Actually, this is the reporter’s job

Red Hook
Red Hook (Photo credit: mercurialn)

The New York Times’ new public editor’s last column praised the paper’s reporters and photographers for climbing stairs in the dark to find and interview and photograph victims of Hurricane Sandy:

That’s just one example among many in which Times reporters went to extraordinary lengths to get the stories of ordinary people’s suffering. I was equally struck by Cara Buckley’s and Michael Wilson’s’s front-page article about life without power in New York’s public housing projects.

It included this passage: “As light drained from the skies above the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn on Thursday, Sharlyn Marin, 18, huffed her way up 140 steps to visit her godmother, Judith Rodriguez, on the 10th floor. Blind and in a wheelchair, Ms. Rodriguez, 62, relied on Ms. Marin as her sole conduit to the outside world.”

Such articles, involving shoe-leather reporting at its best, are not easy to get. The only way to get those scenes is to be there — in this case, to climb the stairs in a dark and dangerous housing project.

Ms. Buckley told me about her experience in an e-mail: “It’s actually a 14-story building, and the photographer, Ruth Fremson, and I went to the top twice and then worked our way down. No matter the time of day, the stairways were pitch black, windowless and without power.”

That’s their job.

These days, the expression “shoe leather” journalism seems unfamiliar to many reporters, especially those who came into the field assuming that Google has the answer to everything. Instead it means leaving the cozy, familiar newsroom and building and neighborhood. It means walking/climbing/hiking — doing whatever is necessary on foot (and by plane/car/bus/donkey/boat) — to get on-scene to witness and report the gritty details of a story.

It demands guts, street smarts, preparation — knowing what to wear and what to carry, finding and hiring fixers and drivers and interpreters.

Great reporters tells us what the air smells like, what the baby was eating, the color of the walls and the size of the windows. They capture tone, light, anecdote, vernacular, nuance. They bring us into that place and make us feel what those in that place are feeling, whether joy or terror. They smell the blood, sometimes even slipping in it.

They do not phone it in. They do not Google it or look at a Google map to see what the devastation looks like or watch it on TV or read it out of someone else’s story.

Great reporting on tough stories like this one mean getting, literally, down and dirty, joining the story where and when it’s happening. It means that reporters and photographers will indeed also end up hungry, thirsty, tired, sore and worn out  — like the people whose lives they’re there to describe to readers many miles away, safe and warm and dry.

Great journalism is fueled by compassion. Not every story requires it, obviously, but when reporting on war, poverty, violence, crime, natural disaster or medical mishap, a reporter unwilling to live it firsthand is only going to report a dessicated, sanitized version of the facts.

My husband and I have both done this sort of reporting work, I as a writer and he as a photographer. In winter, he spent six weeks covering the end of the Bosnian war. He had to sleep in an unheated metal cargo container and his Christmas meal was a small packet of dried soup. He and the reporter and their interpreter, their car car stuck, were towed out of a snowbank at dusk because Jose had thought to pack a carabiner in his luggage.

I’ve seen car windows sheeted with blood after a head-on collision, and — nauseated and terrified — walked toward the vehicle to see what make and model it was. I’ve walked across frozen fields, climbed muddy embankments, knelt on dirty floors.  I flew to Winnipeg, Edmonton and Toronto on a medical investigative story, and watched the women  I interviewed shake and cry as they related their misery to me. It was exhausting and emotionally draining for all of us.

That’s the point.

Shoe-leather reporting can also be lethal, killing legendary New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid last year, when he suffered a fatal asthma attack from the horses carrying him and his photographer across the Syrian border; the photographer, Tyler Hicks, carried his dead body into Turkey.

It killed photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros last year in Libya and it killed Marie Colvin, the American-born journalist working for the London Sunday Times. She had already been blinded in one eye by shrapnel while working in Sri Lanka.
Here’s a great profile of this amazing woman, in the August 2012 issue of Vanity Fair.

Stony Brook University, on Long Island, NY, is raising $1 million in her memory to fund its Journalism Without Walls program, which sends young reporters into the field.

Boots-on-the-ground detail-gathering is what readers need and deserve.

It’s necessary for us to truly understand our world.

It’s what we should expect.

20 thoughts on “Actually, this is the reporter’s job

  1. Ain’t it the truth? Last year, I visited the Daintree Rain Forest research lab in northern Australia. The best view was from the top of a construction crane 200 feet in the air, which meant climbing up about 20 stories of treacherous bars on the outside of the construction crane. I am 64 years old. I remember thinking I don’t get paid enogh to do this. So. Did I climb up or not? 🙂
    the answer: It’s my job. Once I can’t do that, then I can no longer do my job.

    1. Cool!! I spent a week crewing aboard a Tall Ship when I was 40, and had to climb 100 feet into the rigging many times a day and then work on a swaying footrope. Scary as hell but so much fun. I live for this stuff, as I suspect many reporters do.

  2. Just finished the profile of Marie Colvin. Wow. I hope her spirit is still somewhere in this world. We can’t all be foreign correspondents, but we can emulate her determination.

  3. This way professional reporters deliver trustworthy news to the community. They fulfill their duty they were CALLED to. We must respect them much. Eyewitness is the main person in every good reportage – Google and Wikipedia may make mistakes or share pseudoinformation. Or even quazyinformation sometimes.

  4. This is wonderfully written. I love the line “Great journalism is fueled by compassion.” But do you believe that it is also fueled passion? Are they two completely different motivations or of the same vein?

    1. Thanks.

      Sure…compassion matters, I think, when dealing with the sort of stories I describe here. If you are passionate about less emotional/dramatic subjects — as many of us are (as well) — why not? I fear that “passion” can lead to untrammeled ambition which, when it uses sources and discards them with no thought for their humanity, is unattractive.

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  6. My sister is a journalist and she has talked to me many times about the importance of being on the scene and reporting honestly and compassionately. I don’t think the average person has any clue how hard this career really is.

    1. It’s one reason I keep returning to that topic here.

      I think so much “news” is fake PR BS, rewritten press releases phoned in from the newsroom, that younger/newer reporters have no idea of the job’s true demands. I have many friends who teach college journalism, to graduate and undergrad students, who tell me their students sigh and eye-roll when told to leave the classroom and get out and actually report, not just Google sources. Scary!

  7. This is well-written. I agree that there is no substitute for getting on the street to capture the texture of a society, but disagree that you can’t do investigative journalism with google, or other search engines. Sometimes constructing a narrative from other pieces of information happens because of the research you do online. For example, last semester at the Innocence Institute at Point Park University, we used docket finder websites to pull up the criminal history of people who wrote us letter proclaiming their innocence. In addition, the internet makes it infinitely easier to find any articles written about the suspect for other crimes.

    1. My larger point is that many young journalists seem to think that reporting is exclusively done without the challenges and intimacy of face to face interviews and observation/participation. I don’t deny the usefulness of Google; I use it as well. But I have heard too many friends teaching journalism despair of this new sort of reluctance of their students to actually deal with real people in front of them. I certainly applaud investigative work.

  8. We have journalists among our family and friends and it is indeed an incredibly demanding and emotionally challenging job, or should I say vocation. Any journalist worth their salt (ie the boots-on-the-ground type) will see some horrifying things as they gather the news for their readers/viewers. Disinterested empathetic compassion also leads to the best stories I think because those being interviewed intuitively know they can be trusted.

    Documentary journalism is also not without its hazards as witnessed by the tragic loss of an Aussie team last year while photographing Lake Eyre in a peak season from the year’s floods. Journalist Paul Lockyer had covered the “inland tsunami” in the Lockyer Valley, Queensland earlier that year and showed exactly the type of compassion you were talking about.

    1. “Disinterested empathetic compassion also leads to the best stories I think because those being interviewed intuitively know they can be trusted.”

      This is an important point. One of the things I have done in my interviews is, when appropriate, share some of my own history so that the people I am quizzing do not simply feel like a gas pump. I hate it when journos swoop in, grab what they need and leave, which is probably very normal — if totally anti-social — behavior.

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