Public information and the blurred lines of journalism
I learned so much this past week reporting for my cover story The Art of Design that there was no way I could ever get it all in. Coming up against my deadline, and with the story pushing 2600 words, I decided to let it rest and hope it adds something to the public conversation.
Toward the end of my interview with Elsewhere’s Patrick McDonnell he men tioned serendipity and the excitement of discovering something quite by accident. He gave a small incredulous laugh when he mentioned serendipity, as if in ironic jest to the fact that in this day and age we are supposed to know everything already, be a superinformed insider or run the risk of being looked down upon.
That’s too bad, in my view, because serendipity leads to a lot of beauty.
In the 15 years since I first went to work at a newspaper full-time, I’ve made a lot of accidental discoveries. It’s often the result of asking basic questions and then sitting back, listening and waiting to see where the source wants to go.
Now don’t get me wrong, often times, especially with government officials, they want to control their responses, offering simple answers to complex questions, which, if asked the wrong way, open themselves up to yes/no responses. It’s very frustrating, and I learned early on to ask the simpler questions, probing for background, pausing to ask for context, which often can lead the source to reveal the thing they wish to remain hidden.
Greensboro is the largest news market I’ve yet to work in, and the learning curve has been steepest when it comes to cultivating sources. I learned early on that government functions the same in a large city like Greensboro as it does in some of the smaller cities I’ve covered in North Carolina and Virginia. It’s just that the powers that be are less forthcoming with newcomers, more prone to sticking with what they know.
Frustrated in my attempts last summer to find an angle in covering the news here, I decided upon the public documents strategy. I couldn’t get answers to a lot of the questions I had about the Heritage House situation last summer and so I moved on to other stories and let the condemnation process play itself out. Then I went back behind and made an email and documents request through the City of Greensboro.
I hesitate to share my specific methodologies, or the results of my request, but suffice it to say that I learned more about the function of government in the City of Greensboro via that records request than I had in five months of work.
Similar discoveries have revealed themselves in requests related to the redevelopment project at South Elm/ Union Square and the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, among others. Using the email conversations and supporting documents gleaned via these requests, I’ve attempted to use narrative techniques learned while studying fiction in order to craft engaging stories about public issues.
The recent three-part series I completed on the demise of the parklets project spearheaded by Downtown Greensboro Inc. is another example. I kept hearing talk of tension related to the idea of simple public seating areas along a section of Elm Street. No one would talk officially for fear of stepping on the wrong toes, but once I made the public information request, I stepped into a whole new world of insider information. I joked during the research and writing of those stories that I felt like Tron navigating the connective digital tissue of multiple conversations happening in real time.
It’s not that I’m looking for some “gotcha” moment of discovery. That’s what most lay people assume a journalist wants. But in reality, what I want is a good story, full of tension and policy discussions that elevate the public’s understanding of important issues.
We need more critical analysis, and much, much less cheerleading from the press in Greensboro. Too often I can’t tell if pieces in competing publications are objective journalism or political advocacy. The lines are blurred when journalists advocate for their friends, or continually harp on the shortcomings of a former employer, or, worse still, start selling t-shirts that take one side over the other in a political discussion.
I couldn’t imagine, as a reporter, posting on my Facebook page urging readers to contact a legislator to advocate that he vote a certain way.
The effectiveness of watchdog journalism is undermined when reporters forget their objectivity. In this current age of political advocacy via social media link sharing, the public needs to be able to tell the reporter from the political hack.
The freedom to discover new things is lost when the public assumes auto- matic bias in the writing of a member of the free press. !