I was a young reporter at the Lawrence Eagle Tribune when I got a tip in an email that the mayor of Lawrence was tearing down six basketball courts, and the man who sent in the tip was furious that the youth of Lawrence were having one of their only safe pastimes taken away from them. I drove over to the courts, and there was, indeed, construction going on. I asked if I could speak to someone in charge, and the foreman came over and told me that they were tearing down four basketball courts, but six new courts—with lights—were replacing them. He even showed me the plans.
I wrote the story, and it was printed. The next day I received a call from the mayor of Lawrence, on his personal cell phone, thanking me profusely for running a fair story. I was now the only reporter on the entire Eagle Tribune staff with the mayor of Lawrence's personal cell phone number.
By being fair, doing a little reporting, and not burning the mayor, I had the best source at the paper. From that one little story, I was able to get quotes from the mayor on everything I wrote for the rest of my time there, and, more than that, he loved me. He was happy to comply.
So there's the practical reason for reporting well and being fair—you collect sources that way, and they trust you.
Comparably, when you get a story wrong or portray it in some false light, your sources will feel betrayed and furious, and they won't be your sources any longer. More importantly, though, you will hurt people.
And here's what happens then: It will eat away at your soul. I'm not being dramatic here—I'm being as honest as I can be. I once wrote a story about a drug program in Lawrence, and I interviewed a young man who had been addicted to crack cocaine but was now clean and working at a new job. He was ecstatic to tell his story and praise the drug program; he was the centerpiece to a very long story I wrote.
I was congratulated around the newsroom for the story, and I felt pretty good about myself. In fact, I felt great.
Two days later, I received a call from the parole officer of the man I had interviewed. He told me that the young man, whose name was Michael, was under the impression that I knew I wasn't supposed to list the drugs he'd been addicted to. He assumed someone had told me that that part was off the record—but no one had. Michael had stopped attending the drug program and was missing, and his parole officer, for whatever reason, felt the need to make me feel personally responsible.
I didn't sleep that night or the next. Nearly everyone in the newsroom came up to me and told me it wasn't my fault, that the man was a moron and should have known to be clear about what was off and on the record, that if he were a man he'd face his problems and not run away, etc. But it didn't matter. I was responsible, in my head, for the destruction of another life.
Even the editor-in-chief of the paper, a man I'd spoken to exactly once, came over and told me to shake it off. It took a long time before I was able to stop thinking about it, and I still don't know if I've forgiven myself.
So remember, the pain that can come from this work is real. While the reporters in movies may be heartless and cutthroat, those are not qualities to be admired. Tell the truth, and if you trust a source and want to keep that source close to you, double check everything. Don't make the same mistake I did. Be brave, be smart, be aggressive, but, most of all, be human. Put yourself in your subject's shoes: If they deserve to be burned, burn them. But don't burn someone who's done nothing wrong. You'll end up killing your sources, and, in the end, killing a bit of yourself.
Almost as important as reporting the truth is reporting the details, the life of a story. Some may think the tiny details one collects while reporting is simply window dressing, a little extra something to make the story more interesting. This is true—details do make the story more interesting, but I will argue that focusing on the micro will always reveal a truth that the macro cannot.
I was a student at Tulane University in New Orleans, and when Hurricane Katrina hit, I was lucky enough to be miles away. As I watched the reports on TV about a city underwater, I was flabbergasted. The news reporters listed square footage, tonnage of water, percentage of people still in the city, estimated death tolls. And I was speechless; I was shocked. I kept watching the TV, feeling a little empty, and wondering what I was going to do. Could they clean it up? How long would it take? When could I go back?
That night, still in shock, I signed on to my computer and hopped on the old Facebook; I saw that one of my Tulane friends had posted pictures from New Orleans—he had stayed after the hurricane. The first picture he showed was a picture of an old man canoeing past the campus bar where a few nights earlier I'd had a drink. The man was canoeing—canoeing—past my bar. All of a sudden, it became clear. Shock was gone, I now understood. I called my friends at different schools up north and told them I needed to find a place to go that semester. I finally understood that New Orleans was destroyed. What could not be made clear to me in hours of footage of levees breaking and projected death tolls and hurricane radars was made clear in one image of a man in a canoe.
You need to find your man in a canoe.
Here are three more pieces of advice.
1. Be There
When you're a reporter, especially a young reporter, you're going to get a lot of stories that aren't glamorous. And once the initial excitement of writing for a newspaper wears thin, and the grind sets in, and stories begin to run into one another, there is a great temptation to slack off a little bit. Once you've been to six school board meetings, it's easy to think that every one of these meetings is the same—so why not skip one of them? And it's tempting to skip those meetings: All you have to do is ask someone what happened, type up 300 words about the main points discussed, and you have your story.
But it will be a bad story. I'm not even talking about the whole "the one time you aren't there something huge happens" scenario (which is a definitely real scenario, and, let me tell you, explaining to your editor why you weren't at the school board meeting when the PTA mother and the superintendent got in a fist fight is not a fun conversation). I'm talking about the quality of the story. If you don't go to a meeting, you won't know that the main speaker wore a green sweater and a bow tie. And you wouldn't know that there was a little girl in the third row who cried softly throughout a piano recital. That is the interesting stuff; that's what gives a story life, a personality. A journalist could have skipped JFK's funeral march, and that journalist could've written a perfectly good story about how our President was assassinated and they carted his body through the city of Washington and a lot of people were there. He couldn't write about, however, JFK Jr. saluting as his dead father was driven past him. Being there is the most important thing to writing a good story.
2. Take Notes
And more notes than you would ever think necessary. Don't just get down what the people involved in the story are saying, get EVERYTHING. What color is the rug? The event has a buffet: What are they serving? What color are everyone's shoes? To get these little details, however, you need to arrive early and leave late. It sucks, I know. Showing up twenty minutes early to the school play so you can write down what color the curtain is might seem like a waste of time. But it isn't.
I once covered a manslaughter case, and I went to an arraignment for the accused. The arraignment was held in the hospital because the man accused had seriously injured himself when he drunkenly rammed his car into oncoming traffic, killing a college student.
I arrived at the hospital early and was ushered into a room with two other print journalists and several TV crews. The arraignment was to be held in the hospital's library, and I stood awkwardly, notepad at the ready, and waited for the man to be wheeled in. When I looked around, though, I noticed the two other print journalists were writing furiously in their notepads already. I sauntered over to them and snuck a peak at what one, a woman with a Boston Globe press pass, was writing. She was looking into the bookshelves, staring down the massive collection of medical textbooks, and writing down the names of the books. Mesothelioma Journal: Volume 1 type of thing. I was confused—stunned. Did I really need to know the names of all the books on the wall? Was that at all relevant to a manslaughter case?
To not look like a total idiot I started writing down things I saw in the room—how many TV cameras were there, what color the walls were painted, anything at all to look like I somewhat knew what I was doing. When I wrote the story, I threw away most of it, but I included a little bit about walls lined with medical textbooks, and that the color of the walls were "olive green." My editor told me that was the best part of the article. From then on, I understood why that woman wrote down everything, and I mean everything. You probably won't use it all, but taking good notes will help you remember a small detail that struck you, a tiny image that will make your story come alive. Also, in case you're ever accused of fraud or libel, taking good notes is your best evidence and, more often than not, all an editor will need to see to believe you.
3. Respect the Story
This is sort of implied from the first two points, but it should be reiterated. While you might not be in love with a story you're assigned, and maybe a whole lot of the people who read the story won't care all that much about it, there are still those few people who will find the value in it and, crazy as it sounds, might be touched by your story. When I finished an internship at the Eagle Tribune, my editor pulled me into his office for a goodbye/what-have-you-learned heart-to-heart. He told me the best story I'd written all year was when I covered the opening of a pond for swimmers. I know what you're thinking: glamorous. Believe me, I know.
The story was about how city officials opened up a pond in Haverhill for public swimming, and when my editor assigned it to me, I very nearly didn't go to the pond. I could have stayed in the (air-conditioned) office, written 250 words about the pond's opening, given the hours it was open, and had time to go to Harrison's for a medium roast beef sandwich with sauce.
Instead I drove out to Haverhill in the sweltering heat, rolled up my shirtsleeves and took off the tie, and walked on out to the pond. I talked to a few people, took some notes, came back, and wrote my story.
I wrote about two young boys, one who was hunting for sharks and his very serious older brother, who assured me that sharks only live in the Indian Ocean. I wrote about their single mother who pulled them out of school that day because life is short and, what the heck, it was beautiful out. I wrote about the two lifeguards who got paid next to nothing but couldn't complain because they got to lie out in the sun all day and play with kids. I got the story, basically, and while 95% of people probably skipped right over it, I slept well that night knowing I'd written a good story.
I was surprised that my editor recognized this, but he did. He told me if everyone took the little stories that seriously then it would be a better newspaper. As journalists, it's important to respect the story, whatever it is: You aren't going to get a Watergate every day, or a murder or car chase or manslaughter. But you will get the little stories—and plenty of them. And if you want to be a good journalist, then make the most of them. It won't go unappreciated.