Chasing Down the Story

The most valuable lesson I learned from this class and that matches my timeline is chasing down the story. The past few classes, including this one, have been taxing in terms of finding a story. The original beat of my website was human rights and social issues. But I have had to expand my scope to cultural events and issues. I wasn’t expecting so many organizations, like homeless shelters or organizations that help refugees, to say no to interviews. None wanted to cooperate. I used Facebook to find one homeless shelter that would participate in an audio interview. But, for the most part, most organizations have said no. I also reached out to small businesses to ask about the rise in minimum wage starting in 2020. They refused interviews but wanted restaurant reviews or other types of reviews. With stories due nearly every week for class and with my work schedule and other commitments, it has been difficult chasing down the stories. Somehow, I didn’t imagine this at the beginning of the program. I assumed people would want to tell their story in my original beat. However, in our current political system I could see how some organizations might be fearful of publicity or making any statement that might jeopardize government funding.

Another lesson I have learned, but have been slow to pick up on, is the importance of social media. I generally don’t like social media and don’t push my articles on Twitter or Facebook. I post but then don’t engage or follow up. At this point in my timeline, I thought I would be more adept and sold on social media. Yet, I remain aloof. This is primarily because social media takes so much time for so little benefit unless you have a lot of active followers. I need to find a way to be more active on social media and engaged.

Writing My First Official Journalism Article

Well, the headline might be misleading. I’ve written a lot of stuff over the years but most of it has been creative writing. With the article I just wrote, I interviewed a source via Skype and reached out to a second source via phone and email. I was very careful when I wrote the article as I didn’t want to mislead or misquote anybody. Despite not taking the “Law and Journalism” class yet, I knew a misquote could be fatal.

My sources were great and were excited about my project and the two articles I created about their work. They emailed their appreciation and one source said “you nailed it”. Woohoo! While accolades are great and I got a boost of confidence, my professor had critique and through her comments I saw where I didn’t properly attribute every quote and I could have worded things differently. I was careful with the links to research and confirmation of what I was writing. I was just sloppy on doing proper quotes.

This was a great learning experience and showed me where I should grow in my skills moving forward. I wasn’t expecting the professor to say perfect. That might have harmed me. Instead, I wanted the professor to say, “Good, now work on this.” I still have much to learn in journalism and I treat it like creative writing and my pursuit of polishing my math skills so I can evaluate political polls and macroeconomics – the learning never ends and there is always room for improvement. I’m appreciative of Professor Cochie who gave some valuable insight as to how I can grow as a writer and a journalist. She even gave pointers and references to refer to for grammar. Yes. After all these years, I still stop and wonder should I use a colon, semi colon, or hyphen. There are rules and mostly I choose properly but sometimes…there is a hyphen in this post and now I’m wondering if it is well placed. Also, should I have used ellipses?? Ahhh. Good writing is a hard thing to achieve. Thankfully, it’s a daily practice for me.

My writing hero and All-Star is E.B. White who wrote some of my favorite books and wrote a book on writing with Strunk. I have two copies. One for the upstairs computer and one for the downstairs computer. Often I write something and I wonder if White would approve. I also have a book of his letters and I marvel at how clear his writing his writing is while also being poetic in spots.

I met my goal for my class on writing and I learned that I need to keep growing. How? Write every day, read everything I can get my hands on, refer to writing heroes, and practice math. Why math? Math is logical and it tends to make my writing clearer and my approach to subject matter more concise.

New Media Journalism

My goals for my first journalism class was to learn what new media is, learn about multimedia storytelling, and learn how to reach an audience. I hit all these targets in my class. I learn the social media is critical to spreading stories across the internet and gaining a following. But it is a time intensive endeavor.

The mastery journey is not a quick journey. There are no shortcuts. I see on Facebook ads for writing a novel from start to publishing in ninety days or how to create an online class in thirty-days. It seems everyone wants to do something quick and fast with the expectation that they would sit back in glory as adulation, followers, and buyers flood in. Maybe this happens once in a while. But in constructing my Mastery Timeline based on Greene’s book, I realized that mastery takes time, focus, and constant practice and revision. 

What I learned from my recent journalism class was how to take an idea, break it down, and then follow steps weekly to begin my project – Uncut Report – which is a progressive news site with human rights at the center. However, that idea is like going to a buffet and piling everything on the plate. I have narrowed my focus on Arizona (Phoenix specifically). But I still have the big picture in mind. For instance, I live in a state facing a border crisis and that has detention centers, including those just for children. My plan is a series of articles and videos focus on the Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala – and the history with the US. Then I will focus on the rise of MS13. Then I will focus on the economies of those countries. Then I will explain why people are fleeing these countries and why their countries do not care. Then I will research the original impetus for detention centers and then the decision by Trump to split children from their families. And then I will talk to aid centers in Phoenix addressing the detention centers and try to find a lawmaker or policy maker in Phoenix to interview. I will also explore the community to do human interest pieces. Basically, I’m still at the buffet but I examine each item and narrow the focus as I progress to the human-interest perspective. Call that the dessert if you will. 

Another thing I learned in my journalism class is to focus on the ‘so what’ and ‘now what’ rather than just the want. I have to editorialize rather than present few facts. I have to make people care and that can only be done by interjecting opinions based on facts. A straight factual article can be gleaned from any news site. However, increasingly I am seeing editorialized articles on websites and TV/YouTube. This is what gets clicks, likes, and followers. 

PR and News

I’ll admit to being unsure of public relations. It all seems like stories twisted to fit a certain columnist or write. It seems like pushing stories that aren’t really stories. Yet, getting press releases gives me great story ideas – things to chase down and fit my beat. PR isn’t the news but when I read a press release I can transform an idea into a story.

I’ve learned to view PR in a completely different way than I anticipated. I think I would welcome press releases and try to make it fit my beat with certain exceptions. I’m not about to do a puff piece. But with the right PR person, I can craft a story from their material.

PR is actually critical to the news cycle. So many stories could slip through my fingers without press releases.

I think my aversion to PR stemmed from the fact that I was just giving attention to things that weren’t important. But with the right press release and PR professional, I could turn a story into something worthwhile. Something worth writing about. I think I only realized this in actually doing PR in the class.

I can see how powerful PR can be. I can see that PR is essential to the news cycle. I can see how PR can draw attention to something important. I’m definitely more interested in PR in taking my most recent class. I understand more clearly what PR does and accomplishes. Rather than being leary of it, I am now excited about it.

I think it would be great to build my website to the point that I am able to get press releases. This makes me question my beat. Do I narrow it to fit the Phoenix area? Do I narrow the reach? What would get my the most exposure?

The PR class has provided me a lot to think about in terms of my website.

Social Media Hurdles

At the end of my current class and at the cusp of working on my Capstone Project, I had expected to be more well versed in social media, have an easier time chasing down stories, and a website true to my initial beat. My attitude to social media has actually weakened. It is clear that social media requires a lot of time investment and you also have to be prepared for making controversial statements in order to gain attention. These are two things I have been reluctant to do. I have not put the time into social media, and I am hesitant to make controversial statements for fear of distancing an audience (Guerrero, 2018). Part of this is because I use social media for my fiction and art. But now I have a news website and my articles stake a position and I have to be ready and willing to get opinions out there.

A few of the things I learned in the class was how little I know about social media, using Reddit, and the difficulties in chasing down a story every week with a full-time job and other commitments. I also learned that interviewees will cancel on you at the last moment and so it is good to have a database of contacts you can reach out to in a pinch. If my only job was journalism, then I probably could chase down and write a piece each week (BBC, 2017). But with other commitments and no journalism job the effort is great and tedious. I think the classes I have taken have focused more on quantity rather than quality and there is also too much focus on social media rather than the work of researching and investigating a story in depth.

I did learn that social media can be helpful in marketing an article, but if I plan to pitch my stories to other publications rather than posting on my website then I need to focus on a personal profile and not a profile focused on my news website.

Bibliography

BBC. (2017, April 5). Original journalism: finding stories. Retrieved from BBC Academy: https://www.bbc.co.uk/academy/en/articles/art20130702112133498

Guerrero, R. (2018). The ethical issues of social media in journalism. Retrieved from Medium Media: https://medium.com/@ryan.guerrero/the-ethical-issues-of-social-media-in-journalism-430c85ca8fd1

PICTURE COURTESY OF PIXABAY

Experts

My goals for investigative journalism was how to find experts, how to access information, and how to conduct effective interviews. I learned a lot about accessing public documents. I found a trove of recently released CIA documents concerning their activities in Central America. In reading the redacted notes, it was obvious that U.S. involvement in the area has been going on for decades and has led inexorably to the current crisis refugee/immigrant crisis. Trump wants a wall. But why a wall? As it turns out, we are driving the refugees to our borders because of our terrible policy decisions in Central America. We have supported coups, provided weapons, and generally sided with fascists against communists and socialists. It was my intention to continue my research on the refugee crisis by interviewing current experts. I contacted four refugee centers in the Phoenix, Arizona area and three declined interviews and one agreed but then refused to provide answers. The refugee topic is sensitive right now and some of these organizations rely on federal money so they are afraid of any negative publicity.

I decided then to focus on human rights in the workplace and found a skilled worker at a multi-million dollar ISP provider. He had very little to complain about; however, he does work in a call center and is rarely asked to do a dangerous job or a job outside the scope of his duties. He did complain about the wage. He believes he is a skilled worker and only earns $17 per hour even with a Masters degree. His company certainly has the capacity to raise wages.

I learned that chasing down leads or interviews is challenging and the more sensitive the issue the harder it will be to find an expert to share their knowledge and experiences. I am slowly building a list of article categories and researching companies and people that can be contacted for comment on articles. I learned that investigative journalism is hard work and building a list of experts is critical.

Free Speech

Understanding free speech and its limitations are invaluable for any journalist to know and understand. We live in a litigious society but, more importantly, I want to make sure that anything I write is accurate, fair, and not misleading. This is a basic ethical responsibility for any journalist. My course on law and the media provided excellent information and illuminated my knowledge of free speech.

I enjoyed learning about copyright law, fair use, and the public domain. If I don’t take my own photos for articles, I often go to photo websites that are copyright free and usually require attribution. I’m am careful about the attribution. During this class, I noted that the Library of Congress has an extensive collection of old pictures and some new that are in the public domain. It’s a treasure trove. However, fair use is also a good term to know and understand. For instance, I made a video and included five seconds of a Beyoncé song. That does not violate copyright law.

My goal is to avoid any legal issues. Being careful with words, statements, photos, recordings and so forth is important on my journalistic path. I feel like I should make a list of ethics for myself beyond what is generally considered ethical for a journalist.

Another key issue, moving forward with my news website, is to create a press badge and be sure to announce my name and role. I would also inform anyone I am talking to that is on the record and if they will only talk off the record, I will be sure to not include any of that information in my news story. But this does not mean I will won’t pursue the truth in all its forms in a story and I don’t want to shy away from controversy. I simply need to make it’s legal and that I document appropriately.

Persistence

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it.

That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”

― Octavia E. Butler

I wrote a lot as a kid and I continue to do so to this very day. My stories from my youth were horrible. Okay. Maybe they were creative. But everything else was embarrassing. I also ran low on ideas. As Gertrude Stein once wrote, I had the honey but it wouldn’t pour. I think as I read more books (voraciously) across genres and also non-fiction, it opened me up to what was possible. Voices blossomed. I never gave up writing. Sometimes I would just write one sentence. Other times I would wrote three pages of indulgent crap. I learned how to be a better editor of my work and to write more directly. Learning to write is a practice that requires persistence. Every day you must write. Even when all you can think of is a single word or two. There is nothing wrong with a one sentence poem. I’ve learned I have to write and I have to edit. I have to do both in ritual form. Edit is the least glamorous part of writing but it must be done. Your first draft is for you. Your second draft is for the audience.