Posted 04/27/2015: Last Tuesday, I sat through almost seven hours in the Senate. It was a long day, and things didn’t really get interesting until the end. I noted a few things that might be newsworthy, but then I saw that they were about to discuss a deadly force bill. And that’s when I knew. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, something will jump out at you. It’s so obviously newsworthy it’s like there’s flashing signs and fireworks. This was definitely one of those times.
Who would have thought the attention of the whole world would be on the state of Missouri? Michael Brown lost his life, and ever since, all eyes have been on Ferguson. I’ve been waiting cover Ferguson-related legislation since I began working at the Capitol this semester. So when the Senate started discussing a deadly force bill, I knew what my story was going to be.
The discussion went on for a few hours, and I did my best to pay close attention. My strategy for tackling the Senate so far this semester has been to take good notes and decipher the debate later. Well, my strategy failed. As soon as the Senate adjourned for the night, I ran down to the newsroom and began to put the pieces of my story together. But I realized that there was an exchange between two senators that I still didn’t understand…was it a filibuster? Were they in opposition of the bill? I was confused so I went off to find the two senators. Unfortunately, it was too late. One senator was in a meeting and the other had left for the evening.
Luckily, I was able to use audio from several other senators who
spoke about the bill. But I might not
always be so fortunate in the future. We’re
journalists, not historians…the clock is running. Timing is everything. So when in doubt, ask your questions now not
Is the recorder on and ready to go? Check! Am I keeping good notes? Check! Did I save the right soundbites? Check! Did I write both radio and web stories? Check! Did I use proper grammar? Check! Did I get everything approved by an editor? Check!
Don’t get me wrong, I have very much enjoyed my time at the Capitol. But it is so easy sometimes to get caught up in my “checklist.” Last week, I worked on a story about beer and another about service animals. While all issues are important, those were two of the most fun topics I’ve covered all semester. Yet at first I was just so focused on getting the job done right that I forgot to take a step back and enjoy what I was writing about. The reminder to have fun was greatly appreciated – not just for my journalism work, but for my life in general.
I was introduced to a new quote last week: “Numbers are numbing.” And after finishing up a financial accounting exam about an hour ago, I couldn’t agree more. But in all seriousness, when I first heard that statement, I was a little disappointed. I like numbers. Actually I like them so much, I decided to study accounting in addition to journalism.
People are always surprised when I tell them I am a journalism and accounting dual major. Many can’t see how the two fields would coincide or even compliment each other. But while some see them as completely opposite, I have found them to be quite similar. Both require accuracy and attention to detail. Both are about the presentation of facts, whether that be in the form of a news story or a financial statement. And both adhere to strict ethics guidelines.
So yes, when I was reminded “numbers are numbing” in the newsroom last week, my immediate reaction was to disagree. But there is a lot of truth in that statement. In the world of journalism, numbers can be a powerful tool. But if you overuse, they can confuse. As journalists, often the best way to inform our audience is to convey the bigger picture. Journalists can and should add numbers for clarification and support, but only as long as they don’t distract from the main idea.
We’ve all heard the Miranda rights read in a movie or television show. Thanks to the Fifth Amendment, anyone questioned by police must be told they have the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. But as Americans, we also have the right not to remain silent. And that right can be traced back to the First Amendment.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
I memorized the First Amendment in my very first journalism class freshman year. And while it may be a Journalism 101 topic, it’s still a pretty powerful statement. I was reminded of this at the Capitol on Thursday. There was a fairly large group of protestors gathered calling for Medicaid expansion. I’ve seen protests before – especially recently in St. Louis as the Ferguson situation has progressed over the past months. But on Thursday, I happened to be walking with two people who weren’t from America and they seemed in awe of what was taking place.
think sometimes it is quite easy for Americans to take the First Amendment for
granted. But after covering Missouri
politics this semester, I’m beginning to appreciate it more and more. While the
First Amendment might protect hateful speech by some, I truly believe it
ultimately brings about good. As a journalist, I don't think there is any greater right than the First Amendment.
It's been a while since my last blog. Last week I was in Atlanta for a trip through Mizzou's business school. We visited many great companies, but my biggest journalism "take-away" came from our tour of the CNN headquarters. No matter how big or small the newsroom, news is news and the show must go on! And although the trip was great, I must say I am so glad to be back at the Capitol.
In this post, I would like to talk about ledes...you know those
introductory sentences that seem to make or break a news story. They have to be factual while at the same
fun. Ledes are supposed tease the
audience, daring them to continue listening, watching or reading. When ledes are good, the audience follows the lede and continues to listen, watch or read the rest of the news story.
Lately, I’ve been struggling to come up with good ledes, or
anchor intros in radio speak. It’s a bit
of a challenge sometimes to convey the news in a standout way. So far I have covered hearings on a lot of
bills. And if I’ve learned anything…bills
are not news. What’s in bills and what people
have to say about bills – that’s where the news is. Making a bill or another
part of the political process not only relevant, but also interesting to an
audience in one sentence is no simple feat!
It’s much easier said than done. But it's something I'm going to continue to work on.
To be honest, I didn’t think that much of it at first; I was focused on finishing up my stories. But then reports started rolling in that it was serious. And it wasn’t long before my newsroom learned Schweich had passed away. I don’t think any class can fully prepare you for what its like to cover a person’s death. How can you report the details of someone’s final moments factually and at the same time with a sense of sensitivity? How do you ask other people their feelings on someone’s death without coming off as disrespectful? Thursday, I found myself questioning almost everything.
I think the events on Thursday reminded all of us that the people we report on are people. It sounds obvious, but it is so easy to get caught up the drama of politics. So and so wrote such and such bill…So and so said this about so and so…So and so is running for this or that position… The people we report on, they have hobbies. They have favorite television shows and favorite books. They have memories, and they have families and friends.
I would like to close this post by saying that my thoughts are on all of those who knew, worked and were friends with Tom Schweich. And I would especially like to extend my condolences to Schweich’s family.
Anyway, I have some exciting news to share: the news story I wrote on Thursday ended up on the front page of the Columbia Daily Tribune! It’s the first time I’ve seen my name in a print byline. Of course, I picked up a copy (okay maybe more like two or three) to remember the occasion by. But I gained more than just a stack of newspapers this week; I learned a very valuable lesson too.
The story that ended up in the Tribune was about a bill that would essentially ban local governments from placing their own restrictions on Uber and other similar companies. And coincidentally, the Columbia City Council just voted to pass a set of regulations on Uber this week. I wrote what I thought were two solid radio stories and one short online story for MDN’s website. After showing my news director, he introduced me to a reporter at the Tribune and it was decided I would write an article for the next day’s paper.
Most people have heard of the three rules of real estate: location, location, and location. Well this week I learned that rule can be applied to the profession of journalism as well. My news director told me to take out some of the Columbia specific information in my radio stories – after all, those stories potentially reach audiences in St. Louis and Springfield as well as other parts of Missouri. However, when writing my article for the Tribune it was important to write specifically about Columbia since the paper is based in Columbia. I referred to the city council’s recent actions, but the Tribune reporter even added more specific background information about the Columbia City Council.It seems obvious, but it is important to keep the following three rules in mind when working on any kind of news story: location, location, and location. It’s all about location.
After this week, I am definitely more “in the know” about a number of issues. Tuesday I sat in on a Senate hearing about imposing limitations on campaign contributions. On Thursday, I listened to several speakers as part of the Missouri Press Association day at the Capitol. I listened to two candidates for governor talk about issues such as education and the economy. I also heard a panel on Ferguson and sat in on Gov. Jay Nixon’s press conference.
It’s not that I wasn’t aware of these issues before I set
foot in the Capitol. It's just, there is something about sitting in on a hearing (or meeting, session,
etc.), gathering additional interviews (if needed), and then writing the
I was already familiar
with several of the issues I covered this week, but reporting on these issues
has pushed me to a new level of understanding.
A couple of weeks ago, I said I decided to study journalism because it sounded exhilarating and exciting. But this week, I’ve come to another important realization: I want to stay a journalist (or at least keep studying it!) so that I can continue to learn – to really learn – about the world we live in.
So what makes fairness difficult? It’s not always that journalists are biased toward a certain political party, viewpoint or cause. Fairness and bias don’t always happen intentionally. Sometimes a lack of fairness results because there is a lack of information available. I want to illustrate this point with an example.
This week I was working on a story about a couple of bills that hadn’t been discussed much. I spoke with the sponsors of the bills and they gave me plenty of information. Next, I reached out to a politician of the opposite party. He hadn’t reviewed the bills and wasn’t as familiar with the issue, but he still commented.
I went back to the newsroom to write my radio and online stories. But when I finished, there seemed to be more questions than when I began. I simply didn’t have enough information from the third politician. In order to be fair, I needed to talk to the third politician again. Or I needed to find someone else with a different perspective. Unfortunately by the time I realized this, it was too late. It was a Thursday afternoon and nearly everyone had gone home. After talking it over with my news director, it was decided I would follow-up with the third politician next week and finish up my stories then.
In a world that consumes media 24/7, it isn’t always
possible to put off a story until it is perfect. But as journalists, we have a responsibility
to do whatever we can to report fairly. If we don't have enough information, we have to go out and find more.
“I believe that clear thinking, clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.” – Walter Williams’ Journalist’s Creed
Exhilarating and exciting – that is exactly how I would describe my first week reporting at the Capitol. With the exception of assignments for introductory journalism courses, I had never reported on anything. I must admit I was intimidated walking into my first House committee hearing with a recorder and microphone in hand. I couldn’t help but worry I would make a mistake.
And I did make a mistake. The first time I set up the recorder by myself I failed to notice the sound wasn’t clear. I lost some really great audio. I immediately panicked although eventually everything worked out. After re-interviewing a senator, I had solid sound bite and was able to complete my story.
Mistakes happen. At the Missouri School of Journalism, we learn by something called the Missouri Method. We learn via real world experience, and part of that real world experience is making mistakes. There’s a first time for everything, and my first time reporting wasn’t perfect. But I did learn some very valuable lessons. I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to continue learning as part of the Missouri Digital News team this semester.
And one last thing: I think it is now safe to say I will triple check the recorders before I use them.
Missouri Digital News is produced by Missouri Digital News, Inc. -- a non profit organization of current and former journalists.