Representative coverage is a lesson straight from Journalism 101. Yet, budding journalists and large media organizations alike are failing at it. For an example look no further than coverage of Ferguson, Missouri.
In "Ferguson's Never-Ending Nightmare," journalist Sarah Kendzior offers a critique of media organizations that descended on Ferguson following protests on the one-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown.
"The national media swarm the streets, some arriving only after the shooting and looting on Sunday signaled a ratings bonanza in wait," Kendzior wrote.
The St. Louis-based reporter has seen first-hand the arrival and departure of national media to Ferguson in the past year. She criticized the ways the protests were represented, noting that aspects were sensationalized.
It is not necessarily a novel critique. However, Kendzior reminds readers of the human aspect of Ferguson. When the cameras are turned off, and the media crews leave, those involved in the story must carry on.
"This is what is missing from the parachute coverage—the story never ended for residents, the pain never stopped. ... the fear and frustration is constant," Kendzior wrote.
She mentions local residents who suffer PTSD from the heightened sense of insecurity felt by in Ferguson community. These types of stories are rarely told.
This is a stark reminder that every story has a human element. What causes journalists to lose this element can be debated, but the effects of the failure are staggering: Humanity is left behind when people become symbols.
The podcast "On the Media" interviewed Kendzior about her article. She detailed what happens when stories gloss over the human element.
"It's a terrible thing to be looked at and grieved for only as a symbol, instead of as a person. I'm not convinced that people really care what happens to people in St. Louis or there would be sustained media attention on these issues."
In terms of economics, a large news organization cannot stay on one story forever. Yet, Kendzior's critique is a reminder that journalists are not merely tourists to a story. They must remember that there are no faceless stories and honor the lives of the strangers who let them into their lives.
What do you think? Is Kendzior's critique on point? How can journalists avoid the trap of being tourists? Let me know what you think with a comment below or contact me on Twitter or LinkedIn.
The final days anywhere are a fruitful time for reflection. That may be obvious but, without honest reflection, fond memories can cloud important lessons. Reflecting (and writing about it) is one way I remember.
The CNN experience has been a 10-week blur, filled with inspiring job shadows, a new-found pride in hearing “This is CNN,” and, of course, coffee. While it was summer and I was more than 800 miles from the classrooms of Marquette University, my education did not stop.
Except, the lessons did not come from books but from people. I was taught through experiences. Here are some of the lessons I would like to pass on.
More than an editor
My editors were, arguably, the biggest blessing of the experience. There is an old journalism saying that says if you are not fighting with your editor, you are doing it wrong. I cannot believe that anymore.
CNN published more than 40 articles with my byline, each of them going through one of two features editors. The majority of the time, they would walk me through changes they made before publishing. Doing that was a major time commitment but priceless for improving my writing.
Beyond infusing CNN style, they pushed my writing to be more conversational. I started the internship with hard-line writing, the stoic this-happened-then-this-happened kind of style that makes people hate reading the news.
Having my editors explain why they moved grafs around or re-worded sentences taught me in real time how to evaluate my own work. It is one thing to look at a published piece and see how it is different. It is quite another to have an explanation and be able to ask follow-up questions, which is why I am especially thankful for the commitment of my editors.
Make the phone call
My typical, walking-and-whistling-down-the-street nature is non-confrontational.
My newsroom, pen-and-paper-in-hand nature is the opposite. Thanks, CNN.
If forced to identify when I changed, it would be the article about Atlanta’s NAACP chapter calling for the removal of Confederate symbols at a nearby, state-owned tourist site. In brief, the group did not want taxpayers supporting places that glorified Confederate symbols. Upon further research, though, I discovered that the site was not maintained by taxes.
Since this was the brunt of the NAACP’s complaint, I had to bring it up in the interview. At first, the group’s president dodged the question so I brought it up again. Only then did he address that their complaint included properties that were, at one time, paid for by tax money. The truth came out.
Pure and simple: If you do not ask, you do not get an answer.
Sure, it was not a Frost-Nixon moment. But it was empowerment enough to remind me that every viewpoint should be challenged -- ask the tough questions. As a journalist, you owe it to the public.
Word of warning: That mindset does not have to be the same in every case. A story about puppies does not necessarily require the same hard-hitting questions as interviewing an oppressive dictator.
Write, write, write
Granted, I already wrote about this (meta, I know) but writing consistently is the best way to cement malleable journalism skills.
My boss at the first reporting job I ever had taught me this through a story of a ceramics teacher with a unique grading scale. In the class one group of students was graded on the weight or quantity of pots they made. The other group was graded on the quality of a single pot, so they only needed to create a perfect pot. At the end of the term, the group that was producing for quantity actually made better quality pots than those trying to craft one perfect pot.
The lesson here is that trying to be perfect does not work. Rather, repetition and learning from mistakes is the ultimate lesson. The author of the article, James Clear, presents the it in a succinct proverb:
"If you ignore the outcomes and focus only on the repetitions, you’ll still get results. If you ignore the goals and build habits instead, the outcomes will be there anyway."
So, start writing. Then, write some more. Get dirty. Make mistake. Learn.
Bear in mind that this requires a solid foundation of skills to start, but the lesson rang true at the first job and continues to ring today. Keep writing, keep practicing. No successful artist ever spent a career in the planning stage.
It was bittersweet walking out of the newsroom for the last time. These lessons are only the tip of the iceberg. My journey in human rights journalism is just beginning and, as one chapter comes to an end, another begins.
The next stop on the path may be the classroom, but it is an opportunity to share this experience with Marquette and Milwaukee friends, along with anyone who is willing to listen. Please, contact me if you would like to discuss journalism, human rights or, really, anything. Would love to connect!
A chance to see the world from the perspective of a 6-foot-2, aspiring human rights journalist. Will include lessons learned and reflections.