Reporters Should Get Out More  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2013

Reporters Should Get Out More   

Why on-the-scene reporting totally trumps the phone and e-mail interview. And why journalists should be feared.(Fourth of a Series)Thu., June 27, 2013.

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


Here are more of my 50 lessons from 50 years in journalism.

31. There's no substitute for being there.

A popular TV series once filmed an episode where I was working, and I was assigned to do a feature on it. The set was supposed to be closed, but a friend got me access. I saw firsthand the funny bloopers and goofs. I bumped into the star during a break and got quotes. Being there gave me a front-page story. A competitor, from his newsroom, could only write a general story with little life.

Reporting by phone and e-mail is convenient and sometimes necessary. But it produces stories short on color or soul. Physical presence multiplies your access to sources and observations, and it leads to details, descriptions, spontaneity and surprise you'd never otherwise get. Reporters should get out more.

32. Get the meaning into the lead.

Writers probably debate leads more than any other part of their work, and advice for lead-writing appears everywhere. I like to start with this constant: Whether you're writing hard news or a complex narrative, the lead should give readers a clear, compelling sense of why they will find the story meaningful.

33. What I learned from covering sports.

That losers make better stories than winners.

Losers display more raw emotion. They open up. Their words and thoughts can seem more authentic. Their disappointments touch readers.

It's a good practice to routinely track down the losers a little while after a big defeat. They're often ready to confide in ways they would never do beforehand.

This lesson also applies to politics.

34. What I've learned from my students.

Lots and lots, of course. But specifically in terms of new and changing media, I think young people have a broader, probably healthier definition of news than my generation did (more and varied topics like relationships and spirituality, beyond the focus on what I call "big government, big business and big boys").

And, if anything, they're more insistent than my generation was in learning news instantly. Despite my dire warnings about texting and phone use, if news breaks out during class time, someone will shout it out.

People have always had an almost possessive sense of their media (we routinely speak of "our" local paper), though, and that may have faded. A key challenge for the new media age is to re-cement those personalized connections with readers and viewers.

35. Respect readers - but not too much.

My grandfather drove a laundry truck. He had a modest education. But he loved politics and public affairs, and when I became a political reporter, he enjoyed pumping me for details.

I have found readers of all stripes to be thoughtful citizens, discerning customers, eager devourers of the stuff Ray Suarez of "PBS NewsHour" has called "the beams and floorboards of our common life."

Readers also can be (and I'm not talking about my grandfather here) uninformed, prejudiced, unpleasant and unpleasable. Just reading a few "comments" pages demonstrates all that.

One of the trickiest parts of journalism is balancing the need to respect readers with the duty to help enlighten them. We shouldn't be arrogant about this. Journalists aren't any smarter than anyone else. But our job is to cater to their natural interest in the world without pandering to the uglier impulses.

36. Journalists should be progressive.

Let's say you walk into the room and your significant other says, "We have to talk. There must be some changes around here."

Do you take this as good news?

Probably not. In many contexts, both personal and civic, the concept of "change" seems scary. People are naturally pretty conservative.

But society changes all the time. History shows that progressive ideas will, over time, generally trump reactionary ones.

So despite the endless debates of whether journalists are "liberal" or "conservative," it's probably in society's interest for them to be progressive. Not in a partisan sense or through slanted, unfair coverage. But in a larger sense of helping society deal with change.

News, after all, is almost by definition about change. Journalists deal with change all the time. It makes sense for journalists to generally position themselves to help society negotiate changes.

37. Journalists should be feared.

I'm being facetious here but only slightly. Journalists benefit from being liked and acting nicely. But they also have a vital role in holding individuals and institutions accountable. That sometimes requires throwing around some muscle.

It can mean combating secrecy and challenging popular stereotypes or misguided laws. It can involve confronting officials or becoming a pest. These steps aren't always pleasant but may be required. As the late columnist Carl Rowan put it, "There aren't any embarrassing questions--just embarrassing answers."

I have often told students and reporters, "Your sources should be more afraid of you than you are of them."

This is not to advocate media bullying. Being powerful shouldn't mean being power-mad. Journalists should not bully. But equally important, society cannot afford for journalists, on the front lines of free expression for all, to be bullied.

38. Journalists who dish it out should do a better job of taking it.

As a contributor to AJR for more than 25 years, I've covered a lot of journalists. Most are gracious and helpful, but many have thin skins. My sense is that many often find themselves uncomfortable when the tables are turned and they are the objects, not the purveyors, of tough questions and intrusions.

It's extremely important for journalists not to be defensive. Yes, journalists have power and sometimes must use it. But any group with power, especially journalists who stand for openness, should have unusual tolerance and receptiveness to criticism and competing viewpoints.

39. The secret of successful interviewing.

Shut up and listen.

40. How to approach the toughest stories.

The Pulitzer-winning police reporter and author Edna Buchanan gave the most useful advice I ever heard for dealing with tough stories and hostile subjects: "Make it a point to let them know that despite the pain it is causing you, you are glad that you are the one writing that story--and they should be too. They may be furious, but at least they know it will be fair."


Friday: Revolutionizing online content, and blending craft and magic in writing (and much, much more).

###