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.
Sure, some journalists write puffy stories about luxury hotels and mascara and shiny new tech toys.
But the journalism a democracy relies on is one with consistent, ready access to its leader(s), holding them and their government to account.
If you don’t grasp this essential fact, you’re in for a very long and ugly fight.
In his very first press briefing, Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer managed to stun the entire White House press corps with a toxic mix of hostility, aggression and threats.
This isn’t how a briefing is supposed to go. Certainly not from the very start.
Oh, and fleeing the room without taking a single question.
Not a great start to a new administration.
This is how it works:
Journalists are hired to find out what the hell is actually going on in the halls of power.
They cultivate sources.
They read long, tedious boring documents, where the meat of the matter may be buried 537 pages in.
They do not give up easily.
We do not give up easily.
A President who whines about every perceived slight to his fragile ego, and an attack dog press secretary , are not what Americans need or deserve.
Millions of Americans did not vote for Donald Trump, and even those who did need and deserve to know what he is doing — beyond his relentless tweets.
And the rest of the world is also watching and listening, as confused and concerned as many Americans are by the oldest President ever elected, a proven liar, cheat and misogynist — and a man who has never served a minute in office before.
The Presidency carries tremendous power, and the trappings of office are indeed impressive and daunting: a residence in the White House, access to nuclear codes, travel in Air Force One and Marine One, rafts of attendants snapping salutes.
But he works for us.
He works for the American people.
If the press, whose role it is to represent every voter unable to ask tough questions directly, are body-slammed from the very start, look forward to the most persistent, aggressive and unrelenting scrutiny of this administration you can begin to imagine.
Some of you follow the news closely and know that President Elect Donald Trump makes a habit of naming, shaming and blaming reporters he thinks have somehow insulted him, often by merely challenging him on his ever-shifting statements and tweets.
“That” was Donald J. Trump’s inaugural news conference as a duly elected United States president-to-be, in which he called BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage,” dismissed CNN as “fake news” and more or less told the whole lot of reporters at Trump Tower to stuff it when it comes to his unreleased tax returns because everyday Americans don’t care and, anyway, “I won.”
There were two big lessons in the Wednesday morning melee.
1. Mr. Trump remains a master media manipulator who used his first news briefing since July to expertly delegitimize the news media and make it the story rather than the chaotic swirl of ethical questions that engulf his transition.
2. The news media remains an unwitting accomplice in its own diminishment as it fails to get a handle on how to cover this new and wholly unprecedented president.
It better figure things out, fast, because it has found itself at the edge of the cliff. And our still-functioning (fingers crossed) democracy needs it to stay on the right side of the drop.
The problem is multi-faceted.
Some of the issues journalists now face in covering Trump:
— Many Americans don’t trust the MSM, mainstream media.
— Many Americans are gulping down “fake news” with no idea who’s lying to them and making bank from it.
—Many Americans loathe journalists and think that challenging those in authority — whether elected officials or the wealthy — is rude and disrespectful.
— In an era of a 24/7 news cycle, journalists are racing to be first, not always correct.
— In an era of unprecedented secrecy and obfuscation, (we have not yet seen Trump’s tax returns — and how long exactly does an audit take?), transparency and accountability are more essential than ever for voters to know what the hell is going on.
— The President-elect is hiring his own family as senior advisors, none of whom, like him, have any prior political experience. Also unpredecented. And why should any of us trust them? We didn’t vote for them, nor do they need to be confirmed through Senate hearings.
— Journalists have traditionally been respectful of the office of the President, but never before in recent history has there been a President who attacks the media almost daily, often singling out specific reporters, (like NBC’s Katy Tur) by name. That can lead to social media death threats and doxing.
— Journalists are working in an industry in deep turmoil financially, feeling economically vulnerable at the very moment we need them to be utterly fierce in their reporting.
— Without determined, consistent, aggressive reporting on every conceivable conflict of interest, voters, no matter who they chose (or didn’t vote at all), will have no idea what Trump and his kakistocracy are up to. Trying to intimidate us only invites doubling down.
It is absolutely foundational to my belief system and everyone who studies, teaches and works within fact-based journalism.
Some of its most basic tenets:
You talk to real people — and verify their identities.
You review long, tedious complicated documents, whether court records, committee proceedings, internal reports, and make sense of them for your audience, who need and deserve clear, cogent summaries of what we find. Jargon and obfuscation are efficient ways to hide all kinds of abuse. Our job is to find it and expose it.
You get yelled at, threatened with lawsuits by people with wealth, power and $1,000/hour lawyers at their beck and call…and you keep digging.
Contrary to all economic logic, your goal is not to rake in huge piles of cash pumping out falsity — but to uncover, analyze and explain a complex and confusing world to those who share it with us, no matter their age, income level or race. At its idealistic best, it is inherently democratic.
Back to fake news for a moment.
Let’s start with the ethical quicksand of lying for living.
Let’s move on to the gullibility/laziness of the people consuming this toxic bullshit and thinking it’s true.
Then let’s pause to consider that some of the most reliable (yes, they’re biased, I get that) news organizations are cutting back their staff — outlets like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.
Every passing year means losses in advertising income and a shift to consuming news in digital form.
I’ve written for both papers, (and many others), and easily acknowledge that both have tremendous weaknesses as well as strengths.
But the bottom line of journalism is this: if what you are telling your audience is untrue, you are not a journalist.
You are, moreover, destroying whatever shreds of faith remain in what we do produce.
If you read/watch/listen to “fake news” and take it to be truthful, you’re making economic, social, professional and personal decisions based on lies.
Maybe it affected your vote.
Maybe you didn’t even bother to ask if the source of your “news” is legitimate.
Here’s one quick clue…look for the name of the writer. Then Google them. Look for their LinkedIn profile, website, blog, resume.
Real journalists have public, provable, verifiable track records of accuracy. We’re not that difficult to find.
This trend is Orwellian, Huxley-esque.
In an era of stunning, growing income inequality, as utterly unqualified billionaires are soon to make up the Cabinet of the United States, it’s a matter of the deepest urgency that Americans know what is going on.
The rise of “fake news” is coinciding with a sharp drop in pay for writers like myself, pushing the most desperate into 17-hour days and seven day weeks, into cranking out…lots of words.
Are they accurate?
Every time you swallow another fake news story — and compulsively share it on social media — you enrich a liar, an immoral charlatan delighted to make rubes of everyone within reach.
The most recent story I produced for The New York Times took weeks of digging and reporting, fact-checking and review — it went through 12 versions before appearing for public consumption.
The reason it took so long? It was reviewed by multiple editors, male and female, asking me more and more questions, challenging me repeatedly to check my facts and my assumptions, to review my choice of language and tone.
If I got something wrong, (real journalists’ worst nightmare), it would be hastily corrected — with a public, permanent note to let readers know that.
The payment? Nowhere near what you might think or expect.
You pick up the newspaper, or a magazine, or you may just scan something on your phone.
No matter what the story is, it came from somewhere!
Some come from writers’ own observations, (like my New York Times’ piece on turbulence, which I pitched after noticing reports of three scary in-flight events in fairly quick succession, and knowing that many other travelers, like me, loathe turbulence.)
Some are suggested by a writer’s sources or family or friends.
It can be something we overheard or saw.
Then there’s every reporter’s dream (and one that happened to me when I was a reporter at the Globe & Mail) — getting a confidential document sent to you in a brown envelope.
I walked to my mailbox and spotted a manila envelope, postmarked New York, NY, with a return address of The Trump Organization. My heart skipped a beat.
I have been on the hunt for Donald J. Trump’s tax returns. Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has broken with decades-long tradition and refused to make his returns public. I have written extensively about his finances, but like almost every other reporter, I was eager to see his actual returns.
The envelope looked legitimate. I opened it, anxiously, and was astonished.
Inside were what appeared to be pages from Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax records, containing detailed figures that revealed his tax strategies.
What makes something a “story”?
— it’s new
— it’s making a ton of money for someone
— it’s the first time this event has ever happened
— it’s affecting thousands, if not millions, of people (often voters)
— wealthy/powerful people (aka “celebrities”) are doing it
It’s a profile of Jennifer Diaz, a young New York woman whose promotion after 15 years’ hard physical labor (and calm demeanor!) helped her make stage management history:
Now, at 34, she has made history, becoming the first female head carpenter of Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The local’s 3,351 members work in spaces from the Met to Carnegie Hall, at Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, and in every Broadway theater — including the Walter Kerr, which is where she was one morning in September, overseeing the load-in for the musical “Falsettos.”
With a head of thick dark curls and a ready smile, Ms. Diaz is a self-described tomboy, a blend of low-key authority and quiet confidence. “My name has a lot of clout in this business,” she said. “I have people on my side and in my pocket I can turn to.”
She works in a short-sleeve shirt, shorts and sturdy sneakers, a delicate silver necklace barely visible. Married to a fellow Local 1 stagehand, she sports a tattooed wedding ring in place of a traditional metal band, the palm-side of her ring finger worn clean from years of ungloved manual labor.
My former editor messaged me on Facebook to tell me about her, and I started sending emails and making calls.
Key to this piece? Serendipity!
I met two total strangers who helped me understand this industry, one of whom gave me an essential source.
In New York City, a city of 8.4 million.
The odds I would meet two people I needed most exactly when I needed them most?
The first guy sat beside me in the 3-chair hair salon I go to in the West Village. The other was a guy who sat beside me while eating lunch on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx; working in the same industry I was covering, he gave me the phone number of someone I would never have found on my own.
It was a real pleasure to meet Jen and to get a glimpse of backstage life.
I’ll never see a Broadway show quite the same way again!
The two men, travelling in a convoy with other NPR staff, were killed in Afghanistan on assignment when their Humvee was hit by rocket-propelled grenades.
To most people beyond professional journalism, it’s just another story flashing by in your Twitter feed or something glimpsed, possibly, on Facebook.
I listened yesterday to the heartfelt tributes on National Public Radio by Jason Beaubien and Kelly McEvers, who worked closely with Gilkey; McEvers, who worked for many years in the MidEast, could barely choke out a sentence.
It takes tremendous courage to step into the theater of war to cover it as a journalist, (and, as Gilkey also frequently did, starting in 2007 for NPR, to record the aftermath of natural disasters in places like Haiti and the Philippines) — to pick up a camera or microphone and start gathering facts to share with the rest of us, sitting safely and calmly at home on our balcony or in our cars or on a sofa patting our dog or cuddling a child.
These jobs — yes, chosen freely — demand sacrificing any sort of personal life, sometimes for many years.
You go, at once, where the story is, where you have to be, for as long as your editors want you there. Forget celebrating other people’s birthdays with them or anniversaries or attending their weddings or graduations or the birth of your children.
Reporters’ risk their physical and mental health, even if “only” at risk of secondary trauma, a very real effect of witnessing death, violence and destruction firsthand.
There’s no other way to tell these stories well.
Like PTSD, secondary trauma leaves scars for years, and it often goes unnamed, unrecognized and untreated, because admitting it to yourself — or your colleagues, let alone to your bosses — also means admitting you’ve got deep and complicated feelings about what you’ve witnessed and recorded and transmitted.
Feelings are something we often postpone having about tough stories.
Break the story is a line journalists use to mean getting a scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance. When you report on any event, no matter how large or small—a presidential election, a school board meeting—you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened. But of course we swim in stories like fish swim in water; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do. Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermines or reinforces the existing stories. Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday. It’s also to see and make visible and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.
There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories. The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture. We call those dominant narratives or paradigms or memes or metaphors we live by or frameworks. However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces. And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and too often the bars of someone else’s cage. They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date. They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions. Why does the media obediently hype terrorism so much, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about 1200 a year? How do you break the story about what really threatens us and kills us?
I love what she says and believe wholeheartedly in her stance — that so many of the “stories” we write or broadcast are bullshit.
It also takes real professional courage to break away from the pack, to zig when everyone is zagging, and chase down a story you know is essential but that no Big Outlet has (yet) deemed important.
It’s called a press pack for a reason…
I hope, as you consume serious, smart journalism today, in whatever format on whatever device — paper, phone, tablet, book — you’ll stop and say a prayer of thanks for those who have given their lives to bring it to us.
On paper, the whole thing sounded a bit crazy, putting together a team of people ranging in age from 20s to 50s, who had never met or worked together, and jamming us into a rickety van we needed to push occasionally to work 12-hour days in 95-degree heat.
Best week of my life.
I had gotten to know the comm’s person, Alanna, and knew she was fun, smart and warm. That was enough for me, so whoever else she had chosen would be fine. And they were. We had many hours together, traveling in a very small plane (so small they weighed each of us, not just our baggage!) and by van.
We met up in Managua, a three-hour flight from Atlanta. We flew from there to Bilwi, a town on the eastern coast, of 40,000 people.
We quickly learned that our hotel’s showers and toilets and sinks with running water were a rare luxury there — that almost half the population had none of these things. They had a pipe in their front yard with water supplied by the city, if they had it at all. Or they walked a mile or more to the nearest well.
It was really hot, about 90 degrees every day all day. When you sweat that much, you need to drink a lot of water and you really want to bathe and clean off at day’s end. Now, I realized, these were luxuries I had taken for granted for decades. My whole life.
We drove into the countryside, a two-hour journey each way, to watch local villagers building their own toilets and sanitation projects so I could write about them for WaterAid and Rodrigo could make photos and videos. Jen and I did a Twitterchat later in the week to explain what we were seeing; it gathered a staggering response.
To conduct interviews, we worked in Spanish and in Miskitu, for which we had a translator, a local academic with the delightful name of Dixie. Tall, gentle, Dixie was our right hand.
One night we all stayed in the home of one of the women we were writing about, Linda. The house was all made of wood, with a corrugated tin roof and wide open windows, without glass but with curtains. The floors were soft and smooth beneath our bare feet, meticulously clean and free of insects.
We brought our own food, which Linda and her family cooked for us on their clay stove. Their home has no electricity or running water, so they cooked by the light of flashlights and headlamps.
We slept together in one large room on narrow cots with sleeping bags and mosquito nets, lulled to sleep by the sound of someone speaking in Spanish from the transistor radio hanging from a very large nail on the balcony.
In the morning, Jen and I traveled with Linda and her mother in law and her daughter across a river to collect vegetables from their plot there. We walked through the forest to reach the river, followed the whole way by a very large, very friendly and very determined turkey, one of the many animals living beneath their home.
As we reached the river’s edge, Linda’s mother in law, wielding a very sharp long machete casually reached behind herself, lopped off two lengths of bamboo, cut their ends at an angle and dropped them into the wooden dugout canoe for us — seats!
We were accepted without demands or interrogation. Welcomed into their home and treated as guests with kindness and respect. For most of us, there are few moments in life when you connect across culture, language, nationality, age, education. They are deeply moving. Unforgettable.
On both side of the river, we climbed steep sandy banks to reach the vegetable crops. By the time we returned to the house, the sun was so hot that I feared heatstroke, heading to the well to throw buckets of water over me.
The time we spent in Nicaragua — working as a team, meeting and interviewing and getting to know some of the local people — also could not have been a greater contrast to my work at home in New York.
It was a week of easy cooperation (not relentless competition.) Open-heartedness and kindness (not resentful close-fistedness.) Bottles of ice-cold water and comfortable beds to keep us going, comfortably (not the standard annoyance of being ignored or rejected by busy editors.)
And what joy to be part of a team of smart, passionate, funny and warm professionals. I work alone at home, and have done so for a decade. This was a great break from isolation and total self-reliance.
When we parted ways in Managua, we were teary. Two years later, Jen and and Alanna and I remain friends, in close contact still. Their country director, a fellow Canadian named Josh, came all the way out to our home to visit when he came up to New York.
I cried several times over this experience, which shocked me — I never cry.
But what I saw and felt there deeply touched me, both the ridiculous contrast between our easy life here and the penury we saw in Nicaragua. And also for the kindness and camaraderie I felt that week.
Journalism is very often a brutish business and its people too often gruff and dismissive, no matter what level of experience or skill you offer. They rarely praise or thank. They fight you over every penny you need to earn or to do the job well, and more than 24,000 of us have been fired or laid off in recent years.
To be treated as…valuable? Enjoyable? That was a blessedly unfamiliar feeling.
I now look for different kinds of work and deeper relationships with people whose values I admire.
I also turn off the water when I brush my teeth.
650 million people worldwide lack access to safe water.
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!