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Jill Ornitz is a May 2015 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism pursuing her master's in Public Affairs Reporting. Her past journalistic endeavors have taken her from mid-Missouri to New York, Washington D.C. and London. She spent the summer of 2015 interning for ABC News in their political unit in Washington. Jill worked as a digital media intern for the London daily newspaper, The Independent and worked for the radio team at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia in New York. She wants to be a campaign embed in the 2020 election cycle.
Stories by Jill Ornitz in 2016 include:
This week marked my first time covering the Missouri Supreme Court. It also happened to be a case of serious magnitude, seeing as if the court found in favor of the appellant, it could negate the constitutionality of the state-wide ban on gay marriage. However, if the court doesn't find in favor of the appellant, it could mean gay couples who were granted divorces in other states could be considered legally married in Missouri.
I thought I fully understood the court system until the appellant's attorney began his argument. The terminology was different, and I even made a mistake in my initial news book in terms of what was said by whom. Ultimately, it turned into a case of not knowing what I didn't know until I realized I didn't know it.
This is yet another reminder of the importance of doing research as a reporter.
The Waiting Game
This week, the only thing on anyone's mind was the Ferguson grand jury, so it seemed. After the flurry of reports Monday, the news this week felt like a bit of a horse race, with various outlets hedging their bets on when they thought a decision would be announced.
There are inherent issues with this kind of speculation. For one, it simply isn't journalism. Journalism isn't about making guesses about when we think something will or won't happen. We're supposed to be giving viewers, listeners and readers facts, not saying, "Well, we think we know this." I know we can't, as reporters, go on air and say, "We know just as much as you do right now," but isn't there something better we could be doing with our time?
Don't get me wrong, some places have been providing helpful information giving context to the grand jury decision process and I've read some interesting pieces talking about what the decision could mean for Ferguson, but is that just fueling the problem?
And, as someone who spent a solid three hours scanning Twitter for the most trustworthy sources on the ground in Ferguson, am I part of the problem?
I guess one thing I'm still craving from Ferguson coverage is the presence of community voices in coverage. I've seen jabs on Twitter talking how a bunch of "coastie" journalists look desperately uncomfortable in St. Louis and are dying for a decision so they can pack up and go home. Why aren't these guys going around the community seeing if someone will talk. I'm coming at this issue from a speculative vantage point, since I've never set foot in Ferguson, but I'd have to think actually making an attempt to reach members of the community for comment, even if they choose not to respond, is better than looking utterly bored by the whole process.
Why are we so fixated on numbers?
Monday was all about election coverage in the MDN newsroom, especially since Secretary of State Jason Kander released a projected voter turnout of 39 percent. The majority of the newsroom teamed up to cover Missouri's major county clerk offices to see how they get their numbers.
We were disappointed with the responses we got, and that's putting it lightly.
Most of the members of the election boards we spoke to told us these projections were all educated guesses. One county clerk actually laughed at a reporter saying the numbers were made up to satisfy journalists. While we understand it may have been an overreaction, it got us thinking about the importance of numbers in reporting.
Numbers are always seen as the most factual pieces of evidence a journalist can use. Yet, numbers are mind-numbingly boring and are typically cut by editors in any story. So why are we so fixated on them?
Simple fact? Numbers don't lie. They're free from bias and are very difficult to skew in one direction or the other. So, while numbers are boring, they're a cornerstone of journalism, and therefore, they can't be ignored.
When Scandal Hits Home
This week, Attorney General Chris Koster was implicated in a New York Times article for dropping a lawsuit against Five Hour Energy in exchange for political favor. It's always interesting to see when national issues hit home, and the fact that Koster was directly named in the article meant it was a major story to go after. While going down the list of necessary calls to make, I couldn't help but wonder about the implications of scandals hitting close to home. Between Ferguson and this New York Times report, Missouri has been at the center of several national and international stories through the past few months. It's always frustrating to see disparities in media coverage, especially when you have first-hand knowledge of events that are actually unfolding.
I made sure to keep this in mind as I was calling sources, because I knew that my position in Jefferson City gave me a better position to accurately report the story.
During an interview with a source this week, I was following along during the course of our conversation, inserting things like "okay" and "mmhmm" to indicate I was following along. Before this week, I had always used the word "right" as a sign that I was paying attention.
That was, however, until this interview.
I didn't realize that, by saying "right," I gave off the impression to my source that I was siding with her. She seemed relieved that I said "right" when I was talking to her, as if I was on her side. I quickly realized my mistake and rebounded as best I could, but it got me thinking about the implications of using certain words, especially in a field like journalism.
Journalists careers are based entirely on words. Whether they're typed or spoken, words are our lives and they carry an increased importance in our work. Just because you mean one thing when you say something, doesn't mean your source will take it that way. It puts an extra burden on journalists to be incredibly careful about what words they use, but its for a greater purpose of maintaining objectivity within the field.
Ultimately, I'll have to be more careful whenever I'm talking to sources, but this was a good lesson for me in terms of understanding what my responsibilities are as a reporter and how I have to be extra careful when conducting interviews.
When you're turned away
As I was making progress on some of my stories this week, I had to call SEMA in order to get more information on the unpublicized training session they held in conjunction with the department of health to train medical professionals, including nurses, medical examiners and coroners, on how to handle patients and bodies infected with ebola. After being transferred to several lines, I managed to get a hold of the Deputy Director of SEMA, and couldn't get over how lucky I got.
That was until she told me I needed to talk to a PIO.
Something that has always baffled me about government agencies is, even if you get in touch with upper-level directors of certain organizations, they require you to go through a PIO. If you can answer the questions I have, why won't you just talk to me now? Even worse, when directors say they can't answer my questions but a PIO can, it drastically diminishes my confidence in the organization's ability to function. If you as a high-ranking official can't tell me what's going on with certain programs, how am I supposed to be sure you're as involved in the process as you need to be? What you would you say to constituents if they asked you the same question?
Ultimately, I know public officials hate talking to journalists. We're pretty relentless when covering stories, but we're trying to help the public understand what they need to know about their government. But we're trying to help the greater good.
When things fall apart
One of the best feelings as a journalist is finally filing a story. You spend days and weeks working on something, becoming fully invested in your subject, and seeing the story get published is incredibly rewarding. However, when a story falls through, it's pretty disappointing. And when you have three stories fall through, you're generally just at a loss.
That was my week.
I had been working on stories about driverless cars in Missouri, gun implementation in Missouri schools and getting the reactions of lawmakers and former lawmakers regarding the court decision handed down in Kansas City mandating Missouri recognize same-sex marriages performed out-of-state. I made some progress on driverless cars, but couldn't get any government officials to get back to me. I found the only shooting range approved by the insurance provider for 87 percent of Missouri's schools, to discover the range was nearly five hours away. I was given the run around by several sources for the Kansas City story, and by the end of the week, I felt it lost its newsworthiness.
So, what now?
Sometimes when you're working on stories, the process is more important than the final product. In this case, dealing with frustration, regrouping and knowing when to quit proved to be more valuable to me in my growth as a journalist. As Kenny Rogers would say, "You've got to know when to hold 'em. Know when to fold 'em," right?
The disappointment aside, I had to the opportunity to research and make progress on a story looking at the state of the rural economies in Missouri. I'm excited to get started on it, and will be sure to take the peaks and pits as they come.
Remembering why it's called public policy
Even though I've only been at MDN a few weeks, I've learned that it's really easy to get bogged down in the political jargon of the statehouse when you're reporting. That's obviously not good. People lose interest and when you focus on hearings and committees, you miss the point of the story. There's a reason it's called public policy: these laws impact real people.
While covering the committee hearing surrounding the 2011 merger of the state Highway and Water Patrol units, I found myself getting bogged down in the "government-ese" of the entire hearing. I wasn't focusing on the real reason the hearing was called: a 20-year-old man died while in the custody of a Water Patrol trooper.
Not only is the human aspect of public policy reporting something you need to recognize while writing, it's something to remember while reporting. I had the opportunity to interview both the father and uncle of the drowning victim at the center of this week's committee hearing. I've only had a handful of reporting experiences involving the families of victims, but I still haven't perfected the best way to make family members feel comfortable in interviews. I'm always professional, but I have trouble striking a balance between being sympathetic as a person and impartial as a journalist. I'm hoping this is something I will get better at as my reporting career progresses.
A Crash Course in Missouri's Courts
I got a crash course in Missouri's court system this week due to the announcement of retention recommendations made by the Missouri Judicial Performance Evaluation Committees. Up until this week, I didn't realize that Missouri was a pioneer in terms of the evaluation of non-partisan judges, but, in spite of this long history, I still found it interesting that there was such controversy surrounding this system.
I was a little shocked to learn that, in spite of a St. Louis Circuit Associate Judge being suspended for misconduct, she was still recommended for retention. I understand that the state Supreme Court decided not to go after Barbara Peebles despite these allegations, leading to her retention recommendation, but I was surprised to see that the Missouri Bar would base their recommendation based solely off that decision. I understand the concept of precedent, but if an organization is supposed to uphold certain ethical standards, wouldn't it make sense for them to scrutinize Judge Peebles a little more?
From a technical standpoint, this story was the first radio story I produced for MDN. Even though I was a little out of my element at first, I learned a lot about what goes into a broadcast piece in terms of writing and technical acumen. I'm more confident in my ability to produce both broadcast and print pieces in the newsroom.
Ultimately, I learned that there are institutional politics that affect every branch of government. I'm happy I was able to jump head first into this story and I feel that I'm growing more and more comfortable in Jefferson City every week.
When technology outpaces the law
More often than not, technology tends to outpace the law. On a federal level, Americans were using the Internet long before Congress had any regulatory committees related to its use, and cyberbullying popped up in schools across the country before law enforcement had the tools necessary for dealing with those situations.
When you're reporting on new technology, only to find that the story you want to cover has outpaced the law, it can be hard to figure out a new direction.
I've been working on a story about driverless cars in Missouri for about two weeks. With GM saying driverless cars could be on the roads as early as 2015, I wanted to see if Missouri was prepared for the introduction of these new vehicles. Coincidentally, one of the country's foremost researchers on driverless cars happens to work at UMKC. And in spite of all of this, most government agencies had little to nothing to say about driverless cars.
MoDot engineers hadn't been researching the topic, so they directed me to the Highway Patrol. According to the Highway Patrol, there's nothing on the books about driverless cars, which makes them illegal. I tried to talk to the Department of Revenue about what licensing changes, if any, would need to be made in regard to driverless cars, and I was emailed back saying there was no information on this topic at this time.
Working on this story was a good look into the legislative process. When advances in technology outpace the creation of laws, all you can do is wait to see reactions from legislatures. When it comes to writing a story, it just reaffirms the idea that stories can start out in one space and wind up in a totally different space. I'm thinking now it may be a better idea to take a look at issues of technology outpacing the creations of laws overall, instead of just focusing on one specific aspect. Professionally speaking, I'm happy that my stories haven't all been "straight shots," per se. You learn a lot more about being a journalist when things don't go smoothly, and I can feel myself becoming more and more comfortable with my role as a reporter because of these obstacles.
Well, I've officially survived my first legislative veto session. According to my calculations, I was in Jefferson City for a little less than 17 hours on Wednesday. A print story I wrote about the gun bill being overridden in the House and Senate was picked up by KMOX, making it the biggest outlet to ever publish a story I wrote.
I never would've thought I'd end up getting this lucky.
The veto session was the first time I had ever recorded audio while working at MDN, let alone in any of the chambers in the capital building. I recorded three hours of audio related to the gun story, only to come back to the newsroom and realize my audio was unusable. I didn't know I had to plug the mic cable into the press table in the Senate, so my audio was incredibly fuzzy and unusable for rebroadcast.
I have never been so angry with myself in my entire life.
I had (foolishly) thought that, as a senior, I'd stop making these dumb mistakes by now. I knew I could salvage a print story from my audio, but I was so mad I prevented myself from being able to do a great radio piece. I was ultimately able to secure an interview with Sen. Will Kraus, the sponsor of the gun bill, but I couldn't stop beating myself up over the fact that I had been so dumb.
I knew I had two options. I could either crumble over the fact that I had messed up so royally, or I could rebound and make it work.
After a second of thinking, I realized the first "option" wasn't really an option.
Ultimately, everything worked out, far better than I expected. Everything about the veto session was a learning opportunity. First thing's first, always make sure you know what you're doing with equipment before you hit record. But just as a general life lesson, I realized that no one's immune from making mistakes. And, in this business, everyone makes mistakes. The sign of a great journalist isn't producing great stories when everything goes smoothly. It's being able to take a bad situation, whether it was your fault or someone else's, and make it work. I'm still really proud of the story I wrote and, even though it was a stressful process, I was able to undo some of the damage I did to myself and learn how to avoid that situation the next time around.
Oh, and a little bit of luck doesn't hurt.
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