One of the many reasons I still enjoy journalism — after working in it for more than 30 years — is the people who choose to do it for a living: smart, sharp, a quick learner, down-to-earth and a team player.
I’ve worked as a staff reporter and feature writer for the Globe & Mail, Montreal Gazette and New York Daily News, each of which offered some wild adventures. At the Globe, I covered a Royal Tour across three provinces and met Queen Elizabeth aboard Brittania; at the Gazette I flew into an Arctic village of 500 people and came home through an iceberg and at the Daily News broke stories like the DHS — back in 2006 — holding onto migrant children.
If you’re not, always, insatiably curious — the kid who drove your parents and teachers and professors mad with questions and challenges — it’s not a great fit.
It is our job to challenge authority.
Right now in the United States, we’re massively and daily under attack, even to the point of murder — as five journalists, a mix of writers and editors, were murdered at a small local paper in Maryland, The Capital Gazette.
One week after the shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, President Donald Trump put an end to any speculation that the tragedy could lead to a truce in his unrelenting war on the news media.
“Fake news. Bad people,” Trump said, pointing at the news crews covering his rally Thursday in Great Falls, Montana, as the crowd went wild.
“I see the way they write. They’re so damn dishonest,” Trump said. “And I don’t mean all of them, because some of the finest people I know are journalists really. Hard to believe when I say that. I hate to say it, but I have to say it. But 75 percent of those people are downright dishonest. Downright dishonest. They’re fake. They’re fake.”
“They make the sources up. They don’t exist in many cases,” he continued. “These are really bad people.”
This, from the President whose latest Cabinet member just resigned mired in scandal, Scott Pruitt.
I’m appalled by Trump’s incessant lies and hostility toward us.
Watch his spokesman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, actually insult reporters during White House press briefings and you wonder why anyone keeps showing up to give her the opportunity.
Watch the 2015 film “Spotlight” –– which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and is based on a true team working at the Boston Globe to uncover sexual abuse in the Catholic Church — for one of the best and most truthful depictions of our work.
People who know nothing of journalism or why most of us do it or why we believe it’s of essential value to any functional democracy — at its best, speaking truth to power — can easily spit on us and scream at us or, as several have, kill us.
It stunned every one of us who — by definition — have to be self-reliant and often go out alone on assignment to meet people whose character and motives we do not know.
It creates foxhole camaraderie.
So I wrote this story, which ran last week on Poynter, a website devoted to journalism, (named for its benefactor) about long-term newsroom friendships, quoting (among writers from the L.A. Times, New York Times and Wall Street Journal, a friend and highly accomplished science writer Maryn McKenna:
McKenna thinks that’s, in part, because of Foxhole camaraderie. Journalists work weekends and holidays and have to deal daily with sources who don’t want them there.
“That all tends to build a gestalt of: ‘The outside world doesn’t understand us, so it is up to us to appreciate each other.’ There’s definitely a journalistic personality — we’re simultaneously deeply cynical and utterly committed to old-fashioned virtues of truthfulness and accuracy and grinding hard work — and the stresses of journalistic practice make it clear pretty quickly who in the newsroom shares those values and who doesn’t. Once you find people who do share them, you cling to them.”
In an era some are calling “post-truth”, who do you believe?
Whose media voice(s) do you listen to and trust?
Personally, I listen most often to BBC (television and radio,), NPR, read The New York Times and the Financial Times. I also listen to other news sources, albeit mostly those leaning to the left.
I suspect some of you read my blog because (?) I’m a career journalist working for decades as a freelancer for The New York Times, which which many consider a great and trustworthy newspaper.
A career journalist who actually hopes to keep working in our industry (even as it’s in chaos!) simply can’t afford to make shit up because you get found out and you lose your job and you lose your reputation for honesty and…you’re done, son!
I don’t make shit up, here or elsewhere.
I adhere to the unofficial motto of the Canadian Press, a wire service, who taught me in my early 20s: “When in doubt, leave it out.”
That was also pre-Internet when the pressure to publish was less frenzied, and no one cared about likes or clicks or whether an algorithm favored your work above that of your competitors.
Back in Toronto recently, I visited the new newsroom of my first newspaper job, the Globe & Mail — which, like most major newsrooms now, has screens visible to everyone showing them data on what’s being read, for how long and how often.
Last week, President Trump promoted new, unconfirmed accusations to suit his political narrative: that a “criminal deep state” element within Mr. Obama’s government planted a spy deep inside his presidential campaign to help his rival, Hillary Clinton, win — a scheme he branded “Spygate.” It was the latest indication that a president who has for decades trafficked in conspiracy theories has brought them from the fringes of public discourse to the Oval Office.
Now that he is president, Mr. Trump’s baseless stories of secret plots by powerful interests appear to be having a distinct effect. Among critics, they have fanned fears that he is eroding public trust in institutions, undermining the idea of objective truth and sowing widespread suspicions about the government and news media that mirror his own.
“The effect on the life of the nation of a president inventing conspiracy theories in order to distract attention from legitimate investigations or other things he dislikes is corrosive,” said Jon Meacham, a presidential historian and biographer. “The diabolical brilliance of the Trump strategy of disinformation is that many people are simply going to hear the charges and countercharges, and decide that there must be something to them because the president of the United States is saying them.” (emphasis mine)
In an era of blame and recrimination, who are we to believe?
If not those given the highest authority (and who does now, whether religious or political) who?
What we politely call “fake news”—a formulation that presupposes some antecedent credible truth called “news” that we’re now abandoning—is just the tribal folklore of a certain (and usually opposing) tribe. Our exhausting and constant absorption in a transitory but completely overwhelming media cycle is our own preliterate eternal present. Who thinks now of Cecil the Lion and the villainous dentist who shot him, whose practice was promptly ruined by an online mob? We’re too busy dealing with the third huge Trump scandal this week, which we’ll forget in due course thanks to next week’s school shooting….
The post-internet generation, weaned almost since birth on touchscreens and fractious digital media, navigates this raucous world with an equanimity that we dinosaurs beholden to a dead-tree age find impossible to muster. It is a different world, one where the universally acclaimed expert or editor has been replaced by internet-enabled rumor and hearsay arbitrated only by algorithms. There are some dominant media outlets with a claim to primacy, just as every village has a particularly well-informed local gossip, but the capital-T Truth, so beloved by the French encyclopedists, will no longer exist across a broad spectrum of society.
Are there official news sources you still actually trust and believe?
Some of you might be readers of The New York Times, a newspaper some consider the best of the U.S. press, and my husband’s former employer of 31 years. I also write for them, freelance, several times a year.
The paper now has a new publisher, a member of the same family that bought it in 1896.
The Times will continue to search for the most important stories of our era with curiosity, courage and empathy — because we believe that improving the world starts with understanding it. The Times will continue to resist polarization and groupthink by giving voice to the breadth of ideas and experiences — because we believe journalism should help people think for themselves. The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness — because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have. The Times will do all of this without fear or favor — because we believe truth should be pursued wherever it leads.
I’m not an apologist for the biases, errors and omissions made by thousands of fellow journalists. There’s much that still needs tremendous improvement, including hiring, training and retaining many more non-white and female voices and viewpoints.
But as someone who’s been chasing facts for decades — and reporting everything from 9/11 breaking news to investigative medical reporting to covering a Royal Tour — I believe deeply and passionately that smart, tough, responsible journalism is needed now more than ever.
Winner of a National Magazine Award in Canada, I’m immensely proud of the work many of us do and I know why many of us still do it, even in an industry roiled with change and uncertainty.
Within its ranks are new and impassioned calls for greater transparency about what we cover, when and why.
At its best, journalism’s role includes:
— Explaining a complex world to an audience who may lack the time, education, training, experience — or curiosity — to gasp the implications of public policies that affect them, whether a local school budget or commitment to billions of dollars in tax cuts.
— Explaining scientific advances, (and de-bunking falsehoods), that help audiences stay healthy, whether the environment, public health issues, (now that Trump has fired his entire HIV/AIDS council) or personal health.
— Holding the powerful accountable for their actions. In an era of stunning plutocracy and lax corporate governance, it’s essential for business journalists to uncover and explain to us all the implications of key business decisions, whether shutting a plant and throwing thousands out of work or striking a deal with local, regional or federal governments.
— Examining the actions of elected officials at every level and how they’re spending taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars.
— Seeking out and telling the stories of the poor, marginalized and under-funded who lack ready access to the noisy and powerful machinery of public relations and lobbyists.
— Sharing the successes (and failures) of NGOs and social service groups as they work to relieve struggle, locally and globally.
— Reporting on every form of culture, from ‘zines to opera, because the arts remain an important part of life, and employ millions of creatives.
Yes, many journalists do see the world from a left-leaning lens, with the underlying belief that — in the industry cliche — it’s still, ideally, our essential role to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
If you’re firmly persuaded that we all wake up each morning determined to spread lies and create “fake news”, there’s likely little I could say to dissuade you.
I will say that most of the journalists I know, no matter their age or place of residence, are people whose primary goal is a shared one: to tell compelling stories to as many people as often as possible.
Ones backed by provable, checked facts.
And, if you want to better understand what we do and why we do it (and how much we think about trying to do it better! you might consider following news from the Neiman Lab, the Columbia Journalism Review and Poynter, to name only three sites dedicated to smart coverage of the issues working journalists still care about.
And this very long, very detailed story by James Risen on The Intercept, about long and protracted battles between the White House and The New York Times, (and internal editorial battles most readers have no idea about) is an absolute must-read to understand the incredible pressures some reporters face to suppress the truth.
I woke up this morning to a Twitter feed filled with images of a skinny white woman about to marry a billionaire, Pippa Middleton, sister of the Duchess of Cambridge.
This week, 242 people died of cholera in Yemen.
Guess which got the most attention?
To many people, now, both are journalism — and possibly of equal value.
Not in my book. I’ve done it for a living since 1978.
I’m really weary of watching fellow reporters fawning endlessly over the wealthy and powerful and their private jets and their super-yachts and their pretty lives.
What good does any of this voyeurism offer to a broken world filled with growing income inequality but a reminder that 99.9% of us will never live a life even vaguely resembling this.
All this, as the Trumps and his billionaire Cabinet take millions from other plutocrats to craft policy to make them all even richer.
If you haven’t yet seen Spotlight — which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015 — or All The President’s Men — a 1976 film was nominated in that category but that won four other Oscars — do it. Soon!
Spotlight tells the story of a team of reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered a sex abuse scandal within the Catholic church, for which they received American journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, in 2003. The film makes clear, as does ATPM, that real reporting and journalism that can topple powerful, secretive abusers. It takes time, teamwork and tough editors and reporters who simply refuse to give up once they realize the magnitude of the story, even as it looks impossible to get.
In ATPM, two Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward — two real people of the same names — bring down President Richard Nixon after months of piecing together disparate facts and crimes, all the way met with denials and resistance. In one great scene that every reporter can identify with, the editor in chief, Ben Bradlee, says, “I have to really trust my reporters. And I hate trusting anyone.”
In our business, serious mistakes can end a career.
In both films, weary, rumpled reporters do what most journalists actually do — knock on dozens of strangers’ doors (often met with resistance or hostility) looking for sources to speak to them and confirm what they have so far learned or suspected, read through reams of paper documents to find the ones that matter, meet with scared, reluctant witnesses to, or victims of, the crimes, trying to persuade them to put the facts “on the record”, i.e. make them public.
Much of true journalism is slow, tedious, quiet, behind the scenes. It can involve a lot of frustration as you hit dead end after dead end, source after source who refuses to help or to comment, fearful for their job, reputation, even their life.
It’s the opposite of fawning over the wealthy and powerful, which so many now see as “journalism.”
As Trump and his family, and associates, continue to prompt more and deeper investigation, remember that it’s the reporting by The New York Times and Washington Post that have brought much of their behaviors to light.
Unless you know a journalist, or are one, dismissing “the media” is an easy — and lazy — way to describe the millions of men and women, of all ages, worldwide, whose chosen profession is to find and gather accurate, verifiable data and disseminate it as widely as their medium allows.
It’s disingenuous and misguided to mistake journalists for stenographers.
As the late David Carr once said: “I don’t do corporate portraiture.”
Our job is to challenge authority.
To speak truth to power.
To insist upon clear, straight, verifiable answers.
Those who don’t?
They’re a joke.
As Trump bellows and whines and threatens to keep making reporting on his administration difficult for all but the most fawning, it’s useful to remember what 99 percent of journalists actually do:
— We report on science and medicine, digging through journals, speaking to scientists and researchers and physicians and patients, trying to make sure the latest “miracle” drug or “breakthrough” cure really is that, and not just the prelude to a Big Pharma IPO.
— We cover local government, school board meetings and other minutiae of local life, where every hard-earned taxpayer dollar is spent (or wasted.) We read long boring reports and sit through long boring meetings to keep eyes and ears on elected officials.
— We race toward danger to photograph war, natural disaster, fires and crashes. Photographers and videographers have no luxury of distance. They, too, get injured, physically and emotionally. Some are killed in the line of duty — like news photographers Tim Hetherington, Anja Niedringhaus and Marie Colvin, their names meaningless to those beyond our circles. But their bravery and determination to keep telling stories, no matter how dangerous, inspires many, like our young friend Alex Wroblewski, who’s been to Iraq several times.
— We sit with people whose lives have been shattered by crime and tragedy. We listen carefully to their stories and try to be compassionate, even while we take notes or record them for posterity. Through those stories, we try to elucidate what it means to live with daily pain and grief, the cost of lawlessness and mayhem.
— We cover cops and courts, holding police and other powerful authorities to account, to restrain, when possible, their abuses of lethal power.
— We watch, listen to and share our experiences of culture, whether Beyonce’s latest album or a performance of 16th. century lute music.
— We dig into business and corporate behavior, reading the tiny print at the back of annual reports. We speak to workers at every level to hear their firsthand experiences, not just the shiny version presented, forcefully, by public relation staffs.
— We watch the larger culture for shifts and trends, trying to make sense of a world moving at dizzying speed.
And that’s still a very, very small portion of what we do.
Even as Trump stamps his feet and shrieks about the “failing” New York Times, (for whom I write freelance and for whom my husband worked for 31 years), pretend you’re a journalist — and fact-check!
The Times, Washington Post and others he attacks relentlessly are seeing a huge jump in subscriptions.
The White House blocked several news outlets from attending a closed-door briefing Friday afternoon with press secretary Sean Spicer, a decision that drew strong rebukes from news organizations and may only heighten tensions between the press corps and the administration.
The New York Times and CNN, both of which have reported critically on the administration and are frequent targets of President Donald Trump, were prohibited from attending. The Huffington Post was also denied entry.
Both the Associated Press and Time magazine, which were allowed to enter, boycotted out of solidarity with those news organizations kept out.
Spicer said prior to the start of the administration that the White House may skip televised daily briefings in favor of an off-camera briefing or gaggle with reporters.
The next time someone bitches about “the media” send them the link to this blog post, please.
There is no “the media.”
There are millions of individuals working hard to do their best.
Some are biased.
Some are lazy.
Some are useless.
Many are not.
Imagine a world without accurate verifiable information, on any subject.
Now we’ve got a Trump senior advisor telling the American media to “keep its mouth shut” and that we are the “opposition party.”
So, in the interests of media literacy, some inside dope.
If you retain some faith in the veracity of media reporting, (and many don’t), it’s also useful to remember — or know — that what you read, see and listen to is heavily filtered, edited and condensed.
Maybe you knew that.
But if you ever work in a newsroom, or as a reporter or editor or photographer, you very quickly appreciate how much of it ends up on the cutting-room floor.
It is not, despite everything you may hear about the “crooked media” and our putative dishonesty, about partisanship.
It can be, but most often is for very different reasons, like:
Length and space
Less an issue with digital stories, where there’s no lack of room, although a shortened attention span from many digital audiences.
In print, whether magazines or newspapers, many stories compete every day for space.
Every newspaper editor has a “budget”, in addition to their monetary one, and daily “budget meetings”, in which every competing story tries to win its spot in that day’s report and what prominence it will get.
Then a talented team of photo editors, art directors, layout experts and graphics editors works to make each page, ideally, look terrific and draw you into each story.
This is my most recent NYT story, which got great play, (on the front page [aka the dress page] of the paper’s very well-read real estate section), the gift of a gorgeous illustration (by someone else from Toronto!) — and even netted me fan mail! It’s about how people, when renovating, sometimes find very weird things in their walls and floors, or place items themselves.
Short is often better — get to the point!
But complex issues demand complex and nuanced reporting for the audience to understand them and why they matter to us, like the NPR report I heard this morning on the Congressional Review Act, which I’d never heard of before.
Probably the biggest ongoing challenge every news journalist faces, especially those who work with images: war, natural disaster, terrorism, murder scenes, airline, train or car crashes. They have to process it emotionally, (or shut it out somehow.) Over the years, let alone decades, it takes a toll.
The day before I took my driving test (!), while a reporter at the Montreal Gazette, I covered a head-on collision between a city bus and a small car. I’ll spare you the details, but — 26 years later — I remember it all too well.
Secondary trauma is a real issue for many of us, and in a business where macho behavior is rewarded and emotional reactions in that moment can hinder our work. My husband covered New Mexico’s worst ever prison riot as a photographer when he was still a college student and spent a month in Bosnia at the end of the war in 1995. Both seared his soul.
I’ve reported stories with gory details I knew, but omitted. They informed my understanding of the issues and the reality of the event, (like a murder trial or 9/11), but civilians — i.e. non-journalists — just aren’t prepared to handle it.
By the time you see or hear it, it’s often heavily sanitized.
This is a big one, especially now.
If you can’t trust media coverage to be factual — and checked before publication or broadcast with multiple, reliable sources — you’re toast.
It doesn’t even matter what the story is, really, because the underlying principles remain the same: when in doubt, leave it out.
We have to make sure we know who’s talking to us, why now and their agenda(s).
Who’s funding them? Who pays their bills? Who do they owe favors to?
Many sources just end up sounding or looking really stupid.
It’s up to us to decide, as gatekeepers, what to reveal.
We’re all human and we all mis-speak.
That question changes when we’re covering a public figure like a politician, who’s chosen to be in the public eye and who has significant responsibility to voters. That’s why they hire spokesmen (and women) to spin everything.
It’s our job to untangle it all.
Far too many press releases!
I get several every day, and delete 99.9% of them unread, unopened and annoyed at the laziness of the people being well paid to send them.
There are three writers in New York City (!) with my name, one of whom covers beauty for a major magazine, so of course I get her email all the time.
Some press releases are useful, but are often full of jargon and of no interest at all.
Most of the best stories you’ll read and hear come from reporters and editors’ own ideas and research, tips from sources and observations of the world and its patterns.
Documents, leaks and FOIAs
If you saw the film Spotlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, you’ll know that poring over reams of documents can create the most powerful and damning stories of all.
The editor, then, of the Boston Globe, Marty Barron, is now at the Washington Post, which is kicking ass and taking names in covering the Trump administration.
The more Trump shuts down federal agencies and staffers, the more they’re leaking what we need to know.
You need a free press more than ever now.
The big three of news determinants.
The closer an event is to readers, listeners and viewers, the more likely it will get coverage — which is why Americans, certainly, hear just about nothing, ever, from entire parts of the globe: most of Asia and the MidEast, Latin and Central America, Eastern and Southern Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
Unless it’s seen to have a direct impact on American lives or economic/political interests…crickets.
Which is crazy.
Because the less you know about how the rest of the world operates and behaves, (i.e. differing histories, cultural values and resulting wars, unrest and public policies), the less you understand or care.
(Have you noticed the rise of Marine LePen, running for France’s Presidency? Nice.)
Don’t, please, get me started on celebrity — and how every day someone “reveals” a “secret” and media drool over first dibs on it.
If something happened even a week ago, let alone a few days, it might not be deemed “news” because, no matter how important, it’s not “new.” It’s a lousy way to make decisions, and very common.
The only way to make sense of the “news” is to absorb and process a wide range of it. If all you ever read or pay attention to is American (or your own country’s), the Internet offers you all of it, most of it free — radio, videos, newspapers, blogs, magazines…
I read the Financial Times every day and listen often to BBC. I get French and Canadian news through my Twitter feed.
That’s how the best journalists think: tough-minded, skeptical, dubious, cynical, questioning.
Our job is to challenge authority, in its every guise.
To speak truth to power.
One of the 20th century’s greatest journalists…
In an era of fake news, it’s absolutely essential to know who is supplying you with the information with which you are making key decisions about your future, and that of your town, city, region and nation.
You can’t make intelligent decisions based on garbage and lies.
I’ve been a journalist since my undergraduate days at the University of Toronto, worked as a reporter at three major daily newspapers and have written freelance for dozens of national newspapers, magazines and websites. Here’s my website, with some clips.
Seven ways to consume media critically:
1. Read, watch and listen to a wide variety of news sources, whatever your political leanings.
If the only media you consume keep reassuring you that your world is exactly as you wish to see it, you’ve got a problem. The world is a complex, messy place — comforting simplicity, while seductive, is rarely honest.
2. Get off social media!
If the only news sources you rely on are social media, you’re stuck in an algorithmic echo chamber. You’re doomed! See point one.
That means questioning every single comment, data point, anecdote, story, and “fact” you are given — no matter at what volume and speed. That means your default position isn’t: “Oh, cool. I need to tweet that right now” but “Hmmm. Really? That sounds weird.”
4. Research the news sources you’re relying on.
Google them. Read everything you can about them and their history. Who is funding them? Why? Who is quoting them as authorities or experts? Why?
Every reporter in the world has a track record — if they’re the real deal. Google them. Go to their LinkedIn page. Watch their videos and read their work.
Working journalists are highly protective of their professional reputations as accurate and reliable because without that, we’re useless.
5. Assume nothing.
Read every story, if in print, with a highlighter marker handy — and highlight every point you think dubious or unlikely. What conclusions did the reporter draw? Do you agree? Why? What makes you trust them? What did they fail to ask? Why? What assumptions did they make going into that story? Would you have done it differently? How? Why?
6. Talk back to the media!
Not simply on a comments page.
Write letters to the editor. Use their corrections editor or ombudsman to complain when you see lazy or inaccurate work. Email reporters and editors directly to express your concerns about their coverage — or lack of it. Be calm, civil and constructive if you want to be listened to. Thoughtful journalists are in the middle of a period (finally!) of self-examination, so your timing is good. Be an active participant in the flood of information out there, not a passive little nothing nodding your head.
When you start to understand the media ecosystem — and how these businesses are run and why some are succeeding and some struggling — you can’t really grasp how their products are created and distributed. Yes, it matters! Eating “clean”, locally or judiciously should also apply to your media diet.
Sadly, many of us — certainly those with 20+ years’ experience — are starting to feel like whaling ship captains in the new era of steam, offering terrific skills that fewer and fewer publishers want or can afford to pay for.
The British daily The Independent recently killed its print editions and thousands of journalists are losing their staff jobs all over the world.
I still ply my trade freelance, publishing online and in print, for outlets from the Case Foundation to The New York Times.
The terrific new film “Spotlight” won this year’s Oscar for Best Picture, about the investigative team at the Boston Globe and how it uncovered sexual abuse within the Catholic church. Here’s my earlier post about it.
Here’s a radio interview on CBC, (18:20 minutes in length), with the female member of the real Spotlight team, Sacha Pfeiffer, about what it’s like to work in investigative journalism — and to be observed and portrayed by an actress on film.
And those of us who do it professionally, especially within news, know there are many other people whose skills help us get it done safely and accurately, from translators to fixers to unnamed but well-placed sources.
By the time you see or hear a story online, on radio or television or in print, hundreds of decisions have been made about it and decisions made by dozens of professionals. Journalism remains very much a team sport.
Here’s some of what happens before you ever see or hear a work of journalism:
Someone gets an idea
It happens in a variety of ways.
It might be from a press release, sent out by a professional agency whose job it is to promote their clients and their interests.
It might be something we noticed — an ad, an overheard conversation on the bus or at the dog run or while in a doctor’s waiting room. I saw something this week in a local drugstore, a new and unusual product that’s a direct reflection of recent cultural change. It might be a story.
It could be something we read or saw, yes, already produced by another journalist — but not in depth or not for an audience we know well.
It might be a wire service story our editors want deepened or localized; if too local or regional, maybe looking at it nationally or globally.
Many reporters work a specific beat, (like a cop’s beat, an area they are meant to know intimately), and stay in close touch with sources in it, whether aerospace or retail or philanthropy.
Much traditional reporting, (a weakness in its conceptual narrowness), focuses on institutions of power and its players: the schools, courts, police, Wall Street, Big Business, Parliament or Congress or its various committees. The ideal is to hold the powerful accountable for their decisions, many made in secret and many using taxpayers’ money or affecting public policies.
Smarter thinking considers ideas more broadly and in ways that intersect across disciplines — design, gender, technology, culture, labor, belief systems.
A freelance writer, who survives like Sheherezade by telling/selling story after story after story, also needs to decide who’s the right market for which idea:
a trade magazine? A major newspaper? An overseas website? A women’s magazine? A men’s?
The reality is now that digital sites are ravenous for copy — and most pay crap — $50, $100, $200 for stories that can still require significant skill, experience and lots of time to report and write.
Young writers are lining up for it, and beating their ambitious wings against the locked doors of print publications.
Print pays a lot more. Not a lot of money, ($2,00o to $10,000+ per story for the truly fortunate), but enough to eat and pay bills.
I live in an expensive part of the world — the New York City suburbs — and most of my work is either produced for print or paid at print rates.
What’s the story — and who cares?
Journalists are cynical, skeptical, dubious.
We’re paid to question authority, (even if we often fail to do so in an era of concentrated media ownership and few jobs.)
As the saying goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
So what is the story and why should anyone else make time to read or listen to it?
Who are the main characters? What’s new or different?
Does it reflect a trend?
What expertise or insight can you bring to it?
Is it even really worth doing?
Here’s a great blog post by a science journalist who decided — as we all do sometimes — to drop a story after she realized it was bogus.
We try to sell the idea to an editor, either someone who’s our boss (and their boss) or a freelance client
Much of what we do requires the delicate art of persuasion. We have to feel passionate enough about each story — ideally — to do the work of reporting, interviewing, researching, writing and revising it.
But we also have to have skills and expertise not to make a mess of it. Do we have the right contacts? Do we speak the lingo of that industry?
If freelance, is it even worth doing financially? It can take days, weeks or months to properly research a story and we have to budget our time carefully.
What if it requires travel expenses — plane/train/car rental/hotel/meals? When budgets are tight, every additional penny must be justified.
Which is why so much lazy, crappy reporting is now done by phone, email and Skype. It’s cheaper.
What’s the best way to tell this story?
One of the joys and challenges of producing quality journalism now is the decision process when presenting it — a video? a podcast? a broadcast? A 3,500 word feature? A Q and A?
The goal should always be to engage the reader, to bring him or her with you into the places you’ve been to gather the material — the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures.
How soon do we need to jump on it?
In an era of Twitter, Vine and Periscope, the rush to be first is exhausting and getting worse.
What if one of our many competitors gets it before we do?
Who do we need to include to tell this story?
This is where so much journalism remains weak — still depressingly filled with white, male voices and few women and/or people of color, as this story points out.
I usually write nationally-reported stories and try to find a mix of people in age, race, geographic location and profession as sources.
Once we’ve figured out our possible list of sources, we need to consider possible conflicts of interest; (does their brother own the company? Did they attend that school?), and decide who’s most likely to give us time and how much of it.
There’s a distinct pecking order to whose calls and emails will get returned the fastest; if you’re writing for a trade magazine instead of a Big Media Outlet, be prepared to make a lot of return calls. For freelancers, time is money and every wasted minute costs us income.
How much reliable accurate information can each source give us?
This is the hidden 90 percent of the iceberg of every story you’ll ever read or hear, and one that “Spotlight”, unusually for a film about our biz, explains well.
It means actual legwork — sometimes physically venturing into neighborhoods or places we already know are unwelcoming, and maybe unsafe.
Knocking on doors. Calling people who never call back. Sending dozens of emails.
Accessing public documents, maybe filing a FOIA — Freedom of Information Act — when we’re stonewalled.
If you’re working in a foreign country, you may need a bodyguard, a fixer, a translator and a driver. You also have to find them, trust them with your life and pay them.
What do you need to take with you? War reporter Janine di Giovanni recently told the Financial Times her kit always included a morphine syringe, a tourniquet — and a little black dress because, you never know!
I know two seasoned female reporters who recently went into dangerous territory (Mexico, researching narco-terrorism) and South Sudan (researching famine) for their work. That’s normal. That’s what some of us do.
How much time before you’re done?
I recently proposed a story that I knew would be complicated to do well. Hah! It took me eleven interviews, each 30 to 75 minutes long, to understand it well enough to write it for a general newspaper audience. Then I still needed time to write it.
The worst thing to do is rush and skimp. I call the result Swiss cheese journalism, full of holes.
Does it make sense?
This is where the best and toughest editors are our saving grace. It’s their job, even when we resent it, to question our thinking, decisions and sources, the structure and tone and length of what we’ve given them.
It’s very easy, after spending a lot of time working on a story, to completely forget that — for the viewer or listener — it’s all new to them!
Here’s a recent story about what it feels like to be a reporter, a rare glimpse into the feelings we’re never allowed to share publicly:
Over the coming hours and days, millions of people are going to watch millions of hours and read millions of words on the Umpqua Community College shooting. They will learn what it looked like, from witnesses who escaped with their lives; they will learn about the victims—their lives, their hobbies, their dreams—from their friends and families; they will learn about the killer’s (or killers’) backgrounds and motives. Many of the same people who will eagerly consume this heartbreaking and enlightening information are the ones now criticizing the reporters gathering it for them. Where the fuck does the public think this news comes from?
The public may say it doesn’t want the horrible details; ratings, circulation, and traffic say the public is lying. The public may claim it values accuracy over speed, and that it is monstrous to contact witnesses this soon after a tragedy; the broad and voracious consumption of breaking reports, and the tendency to spread them as far and wide as possible, argue otherwise. The public will definitely immediately turn on CNN when news is breaking, then mock CNN for having clueless reporters uselessly speculate because there’s nothing to report yet, then turn to another channel to see if they’ve got something to report.
No outlet could conceivably think of sitting out the race to report something like this.
I’m grateful I’m no longer a hard news reporter, let alone at a tabloid — my last staff job, and literally my last staff position in journalism — ended in 2006. I was a reporter at the New York Daily News, then the U.S.’s 6th-largest daily newspaper.
It felt like an out-take from some 1930s film: tough-talking dames, foul-mouthed editors in suspenders, eager young interns, aggressive photographers. There was a guy in a corner of the enormous open newsroom called Gypsy.
I had only worked for broadsheets — The Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and, freelance, for The New York Times. Even at their most aggressive, we didn’t behave like tab reporters who would, and did, do anything to beat their competition and win the wood, the paper’s entire front page.
The news we all read, see and listen to doesn’t erupt spontaneously — it’s the result of decisions made by top editors, often middle-aged white men — about what they deem most important and interesting.
At the News, I was sent on a stake-out, in Manhattan’s summer heat and humidity, to stand outside a midtown hotel and await the arrival of two Quebecoise visitors, one of whom had been attacked and injured, not critically. I was sent because I speak French, not a common skill in that newsroom. My job was to — in News parlance — get the quote, some pithy summation of their fear and shock.
That no other reporter would have.
It was tiring, boring and bizarre to stand there for hours, to clog the sidewalk beside competing reporters from the Times, Post and others. With an intern, our photographer busy chatting to her pals, I tried to sneak into the hotel several times, eventually caught by an irate security guard.
I’ve never felt so stupid or ashamed of my role.
When there’s a shooting — which in the U.S. is sadly common — reporters descend on the scene, desperate to speak to anyone involved and to be aggressive about it.
Because if they’re not, and a competitor for eyeballs, clicks, pageviews and revenue beats them to a source, they’re in deep shit.
Hence the comparison made to vultures — journalists swooping in the second they see blood, death, destruction, tragedy, to dig through its entrails and feast.
Some reporters are fine with this behavior. I’m not.
Partly because there are complex issues that rarely get discussed outside of newsrooms or journalism conferences: what to cover, when to cover and when to stop, what to ask.
Because the assumption is: everything, as fast as possible.
One reason reporters can look like vultures is that those of us working differently, not on breaking news — writing longer features or profiles, covering business or sports or government — remain invisible to the public.
We spend our days ferreting out information we hope will be useful, not merely that hour’s latest tragedy, which can appear titillating or voyeuristic.
So, the public often think “the media” are only those they suddenly come into contact with when we’re at our most aggressive and, yes, our ugliest.
When I teach journalism, I also remind my students — especially women — that we’re paid to break social rules: to run across a room, to interrupt, to ask tough, probing questions, repeatedly when necessary, to challenge authority, whether political, religious or the wealthy.
At our best, to speak truth to power.
That, too, sometimes offends the more decorous or docile.
Reporters don’t contact victims and bystanders because they get off on it; they do it because they’re a small part of a long-established news ecosystem that begins and ends with an audience that understandably wants to know what the facts are, which is to say that it wants to hear what victims and bystanders saw.
I got out of tabloid reporting because I couldn’t take feeling awful anymore. One former co-worker said she got out of it the moment she realized she had been doing it long enough to stop feeling awful.
But…I draw a line that others are failing to do now.
I do not want sentimentality or hand-wringing.
I do not want to hear one more slick television reporter — NBC Nightly News, I’m looking at you — yammer on inanely about a community’s gathering together to “heal.”
I’m so done with cliches, false emotion and bullshit.
Here’s what I want from fellow journalists:
— Insight, analysis, hard data, fact patterns, trends.
My husband, Jose Lopez, has had a career few can match — eight years in the White House press corps, photographing Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He’s flown on Air Force One and been in the Oval Office.
He covered the end of the Bosnian war, sleeping in an unheated shipping container, unable to shower for six weeks, his Christmas “dinner” a packet of chicken soup.
He traveled to Rekjavik to cover a summit with Gorbachev.
For a decade, he also chose and mentored young photographers through The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, creating a new generation of talent — some of whom now work at the Times.
He covered two Olympics and five Superbowls and then worked for 15 years as a photo editor in sports, Foreign/National, real estate, business and — lastly — as photo editor of the NYT Now app, working with men and women half his age.
He leaves the newsroom today — 31 years after arriving from his first few newspaper jobs in Texas and Colorado, a cocky young guy with a thick head of hair.
It was a very difficult decision for him to leave — he loves his work and his colleagues — and one we did not make lightly; great journalism jobs within great organizations have become unicorns.
But this buyout offer was munificent, and he still has excellent skills and boatloads of energy he’s bringing to his job search.
It was an emotional afternoon and evening as staff and freelance photographers, editors and reporters lined up to hug him fiercely and to wish him well. I was so touched, although not at all surprised — having written freelance for the paper for decades and knowing many of these people as well — to see how well-loved and deeply respected he is.
There were staffers barely out of college and retirees who came back to the newsroom — and a nearby bar after work — to congratulate him.
Jose blends the unusual and terrific mix of tough-as-nails under pressure and diplomatic, gentle manners. (Very Timesian!)
More essential to a job search in 2015 — he combines the gravitas and deep wisdom of a career news photojournalist with the most up-to-date digital skills he used selecting images for the NYTNow app.