Month: July 2014

Naming the Creek

I made another mistake that was brought to my attention almost immediately after posting my previous blog entry. My editor got an email from the press contact for the civil war event notifying us that the creek beside the monument is misidentified in my article.

I called it Auxvasse creek

in my lede.

Every account of the battle of Moore’s Mill that I read or heard from the reenactors mentioned that it was next to Auxvasse creek. It seemed completely obvious to me that the men would have also been buried next to Auxvasse creek. So I didn’t ever bother to ask anyone if the creek that I could see was in fact Auxvasse creek.

It wasn’t. Auxvasse creek is less than a mile away and on the other side of where the battle happened. The mass grave sits beside a smaller stream called Dyers Branch.

Arguably, my lede could still have been accurate, depending on how far you think smoke from cannons can drift before it is totally dissipated. But that is another issue entirely.

The point is, I made a faulty assumption and didn’t verify it. But I learned an important lesson from this almost insignificant mistake.

War During Lifetime

In the spring of 2009, my roommates and I were planning a birthday party for one of my best friends. We were arbitrarily throwing out theme ideas that grew increasingly ridiculous as the conversation went on. Someone would toss out an idea and everyone would respond with laughter and other stupid ideas. The early ideas escape me now, but I remember very clearly suggesting that we throw a Civil War themed party. I laughed, but everyone else got quiet.

“That’s it,” my friend said.

So we throw a very satirical, irreverent Civil War themed birthday party. Its still common for one of us to say, while waxing nostalgic about our college days, that the Civil War party was one of the better parties.

So when an editor asked if anyone wanted to go to a dedication ceremony for a Civil War memorial, I jumped on it.

I won’t go into details here about what the actual event is, you can check it out on the Mo’an website here

But I learned some important lessons while working on this piece.

Although I spent a lot of time researching the battle that happened there, I had only written a few grafs of b-material before leaving for the event. When we didn’t get back until after 4, I didn’t have a lot of time to write. Consequently, the story didn’t get to the copy desk until after 8 (which in my defense is pretty fast for a 50 inch story). I definitely should have written a lot more of the stuff I could have gotten without going to the event before going to the event. That way it would have been a much quicker turn when I got back to the news room.

Telling “boring” stories

On Wednesday the newsroom received a vague yet exciting press release from the Columbia Police Department. It was to notify us that the department would be holding a press conference that afternoon to unveil an exciting new technology that the are employing to aid in the fight against crime.
Being journalists, our speculation was kept to a minimum, but I am sure everyone’s first thought was something to do with weapons or armored cars.
It was my first time at a press conference held by a police chief. The turn out was not quite what I imagined. The city council chamber, where it was held, was all but empty and there were more police officers than press (i think there were three other reporters). I don’t remember seeing any non-journalist civilians.
The assistant chief of police approached the podium and began to speak deliberately. Waiting for him to get to the “exciting new technology,” my mind continued to speculate.
“We are excited to announce that this Columbia Police Department officers will begin using Taser…”
“Tasers!” I thought. I was surprised they didn’t have them before and wondered how quickly we’d start seeing reports of taser-happy officers over using the allegedly more humane weapons.
Then the chief finished his sentence: “… Axon body cameras.”
It turns out Taser International is the misleading name of a company that manufactures wearable surveillance cameras. The stated reasons for buy 102 of these little black cameras that are worn on the chest were that they reduce complaints, provide clearer accounts and documentation of police-citizen interactions and, ideally, reduce the number of cases that actually go to trial.
I went back to the newsroom and wrote my little 10 inch story. It had all the factually information but my inner poetry major was kicking at me. It was a really boring read. All of the information I had to report had come from what the chief said and a two minute interview with another officer. Save for a brief description of what the camera looks like, the story had no imagery. Almost every graf ended with ” Chief Gordon said.” Very dry.
But being 5 p.m., I wasn’t going to sit there and try to turn it into the most beautiful, flourishing prose about body cameras. We published, and I went home.
The next morning I got several compliments on it and discovered it was among the most read articles all day.
In my selfish desire to write pretty words I had forgotten something(s): People really care about what the police are doing and they don’t need it to be presented beautifully so long as the get the information they want. The article I wrote, while not satisfactory to my own aesthetic standards, was informative and helpful, and most importantly, served the reader. It did what good journalism is supposed to do.

Update: the story is still on the “most-read stories” at http://www.columbiamissourian.com/

Covering the border

Maybe it’s because I’m from Texas, but immigration is a subject I’m greatly interested in, especially as a subject for future reporting and writing projects. This is why 99% of the reporting I’ve seen related to the influx of unaccompanied minors attempting to cross the U.S./Mexico border has been making me sick. 

The standard format for stories on these refugees (because this is a refugee issue, not an immigration issue) seems to be something like this:

1. Metaphor like flood or wave that makes children seeking help sound like a biblical plague.

2. Quotes from republicans accusing president Obama of being soft on illegal immigration (ignoring the fact more immigrants have been deported under this administration than any other in history).

3. Quotes from democrats accusing republicans of blocking meaningful immigration reform (still pretending to be the party of the people).

4. Picture of Rick Perry and Sean Hannity with guns policing the border.

5. Very little mention of what conditions are like in Honduras or El Salvador. Complete absence of any historical context or mention of American foreign policy or IMF policy that have affected Latin American economies. Maybe some blame on Latin American parents who send their kids to the border. 

 

It is frustrating to see a legitimate humanitarian crisis framed as a debate in Washington. Who cares what those white guys are saying to score political points.

 

A few notable exceptions to the bad press:

David Bacon, In These Times: http://inthesetimes.com/article/16919/8_reasons_u.s._trade_and_immigration_policies_have_caused_migration_from_ce

Cindy Carcamo and Molly Fiske in the LA Times:

http://www.latimes.com/world/mexico-americas/la-fg-ff-honduras-border-20140709-story.html#page=1

http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-texas-immigrant-children-20140618-story.html#page=1

Todd Miller:

http://toddwmiller.wordpress.com

Texas Tribune:

http://www.texastribune.org/race-and-immigration/

 

Ear to ground

Today I got sent to look into a tip on a story related to a big storm that blew through town last night. One of my colleagues received an email this morning from a friend who had heard on the police scanner last night something about dogs getting rescued from house upon which a tree had fallen.

I drove over to the house, finding it pretty well smashed up by a huge maple tree that fell over on it. There were two broadcast reporters there from some TV stations. They were talking to the landlord and shooting B-roll. I got a word with the landlord, who told me the house was ruined and would be demolished soon. He pointed me in the direction of the tenant, who he said had just moved in the day before. 

Well, I thought, that makes the story more interesting. 

The tenant had refused to be on camera, giving me the first interview with him. I asked him basic questions about how long he’d been in the house, how he found the tree on his house, about the dogs. Then he said something that really got my attention: “I had just wrecked my car on the way home, but wanted to check on the dogs.”

Wait, you wrecked your car the same night?

As it turns out, he had left work early because the storm took out the power at pizza shop he works at. On his way home, with no streetlights, he had collided with a downed tree that was laying across the entire east-bound side of the street. The car, he said was totaled. He managed to get a ride home from his mother, only to discover that another tree had collapsed and destroyed his house he had just moved in to.

He managed to get inside the house, where luckily the dogs were unhurt. But all of his belongings were ruined by the rain.  

This unbelievable story is here: http://www.columbiamissourian.com/a/176561/columbia-man-totals-car-driving-home-in-storm-finds-tree-on-house/

I’m attributing my getting this unbelievable story to two things:

1. Paying attention and not letting the car wreck thing pass me by.

2. My being a dog person. Having lost all of his material belongings last night, the guy could have understandably brushed me off. But by being sympathetic and telling him I also have a big dog that I rescued, he opened right up to me and gave me all the information I needed.

 

Going to court

Today I volunteered to attend a court hearing and take over covering a murder case that has been on going. The case was finally set to go into a four-day jury trial on July 15, but today there was some hearing ambiguously described on CaseNet as just “Hearing.”

The case is intrigued me, and I was pretty thrilled by the thought of covering it. The defendant is accused of hiring a friend to murder his boyfriend after allegedly forging the boyfriend’s will and testament and power of attorney. The boyfriend had one a court case worth $4.9 million back in 2008 after he was injured in a fire. Prosecution has evidence that the decedent lied about his whereabouts on the date of the crime, testimony from the notary public/friend of the defendant who had become a notary for the sole purpose of notarizing the documents and evidence that the defendant had pawned about $18,000 in gold items stolen from the victim’s house. What’s more, there was a gun in the defendant’s sister’s car with a clip missing 3 bullets (the same number that killed the victim).

Walking to the courthouse I imagined this dark tale of romance that turned violent as the result of greed. This could be my segue into the true crime genre. When I saw the defendant, who was about my age, overweight and smiling arrogantly in the courtroom, my interest was further piqued. He didn’t look at all as I’d imagined him, which further stirred my curiosity. He seemed like the kind of interesting character who could carry this dark murder mystery.

As the defense attorney announced the reason for the hearing, however, it quickly became apparent that I won’t be reporting this story this summer. The defense requested a continuance in order to be adequately prepare for a trial in which there is a lot of evidence and which is anticipated to take a full week. The judge approved postponing the trial until at least December.

Daily reporting

The leisurely life of work at quarterlies, monthlies and even weeklies seems like a distant dream.
This week I began reporting for the Columbia Missourian, a daily paper. I really can’t remember the last time I had to research, report, write and submit an article the same day it was assigned. I don’t mind working under pressure, but the anxiety of trying to write accurate, interesting and informative prose with a quickly approaching deadline is going to be a challenge for me this summer.
Yesterday morning my editor walked into the newsroom and asked if anyone wanted to take an arts story. “I’ve written articles about art shows and retrospectives, presented essays on Turner and Rembrandt and have read a ton of John Berger and Jalal Toufic,” I thought and I raised my hand to volunteer.
This assignment, it turned out, was about a summer art camp for fourth and fifth graders, not the kind of thing I’ve worked on before. By the time I got in contact with the school and arranged for a photographer to go with me it was already 1:30. With the students leaving at 3, the same time the photographer needed to be at a different shoot, I was left with just a little over an hour to observe the program, talk to the teachers and the administrator and try to get some interesting quotes out of the children.
With so many children running around, the environment at the school was not the ideal place for this cub reporter to start reporting a quick turn. But I got what information I could, saw some of the music rehearsal and spoke with a few kids.
Turning all of this into 16-inches of accurate and interesting, fairly clean copy by 5 was another challenge. The newsroom was bustling with activity and my editor regularly walked past my desk to check in. Longing for my quiet, far-off cubicle at Texas Parks & Wildlife or even the all female office at Austin Monthly in which no one paid attention to me, I did my best to focus and crank it out without getting distracted by all the action in the Missourian newsroom.
After some initial trouble logging into Django and the correction of a few careless misspellings, I turned in the story to my editor. After all the trouble, I was surprised to realize I had been stressed out so much by a 500 word story.

Did I Learn Anything?:
– Observing, analyzing and reporting quickly are invaluable skills that I really hope to develop this summer.
– Writing elegantly and stylishly is only important if the story is turned in on time. Getting correct information out on deadline takes precedence over aesthetic flourishes.