June 11, 2004

News From The Inside

I'm finished with my final project for my journalism class, and one of our assignments was to write an essay summarizing our experiences over the quarter using all the fancy trade jargon we've picked up over the past three months. As my main focus was writing about the Congressional candidates in Washington State's up-for-grabs 8th district, much of the summary focuses on those experiences. Here's mine, slightly edited to protect the guilty, read on if you feel inclined.

If not, here's the shorter version: Hardly anybody gives a damn about the news anyway, journalism is harder than it looks, it's difficult more in terms of effort expended rather than intellectual gymnastics, and it's pretty easy to see the potential to take the Left Hand Path of stenography to scripted quipsters.

As someone that follows politics like others follow sports, Iíve had reason to think about the quality of work that goes into the news I consume. Iíve often felt that more effort went into slick packaging than fact checking. Sometimes it seems like the target is always the lowest common denominator, and at others, like reporters behave as stenographers to the powerful. Things that I think are important get buried, and trivia always seems to float to the top. Context seems to be missing almost everywhere. Taking a class in journalism has been an opportunity to re-examine these opinions from the perspective of trying to do the job.

The day the class chose their beats was informative, all by itself. It surprised me that news drew so few takers, barely three people in the first cut. Itís only one class, but it seemed clear that other people arenít always looking for the same focus from a news source that I am. Not just in a minor way as a matter of emphasis, but also in fundamental ways that may not even overlap. News producers certainly have better data to base their decisions on, but if the public isnít that interested in hard news, they canít take all the blame for producing less of it.

Listening to discussion in class gave other clues about why people might not be interested in news. Throughout the quarter, Iíd guess that five students did about 70% of the talking when it came to current events and broad media topics. Smaller group discussions and comments made in class gave the impression that people tended to be reluctant to talk about these issues, and sometimes bored by them. I donít know enough to say for sure why they might feel that way, but itís something to consider. This small sample is as much a part of the potential news audience as I am.

When it came to writing my own stories, I confronted the first practical difficulties of getting a story to present to my would-be audience. It can be hard to arrange time to talk to people, whether theyíre running for Congress, or teaching a class. A reporter has to be flexible in their scheduling, and take the most advantage of the time theyíre given.

At last, I have my appointment and show up. What do I ask that will get information that someone else might want to know? Even when I wanted to get opinions on a similar set of subjects from several people, the judgment has to be made right then about what answers are self-explanatory, and which should be followed up. I may have to try another angle to get an answer if the interviewee seems to be ducking the question or to have misunderstood, but I want this person to like and be comfortable with me. I need to consider which answers seem to be telling me the most about the character of the person Iím talking to, and how that will come across when Iím writing about this later. And thereís the real problem.

Sitting and talking with someone creates a lot of very personal impressions. Are they talking naturally, or does it sound like theyíre reciting talking points? Do they get into the conversational aspect, or does the interview feel like a teeth-pulling interrogation? Are they trying to be informative, or just running the clock? Are they telling the truth about subjects I have personal knowledge of? How do they seem to feel about me, and what do they want or expect? How do I feel about them? And these are just the questions raised by talking for about an hour with one person that Iíve never met before.

Later, I sit down to write about it. Out of all those impressions, which ones are relevant?

It starts with the personal. It seems that how I feel about them personally should be kept very separate. But if I do have a strong opinion of the person Iím interviewing, itís my job to carefully evaluate the finished product to be sure Iíve been fair. If Iím not honest with myself, I wonít be looking hard enough for my own biases. What about their reactions towards me? Not being known outside my circle of friends and family, does their reaction to a perfect stranger say something important about this person that readers should know? This could be important if their job is public, but I think for any reporter to include this kind of information, they should observe the person interacting with a wide range of others. Maybe they just donít like reporters, and thatís a fairly common sentiment. Maybe they make an effort to be nice to reporters, but donít treat others around them very well. As part of the job of writing the story, these impressions seem like they should generally be pushed to the side. But as a person experiencing the interview, these impressions can stand out more clearly than anything that was talked about.

Then the content of what theyíve said comes into focus. I need to figure out the relevance of each comment on a topic in relation to the others. After asking eight people about the same general set of issues, it seemed impossible that the articles could have all been arranged in the same order. Each one said some things that were obvious and expected, and other things that were novel and unique to them, suggesting a somewhat different set of priorities and emphasis. My knowledge of the subject weíre talking about becomes key to separating the mundane from the unusual, but I need to remember that some things that are mundane to me might be news to a reader. Some comments seemed to stand on their own in the interview, in the context of the conversation, but when Iíd go to write about them it seemed necessary to include some kind of background information to bring the reader along.

The eloquence of the speaker, and their speaking style, also becomes relevant here. In reviewing my notes, one person might say in a sentence or two what someone else needed five minutes to go over. When I have to do the work of paraphrasing and condensing the longer comment, it requires more effort to make sure that my version conveys the full and original intent. After this exercise, the reason for the popularity among reporters of good sound bites is obvious. The compact comment is easy to parse, mostly speaks for itself, and doesnít force me to sit down and read my work over a couple times to be certain I got it right. It doesnít mean that it isnít worth doing, but the temptation to take shortcuts is there.

When the first draft is finished, itís time to look again at the purpose of the article. I need to answer whether the article makes it clear why Iím writing it, and whom itís being written for. Given enough curiosity and time to gather information, any subject can turn into an epic. Every related fact canít be included in one article, and itís possible that other aspects of a story will be addressed in other pieces that run either at the same time or in other issues of the same paper. Whereís the line between not enough background and an avalanche of trivia?

I set a fairly narrow scope for the series of candidate interviews. The goal was to introduce the political views of the mainstream candidates to potential voters who may not be sure where they stand, and hopefully touch on subjects that they could relate to their lives. In the sense of a single article in the series, it did feel like the journalistic stenography Iíve always disliked. But from the perspective of the series, the varied opinions were the story. They were each intended as an ideological portrait of a candidate, a picture of how they represent their accomplishments and positions. I chose the format because I donít run across it very often, and was interested in seeing how it would turn out. As preparation, I read their websites and searched through news articles that had already been written about them.

My articles would have failed as investigative journalism. I never looked through their financial records, didnít comb their work histories, or where applicable, scrutinize every vote. They would have failed as biographical accounts. I didnít examine their childhoods, spend time asking about families, or quiz them about personal habits. Except for a chance comment that fell into my lap, I didnít survey former colleagues and coworkers to build up a more personal picture. They would have individually failed as equal time political commentary. The candidatesí statements were allowed to stand without rebuttal from either opponents, or spokespeople for the opposite party. Any of those could have been interesting avenues to take, and I hope to get a chance to do that kind of work in the future.

Thinking about the stories I didnít write, but could have, illustrated to me the amount of work each of them entails. To get multiple perspectives, Iíd have to juggle the appointment schedules of several busy interviewees. A more thorough investigation of someoneís background might require hours or days worth of reading just for the sake of a single newspaper story, or longer if it was destined for a magazine. For the story on the schoolís budget, it took two hours with the budget director before I felt comfortable writing even a brief overview about how it worked. Depending on how detailed I wanted to be, the amount of information to go through could be daunting. And then I think about the audience again, and I have to ask myself whoís going to be reading the results of all that effort.

Finally, back to context. How much context can be fit into a story thatís competing for scarce column inches with other stories and advertisements? Fitting the history of the race or the district into any of the congressional candidate pieces would have crowded out the immediate information about their ideas and what they stood for. To some extent, a leap of faith (or perhaps foolish optimism) is made, where I have to hope that the article I write isnít the last word someone reads on the subject.

My experience and impressions canít be entirely unique. Every job has a common set of hurdles and frustrations, even if an individual person might notice some more than others. This class has given me new respect for the obstacles to producing something that could be called good journalism, both the internal and the external stumbling blocks. But it hasnít changed my opinion about the need for more of it.

Posted by natasha at June 11, 2004 07:23 AM | Media | Technorati links |

Wow, Natasha. Great post about what it means to be a journalist. And a great follow on to your excellent series of interviews with the candidates. I'm looking forward to seeing lots more real reporting from you.

Posted by: Mary at June 11, 2004 08:19 AM

I think you have found your calling...

Posted by: palamedes at June 12, 2004 01:32 AM