I woke up this morning with sunburned eyes. I think it was from spending all yesterday staring at the sunlight reflecting off glass buildings. I shouldn’t have stared for so long, but it was impossible not to act exactly as I felt: like a Pacific Northwest child seeing the big city for the first time. Building. So. Tall. What?! Luckily the sunburned eyes didn’t prevent me from seeing the world of journalism with fresh eyes as I visited CMA sessions that challenged me, The Beacon and perhaps even a few people back home, to be a little better.
Thanks for the spin…but what really happened?
Tough interviews are no foreign territory for a reporter. Whether it be controversy, grief or simple nervous habits, some sources find answering questions to be more terrifying than death. David Simpson, former AP assistant bureau chief, gave great instruction for helping crack (or gently understand) a difficult source.
Steven Pinker said it right when he remarked “each side sincerely believes its version of the story, namely, that it is an innocent and long- suffering victim and the other side a malevolent and treacherous sadist.” David points out that people spin stories to make them align with their beliefs. His advice is to acknowledge everything a sources says, including PR opinion, but keep asking for facts. Is that what actually happened? Do you have evidence to back up your claim that our campus is safer than it’s ever been? Do you have surveys that show students think our school is the best? Keep asking for evidence, keep pushing for facts. The truth, not PR people, will set you free.
Sources sometimes like to dismiss reporters’ questions as irrelevant when they are really just hesitant to give an answer. David recommends push-back questions to counter these statements. Why is that an unfair question? What is the point I’m missing? Are you telling me that as a fact or your opinion? Ok, I wrote down the spin, now would you please answer my question? (Simpson).
Some of the hardest interviews to conduct involve grieving sources. How do you interview a student whose best friend passed away? David’s advice is to cause as little harm as possible. One of the most important tips is to never demand an interview. It is ok to respectfully ask, but never pester, never demand. When talking to a source, make sure to emphasize the deceased person’s life rather than death. David says that many people will feel better after talking about their loss with a reporter. Additionally, David encourages letting the interviewee know how sorry you are for their loss. Even though words like these seem inadequate, David points out that nothing you could say to an individual who has lost a loved one could ever be adequate. The important thing is to show you care.
For the sources that find it difficult to express anything in verbal form, David recommends asking the obvious: Are you having trouble talking about this? What do you find hardest to talk about? Why?
International freelancing post-graduation
Imagine leaving the comfort and security of solid ground and jumping off a precipice into the unknown. Without a parachute. Without a back-up plan. Without any way of knowing how far or how hard you would fall. For speaker Julia Waterhous, this terrifying unknown adventure was her post-graduation plan.
Julia decided to do international freelancing in Delhi after studying abroad and feeling moved by the difficult livelihood of India’s trash pickers, people who salvage recyclable materials from landfills for profit. She was advised to make a documentary rather than write a story to those that so many people had already written and published. The risk? Living in a strange country typically dangerous for women. Working with a group of people the police didn’t like. Abandoning the career field for a year. Oh ya, and no money.
Despite the obstacles, Julia realized she didn’t want to live with the “what if” of missing out on an opportunity she was very passionate about. With a kickstarter account, Julia made enough money to travel to Delhi and film the trash pickers. Currently Julia is working on the documentary, editing 3,000-4,000 video clips.
Talk about audacity.
Sometimes, being a journalist requires the impossible. Willie Geist recounts a time he was expected to host a television show from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and make a live appearance on a show next door at 7 a.m. Luckily he had a time turner, more commonly known as a commercial break, sprinting skills and an extra staff member to cover.
Willie Geist co-hosts MSNBS’s Morning Joe and co-anchors The Today Show but hasn’t forgotten that he started out his career by driving a kid-napper style van delivering wine. Willie was candid and humorous as he gave a ballroom full of aspiring journalists advice on working up through the hierarchy of journalism while being true to oneself.
“The right reason [to be a journalist] is because you’re hungry, you’re curious, you’re someone who doesn’t want to be invited to all the cocktail parties,” Geist said. “[Journalists are] people who see injustice, want to know why it’s happening and hopefully change it.”
Willie recommended finding a big-name company like NBC or CNN and starting at a lower job and rising up rather than transferring from company to company laterally. However, he pointed out that rising through the journalism ranks takes patience and time and that many journalists who “make it big” at some point feel stuck in a rut in terms of mobility and progress through the job world.
Some of the wisest and most comforting advice of Willie’s was this: “Writing is the whole deal, if you can write, you are self-sufficient.”
Killing the puppy dogs and the semicolons…and other tight bright writing tips
Tight and bright writing by Peggy Elliott gave advice very similar to William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: think about what you write! As a writer I’ve found it easy to use phrases sewn together by society without thinking about what they mean. Actual truth, barely notice, end result, basic fundamentals, cleverly disguised, erased completely…Why do we use redundancy so eagerly? Because it’s easy. The phrases sound familiar and simple. Why would we question them? Yet this is what the session demands. Kill off the puppy dogs and kitty cats. A puppy can be no other animal than a dog – it’s not necessary for the reader above age five to hear this redundancy.
Peggy also advocated for the death of the semicolon in news writing. While she admitted that her generation was an avid semicolon user, she said our generation uses it too incorrectly to be allowed free reign. Rather than semicolons, Peggy advises splitting long sentences into two separate ones. While I equate the death of semicolons with discrimination against the Oxford comma (one of the more horrible crimes of AP style), I managed to put aside my differences and enjoy and learn from Peggy’s suggestions for better, tighter writing.