Growing up listening to All Things Considered or Morning Edition on NPR helped me appreciate news-related conversations on the airwaves, which is why my recent visit to WUWM's Lake Effect was exciting. The neighborhood-focused magazine program interviewed me about my lead poisoning story, which appeared in two parts in Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. NNS reporters are usual guests on Lake Effect, having joined to discuss the special report on human trafficking in the city and why families who are homeless struggle to find shelter.
On the day of my interview, Joy Powers welcomed me to the studio and we chatted a bit before the mics were turned on. The interview had a conversational tone, with Joy asking about the current impact of lead poisoning in the city and why funding for assistance had decreased over time.
My nerves for talking on recording subsided after a few minutes. Luckily I had brought notes about my story, so that I was not stumbling over statistics. The experience went faster than I expected and the most difficult part of the entire interview was getting used to talking to someone while mics blocked both of your faces.
Listen to my interview on Lake Effect, and read part one and part two of my lead poisoning story.
My pen stopped fluttering across the notepad. The woman was sharing more than facts. She gazed off for a moment, collecting her thoughts. With a short breath, she began her story.
Weeks of research prepared me to meet this former addict. I was leading an investigation of heroin use in Milwaukee County for the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. Compiling a spreadsheet of more than 1,000 data points from 13 years of Milwaukee County drug death reports verified the deadly trend. Interviewing addiction treatment providers contextualized the problem. But, the woman’s words made the data real. Her story needed to be told to curb the deadly heroin problem.
Yet, when I promoted the published story on social media, reach and engagement was minimal. Compared to other NNS articles, my heroin investigation made a small ripple on social media in terms of likes, comments, shares or retweets.
The seemingly little reaction was discouraging at first. Months were spent researching, chasing down interviews and rescheduling phone calls. Social media plays a crucial role in news sharing and audience building. According to the Pew Research Center, 64 percent of U.S. adults have Facebook and 30 percent of them use the platform to get news.
However, life is a learning process. Reflecting on my journalism process and the final product, there are two things I did as a journalist that I believe contributed to the article’s diminished impact on social media.
My heroin story was published before I began my interest in photography. In the months since the research began, I photographed a local gospel concert and a community arts celebration. However, at the time I was interviewing subjects I was not thinking about photographs. This contributed to poor visuals in the final piece. The photos I provided were not engaging.
Two of my interview subjects spoke anonymously, but I believe a better set of visuals would have been more compelling on social media. Photographs provide an emotional connection, says Vishal Pindoriya on Social Media Today. “An image can convey a wide range of information or it can focus in on a single thought or emotion, and it can cover all of the ground in between handily as well,” Pindoriya writes. “It just needs to be the right image.”
Pindoriya explains that Facebook posts with images average 50 percent more likes than posts without images. Jeff Bullas, a social media marketing strategist, echoes this point, writing that articles with images receive more than 90 percent more page views than those without.
Too many numbers
Readers want to hear stories, not see a spreadsheet of numbers. While my article had plenty of data, the story of the former addict was most important. This was not conveyed in my social media posts.
Tim Cigelske, social media director at Marquette University, wrote in an email that a social post should not restate data but tell a story, too. “Statistics by themselves aren’t all that compelling,” Cigelske wrote. “It’s the story/theme around them that make people want to learn more.”
I have written about the product of defining people by data. While my heroin article may not have gone to that extreme, I should have been more cognizant of the amount data as compared to narrative.
Learning from these two points, my future stories will include more engaging social media elements. The new way of approaching a news story will include a mindfulness about how the work can be shared on Facebook, Twitter and all the other social media platforms.
What tips do you have for making your reporting engaging on social media? Leave a comment below.
How do you identify in terms of religion? Hindu? Muslim? Christian? If you are Muslim, are you Sunni or Shia? If you are a Christian, are you Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Evangelical or Baptist? Religious identity is increasingly complex, over-simplified and difficult to define, even in religious sub-groups.
Religious reporters face a challenge every day in their work. According to such journalists, religion plays a role in almost every story because faith shapes the values, actions and dreams of people. This was the resounding message of "Reporting on Religion: Media, Belief, and Public Life," a recent journalism conference held at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
The conference featured an array of speakers from research groups, such as Besheer Mohamed from Pew Research Center, to former religion reporters, such asJaweed Kaleem of the Los Angeles Times, to a national news correspondent who has struggled with his own faith in David Gregory.
If you followed me on Twitter that day, I live-tweeted the event using #reportreligion. If you did not see those tweets, here is what you missed. Click here to see the full Twitter stream.
The time has come to own my ignorance. Like so many other people, I was oblivious to a problem the size of Beijing. An estimated 21 million people are part of the human trafficking trade in the world, with more than a quarter of them being children, according to UNICEF.
Most of my knowledge is thanks to Paige Lindner, a friend and fellow Marquette University student. Paige has become a fiery advocate for issues related to human trafficking and has shared her experiences working on the problem in the Philippines through a powerful blog. Over several cups of tea and coffee, she made me realize the weight of the trafficking problem, not just abroad but within the U.S. border as well.
She is an inspiring example of someone whose direct experience with a social reality has led to a God-given work ethic to raise awareness and make a difference.
Several recent pieces that shed light on the local problem of human trafficking encourage me to believe that more conversations are being had on this topic. Nicholas Kristof, an opinion writer for the New York Times, penned a column on how the website Backpage.com is making money by selling children into rape. Telling the story of a 15-year-old girl from Seattle sold online, Kristof punches audiences in the gut with a chilling paragraph on our ignorance toward human trafficking:
“If there were a major American website openly selling heroin or anthrax, there would be an outcry. Yet we Americans tolerate a site like Backpage.com that is regularly used to peddle children. We avert our eyes, and the topic tends not to come up in polite society.”
On an even more local level, Allison Dikanovic completed a special report on human trafficking in Milwaukee for Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. Full disclosure, Allison is a dear friend and I work for the news service, but I applaud the work nonetheless.
Allison calls the problem a “crime hidden in plain sight.” One reason why the problem is so difficult to address is because its size is hard to quantify. In the piece, Allison writes that, “no data is available on the number of adult sex trafficking victims in Milwaukee, and there are only estimates of the number of minors at risk for trafficking. But experts say the extent of the problem is staggering.” However, she reports that Milwaukee is consistently ranked by the FBI as a top U.S. city for human trafficking.
The biggest lesson I have learned, as I move beyond my ignorance, is that individuals cannot try to tackle every social issue. My overarching mission is human rights journalism. I am drawn to issues related to race equality, education, the environment and poverty. However, those being my main areas of interest is not an excuse me from being aware and, most importantly, supporting those who are working on other issues.
I encourage you to read Kristof’s column and Allison’s special report. You can also hear Allison discuss the piece in her interview with Lake Effect radio. For more education about the global issue, Paige is my best contact. Again, much praise for those shedding light on this problem.
Go talk to a stranger. These five words strike fear into the heart of any introvert. No, fear undersells the emotion. Terror is a better word. Yet, talking to strangers is an integral component of my job as a journalist. Street reporting is a major part of my work for Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service because we focus on providing a voice for central city Milwaukee neighborhoods. The news service's "On the Block" series gives local residents a platform to discuss what is important to them.
While covering the recent closure of the Mitchell Park Domes in Clarke Square, I needed to talk to local residents about what they hoped would happen to the Domes. That meant hitting the streets, racking up steps on my pedometer and getting the story. Not an easy task.
A year's worth of street reporting has by no means made me an expert but I have found some strategies work better than others for approaching interview subjects on the street. Here is what I have learned.
Smile, do not startle
The people who say they enjoy scary movies are liars. Call them out on it. No one likes being scared. The same is true of interview subjects. Approaching a stranger from behind, only to startle them when you introduce yourself is a surefire way to get a rejection.
Instead, always try to approach a stranger so that she or he can see you coming. Flash your pearly whites and move slowly. Would you be friendly to a stranger speed-walking at you with a scowl? First impressions can make the difference in getting an interview subject comfortable enough to talk to you.
Know your elevator pitch
Cue the eye roll. Yes, elevator pitches are synonymous with networking events, which the majority of humanity has agreed are awful. However, how you introduce yourself and explain what you are doing can win you the interview. Clearly stating your purpose is another step in making the person comfortable. My opening goes something like this:
"Hello, my name is Wyatt Massey. I'm a reporter for the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. We are doing a story about ______ (story topic) and I was curious if you would be willing to answer a few questions about what is going on with ______ (story topic)?"
Quick and easy to remember, those are the traits of a successful pitch. If elevator pitches make you queasy (I understand your pain), remember that you are doing it for the story, not self-promotion.
Take it slow
The elevator pitch can be quick. You know the story and you want reactions. Yet, the person you are talking to has not done the research you have. The interview subject has not taken the time to pitch the story to editors, make phone calls and travel to the neighborhood. In short, they need time to think.
Up until a few moments ago, the interview subject was going about her or his day before a nosy journalist butted in. Make sure to give the person the time to get comfortable with talking to you.
You can help the process by opening the interview with simple questions. Have the person spell her or his name, which ensures that you will have it right for the story, too. Ask where the person is from. Heck, you can even ask about the weather. The point is to ask simple, fact-based questions to help the person build confidence in talking to you before you dive into more complicated questions. When the interview subject is comfortable, she or he is more likely to provide authentic answers later on.
What street reporting strategies work for you? Leave a comment below or connect with me on Twitter.
Breaking news: I like to write. Okay, so that is not breaking news or, at least, it should not be. The problem is sometimes I am plagued by this little writer’s ailment known as “I can’t think of something to write about but I want to write SOMETHING” (scientific name, of course). To cure this ill, I sent a request for writing prompts onto the social media spheres to challenge myself to publish something every day for one week.
The articles from #PublishEveryDay went on my Medium page. I made a list of people I would seek for advice, came to terms with whether technology is ruining my career and found new lessons in an old children’s book.
The challenge of publishing every day was, well, challenging. Yet, the experience carried some important lessons. I put these lessons in a list because I am a millennial inclined to Buzzfeed. So, go ahead and scan the headlines.
Perfection leaves you unpublished
The drafts section of my Medium account is plump with unfinished articles. The documents folder on my computer is even worse. For every nearly completed article, I have 10 half-thought articles or ideas. Many of these will never get published because I am nervous about making public something that is not perfect. #PublishEveryDay forced me to overcome that fear.
For example, I published an article about why differences in skin color and religion too often define how people are treated. This topic is a tough one. I come from a privileged background as a white male, so I would usually hesitate to publish something on this topic.
However, because I had to post something, I had to take that risk, even if what I published was not perfect. Imperfection, I found out, is totally OK. People’s lives are not a polished, PR-press-release-style version. Life is messy. When we are honest about that, we can have honest discussions. The same goes for writing. If we spend all of our time waiting to be perfect, we will never get anything done.
Deadlines are not fun
The necessity of publishing something every day forced me to embrace imperfection, but it also delivered an ample serving of anxiety. “I have to write something,” I would tell myself as I forced my fingers onto the keyboard.
My mind was blank some days. Okay, my mind was and is blank most days. So, I channelled my favorite Louis L’Amour quote: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
The other cure for deadlines is to work ahead. There is no sense in stopping your creative kick just because you finished one article. Write a second post! You cannot change deadlines, only how you approach them.
You get by with a little help from your friends
The #PublishEveryDay series was built around social media engagement. Online friends sent me writing prompts. When I completed a post, I would tag the person who inspired me. Doing this increased the readership and likelihood that someone other than my mother read my writing. That is called reach.
Encouragement from my peers kept me motivated, too. There is no better feeling as a writer than people taking the time to say how they enjoyed your work and sharing with you their favorite part. Interactions I had during the week, and in the days that followed, showed me that people tuned in. I am blessed with a great group of friends. A writer needs a reader just as much as a reader needs a writer.
Thank you to everyone who followed #PublishEveryDay. If you missed an article, you can read access them all on my Medium page or click on the individual links below.
Read the #PublishEveryDay posts:
James Peters had known me for all of five minutes before he opened up about the death of his father, his own unemployment, homelessness and drug addiction. His honesty was startling and powerful. He spoke with conviction, unashamed of his reality and that left me inspired.
Click here to listen to James tell his story.
I interviewed James for the "On the Block" series for Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. The series is a platform to amplify the voices of city residents. These stories cover a wide range of topics from remembering a time when kids could play outside to inequity in education. When I approached James, I had no idea that he was homeless or the tragedy he had experienced in losing his father. He did not have to tell me that but, because he did, I hope that he can be an example for all of us to accept who we are.
Call it unabashed optimism, call it ignorant hope or call it whatever you like. In my opinion, we are a bit more human when we can embrace the good and the bad of our lives.
Click here to read other stories I have written about people experiencing homelessness.
If there is one topic I love discussing regardless of the time, day or weather, it is news. Being asked what is going on in the world is an absolute compliment for this news junkie, although I admit that my responses typically consist of troubling news of human rights abuses and unrest. Sorry, these are the things I read about and reporting them is part of my mission. I get why people do not like reading this kind of news, there seems to be a strict focus on the negative.
However, during the summer and fall of 2015, I had the pleasure of following an uplifting story of democracy in Myanmar. The National League for Democracy political party won power in November elections, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The election was praised as the first open contest in the country in 25 years. A win for democracy and a headline that I was happy to inform my friends about.
However, a recent column Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times revealed that I, like so many other international news observers, had simplified the political situation in Myanmar and believed that one election would turn around long-standing problems. In Kristof's column, "Myanmar's Peace Winner and Crimes Against Humanity," he details the plight of the Rohingya, the country's Muslim minority who are abused and kept in camps.
Kristof reports that Aung San Suu Kyi, along with President Obama, show little interest in ending the abuse of the Rohingya, who are under-fed and lack basic medical care.
I was stunned when I read this. Not only was I shocked that a Nobel Peace Prize winner would ignore the situation of the Rohingya, but I was troubled to see that U.S. leaders were doing the same. Articles, such as this, that challenge the narrative of what we believe are especially important to read as our worldview becomes ever-more globalized because we realize just how complicated the world is and our obligation to help our global neighbors.
Kristof is known for doing this kind of work. He offers readers a powerful reminder that international audiences should not over-simplify politics in another part of the world. Society and politics are just as complex and convoluted on the other side of the world as they are in our local capitols. Kristof's journalism challenges us to think a bit more deeply about the world around us. I am not just saying this in a shameful attempt to butter him up because I applied for his 2016 Win-a-Trip contest. I mean it. Journalism should always challenge us to think deeper.
So, click the link to the article about the country you know nothing about. Spend five minutes away from social media or some aspiring journalist's blog and dive into a different world. You just might be challenged to think about a country, culture or group of people differently. And that would not be the worst way to spend our time, would it?
A chance to see the world from the perspective of a 6-foot-2, aspiring human rights journalist. Will include lessons learned and reflections.