Rink. You report a story by going out there (wherever "there" is) to learn for yourself what is happening. Talk to people. Listen. As you report a story and learn more and more about the truth of things, the story will evolve, often becoming very different from what you thought it was when you started.
Anyone can park herself at a computer, Google something or someone, and write a "story" about it. That's not what journalists do, though; that is not reporting. Journalists unearth and gather information firsthand, make coherent sense of it, and verify it. That is what makes their work valuable.
How to write a story: When you write for a newspaper, your purpose is to tell your reader as much information as you can, quickly, clearly, and factually. Thus, you write news stories very differently from the way you write a novel or a short story. When you write fiction, YOU matter—you, the writer, the consciousness at work behind the words—and when people read your novel or short story, they commune with you, consciousness to consciousness, soul to soul. When you write for a newspaper, however, no one wants your consciousness or soul or anything else about you on the page. Particularly in a hard news story, you are simply the conduit for conveying information from the rink to the reader without interfering in any way; indeed, you want the reader to receive the information as if by an intravenous injection to the head. Thus, you write cleanly, concisely, but potently, selecting the right tone for the emotional register of each story. Writing a feature story about a mother balancing her checkbook behind the wheel of her Odyssey as she idles in front of the hockey rink, craving a cigarette her kids don't know she ever used to smoke, you might choose the tone of humor. Or (if you want to earn an A in the course) a tone of profound sympathy.
Before you go out on that first story, memorize these 3 rules. You must:
- Identify yourself as a reporter before you start talking to anybody about any aspect of a story. It is crucial that people know what they're getting into when they talk to you or hand over documents—in person, or on the phone, or via email or fax. They need to understand that you are not interacting with them in the private realm, but that in fact you are going to share their words or information with other people—maybe thousands of other people. No one should interact with you in innocence of this, and if you allow people to think they're dealing with you privately, you are deceiving them. In this business, you must never deceive your sources, your readers, or (frankly) yourself.
- Verify what people say to you and don't print a source's quote if it isn't true. I know this sounds obvious, but every year, one or two of my students include absurd quotes in their stories and then argue (really argue with me) that the quote belongs in the story because the source "truly" said it! When this happens, I cover my face with my hands. I rub my eyes. I watch the psychedelic colors behind my lids and breathe deeply. Then I say, "Yes, it is indeed true that someone gave you a quote, but it is not the journalist's job to report that someone spoke. It is your job to report what they said. If what they said is true, print it. If not, don't." If you can't find out whether it's true or not, don't print it, because if it turns out to be false, you will have made a mistake. If what they said is false and damaging, you will be sued for libel. More on that later in the book.
- Never steer your story. In other words, don't come to a conclusion about your story and then cherry pick facts to fit your conclusion. That's not journalism, that's propaganda, or spin. At Andover, the students are very fond of the staff workers in the dining hall. Many of the staff speak Spanish, and the students enjoy chatting with them in Spanish as the staff make their stir fry. There's something nourishing for both the staff and the students when they interact this way, something more than lunch that passes between them. It's friendship, or something like it; it's connection—a bridge between the world of working adults and the very lucky students they serve. Recently, the dining hall at Andover underwent a major renovation. Many of the staff who had previously been serving students in the stir fry line were now working backstage in the new dining hall's gleaming kitchens. The students missed the workers, and some students leaped to the conclusion that after the renovation, new fancy chefs were brought in—mostly white men the students hadn't ever seen before—while the Spanish speaking workers were relegated to lousy kitchen jobs. Editors at the school newspaper got wind of this and sent their reporters out to "get" the story that the new dining hall's policies included demotions based on the staff's ethnicity. Except the story wasn't there, because the Spanish speaking staff, like all the staff, both new and old, had been invited to choose the tasks they'd like to perform in the new dining hall and were trained in those tasks. Some of the staff who were once in the stir fry line didn't want to continue in stir fry—they preferred to work in catering, or in set up or clean up or food preparation. All the students had to do was ask them where they worked now and why, and the staff would've told them. The newspaper's story focused primarily on the superficial count of Hispanic workers who were no longer out front serving students but were now invisible in the kitchen. The numbers were right, the facts were right, but the numbers carried implications of a policy, a vaguely racist policy, that didn't exist. The story had been gummed together with facts chosen to create the impression the editors wanted to convey—not the story that actually existed.
Remember that when you are a reporter, you gather bits and pieces of information from here and there, and you wave a wand until (presto!) it becomes a little white dove that flies away on its little wings. Except, actually, you don't wave a wand, and there is no presto! Instead, you piece together the story as well as you can, using lots of information from lots of sources combined with your judgment. And then you must ask yourself: Have you got it right? Did you make a dove? Or is it a crow? Does it have wings and feathers? Or did you patch together some unsightly thing that actually can't even fly? A journalist's work is difficult and can be subtle. You aren't simply describing the surface of things, like someone capturing a moment with a camera; you aren't simply giving your version of events, like someone writing an opinion blog. You are answering to a more complex requirement—you are being true to the story. You can't steer it or dig up facts to fit into it. Instead, you must gather many facts and see what they honestly add up to. Then presto. You can write your story.