Tag: journalism

Advice from the Other Side of the Notebook

Sometimes, stories leave you so speechless, it’s unfathomable you would ever be able write a blog post about them. But you have to. Not because blogging is required coursework, but because some stories demand to be shared.

Angela Anderson came to speak with my Reporting on Traumatic Events class. On July 4, 2012, two of Anderson’s children — 13-year-old Alexandra and 8-year-old Braydon — were fatally electrocuted while swimming in the Lake of the Ozarks.

Hearing Anderson speak about her experience with having the media eye turned onto her and her grieving family was truly enough to send shivers down my spine. Would I ever be able to do that? To cover that kind of breaking news? There has to be something truly terrifying in being a parent who has lost a child. I kept flashing back to my cousin’s funeral and the sight of my aunt half-sprinting out of mass and straight to her car. Could I ever be the reporter who asks for a comment from a parent who has just lost a child?

I’m not sure. My currently flipping stomach tells me no, but Anderson gave our class some first-hand advice that I will certainly take to heart.

The family is human.

In journalism, we have an unfortunate tendency to think of our sources as just that: sources. In traumatic event reporting, the media needs to be especially mindful of treating the humans who are sharing their stories as humans — boundaries, resilience, anger, speechlessness and all. This one is both the most self-explanatory and the most overlooked (in my opinion) in trauma reporting.

Follow-up is hugely important.

Frank Ochberg, acclaimed psychiatrist and Dart Center chairman emeritus, outlines three stages of trauma reporting, but it isn’t a sunny story. Act One is the event itself. The media converge onto the point of impact, and news coverage seems nonstop. Act Two is a focus on the victim’s aftermath. It is full of recovery profiles, cold news on page 6A. Act Three is simply emptiness. As Ochberg describes it, “Sometimes there is no healing after horror.”

There is more to the story.

Fact-checking and a variety of reliable sources are always important in strong news. Even more so in breaking news situations. Even more so in traumatic events reporting. There is the old journalism adage “Don’t be first; Be right.” There are few corrections more heartbreaking to print than those about the death of a child, a fatal car accident or some other traumatic coverage. Accuracy, clarity and correctly nuanced copy is rarely as important as when it concerns a grieving family and community.

Give everything time.

The media pack descends on a community after a traumatic event sometimes makes me think I want to be on the other side, fighting off lede-hungry reporters with a baseball bat. Every person wears grief differently, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t having a hard time grappling with a situation. Patience is key. Understand that a survivor or family member might not want to talk right now, but may share their story two months down the road.

And finally,

Do everything with compassion and consideration for the family.

As I’m reading through this list, I can see that these aren’t exclusive to the journalism world. These are principals we can apply to talking with friends, family members, people next to us on the subway. Talking about painful events is painful for all parties involved, and there is a grace that we can adopt into our conversations. I know I would appreciate it, and there’s a good chance you would too.

It was a heavy 75 minutes, and a truly eye-opening conversation about what it’s like to be on the other side of the reporter’s notebook. Angela, thank you for sharing your story.

Background reading: 


Diving into The Unthinkable

I am in a course this semester called “Reporting on Traumatic Events,” taught by my editor, Katherine Reed. We are looking into not only how to interview victims of traumatic events, but the trauma journalists can experience by telling these people’s stories. One on the components of this class is to blog twice a week about our reading and news topics. My assigned topic that I will be following all semester, as well as writing a (massive) term paper on: shootings in public spaces with multiple victims. As in school shootings.

School shootings.
Oh my god.

I have so many opinions about the politics of shooting aftermaths. I also get super overwhelmed with the idea of 12-year-old walking into his school and opening fire. How am I going to interview a survivor of a shooting without crying or breaking down?

I guess that’s the point of the course: To teach us and guide us through the ever-delicate experience of talking to survivors.

Our reading for this course is incredibly interesting. I’ve started into “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes” by Amanda Ripley, and it reads like a page-turner novel. The first traumatic event discussed in the Mont Blanc explosion in 1917 in Halifax. The series of awful events is jaw-dropping. Just as jaw-dropping is the conclusion that Ripley comes to:

Having studied dozens of plane crashes, I’m more relaxed when I’m flying. And no matter how many Code-Orange-be-afraid-be-very-afraid alerts I see on the evening news, I feel some amount of peace having already glimpsed the worst-case scenario. The truth, it turns out, is usually better than the nightmare.

Even though that’s a terrifying thought, it is oddly soothing. Nothing that I experience will be as bad as the chaos that my imagination creates.

So that’s a good thing…

Stay tuned for more trauma-related posts. I’ll categorize them under “J4301 Posts,” if you’re interested.

Data and Graphics and Maps, Oh My!

(Firstly, can I take this parenthetical space to thank every single human who read my post and/or left a comment and/or followed my blog. Your support is flooring, and I am humbled beyond words.)

“We are so different.”

This is what one of my best friends and roommates (bffmates? room friends?) said to me two weeks ago while we sat in our 9:30 a.m. reporting lecture.

We aren’t that different, in reality. We have been roommates for two years, going on three. We share mutual love for Shakespearean humor, iced coffee and Tom Hiddleston’s face. We have been known to take synchronized doze-off-during-SVU naps. 

We don’t, however, share a love for data journalism.

On this fine Tuesday morning, neither of us had more than 90 minutes of sleep after pulling all-nighters to finish a semester project. We trudged into lecture, half-delirious and all sorts of exhausted. I was clinging to my coffee. Hannah was trying to keep her eyes open. Elise was worried for the both of us.

Mark Horvit, Investigative Reporters and Editors executive director and J-School professor, was guest lecturing. I had seen Horvit lecture a couple times before in lower-level journalism classes. He was funny and engaging, and, coincidentally, married to another one of my favorite journalism professors. Fingers crossed I wouldn’t pass out in the third row (from exhaustion, not from being starstruck).

He was speaking to us about investigative reporting and the art of finding “stuff.” One of his examples was using the advanced search tools within Google. Fun fact: you can search .gov domains for Excel documents. Why does that matter? Because instead of giving you 16.2 million results which are ranked by algorithms and advertising capabilities, Google will give you spreadsheets of government data about oil spills in a specific area.

And that’s just plain awesome.

I let out a whispered, but audible, “whoa” when Horvit pulled up the aforementioned public data. It was at this point when Hannah turned to me and said “We are so different.”

This is not supposed to make her look bad. Hannah is a phenomenal reporter, whose desire to learn and share people’s stories is truly awesome.

She just doesn’t get as excited over data as I do.

Call me nerdy (I’ll take the compliment), but that kind of stuff makes me really happy. I love explanatory graphics, maps and interactive interfaces. I especially love maps with data happening in real-time. There’s something about seeing the creative, visual presentation of important pieces of journalism that really makes me happy to be working in such a dynamic, flexible, ever-growing field.

If you follow my Twitter or have ever spoken with my about my career ambitions, you know I love The Atlantic. My dad has been subscribed to the publication for as many years as I can remember, but I never read it growing up. I think I discounted it, thinking it was gross, boring business journalism, or maybe simply writing that would go over my head (I have recently come to the realization that business journalism doesn’t have to be gross and boring). My love for the magazine bloomed over the last few years as I grew into my journalism shoes. Three articles in particular showcase The Atlantic’s attention to graphics and modern visuals:

  1. The Case Against Cars in 1 Utterly Entrancing GIFThe cdek for this piece is “Dense travel in a dense world makes sense,” which instantly draws you in. While The Atlantic didn’t create the .gif used in this piece, senior editor Derek Thompson contextualizes it, offering statistics and supplemental reading. He also refers to the .gif as “data viz,” which is up there with “charticle” in my list of favorite nerdy journalism words. 
  2. A Real-Time Map of Births and Deaths. When I first saw this online, my jaw dropped and I instantly shared it on Twitter and Facebook. A REAL-TIME MAP OF BIRTHS AND DEATHS? IS THIS REAL? HOLY BUCKETS. Health editor James Hamblin does an excellent job of putting together resources and other links. Check this out, y’all. It’s amazing.
  3. How Three Decades of News Coverage Has Shaped Our View of The World. This piece has a lot of information and three of the most visually-stimulating graphics I’ve seen in recent memory. This is another great example of The Atlantic finding graphics (this time from Oxford and Guardian) to illustrate an otherwise data-heavy article. Sometimes we need a tasteful aggregation of information, and that’s okay.
Screenshots of real-time maps are slightly less exciting...
Screenshots of real-time maps are slightly less exciting…
Thank you, Guardian, for this awesome, awesome, awesome map.
Thank you, Guardian, for this awesome, awesome, awesome map.

The purpose of this blog post is not just to gush about one of my favorite publications, but to point out that I did actually absorb something during beat meetings. My editor Katherine has been working on getting our beat to not rely on words. This seems silly: to tell a room full of writers to use more pictures. We reporters are selfish, and would really rather not relinquish our precious, perfectly-AP-styled words to the graphics desk. But we need to. Not for any more complicated reason than this: sometimes images do what words cannot.

And that’s fine.

The point of journalism is to educate, inform and serve the public for the greater good. If trying to describe proportions or worldwide trends in words doesn’t serve the greater good, that doesn’t make it very good, does it?

The Dizziness of Freedom

(title reference: this Kierkegaard quote)

Angry people are scary. People who are angry with your workplace as a whole can be even scarier.

How does the media deal with unhappy readers? Closer to the issue, how does the Missourian, whose staff writers are all students, deal with people who get mad?

I had a brush today with someone who was full of anger and, more importantly, complete conviction and justification of his anger. I didn’t have answers to his questions. I didn’t know the right path. There was some thinly veiled aggression in this man’s words that instantly made me feel absolutely tiny.

It sent me reeling. My heart is still honest-to-goodness pounding; My hands are still shaking.

This has always been a problem for me. When people get upset or frustrated or the slightest bit aggressive, I start to shut down. Even when I am not involved in the interaction, my heart starts to race. It’s something having to do with my intense dislike of confrontation, mixed with my overwhelming desire for people to get along. I am happy when people are happy. I am stressed when people argue. That’s just how I am.

During my summer job, I had the unfortunate experience of overhearing a very loud, very tense argument between two adult male employees. Not because I was trying to get the scoop on some work drama, but because it was happening less than 100 feet from me. The argument didn’t concern me in the slightest, and yet it hit me like a truck. I had to work all day long to shake the uneasy feeling in my chest over an dispute that wasn’t even mine.

When people ask me what my best quality is, I almost always say empathy. I consider myself very good at seeing situations from a perspective that is not my own. I would like to think this helps my writing by helping me to understand my sources better. I never anticipated it becoming a hinderance. But it has.

Recently, I have been shying away from any sort of conflict. Situations that might bring even the slightest amount of drama into my life fill me with dread. I don’t want to deal with it. I have been struggling so much with my own personal life that the last thing I want is to bring others’ stresses in as well. It makes me want to crawl back into my bed and nap until people are civil to one another again.

Which stresses me out even more.

When is it okay to just not care? Where does the line between budgeting my empathy and apathy lie? Because every time I have a negative experience, I want to swan dive over into apathy and not have to feel misplaced responsibility for other people’s conflicts.

Reading back through this, I sound awful. Very “Woe is me, woe is me. My biggest weakness is caring too much about people. How do I give less of a horse’s rear end about the petty problems of others?”

Which, in reality, is a very, very silly thing to be worried about, much less blogging about to the Internet.

And still, I feel anxious, and my heart is pounding from the man I spoke to half an hour ago.

It may seem silly, and it probably is, and it is also a very real problem for me. I want to travel the world and report on important global issues. If I’m terrified of anger, I will collapse into a puddle before my first byline gets published.

I know that I am not the only person to encounter emotions like this. This is not a uniquely Hanna experience. Reporters with much larger problems than my own are wildly successful. They stare down conflict, watchdog teeth bared, ready to fight to good fight.

I don’t know how to do that yet.

I know what you’re thinking: Hanna, have a little perspective. I am well aware that my social anxiety is not anywhere remotely close to problems like cultures that systematically rape women or children who are abused and neglected by the adults chosen to care for them.

I know that my problems are most likely temporary. I know that I’m probably coming across as whiny and bratty and entitled to my own vision of a “happy-sunshine-rose-colored” world. I know that.

I also know that I don’t want to feel scared anymore.

Staring at this and taking yoga breaths.
Staring at this and taking yoga breaths. I highly recommend calmingmanatee.com for all your anxiety-calming needs.

“Oh hi, Hanna. Hi, honey.”

I wrote my first life story yesterday. It was an experience I won’t soon forget.

For non-Missourian readers, a life story is an extended obituary, celebrating a person’s life. We contact family members and friends, gathering interests and stories. It has a very high probability to be uncomfortable, but it is a Missourian fact-of-life.

During my GA shift Wednesday, I was forwarded an obituary about Ella, a 99-year-old woman who passed away Sunday. I looked up the woman’s daughter’s phone numbers and made some calls.

I wasn’t prepared for what I found.

When I first called, a man answered the phone. I asked for Barbara. He couldn’t understand what I was saying. I thought it might have been my connection, but when a woman’s voice finally came over the phone.

“He’s had two strokes and is so hard of hearing,” she said before anything else. “I don’t know why he keeps trying to answer the phone.”

Reader, meet Barbara.

She went on and on about her mother: disjointed stories, interwoven histories. She talked about how smart her mother was and how she always took care to get very good grades while pursuing her master’s degree in education. She told the story of her parent’s meeting President Truman at an MU football game and becoming fast friends. She talked about her mother’s parties.

“Lord help us, she could cook.”

Ella was 99 when she died. She had lived a full life, and Barbara knew it. Her stories were full of love and appreciation. This was a celebration.

I called back a few times over the day to check facts and ask some clarifying questions. Norris, Barbara’s husband, answered the phone again. There was some shuffling and then Barbara’s voice again.

“Oh hi, Hanna. Hi, honey.”

There’s something about a person you’ve just met remembering your name that’s really special. There is also something really wonderful to be said for having a person actually want to talk to you, not give you the phone-tag run around.

Our interview was winding to an end, and I was thanking Barbara for her time and help, promising her that I would send her a copy of the life story.

“I hope I get to meet you some day, Hanna.”

I can’t tell you how my heart felt when I heard those words. It is another one of those times in my journalistic career where everything I’ve been doing is validated, like the time a student source told me there need to be “more journalists like you.”

I beamed and told her I wished I could meet her too.

“You’ve done such a wonderful job, honey. I really appreciate you writing this story about my mother. I wish I could meet you and give you a hug for all your work. I’m sure my mother would have wanted to give you a hug too.”

Thinking about it again, I am choked up. The idea of having that sort of wonderful impact on someone just through my job is an amazing idea. That I can not only educate or entertain, but improve a life.

Barbara will always be a special person to me. Teasing her husband and talking him up to me. Getting lost in her rant about lost phone numbers. Her candid, genuine story-telling. Her overwhelming respect and love for her mother.

“Alright, honey,” Barbara said as we hung up. “Thank you. God bless you.”

No, Barbara. Thank you.

Screen Shot 2013-10-03 at 8.35.14 PM

(You can read more about Ella Lambert in my story here.)

I Only Get Goosebumps From Everything.

The way it worked was that they joined the Army because they were starry-eyed or heartbroken or maybe just out of work, and then they were assigned to be in the infantry rather than to something with better odds, like finance or public affairs, and then by chance they were assigned to an infantry division that was about to rotate into the war, and then they were randomly assigned to a combat brigade that included two infantry battalions, one of which was going to a bad place and the other of which was going to a worse place, and then they were assigned to the battalion going to the worse place, and then they were assigned to the company in that battalion which went to the worst place of all. If you listen to the eulogies, so much of war is said to be accidental. Poor Harrelson. Wrong place. Poor Cajimat. Wrong time. But for members of Bravo Company, which in 2007 and 2008 spent fourteen months in combat, in a bomb-filled neighborhood in east Baghdad, the war eventually felt like the wrong everything. Twenty-five-year-old Nic DeNinno was in 3rd Platoon. He thought of himself as a patriot who had enlisted in the Army for the noblest of reasons: to contribute and to make some kind of difference. Then he punched his first Iraqi in the face, and pushed his first Iraqi down the stairs. Now he was back in the United States, crying and telling his wife, Sascha, “I feel like a monster.”

Finkel, you brilliant human.
Finkel, you brilliant human.

This is the first paragraph in David Finkel’s “The Return,” a New Yorker piece discussing post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. The paragraph is almost 300 words long. The first line alone is 130 words. It is uncharacteristic and probably not grammatically correct and doesn’t let you stop reading. That’s the beauty of it, though: It doesn’t let you get off the train.

We talked about this lede in my News Reporting lecture on Tuesday. Katherine, my editor and the professor of the class, read the intro, then asked the class what we thought. My hand shot up (surprise).

“It works,” I said. “It takes you on that journey with them. You’re there when they’re starry-eyed and then you’re there when they are in the worst place imaginable. You don’t get to get off the train, just like they didn’t get to get off the train. You’re there with them.”

Of course I have an opinion about it: It gave me goosebumps.

If you know me, you know that I have a lot of feelings. It is not unheard of for me to get choked up at a Stanley Cup Final TV spot or a really restore-your-faith-in-humanity interaction in the airport or someone telling me I’m pretty. It’s in my nature and I’ve stopped trying to fight it.

This piece of writing, though. This intro specifically. It made me shudder all the way down to my toes. Something about using sentence structure to illustrate a delicate, hard-to-face topic is amazing to me.

Let me broaden that statement.
I think what’s truly amazing to me is just how good writing can be.

Every book, article, blog post (hi) or poem you’ve ever read in English is comprised of the same 26 letters. These 26 letters, in all their abstract, intangible glory, can quite literally pack a wallop. I’m sure you’ve had a physical reaction to something you’ve read. Your chest tightens or you laugh out loud or you cry. (If you’ve never cried while reading something, you aren’t reading enough.)

I’m not exactly sure of the point I’m trying to make here. Sometimes (read: all the time), when writing sticks to your soul, you just have to babble about it.

I think this is an ode to prose in mass media. A love letter to like-minded logophiles.

Words connect us across time. They correlate experiences we didn’t think were similar, or differentiate between experiences we thought were comparable. They punch us in the gut. They brighten our day. They make us half-whisper “Wow” in the middle of a bus station or newsroom or coffee shop.

They give us goosebumps.

They don’t let us get off the train.

The Forest For The Trees

If you haven’t seen me for the past three weeks, you will be unaware of the story I’m currently working on for the paper. If you have seen me, you probably know all about it, mostly because I haven’t stopped talking about it. My co-worker Steven and I have been on this story for a three-week sprint. We’re completely immersed. We’re so close to it, have read it so many times, we can’t edit anymore.

There is such a thing as knowing a story too well. forest-for-trees

The main educational takeaway from this story has been organization and mostly how difficult it can be. DJANGO, the program we write and edit in at the Missourian, is not very user-friendly, especially for editing. We resorted to printing out our story and editing it by hands. I know what you’re thinking: how medieval! How rudimentary!


Editing, editing, YEAH.
Editing, editing, YEAH.

I edit papers better when they’re in a physical form. I can read it aloud and mark in the margins. I get to cross things out, draw arrows, practice my proofreading marks. I’m not really sure what took me so long to use the process with my reporting. The dental story is at right about 1,100 words and it slotted to be a centerpiece — it really requires a visual edit.

Reporting is grueling sometimes. One can only call so many dentists until you, your partner and your editor give up. One can only pour over statistics and comma placement and the difference between “higher ratio” and “larger ratio” for so long until your brain turns to mush and your eyes fall out and then you have to go eat dinner and take a nap.

We try to make a valiant effort towards Pulitzer-worthy reporting. We want inner-sanctum sources who open up to us and never-before-seen statistics and clever, clear, concise copy. We can’t always get what we want. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. Sources don’t call us back. Sources aren’t forthcoming. An alien spaceship abducts all the rural dentists in the state and won’t let them call us back.

But hey, we tried, right?

I know. I’m getting used to the idea of settling, too.