My eyes burst open with excitement. It is early enough in the day that the time before sunrise can be measured in hours instead of minutes. My heart flutters at the snow falling outside and the possibility of this cold December morning. No, it is not Christmas. I am happy because I get to make an open records request.
If that sounds like anything but fun, you are probably right. Yet, I recently watched “Spotlight,” the story of The Boston Globe’s investigation unit that uncovered the pattern of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Massachusetts. I romanticized the notion of requesting public documents, as though my simple request will have me running across the city like Mark Ruffalo’s character in the film, hell-bent on writing the breaking news story only the records can provide.
Despite recognizing the over-hyped version of what the morning could be, I happily settle into the bus seat for the journey ahead. I made the same request over email several weeks ago but a follow-up phone call revealed that the Milwaukee records office was at least eight weeks behind. The lady on the other end of the phone told me that “it could be” quicker if I made the request in-person. Weighing the cost of a 30-minute bus ride against eight weeks of waiting, I boarded city transit to arrive at the police station the minute it opened.
My anxious heart made me believe there would be a long line of people making records requests and that I would have to wait hours just to speak to someone. Wrong again. I think I was at the front desk before the records worker could brew her first cup of coffee. At least, that is the impression I got from her crisp replies. Law enforcement is generally wary of reporters, so when I made my request I employed a set of manners that would make my grandmother blush. The woman was not amused by my aw-shucks grin and repetition of “yes, ma’am.”
She asked me question after question about the case. Word of note for future records seekers: Come with as much background information about the case as possible. Less than a minute later, my mission was complete. My heart fluttered. For the cost of one dollar, I had a printed copy of the request I was told would take eight weeks to process. Lesson learned. Whenever possible, make a request in person.
The strike of the chord brought silence to the room. Heads turned to find the source of the music–a man seated at a piano. The eye examiner stopped her work and joined a mass of people around the piano, many of whom had pulled out their phones to immortalize the moment on social media.
This was the scene in the eye examination room at Project Homeless Connect, the annual coming together of Milwaukee’s social services to help impoverished residents in one place. The man spontaneously playing the piano was a guest using the services. Maggie Petri, a sophomore nursing student at Marquette and volunteer that day, unlike the others the others in the room, did not get caught up in the fervor. Instead, she was skeptical. Not of the man, but of the crowd.
“It just became this huge spectacle,” she said. “I have a hard time when people don’t treat people who are homeless like they aren’t normal.”
Petri wondered why people responded with such fascination. The rush to take photos and videos made her uncomfortable. The audience appeared shocked that a person experiencing homelessness could play the piano. “Why would I take the time to stop and record the person if he wasn’t homeless?”
The trap of reacting differently based on someone’s appearance is all too easy. I know because I made the same mistake. During my internship at CNN, I wrote a story about Donald Gould, a man experiencing homelessness who went viral after a video surfaced of him playing a street piano in Sarasota, Florida.
Gould’s skills with the piano are unquestionable, but it is unlikely that the videos of him would have received the millions of views if he was not homeless. Instead, the video would be one of the millions of others on YouTube. Fascination with someone perceived as “different” pushes that person farther from social acceptance. We are shocked when a man who is homeless can play the piano, when we should be shocked at our unwillingness to accept the marginalized as people.
What did you think? How can we change the way we interact with our neighbors? Leave a comment below or connect with me on Twitter.
He sits outside the 7-Eleven, tattered jeans and work boots covering the legs sprawled across the sidewalk. He is a stranger, but as my own pair of boots inches me closer to him on a mild autumn afternoon, that is about to change.
Our eyes meet. I do my best to flash a pleasant smile in our fleeting relationship, it satisfies neither of us. He shatters the silence. “Sir, do you have any change for the homeless?”
No hesitation, no questions, no consideration. Response.
I barely make it around the street corner, some 15 steps from where he sat, before my hypocrisy floods my consciousness. I am a liar. Most days I do not carry a wallet, a bad habit from growing up wearing basketball shorts, I suppose. Today, however, my wallet burns against my thigh. In the other pocket, a handful of change does the same.
The irony is not complete by the fact that I am carrying change, but by the money’s source. The 53-cent indictment of greed came from a visit to the Post Office, during which I mailed several job applications. Spending money on the prospect of making more money, yet I could not bring myself to spare 53 cents.
Attempts to rationalize my response are bloated and unsatisfying. Sure, in the block leading up to the man, I saw a young couple come out of the 7-Eleven and hand him a bag of groceries. Sure, I am a college student on a fixed income and tight budget, neither of which are factors when I go on a date or purchase a sibling’s birthday present. These excuses are failed attempts to reconcile my own failure in helping a neighbor.
In truth, my response was cookie cutter, crafted by years of subconscious acceptance of social stigmas. The words of denial bunched themselves in the back of my throat, primed to spring forward the moment his question was finished. I did not ask why he needed money or what for; I failed to even learn his name. Instead, I assumed my role in another rehearsal of a sad social play, reciting my prepared response. A simple sentence – I do not have any change – became complex, underlined by willing indifference about my neighbor.
The man seated outside the 7-Eleven will remain a stranger, a product of my own greed. In exchange, I kept 53 cents.
Next time, I will be more compassionate. Next time, when I have a bigger income, I will be more compassionate. Next time, when I have a bigger income and the time to stop, I will be more compassionate. The excuse of next time satisfies me as I return to my apartment. But, does it satisfy my neighbors who call the streets home?
On a recent Saturday morning, I made my way to Milwaukee's Mitchell Park Domes for another opportunity to test Snapchat as a way to report a story. The event was a "Black and Brown Unity Ride" organized by Red Bike & Green.
Round two of Snapchat journalism built off the lessons of my first attempt. I was more cognizant of capturing live video, as well as having the pictures work together to tell a story. In my first trial, the various elements felt disjointed.
Similar to last time, I promoted the endeavor through Twitter.
A challenge was, again, handling Snapchat on top of taking pictures and recording interviews for Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. It was also difficult to determine whether it was necessary to include more background information about Red Bike & Green before showing the event live, or if the format of explaining the group's mission in a closing stand-up worked better.
The other problem, sadly, was that I do not own a bike. This story would have been perfect for experiential journalism but I was unable to ride along with the group. I will take it as a sign to invest in some pedal-powered transportation.
What did you think? What worked and what did not? I would love to hear from you! Leave a comment below, or connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.
Journalists read a piece of reporting and wonder how the story came to be – How did the reporter find this story? How did the she or he know to ask that question? What did it take to get that perspective?
Eli Saslow, reporter for the Washington Post, talked about the nuts and bolts of writing long-form stories with a group of aspiring journalists last week. Our group read two pieces of Eli’s work, one on a family’s struggle in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting and the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
The Denver native offered several interesting pieces of advice. Committing time to the story is the first step to get an in-depth look at a subject, Saslow said.
“Every extra day you put in a story makes it better,” he said.
Saslow works with sensitive topics, so his success as a writer relies on getting people to open up about difficult times in their lives. He shows commitment to interviewees and their stories. Often, he leaves his cellphone in another place. Leaving the technology behind means his subject has his full attention.
He recommends accompanying people over multiple days. The reporter’s job is to make the subject comfortable. When a person is comfortable, a reporter can get an authentic perspective of the subject’s world. Saslow does this by dressing casually – hooded sweatshirts are his hallmark – and being authentic.
“You have to be yourself when you’re reporting,” he said.
The final piece of advice he offered doubled as one of his goals. Saslow wants readers to “feel something” about the situations and people he covers. He does this by tying individual, feature stories to larger trends.
Loyal readers out there will know that one of my goals for the semester is to test different digital media platforms for storytelling. Specifically, I am curious whether Instagram or Snapchat could be used alongside traditional text pieces.
I recently did an experiment with Snapchat to find out. The results: The app can be used for more than grainy concert videos and over-filtered selfies.
Ahead of the upcoming Doors Open Milwaukee event, in which more than 150 Milwaukee locations will be free to visit, the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service did an advance to feature six locations in the neighborhoods we cover.
Visiting these places on a Saturday morning was a chance to test Snapchat's 'My Story' feature and provide followers with a semi-live broadcast of where I was going, who I was talking to and information about each location.
I used Twitter to spread the word and gain a few new Snapchat followers.
Snapchat is an interesting platform for this kind of work. It has immediate benefits for news organizations by building hype for upcoming stories. The photos and videos, no matter how detailed, can never replace full articles. They can, however, build interest for readers to learn more and read future articles.
Next, using my personal account was a way for the story to reach an audience that may not be typical Milwaukee NNS readers. Even if they never see the final article, Snapchat raised awareness about the story and the news organization.
Finally, it was excellent practice being forced to break information into bite-sized segments to display in a short photo or video. It challenged me to think about which elements were most important to share and how to present them.
For instance, I questioned whether to include a funny segment about how I became stranded at a bus stop -- I misread the stop and got off 30 blocks early. Would my followers appreciate that within the news story? Or should there be a hard line between the two? I did not want my story to take away from the story.
Next, it was difficult enough juggling the technology to capture the main story, on top of using Snapchat. I was already recording audio interviews, writing notes and taking photographs with a Nikon camera. Snapchat was an additional piece to include in my coverage. Several times I missed a Snapchat-worthy moment because I was taking pictures on the Nikon instead -- my editor will appreciate knowing that my Snapchat experiment was secondary to my actual reporting.
Finally, Snapchat's unique 10-second video sharing feature was a hurdle. Getting someone to speak directly to the camera, on top of agreeing to be interviewed and photographed, was a challenge in it of itself. Getting all their words to fit in within 10 seconds was even tougher. Alex Hagler, the interview I included in the final piece, was a rockstar. He filled 10 seconds on his first try!
Snapchat has a lot of potential as a journalism platform, especially for field reporters. Several tweaks will be made to future pieces and I am curious to get feedback. For instance, does the content move too fast for people to follow? Also, I received several texts and pictures back from people who were following the story during the day. I am curious if there is a way for the coverage to be more interactive? Can it pair with Twitter?
What did you think? I would love to hear what your thoughts about Snapchat journalism. Send me a message on Twitter or connect with me on LinkedIn.
September means back to school. Except, this time, it is senior year. My last lap around Marquette University will be one filled with friends, old and new, and great conversations over coffee. It is an invitation to enjoy the moment.
Yet, this is not a excuse to let my journalistic endeavors take a back seat.
In fact, the next two semesters could be my last chance to soak up the resources and knowledge this learning environment has to offer. This semester, I will be working with Justin George of the Baltimore Sun through Marquette's O'Brien Fellowship, as well as writing about Milwaukee government as a Public Policy Forum Fellow with the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.
These positions, along with my own writing on Medium, are insurance that my writing will not catch a case of senioritis -- there is just too much to learn. Keeping that in mind, I crafted a short list of goals and skills to work on this year.
During my summer internship with CNN, I made friends with Asha Stuart, an amazing photographer and video journalist. Looking through her clips underlined the power of visual storytelling, an element I hope to include more of in my work. Pictures convey meaning in ways that words simply cannot.
The written word is by no means dead -- do not listen to the reporting pessimists. However, audiences are more perceptive to video and photography and the technology has never been more accessible. Literally, it fits in your pocket.
Last semester, I learned to use Videolicious to create a short videos and I am excited to explore other presentations of short-form video. For instance, does journalism have a place in Instagram videos? What about using Snapchat?
Speak Up, Listen Up
Yes, I am known in some circles as "Quiet Wyatt," but I can step beyond my introverted nature. One way to do so is through audio journalism. Podcasts are popular and I am a big fan of NPR One, the personalized audio news app.
Whether this goal means launching a podcast or creating NPR-style news bites, I am preparing by reading over this helpful guide for launching a podcast. If you have ideas for a news-related podcast, I would love to hear your ideas (see line in introduction about enjoying conversation over coffee).
Read, Read, Read
If there is one thing every journalism or writing professor has told me, it is this: If you want to be a good writer, read good writing.
That means reading high-quality journalism, not some days but every day.
My iPhone is pumped full of news apps and my morning routine includes time with some of my most-frequented publications -- The Washington Post, BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN, The Guardian, The New York Times and NPR. Taking the time to dive in to choices of style, interview and presentation is daunting, yet rewarding.
But Never Forget: It Is Still About The Writing
Despite these explorations, I cannot leave my bread and butter -- writing. Dr. Pamela Hill Nettleton is teaching the freelance writing course I am taking this semester. The class will learn from an experienced writer and editor about how to market our work as freelancers and how to craft a story worth reading.
I am looking forward to the challenges of the coming weeks and am excited to pursue the goals above. As readers, it is now your job to hold me accountable.
How about you? What are your goals for the new season? Let me know what you think with a comment below or contact me on Twitter or LinkedIn.
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.
A chance to see the world from the perspective of a 6-foot-2, aspiring human rights journalist. Will include lessons learned and reflections.