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Mariel Seidman-Gati's Blog in 2011 Just Start Writing
This week I finally made some good progress on my feature. I
had been struggling for weeks about what scope to take with my story, or what
the story even was. I knew I wanted to do something related to movements
against childhood obesity, like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, but the
topic just seemed so broad I had no idea of how to narrow the story’s scope. I
made the decision to focus on school lunches and through lots of research I
learned about Farm to School, a movement to get locally grown produce into schools
throughout Missouri. It just so happens that October is Farm to School month.
Columbia public schools have been involved in this program since its inception
and were actually instrumental in establishing it. Jefferson City public
schools just got involved this year. The most interesting interview I’ve had so
far is with Rick Boudreau, the farmer that works with Columbia and Jefferson
City schools. He moved to Missouri from Boston (I can’t pretend the connection
to home didn’t excite me) so he could teach his kids that food doesn’t always
have to come from a box or a can, you can actually grow it yourself. That’s
probably the best sound bite I have so far! I’ve heard that if you are unsure
of what the story is, it helps to just start making calls. Honestly, I didn’t
believe it until now. I think Rick will put a really human element into the
story. I need to speak to someone from the Jefferson City public school system
to get their thoughts on the program and how it’s worked so far and I hope to
get into contact with a Jefferson City or Columbia parent to see what they have
to say. I initially thought the parent could be my central compelling
character, but I think it’s important to be flexible. Like I said, sometimes
the story presents itself to you. I think the most interesting part of this
story is the guy the moved his family halfway across the country to buy a farm
so he could teach his kids a lesson. I’m trying to come to terms with the fact
that you can’t plan out every piece of the story. Sometimes you just have to
start doing it.
I began my day on Wednesday with a positive, enthusiastic attitude. After my story fell through on Monday, I was excited to go out and get a good story. I was covering an organizational meeting of the Senate Governmental Accountability Committee which would be discussing the Mamtek investigation. I've kept up to date as the Mamtek story unfolds, so I felt totally prepared to cover this meeting. Well, true to form, this statehouse story found a way of confusing me... I got lost somewhere in between China hub talk and discussions of the many different types of bonds. After the hearing adjourned, I followed the advice of my TAs and stuck my microphone in the senators' faces as some of the more experienced journalists begun a lengthy conversation with Senator Lembke and Senator Schaefer about the nuances of bonds and who is going to be held financially responsible for the Mamtek ordeal. I followed Phill as he rushed off to the House, hounding him for as much explanation and clarification as I could. After that, I was on my own (except for my continually patient and helpful TAs). I found out moments later that my Marantz had been on the wrong setting and all of the confusing bond talk, which I was hoping to decipher back in the newsroom, was so quiet that it was unusable. With no viable soundbites I was left with one option... I had to track down one of the senators and get some sound! I rushed up to Senator Schaefer's office and tried to recreate the bond talk. To my surprise and joy, I went back to the newsroom and was able to get my wraps done. I found a way to piece together an understanding of what the story was. When I stopped obsessing about every detail of what every different type of bond meant, it just came together. Alysha said sometimes when you just start writing, the story comes together in your mind naturally. That was exactly what happened. The best part about the day, and perhaps the most satisfying experience at MDN so far, was when Phill approved my wraps and actually called them perfect. This was such a gratifying experience and it helped me to see that I am improving, whether it's obvious to me or not. A huge lesson learned (a little late) on the technology side: ALWAYS check that the Marantz is in the proper setting and constantly be checking mic levels.
Go with your gut!
On Wednesday I was sent to cover a Joint Committee on School Accreditation hearing. The whole meeting was devoted to hearing testimony so the Committee could begin finding alternative schools for children whose school districts have lost accreditation. Many people suggested the use of charter schools. The most compelling testimony came from a St. Louis firefighter who is required to live within city limits. He didn't want to send his children to unaccredited schools, so he's had to pay for private school. Somehow, when I got back to the newsroom I lost my way. I knew that the firefighter's story was the most interesting part of the hearing, but I didn't go with my gut. When Phill called to my attention the fact that this firefighter was the real story, writing my wraps got so much easier. What I needed was all there... he said he loved living in the city except for the problems with schooling, he said the residency requirement has deterred applicants to his station because of the unaccredited schools, he said paying for private school cuts away a big chunk of his salary. This many was the definition of a central compelling character... journalism is about telling the story of widespread issues through the scope of individuals. Once Phill reminded me of this the story became so clear. My story wasn't about the fact that this committee is considering including charter schools as alternative. It was about this guy imploring lawmakers to find a solution to this issue that is so clearly affecting this man's life. This week's lesson is without a doubt go with your gut!
At Least Something Got Accomplished
I spent Wednesday afternoon among enraged Senators... Baffled by the fact that the House had yet to send them a copy of the changes made to the China hub bill which had a self-imposed deadline of Friday, these lawmakers asserted that they should just call an end to the special session. Senator Kevin Engler of Farmington reiterated that if no decisions were going to be made, then they should stop wasting the taxpayers' money. This whole ordeal really put the lawmaking process in perspective for me. Citizens complain all the time that lawmakers never get anything accomplished, but I never thought about how frustrating it must be for the lawmakers when things just can't seem to get done.
I was relieved to hear that the Facebook bill, after having been approved by both the House and Senate, was finally sent to the governor's desk. After all, not much else has even gotten close to that point. Of course, the governor's special session call limited lawmakers to repealing the provision, not amending it... Could this open up a whole new can of worms? Of course. This is politics. The legislative process is chock-full of nuances and details I may never fully understand. I do think working at MDN has increased my political understanding and I really hope it continues to grow throughout the semester and beyond. I'm anxious to see what happens next week in terms of the China hub bill and other major special session legislation. Will the House and Senate find a way to work in tandem and get things done? Or are we in for another week of agitated lawmakers? I guess we'll just have to wait and see. Two-week special session? I think not.
A Week Full of Important Lessons
On Monday, I pursued a story about a brain-eating amoeba that killed a Kansas resident. My aim was to talk to officials in Missouri to see what their concern was, since this happened so close to us. All I can say is I really felt like a journalist… I called nearly a dozen different organizations again, and again, and again. I found it really interesting that organizations in Kansas were much more keen to talk to me than anyone in Missouri. I know that Governor Nixon has made it so any government organization needs to go through his office before speaking to the media, but it made my job a lot more difficult. He’s ensured that all information given out has to go through press offices. To be honest, I’m already sick of speaking to PIOs, when I know my audience would much rather hear straight from experts. It seems silly to have a PIO learn about a subject so they can relay information to journalists when we could get more satisfying answers directly from the experts. But hey, I’m not a politician. Despite my frustration, I learned to be persistent (maybe even relentless), and even if it didn’t work out for this particular story I know it will make a story for me one of these days.
On Wednesday, I spent the morning looking into a potential feature about the way emergency responders deal with advance directives (do not resuscitate orders, living wills). I wanted to see if there were issues in Missouri with EMTs getting in trouble for not respecting such orders, but learned that the “Outside the Hospital Do-Not-Resuscitate Act” of 2007 was meant to deal with just that. Well, it would have been a great story in 2007! Although, in my research I stumbled upon the Missouri End-of-Life Coalition’s website. The coalition focuses on helping terminal patients, specifically the elderly, die the way they want to. I learned that their annual conference is coming up in the next few weeks and they plan to discuss changes to their bylaws. This could be a potential feature worth looking into!
Later that day I went to a Senate Veto Session where essentially nothing got accomplished. Most of it was spent discussing the bill that would change the date of the presidential primary in Missouri. I had a difficult time understanding the implications of this bill, but when there was no vote I went back to the office with news that there was no news. Phill told me to track down Sen. Engler, the bill’s sponsor to ask him why there was no vote. In the end, there wasn’t a story there. I learned two huge lessons though. One is that if I don’t understand what is going on I need to ASK. The second is that if there isn’t a story, it’s totally valid to ask why there ISN’T one.
This week was short because Monday was Labor Day and we didn't come in. Wednesday was really exciting because the special session had begun the day before and I got to sit in on a Senate hearing for the first time. I went to a really brief session in the morning and went back in the afternoon for an Education Committee meeting. It was all about the changes being made to the Facebook bill because of criticism from various education groups. The biggest distinction was that each school district has the right to develop their own policy when it comes to teacher-student communication on social networking sites. The bill's sponsor, Senator Jane Cunningham of St. Louis county, emphasized that this was always the bills intent and groups like the Missouri State Teachers Association just misunderstood because of issues in wording. I personally agree that the intent was unclear in the original version of the bill. It was really interesting to see how enthusiastically these education groups were in expressing support for the bill now that the language had been updated. The biggest challenge of this week was making each wrap different. Once a put together my first wrap I get bogged down and have trouble approaching the same story from a different angle. The good news is I'm starting to get the swing of things and get stories done faster. This week I left at six instead of 6:30! Unfortunately I managed to get on the wrong highway heading home...
Ready, set, go!
Last week was my first week at MDN and I hit the ground running the moment I arrived. On Monday, I pursued a story about police lineups. The New Jersey Supreme Court had just passed a movement to regulate the way police hold suspect identification lineups for eyewitnesses. They did this because of the intentional and inadvertent influence police officers can have on witnesses who are identifying suspects. The purpose of my story was to determine whether or not Missouri was looking into similar regulations. The main changes in New Jersey were that lineups must now be held by an officer who is completely uninvolved with the case at hand and that during photo lineups, the photos must be presented sequentially and not simultaneously. This made me wonder about Missouri's current policy on police lineups. What I learned was that there is no statewide regulation. Each county has a unique policy. After talking to several Missouri police associations, I learned that there is currently no plan to regulate lineups. The sources I spoke to were adamant that their officers do not influence witnesses, intentionally or otherwise. They saw no need for regulation and believed that the regulation in New Jersey resulted from a few publicized instances of police influence. They said if Missouri does regulate, it will result from a trickle down effect from other states. Can Missouri police really be that confident that they aren't influencing witnesses? Does this confidence make it okay to not look into the issue?
-According to a study by the Innocence Project, a group that uses DNA
testing to right wrongful convictions, mistaken identification from
lineups accounted for 60 of the group's 82 exonerations.
On Wednesday, I learned a big lesson about finding the important parts of a vast amount of information. I sat in on a House Budget Committee Hearing that lasted nearly three hours. The major issue of discussion was the that the Department of Health & Senior Services employed a third party assessment agency to help them provide care to their clients and save money. Long, long, long story short: this agency, Syncare, has not been living up to expectations. The care they have been providing is less than adequate and government employees have had to come in to bail them out. It has been a money drain since May. The meeting was filled with representatives grilling the Department of Health & Senior Services. Most representatives were calling to end the relationship with Syncare.
I also worked on a story about Rep. Chris Kelly's reaction to a lawsuit against the governor. The lawsuit states that he unconstitutionally set aside arbitrary funds for disaster relief. Rep. Kelly says he believes Gov. Nixon has taken advantage of the flexibility allotted to him in the budget, but is within his constitutional right.
The most significant thing I learned this week is that I have a lot to learn. My hope is that I will end this semester with a much better understanding of politics... and what better way to learn than to be thrown right into the lion's den, right? I also think one of the biggest challenges is going to be streamlining information to fit radio script format. Hopefully after a semester of writing for radio, writing for TV will seem like a luxury!
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