Posted 10/12/2012: The struggles with PR and superficiality strikes down hard with issues regarding education.
This week I did a story on The University of Missouri joining a nationwide initiative to boost the number of graduating students to make more seats available to incoming freshman.
Education is something that is difficult to cover, because most of the time it is the same old story--people want to boost graduation rates, keep tuition down, and make higher ed more available to students who normally wouldn't be able to participate in it.
It's hard to find a breaking news story there, and I found it especially difficult in the story I did on Project Degree Completion.
To me, it seems like whoever you talk to is going to tell you the same story--about the great, efficient programs they're placing in their schools to make education better for their students.
But let's take a moment to reflect....is anyone who is even remotely sane going to say something negative about higher ed? No. Not a single person is going to say something to the effect of: "yeah, I would really like to watch all of my students flunk out so I can steal their money and leave them on the streets."
Now if someone did say that, THAT is what I would consider newsworthy.
It's hard to find the new and exciting information that lies in these nationwide initiatives to make education better. It is something that is in a fair state as it is, and people will always be trying to make it better.
We hear constantly that the United States has fallen in its effectiveness of its higher ed in comparison to other schools, but we never really hear about any groundbreaking things to improve this.
I read a statistic that the U.S. has fallen from 1st to 14th in the past decade in respects to the quality of its higher education. So, where is the actual legislation that is going to change this? Are we just going to keep starting these new "initiatives" that have proven to be somewhat inefficient?
Where is the news regarding how we are REALLY going to improve education? Or what leaders in higher ed ACTUALLY think about the schools they run?
That is where the news in, but no one seems to want to speak up about it.
Overall, it was a pretty stressful experience. It was so hard to put all of the information together and not bag the readers down with too much information. I also struggled to keep my radio story down to 40 seconds.
This issue has been going on for such a long time and there are so many different parties involved, that its difficult to get everything organized in my mind and written.
I really liked what Rep. Jamilah Nasheed D-St. Louis city had to say about the issue, though I felt like I couldn't talk about it as much in my story because there was no way to prove if it was 100% factual.
Nasheed explained to me a lot about the history of the issue and how St. Louis was stripped of its right to control its police force when the Governor thought the police officers were being too sympathetic towards freed slaves.
She explained a lot about how the force was based on a system of corruption and hatred and how, even though we no longer have that kind of mentality, it really affects the way she views the system.
Its hard to look at a police force system based on this kind of racial hatred and still view it as an effective system, so I can see where Nasheed was coming from.
I wish I could go more in depth in my story about this issue and how it has effected what Nasheed believes to be the validity of the police force. But, this was simply too much information to put in my story, and it took away from what the heart of the issue actually is--which is that the St. Louis police force is one of 2 cities that doesn't control their police force and they have been making groundbreaking provisions towards gaining local control.
It's hard to find a balance between thoroughly understanding an issue and getting bogged down in way too much information. I never want to overwhelm my listeners/readers with what I have to say, but I also want to be able to report every side of the issue.
This will be yet another thing that I need to work on and yet another thing that this experience at the Capitol will teach me.
If there's one thing I learned this week, it's that everybody lies.
However, the mayor had some pretty interesting things to say and shed a lot of light onto the issue and it turned out to be a very rewarding interview, other than my error in facts.
A few weeks ago I had talked to the business director of the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as a Representative from St. Louis City. One of them had told me that the St. Louis police force ballot issue would not allow media access to sunshine records, and the other told me that the language of the ballot prohibited a civilian review board.
The mayor told me that neither of those facts are true.
I'm still learning who to trust and who to disregard when looking for facts. When you go into something not knowing anything about the issue, it's hard to not be quick to accept what people tell you.
I'm trying to not fall into letting these groups manipulate me into printing exactly what they want me to print. I never truly understood the importance of verification of facts until this week.
Absolutely everything you say in an article needs to be verified and attributed. It's hard to not just post blanket statements based on what people tell you.
In my naive state of mind, I always just trusted what I was hearing from some of the state's top officials. But I've learned now that is not the correct way to approach a story.
Many people have hidden agendas and want to use the newspaper as a way to advance their own way of thinking. As a journalist, you cannot use the media to help them advance their goals. You must only print what you know to be true, and you must be confident that you have gone the lengths to ensure that you are reporting what is right.
I'm starting to realize just how important (and how difficult) it is to present the story with fairness, balance, and--most importantly--honesty.
I learned that the hard way this week. When sitting in on the Ag Policy meeting, I really started to question the level of my own intelligence. Who knew that some farmers from the bootheel could make me want to pull out a dictionary and get studying.
I spent the first 30 to 45 minutes of the meeting scrambling trying to figure out what all of these crazy people were talking about. I have absolutely no experience with farming and didn't even witness my first cow until about 2 months ago at a county fair in Sedalia. (If you don't believe me, I have pictures to prove it.) My cohorts, who were all from the rural areas of Missouri, ruthlessly mocked me for not quite understanding how the livestock business works.
But after hearing about a cattle rancher's struggle to keep her business alive at this meeting, I had to channel my inner farmer and learn what the business was all about. When I first began my research, I felt like I might as well be studying how to deprogram a bomb. Thankfully, though, it finally started to all come together and dare I say I was able to put together a story and actually know what on Earth I was talking about.
After the past few weeks, I'm really starting to think that journalists are the most knowledgeable people around. Every day I learn something new about some area of the world that I ad never even heard of. Part of this business is being able to speak confidently and eloquently about whatever it is you have to write about that day.
People put so much pressure on journalists to speak about everything like experts, and those are some really hard standards to live up to. I've learned this week that doing your research is one of the most important assets to this profession--more so than the ability to write or ask good questions. This is something I hope to continue to develop, for right now my skill set barely goes beyond typing something into the Google search bar.
I can't wait to see what else there is to learn from working at the Capitol, and hopefully I can continue to push myself out of my comfort zone and find stories in some of the most unfamiliar places.
This week, I learned that people like to say that they cannot or will not comment on a certain issue. Though these can be significant to a story, I often find it pretty frustrating, more on the principle of it than anything else.
I understand that being a politician means saving face and trying to spare making enemies as much as possible, but I find the practice of spokespeople and refusals to comment to be incredibly superficial.
This Thursday I started a story on the ballot issue facing the St Louis Police Force and their desire to gain local control. After calling the police department, they refused to comment on what they think about this. I have to wonder to myself: "do none of these officers feel passionate enough about this issue to voice their opinion?" This directly affects their profession and the way it is conducted and I can;t quite understand why an officer wouldn't want to let the public know what they think the pros and cons are.
We live in a world where free speech is a large part of our every day lives. What do these policemen think is going to happen to them if they speak out against local control of the police force? Yeah, they may step on a few toes but they legally cannot and will not be fired.
All I'm asking for is a little bit of honesty and a little less red tape. If everyone would just say how this feel, it would do wonderful things to this profession and maybe then I can go a day without making 20 unanswered phone calls.
It's safe to say that the first day was more than overwhelming. I have never been in this kind of newsroom (let alone environment) before and I didn't exactly know what to expect or how to act. Thankfully, though, the first day ended up being pretty smooth--all of my sources got back to me in a timely manner and I was able to write get my script written and edited by the end of the day.
I've really come to love being "in the know" of what's going on with the state of politics in Missouri. I've always had a general idea, but being able to cite bills by number and thoroughly describe their content is something I never thought possible.
On Thursday morning, I was able to produce my story and get the NewsBook version finished. Although, the rest of the day was not quite so productive. I spent most of my day desperately waiting by the phone in the hopes that Attorney General Chris Koster would return just one of my four phone calls...but it was to no avail.
After a few failed trips to the Supreme Court and a few more unanswered phone calls, I decided to go in a different direction with my story, and I think I have finally landed on something really interesting. After a lengthy call with one of the leading lawyers in a propofol lawsuit, I found my angle, all thanks to Attorney John William Simon. According to Simon, the United States has been the leading country in making the death penalty more and more humane. Missouri has been the first state of the 35 who use the death penalty to switch from a lethal injection "cocktail" to the single use of an anesthetic know as propofol, most famously known as the drug used to kill Michael Jackson.
Six death row inmates have had their execution dates put on hold due to the fact that the use of propofol in large doses can be considered "cruel and unusual punishment," and therefore violates their Constitutional rights.Simon claimed that using propofol would be the first step backward to the less humane for the United States.
So now that I officially have my angle, I plan on uncovering just how factual that statement is. I plan on asking doctors about how painful the use of propofol actually is, for the case with Michael Jackson makes it hard to believe that it is that painful. I also want to do research on past legislation on the death penalty and examine those lawsuits more thoroughly. And finally, if I can, I would love to get the opinion of Attorney General Koster to complete the final element of my story. He has spoken out strongly against delaying these execution dates, and I would love to get a statement from him.
It is going to be another busy week at the Capitol this upcoming week, but I'm excited to dig my teeth into this story and see what other challenges will get thrown my way.
Up until this point, my experience with journalism has been defined solely on crowded classrooms and endless words scribbled into spiral notebooks. Though I feel that my knowledge about the profession is pretty vast, I have never experienced anything like what I expect to experience throughout this semester. I can only hope that this experience will show me that I have the strength and courage of conviction to be a true and honest journalist.
I feel in this day and age we are programmed to idolize any face we see on television; whether it be a reporter, anchor, celebrity, actor/actress, et cetera. Though they would never admit it, so many young people enter into this profession just so they can be another pretty face on TV. Young women look at reporters and see how men admire them, and they desire to be in their same position. This way of thinking takes away from the real role of journalists, to report the news without bias and free of the desire to solely entertain.
To me, the best journalists are confident enough in their skills to report honestly and fairly and not fall into this phenomenon of trying to be some sort of celebrity. I will never forget when I went to go see Christiane Amanpour speak three years ago at a convention center in Denver, where she stressed the importance of passion in journalism. I truly believe that the best reporters are the ones who live and breathe the basic journalistic principles of truth and fairness.
I strongly feel that we need more journalists who are passionate about serving the public in the best way possible. I can only hope that this experience at the Capitol will help make me the best journalist I can be, and that I will be able to serve the public in an honest and truthful manner.
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