AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 1997

Parachute Journalism   

Scene pieces can be richly detailed portraits of communities catapulted into the spotlight by news events. But too often they are stereotypical and one-dimensional.

By Sharyn Vane
Sharyn Vane has written and edited at papers in Colorado, Florida and Texas.     

IT'S THE HEART OF HISTORIC ROUTE 66, situated between the Cerbat and Hualapai mountain ranges, a ``hub of activity for history buffs and nature enthusiasts alike."

That's how the Kingman, Arizona, visitors and convention bureau bills its home. The local chamber of commerce's slogan until recently was ``Kingman: The Good Life.''

Here's how the San Francisco Chronicle described the same place to its readers: a ``salubrious climate'' for those who have an ``almost religious devotion'' to the constitutional right to keep and bear arms--the perfect place for a man like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Noting bullet holes in nearby cacti and yucca plants in their lead, reporters Bill Wallace and Rob Haeseler painted a grim picture of life in Kingman.

``By all accounts, McVeigh picked a place where he could feel at home: Distrust of the government runs deep here, and people's love of firearms is almost as great as their fear that the government will try to take them away,'' Wallace and Haeseler wrote. Devotion to weaponry wasn't the only worrisome quality of this area. The fourth paragraph of the story quotes Mary Ann Mauney of the American Jewish Committee: ``Arizona is the state that initially refused to recognize Martin Luther King Day as a holiday.''

Wallace, who wrote the piece in San Francisco with dispatches from Haeseler in Kingman, says the bullet holes in the foliage were the kind of ``small but telling detail'' that broadcasts a place's state of mind.

``When you get up into that kind of community, people are very into guns,'' says Wallace, who volunteers that he grew up in just that sort of small-town environment. ``What I always look for is bullet-riddled road signs; some guy driving along in his pickup, pulls off with a .45, just out of boredom, probably because he had a couple of beers, he's a little bit relaxed, so he goes out and shoots a couple of holes in the sign. You see that a lot in these very isolated communities.''

The good life or the armed life? Stereotyping or warts-and-all portrayal? It depends on whom you talk to--and whose story you're reading. Kingman certainly isn't the only place that's been targeted in the name of news. We've read about Waco, Texas (outlaw Branch Davidian territory); Rancho Santa Fe, California (rich and eccentric cultists' enclave); and practically the entire state of Montana (where militia members live). It happens to big-city neighborhoods and metropolitan suburbs when misfortune hits. Indeed, from those snow-capped mountains nestling Boulder, Colorado, to the ``land of desperados'' out in Kingman's Wild West, every tragedy is a scene piece waiting to happen.

Lured out of town by an event that catapults into the national-news stratosphere, reporters dutifully write the color story telling readers back home just what this close-knit community that has been ripped apart by [insert actual news here] is like.

Done well, such stories offer insight into a place readers aren't familiar with, a thoughtful examination that tells us what's interesting and what's worth noting about a community. Too often, though, they turn into one-dimensional ``parachute pieces'' that capture only the most popular or newsworthy cliches about a town.

``LET ME GUESS. The one that called us the `festering leech on the underbelly of Fort Riley?' '' David Bossemeyer, executive director of the Junction City, Kansas/Geary County Economic Development Commission, knows exactly which story he's being asked about, even though it ran more than two years ago. Hordes of reporters descended on Junction City after federal authorities pinpointed the city of 20,000 people as the place where convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh picked up the truck that would carry the deadly cargo to Oklahoma City.

Los Angeles Times writers Louis Sahagun and Stephen Braun were two of those reporters. They described Junction City as a dreary Army town that ``sits snug like a fattened leech up against Ft. Riley...drawing economic lifeblood'' from the military compound.

``It is also a place where church socials and American Legion parades are complementary rites, where the Just For You bridal boutique offers frilly gowns to farm brides while, a few doors down, the Club Malibu features topless shake dancers for GIs out for a good time,'' they wrote.

Not the sort of place you'd visit unless you had to.

``They were going for some kind of sensationalism,'' asserts Bossemeyer. ``Being a military town, we do have taverns, we do have check-cashing places. Some of them sought out the most unsavory places in town, so naturally they ended up with that kind of story. If you want a bad story, you go out at 10:30 at night and you find a young soldier in a bar who's disgruntled, and you talk to him.''

The Chicago-based Braun, who was the primary writer on the Junction City piece, has carefully sketched many communities for Times readers. For example, he reported on a frightened and suspicious Oklahoma City directly after the bombing, describing it as the ``mirror image of any small American city. With its highway fast-food oases and its Wal-Marts, its enfeebled downtown and its leisurely pace, it was a perfect target deep in the heartland.''

His most successful pieces, Braun says, ``give you a sense of place and of people, and in a way it's becoming more and more difficult, in a sense that every town has a McDonald's now. You've got to work a little bit harder to figure out what makes each of these towns a little bit unique or beyond the stereotype.''

But many Junction City residents don't think the L.A. Times piece got very far beyond the stereotype. Braun refused to discuss the story.

Braun's description of Junction City as a ``fattened leech'' was a single phrase in a story tucked away on an inside page. Yet it inspired numerous other reporters, who picked up the phrase and attached it to Junction City: Denver's Rocky Mountain News used it in a March story about the town to preview the McVeigh trial. It still rankles Junction City's residents.

``That's what they're trying to portray, that this is the place where he picked up the truck, and isn't it fitting that it was in Junction City?'' says Katie Roche, executive director of the town's chamber of commerce. ``I don't want people all over the country thinking that where I'm living is like that.''

Roche has a kindred spirit in realtor Jan Leidenberger, a 26-year resident of Kingman. Leidenberger said the Chronicle's ``desperado'' focus was misguided, as were countless television renditions of Kingman as a deserted yet gun-happy outpost.

``Every time Kingman was portrayed, they would show a desert with a tumble-down shack,'' she said. ``Kingman is by far more than that.... It is not the wild, woolly West. We do not walk around with guns on our hips or over our shoulders.''

Equally distressing for Leidenberger was the implication in some stories that McVeigh's anti-government views were honed in Kingman. ``McVeigh was not nurtured here,'' she says. ``The town does not reflect him. It just so happened that he lived here.''

Of course, a locality's residents usually have a vested interest in promoting their hometown, while reporters are charged with chronicling and analyzing the same place. But when the views of the locals and the reporters are so divergent, it's hard not to wonder how useful scene pieces are.

``The truth is, it's a crusty old formula that attempts to inject a bit of color into some tragic story that lacks hard news at the moment,'' says Howard Kurtz, who covers the media for the Washington Post. ``We in journalism always seem to do these pieces after the initial shock of the shooting/earthquake/kidnapping has worn off.... More often than not, they are sort of a collection of cliches.''

The impetus to keep a good story going is often what spurs such pieces, says Stephen Seplow, who writes about television and other media for the Philadelphia Inquirer and was once the paper's metro editor. ``That's one way they can be overworked. There is a danger of coming to broad conclusions from two hours walking around a neighborhood. It's a good idea not to rush in and come to some stereotypical conclusion so you can fill 15 inches on the jump page. But it can really put legitimate news stories in context. McVeigh comes out of a certain environment. If you do a piece about this sort of environment from which he emerged, this can be useful to help explain him.''

What isn't useful are the pieces that string together the most common of cliches about a place--something that happens ``more often than not,'' according to Kurtz.

Indeed, the typical scene piece tied to a tragedy can be defined through its elements. There's the opening image, which frequently is some colorful local character; there's the description of places that embody the reporter's chosen theme; there's the sage observer, who could be anybody from a small-town newspaper publisher to a professor from a nearby college. Invariably there are references to ``this heartland town'' (all Midwest locales) or ``this close-knit community'' (suitable for all areas).

And much of it may be true. What makes a cliche a cliche is its root in reality--there are people in Kingman who like to carry guns, after all.

``When you get dropped into a setting...and you're essentially trying to get some descriptive language or descriptive phrases in a few sentences of what a place is like, it's very difficult to do,'' says Harold Higgins, publisher of the Boulder Daily Camera. ``Reporters tend to go for the local community cliches, because they're so easy.'' Higgins has served as sage observer for reporters across the country since December, when 6-year-old beauty queen and Boulderite JonBenet Ramsey was found murdered.

``The other part of it is that the people that reporters are interviewing are repeating those same things,'' Higgins says. ``That's how people talk about where they live.''

And Kurtz points out that reporters' tendency to edit out quotes that don't fit the premise bleeds over into these pieces as well. ``Most reporters are honest enough to try to avoid the most heavy-handed typecasting,'' he says. ``What happens more often is you discard all the quotes that sort of don't fit, because maybe half the people in town haven't heard of the suddenly famous person.''

That's just the nature of the business, says the San Francisco Chronicle's Wallace. ``The whole point of going to a place with a link to the news is not its similarity to other communities across the country--it's the differences and what effect that may have had on the events or people they're reading about. You're going to put things in the story that seem significant to the narrative you're trying to put out....

``When we're trying to write a story about a guy who is a suspect in the most grisly bombing case in the country, and he has been living this weird lifestyle in the desert, that is the important detail. The reason we were in Kingman was not because half or two-thirds of the population are everyday citizens who get up and go to work and go home and sit down and have a good meal. It's because there was also a community of people like McVeigh in Kingman.''

BUT WHAT IF THERE IS NO McVeigh yet, no personality with which reporters must match environmental clues? The recent spate of JonBenet-related stories datelined Boulder seem to be divided into one of two categories: Boulder as hippie haven or Boulder as yuppie enclave.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Kristina Sauerwein, who spent four February days in Boulder reporting on the Ramsey case, saw this: ``Boulder is wool socks and Birkenstocks on a snowy day. It's dark sunglasses and hot pink Lycra pants. Skiing and rock-climbing. BMWs and bikes. Straight hair--or no hair. Organic food, herbal medicines and cappuccinos.'' She reels off a list of Boulder-based ``institutes'' for devotees of psychic phenomena, yoga and healing arts.

Sauerwein says she chose the details she did because they showed that Boulder was a ``little different'' from most places. ``The case is so bizarre, and Boulder is such a bizarre place, I thought it was interesting to make that point,'' she says.

And that's a view most locals are willing to accept. ``This writer managed to get ahold of the usuals and work them. There's nothing wrong with that,'' the Daily Camera's Higgins says.

``Boulder's a weird town, let's be honest,'' jokes Tom Clark, chamber of commerce president. ``Like many college towns, that's the reality. The town is made up of an entire spectrum, from the most conservative Republicans to anarchists.''

But he's not so sanguine about the rich-enclave reports. ``What was most disturbing was this cast by the national media that this is a wealthy, affluent, exclusive community that is isolated from the mainstream,'' Clark says. ``The enclave is based on our view of open space. We wanted to create an enclave where people wanted to live. One of the unintended consequences is that the damn cost of housing has gone through the ceiling. To read some of these stories, you'd swear to God we were a bunch of white suburban racists who wanted to squeeze people of color out.''

That's the danger of a quickly drawn parachute piece: The details a reporter chooses to highlight--while accurate--fail to capture the true flavor of a town, or, worse, give the wrong impression.

``Especially when it's done as a quick-hit, you are trying to shoehorn a whole community, with all its complexity, into some preconceived storyline. You do the story in one day, you end up with pretty predictable fare,'' the Post's Kurtz says.

Realistically, though, one day is often the most a reporter has for this kind of story, points out Tim Jones, who covers the media for the Chicago Tribune. ``We've all gone through this: We arrive at 10 o'clock in the morning, and the piece needs to be written by 6 p.m., so you've got six or eight hours,'' Jones says. ``It's ridiculous on its face, but an awful lot of daily journalism is ridiculous on its face when you consider the time constraints…. We're in the daily newspaper business, and most of the time we've only got a few hours.''

Yet even stripped of the luxury of time, something reporters are the first to complain they don't have, achieving a thoughtful profile of anything takes empathy and understanding--something sources might argue many reporters don't have either.

Done carefully, the scene piece is elevated into a balanced exploration as well as explanation of a community. (That might mean a town, or it might mean a group of people. For the Inquirer's Seplow, for example, the city of Boulder isn't the scene that puts JonBenet into context; it's the world of kiddie beauty pageants.)

JAMES BROOKE, THE DENVER-BASED Rocky Mountain bureau chief for the New York Times, says part of the solution is as simple as location: It's a lot easier to write intelligently about an area you've lived in or with which you're at least passingly familiar.

``That's how you avoid that kind of parachutist view of the world. I get 10 newspapers, from every state except for maybe North Dakota, so that when I arrive somewhere I've been able to do a lot of reading. Ideally, as you kind of work the beat, you're going back to places again and again. You have a sense of the evolution of the place, where it's been, where it's going. You don't get that if you have a bunch of national reporters sitting in Boston or New York waiting for something to happen.''

True. Still, most papers don't have the resources for bureaus scattered across the country.

Most important, Brooke and others say, is simple old-fashioned openness. Check that big-city arrogance at the door. ``The job is to transmit to a larger audience what is new, different, thought-provoking, exciting about this part of the world,'' Brooke says. ``It's not to make fun of it, it's not to trivialize it, not to make it folksy.''

Gigi Anders, a reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer, familiarizes herself as much as possible with an area before heading out for interviews--and then tries to put all that out of her mind. ``Going into a scene piece--or any other piece--with a fixed, preformed agenda is best reserved for typists and secretaries, not great writers,'' she says.

Accurately capturing what makes a place tick is a difficult task, particularly when reporters are called on to fly in, capture and file quickly, admits Dirk Johnson, a Chicago-based national correspondent for the New York Times.

``But when people do terrible things in Chicago and New York, we don't say, `In Chicago they think X and do Y and everybody thinks Z,' '' he says. ``The truth of the matter is, in some small little town in Kansas, there is also diversity of thought and style. You may have to look harder for it. But it's there….

``When you go to a place and you look at the town, if you think the life there is simple, you're not looking closely enough and you're not talking to enough people. Because life is never simple. Marriage, kids, death, deceit, fear of failure--they all happen in all of these places, no matter how small, no matter how remote and no matter how many people are wearing Birkenstocks.''