Stories from the College Fellows summer program
The light around me is suddenly extinguished. My spirits drop, failure taking the place of naive expectations. The camera hanging at my side taps my rib cage, harder with every frantic step. I look around in a panic. In a moment the world of journalism has shifted and for the first time I feel like quitting.
I was standing in the middle of a drum circle on Treasure Island at sunset visually covering a story for the first time and all I could think was, Where’s my notebook. After coming off a successful story just 24 hours earlier, I proudly declared that I would not write that week and instead produce a Soundslides show, where I’d edit audio and photos and combine them in a program I had no idea how to use.
Don’t worry Dwayne, I thought confidently. You have a room full of technological geniuses at your disposal. This will be a cinch. Right? Wrong.
Unfortunately, my attempt at visual conquest was void of one simple fact. I had no idea how to use a camera. I entered the project ready to take pictures for Facebook or my grandmother’s scrapbook, not for a professional publication.
Let’s retreat back in time and set the stage for the nervous breakdown that followed once I removed my writing hat and donned that of a photojournalist.
My father is a computer programmer. More like a computer demigod. And my archenemy, for reasons my mother refers to as “personality cloning.” So growing up I detested everything that was a part of his repertoire.
Megabytes, gigabytes, programming and system analysis were completely abhorrent. My father made many attempts to pass down his trade and failed miserably. While he described how he assembled and programmed the computer that still sits in our basement, I’d be elsewhere mentally, deciding what outfit to where to that night’s school dance or what would become of Ross and Rachael in the next “Friends” episode. He soon realized I was a lost cause and these moments began to disappear.
Becoming a true Freudian example, I entered adulthood subconsciously detesting all that was high-tech. So when I was handed a Canon Rebel digital camera and unpacked the Marantz digital recorder, a familiar wave of nausea set in.
Not willing to panic just yet, I called on colleague Erik Oeverndiek, who gave me a crash course in contrast and lighting.
“If it’s going to be dark, you want to make sure to set your ISO pretty high,” Erik said.
“What’s an ISO?” I asked.
“It’s the film speed,” Erik said. My brow furrowed in confusion, signaling him to continue. “The higher the ISO, the more light comes into the camera when you take the picture.”
“So what lens should I use?” I said, massaging the creases in my forehead.
“It doesn’t really matter, just depends on how close you want to get,” Erik said, handing me the camera.
“Why are there so many buttons? What are all these icons for?” I said, the nausea returning. Oh God, what was I thinking? I can’t do this, I thought as my mind reeled.
Fifteen minutes later I was just as unskilled, but at least I had some clue what I was about to take on. So I bounded out the door, swinging my bag of technical equipment at my side like a schoolboy on his first day of kindergarten.
At first, all was well on the technical front. I was taking pictures, talking it up with the drummers and their wives, getting ambient audio, and was even at one point pulled into the middle of the drum circle to dance by an intoxicated middle-aged woman.
As the sun set and the gathering of rhythmic inebriation reached its peak, I lifted the camera as I’d done 53 times before, aimed into the crowd and pressed the button.
I looked at the screen and an error messaged flashed menacingly, as if the camera was plotting its hostile takeover.
I frantically pressed the black button to no avail. I felt the cold hard claws of defeat begin to take hold. I pulled out my phone and called Jason Fritz, the photographer on my beat. As I reached into my pocket I also realized my notebook was now missing. My eyes welled with tears. While retracing my steps, Jason finally picked up the phone.
“Oh my God, Jason, I’m having a nervous breakdown,” I sobbed into the phone. “The camera isn’t working, the last few pictures I took are blurry, it’s flashing some error message at me, and to top it all off I’ve lost my notebook that has all the names of everyone I took pictures of.”
“Dwayne, calm down,” Jason said, slightly giggling on the other line. “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll find your notebook. I’ll head back to the newsroom and try to find a manual or something.”
“OK,” I said, sounding like my 7-year-old niece after spilling her milk.
I hung up the phone and went back to look for my notebook, which was poking out of the sand a few feet from the crowd. As I was digging it out of the ground my phone buzzed against my leg. Jason hadn’t found a manual but suggested I put the camera on the automatic setting and turn on the flash. But 42 more clicks later my ineptitude failed me again and the camera shut off.
The screen was now flashing an icon signaling the battery had died. Of course I had not thought to bring a spare. A small tear fell down my cheek. Why did I think I could ever do this?
I gathered my composure. Camera be damned, I’m getting this story. I took out the recorder and pulled the lead drummer to the side to grill him on everything he knew about the event. I also went back to record more ambient sound before heading to my car.
Though I may have lost the battle, I wasn’t going to lose the war. I got back to the newsroom, my spirits low, but fought the urge to reach for the pen and went through my pictures with Jason. He suggested I go to bed and continue my fight the next morning.
I awoke with a vengeance, ready to divide and conquer. I solicited the help of Poynter visual coaches Kenny Irby and Sara Quinn, who offered constructive criticism that propelled my project forward. I locked myself in the computer lab with Jason and learned how to edit my photos in Photoshop, how to edit my audio on Soundtrack Pro, and how to compile it all in Soundslides. I was a man on a mission and not even my own self-doubt would stop me.
In the end, I produced a 2-minute audio recording in sync with a couple dozen photos. My father has yet to see the project. Hopefully my exploration of the multimedia frontier will lead me to the conquest of another, namely our flailing relationship. My mother, however, was elated at the fact that she found the Web site on her own, making my Soundslides show a postmodern masterpiece.
After a life of cringing at new programs and avoiding technology, I’ve finally destroyed that unconscious uncertainty and replaced it with a craving for the unknown.
I’m now ready to take on journalism multimedia with a determined fervor.
Watch out, Flash, here I come. Read more
I sat in the lounge of the dorm as my colleagues debated whether to spend their last Friday night at a bar or go see a movie. I was scared.
To the left, I eavesdropped on a conversation between two visual journalists, both members of the Poynter Institute’s 2007 summer fellowship. One of them, Tory Hargro, was interviewed by a large daily and was confident about his performance. He felt good because at the end of the interview, the editor asked him to take a drug test.
“Oh yeah, and they did the background check,” he said.
Background check? His words sent me slinking into the corner of the of the industrial-quality couch. I clasped my hands over my mouth and whispered to God to take away the pain below my gut.
Please, God, tell me I’m not doomed. Promise me that this amazing experience wasn’t actually the quiet sunny eye of the hurricane.
The clouds have rolled in before, after another promising interview with a newspaper.
I’ve seen the results of my background check. It’s a laser-printed black text on white paper circled with a yellow highlighter.
Conviction, Pima County Superior Court, June 27, 2003.
I have a felony.
For those who knew me in the five years leading up to my arrest, this is no surprise. Everything bad that happened came with a warning, a wag from the finger of God telling me to not do it again.
A cop once let me off after pulled me over for screaming 153 mph on the freeway in my Mitsubishi Eclipse. I was 19, returning from the bars in Canada and was going fast enough that not even his cruiser, which was equipped with a throaty 5.7-liter Corvette engine, could catch me.
Fast-forward to October 2000 and into November 2001. I got busted three times for driving under the influence. After the third arrest I was charged with felony endangerment because my SUV collided with two teens in an old up pickup truck. I spent 119 days in jail and got on top of my addiction to alcohol.
I parlayed my story into an award-winning feature I wrote for Tucson Weekly. The state liked my story so much they created a television public service announcement starring me. With all that behind, I was sanctified from the evil spirits that ruled my life.
I still have a felony.
The issue came up at Poynter the first day I was touring the beat with my team. We were discussing a conversational centerpiece of my car, the ignition interlock. It looks like a universal remote, sounds like a vintage handheld game and requires that I submit to breath tests while driving to prove I’m not drunk. One of my teammates, photojournalist Jason Fritz, asked, “Don’t you think newspapers are going to look into your past and not want to hire you?”
I shrugged off his assumptions with the assurance that Poynter wouldn’t have accepted me if they thought I was hopeless. The faculty knows everything; the legal saga was the foundation of my application portfolio. But deep inside it ate at the pit of my stomach, a piranha with fiery teeth, like the ulcer I got from thinking about it all the time and starving myself because I worried so much.
“I don’t know, man,” Fritz said. “Newspapers have to be pretty careful about that.”
Maybe he was right. Maybe it was a mistake to quit my newsroom job in Tucson and drive more than 2,000 miles to get the snot beat out of me by editors for six weeks. Maybe this was another blunder I should add to the mountainous pile of reasons to give up and go to a vocational school just like my high school counselor suggested.
Poynter washed away those fears for a while. The first few weeks were time to bask in my love for journalism and take on the opportunity to get better at it. It took me a couple of weeks to let my guard down, stop obsessing about my dream jobs and tackle the structural gremlins that plagued my copy. The day of triumph finally came when writing coach Kelly McBride edited my last beat-reporting assignment.
“This fellowship has been a soaring success for you,” McBride said. My first story was a mess. It wasn’t even published. My last piece cleared the editing process in record time.
Redemption was in sight.
A few days later I found out a few of the newspaper recruiters requested interviews with me.
I could almost taste it.
Then, that night in the dorm’s lounge, Hargro’s conversation inadvertently reinforced the shame that comes with doing something stupid enough to be officially labeled a criminal.
I have a felony.
Several editors and recruiters have reassured me that if I am honest and upfront, many newsrooms will still be willing to give me a shot. However there are these dark moments, when logic fails me, when the shame and embarrassment of my past dominate my thoughts. That’s when I convince myself that no one will hire me, no matter how badly I want to tell stories about people, their lives and their communities.
I spent that night and following morning scrawling notes on the only legal pad I brought from home. It’s my connection tablet, my time to ask God questions. The following afternoon, the answer came from my closest friend here, writing fellow Kalen Ponche.
“You’re not the only one freaking out, Arek,” Ponche said softly with a smile, her head tilted in reassurance. “You can’t say you’re different from everyone else.”
She was right. All of us are afraid of something as we step back into the world, whether it’s not having enough experience, enough personality to connect with readers or enough chances to get the attention of recruiters.
Hargro is a minister and a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I asked him what he feared and he paused from his usual hypnotized glare into another fantastic Web project. His eyes gazed toward the windows of the newsroom. He fears his career will get in the way of his relationship with God.
But fear not, he told me. The decisions I made from that point onward reflect who I am today. One mistake seared into my history in the eyes of an Arizona court is forgivable in the eyes of God.
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows, Matthew 10:29:31.
I went to Mass for the first time in more than a year. The homily fit like Cinderella’s slipper: Don’t judge yourself by your successes but by the pain and anguish you went through to get there.
Fame, fortune and glamour no longer matter. My life as a journalist is devoted to using the same strength that got me through conviction, jail time and humiliation. Now I want to stick up for the underdogs of society who live in communities facing great turmoil, cities like Detroit, Memphis and New Orleans. I was brought here for that reason.
I will never forget it and my felony.
I will also never forget how much it’s helped me. Read more
I felt utterly alone as I stared at the blue stained glass and the white chapel doors. I struggled to breathe through the stifling heat that seeped in from outside. The only sound was our own footsteps. When I placed a hand on the door to see if it was open, I felt a twist of fear tugging my stomach.
The door was locked. I released the handle, nothing changed, and the air was still hot enough to fry in. My colleague led the way as I retreated from the hall, back into the safety of the air-conditioned main building.
The small Christian church sat on the edge of St. Pete Beach. The cool lobby offered shelter from the hot Florida sun. The hall that led to the chapel was a different story entirely, gathering the heat and condensing it into a choking veil. Combining that fact with the twisting sensation in my stomach, I felt more comfortable looking at the church than stepping inside.
I have hardly ever been in a place of worship that was not part of my own Mormon faith. The religious world outside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was one that I had studied but never experienced. It felt wrong for a good Mormon girl from Idaho to barge into a church where I did not understand the beliefs. It felt especially wrong to try and learn about a community I didn’t know from a church I’d never attended and likely would never visit again.
But there I was as Arek Sarkissian, a reporter on my team, spoke to the secretary, asking about story ideas and if the pastor would be back soon. He stepped forward, shook hands, offered his business card. I said nothing, stayed behind him, and watched the walls, looking at pictures of pastors and leaders I didn’t know. A clock on the wall ticked out the seconds, which lasted longer than they should have.
Most of my life was spent in Idaho Falls, Idaho, a town with a population of 50,000 people. We are predominantly LDS. I was a member of the Mormon majority, with LDS churches dotting the city every few blocks. From that world of comfort, I moved into another at Brigham Young University, a school run by the church. I took the security of being surrounded by thousands of Mormons for granted. Many weeks I would not attend church at all, finding some excuse to stay home or spend the entire day at work, either unmotivated or looking to do other things.
And from there, to Poynter. St. Petersburg was a country away from home.
My father and I flew into Atlanta on May 31, a Thursday. We bought a used car and began the drive to St. Petersburg early Saturday. By the time Sunday rolled around, Dad had flown home and I had to adjust to both unfamiliar weather and an unfamiliar social climate. I was no longer in the Mormon majority of home. I had gone from Idaho, a place where I made excuses to stay home from church, to Florida, where I wanted nothing more than to know where a church was.
Only days later, Arek and I found the little United Church of Christ chapel while we were looking for story ideas, and my apprehension grew as I climbed the steps. You could smell the ocean from where we stood; the humid air only magnified the scent. There was a winding, mazelike path printed on the cement before the door. I would not step inside it, walking a circle around it for fear of being condemned a Mormon.
Since my childhood, many of the non-Mormons I’d met defined themselves as opponents of my church. When we went to Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics, they were everywhere, handing out pamphlets and books, carrying signs, telling me I was going to hell. Most of them were Evangelical Christians. I’ve always been afraid of meeting more people like that.
When we entered the church on the beach, Arek led the way to the hall that held the chapel, and I followed. I didn’t want to be left behind in such a strange place.
The smell was gone, but the heat remained, smothering without the sea breeze to cushion it. I stared at the stained glass panels. I waited for the Mormon detector to go off. I worried that someone would appear from within the chapel walls, recognize me instantly as a nonbeliever, and condemn me for defiling their church. But nothing happened, except that Arek turned around and headed back into the main building.
He spoke to the secretary, and I waited, watching the doors that led outside and wishing we would just leave. My discomfort grew with each passing minute. Finally Arek thanked the secretary and again led the way out. Even then, I said little. I walked the same circle around the labyrinth on the way out.
The next weeks I spent changing myself. I adapted to the Florida heat. I stopped wearing sunscreen. My religion became a topic of conversation a few times, and I became more comfortable with my faith by talking about it. I discovered that not every non-Mormon thinks my church is evil. I spoke to people I had never known and came to regard them as friends and advisers. I prepared to move out into a world that scared me, changing my skills as I had changed myself.
I visited the church once more, parking my car under the same tree. I strolled up the sidewalk, my pace slowing bit by bit, and I could not bring myself to go further than the steps. The church loomed over me, and, swallowing once, I turned and walked back to my car. For all that I had grown, I was still unable to step into that place. I did not look back as I drove away, afraid that someone would be judging me as I went.
When I met Dan, he told me to tuck in my shirt. Look sharp. For the purposes of my story I’d asked to help him move pianos around St. Petersburg. He agreed, but he didn’t want his customers thinking he’d hired some schlep to help.
If I looked like a schlep, it was because I’d been waiting for him to show up for about 30 minutes, pacing the parking lot as I looked for his truck. When he finally arrived, he handed me his card. Dan the Piano Man, it read. And beneath his name: Piano Movers Who Care, with a list of piano-oriented jobs – tuning, renting and playing.
As we pulled away, I saw a single rain cloud, one of the sky-swallowing beasts native to Florida. The kind that turn a normal afternoon into a biblical disaster.
When it began to pour, Dan and I were rolling a 600-pound upright piano into the flatbed of his truck.
Any approximation of neatness had gone out the window at this point. My hair stuck to my forehead. My glasses were spotted with rain drops. My notebook flapped from my back pocket, its pages soaked.
How I ended up there, standing in the flatbed of an idling truck with a 60-year-old piano mover yelling orders at me as his customers, a young married couple, watched from the safety of their home – I don’t know.
I’m trying to figure that out.
I wasn’t the stereotypical kid-journalist who blurted out questions at the dinner table, who constantly raised his hand in class, who accosted complete strangers in the grocery store. I was curious, like most children, only I didn’t ask many questions.
When I was 5, my mother told me I’d be a preacher. She was sitting in the kitchen; I’d just walked in from my bedroom. She said it with a casual certainty, and with no precipitation that I can remember. Its suddenness made it all the more prophetic. Part of me believed her, wanted to know how she could know such a thing. The other half of me knew she was wrong.
And she was.
First of all, we didn’t go to church. And like a lot of kids, I wanted to draw, to make cartoons.
She knew that.
I remember this moment from my childhood whenever I consider what I eventually chose to do – journalism. Just after high school, my sister helped me get a job writing obituaries. I told people’s stories. In short declarative sentences, I described how a person got from Point A (birth), to Point B (death).
Sometimes those stories weren’t interesting. Other times they were.
Which brings me back to Dan.
At his shop, where he sells pianos, he explained to me that people identify themselves through the work they do. In Dan’s case, he used to be a clown, then a cop. He was forced to resign after he fell asleep during a midnight patrol. He’d also gotten his car stuck in sand and, on another occasion, ran out of gas.
After he resigned, he worked a score of other jobs. Identities. He drove taxis, managed a McDonald’s. He collected urine samples as a probation officer’s aide. But through everything, all the ups and downs, he played music.
It was his Point A to Point B.
He says his job is boring. But take away pianos, and I know he’d be just as crushed as he was when he resigned from the police force. It was the silver lining he always missed, and the one he eventually found. It just took him 30 years – half his life – to find it.
Here’s what I’m trying to say:
If people identify themselves through their work, then Dan’s life, his Point A to Point B, has been a process of elimination. A series of trials and errors. And for me to tell his story is to live vicariously through his eyes, to try on all the hats he’s worn, one by one, until I’m just as happy to sit at a piano as he is.
For me to help him move pianos is to stand in his place for a moment, to better understand him.
After sitting down to piece together his story from a batch of rain-damaged notebooks, I’m reminded that writing about someone else’s life reveals part of your own. You’re telling it in your voice. You’re limited to your vocabulary, to your experiences. But in the end, if you’ve done it right, you own that story almost as much as the person who actually lived it.
It’s a familiar feeling, one I used to get in small doses as I memorialized a person in a 10- or 12-inch obituary. As I set someone else’s life down in words, my own story comes into sharp focus. I can see myself through the eyes of a 60-year-old piano mover. I can see myself drenched, shirt untucked, wiping the water from my glasses.
That’s what I was doing in the flatbed of that truck, taking orders from a man I’d known for only half an hour.
Journalism is my retribution for not asking questions as a kid.
It’s my Point A to Point B.
I’m just thankful it didn’t take 30 years to find. Read more
The water is calm. The sun beams through the morning clouds. The air is thick and moist. The only sound comes from our shoes. The rubber soles slapping the concrete sidewalk.
We’ve been running for 29 minutes. I’m tired, out of practice, out of shape.
Eight years of competitive running ended in early May with my final race as a Western Washington University Viking. I’ve been running since junior high. Once I reached high school, I was hooked. I trained all the time. Early morning runs. Afternoon runs. And sometimes, late night runs. I couldn’t get enough. I was always running.
My obsession carried through to college where I ran cross-country and track for Western. I ended my college running career with two grueling races, a 10-kilometer and a 5-kilometer, in two days. My body ached after racing more than 9 miles in less than 24 hours. After that, I decided my body and my mind needed a break from the stresses of year-round training and competing. For a month, I barely ran.
Running has always been my stress reliever. The first week of Poynter was full of stressors – a new program, a competitive atmosphere, tons of deadlines, long hours, new people. I realized that running would be the only way I could unwind. I ran twice the following week. I wasn’t used to the humidity or to being horribly out of shape. My asthma flared up which made running a constant struggle, but I needed to clear my head. I had trouble motivating myself to wake up early when I knew it would make my lungs burn, my chest tighten and my legs throb. It seemed like a better idea to just hit the snooze button.
Then one afternoon Tracy Boyer, one of my Poynter teammates, invited me to run with her. The next morning I woke up at 6:45, laced up my shoes and took two puffs from my albuterol inhaler. After 29 minutes of running, I realized what I already suspected. I was tired, out of practice, out of shape. Then Tracy said something that horrified me at the time.
“Do you want to pick it up for the last minute?”
Are you crazy? I thought. I can barely breathe. I definitely cannot pick up the pace now.
“Uh, sure,” I answered.
I couldn’t admit to Tracy that I was too exhausted to go faster. So despite the sluggish feeling in my legs, I picked up the pace. That one minute felt like five.
“You can’t burn any calories if you always run the same pace,” Tracy explained after we finished. “That’s why I try to push myself at the end.”
I could care less about burning calories. I don’t run to lose weight, I run because my body has become addicted to it. I don’t need to push the pace at the end.
Later that day I thought about what Tracy had said.
You can’t burn any calories if you always run the same pace.
While it’s true I don’t care about calories or losing weight, I couldn’t stop thinking about her logic for running faster at the end. For pushing yourself when it would be easier to stay steady and comfortable.
Later that day I was going through the editing process for my second story at Poynter. I wasn’t excited about my story, but I didn’t hate it either. I was indifferent. Like my first story, it was a profile piece. It was about a local church and its unique ways of appealing to adolescents.
Maybe Tracy had a point. How can you ever burn calories running the same pace? How am I ever going to improve if I keep writing these safe profile pieces?
Before coming to Poynter, it had been more than a year since I had consistently written for a publication. I was stale, out of shape, out of practice. I would never improve if I allowed myself to stay complacent with my profile stories.
The staleness and complacency of my writing gnawed at me as I began reporting for my third story. This time I was determined to try something new. I had taken numerous journalism classes that stressed the importance of finding one person’s story in order to shed light on a larger issue. I always knew of the technique. I always ignored it.
When I took on a story about the lousy real estate market in Pinellas Point, I wanted to test my reporting and writing skills the way Tracy’s last-minute sprint tested my legs and my lungs. I didn’t want to just tell the story. I wanted to tell it in a new way. I wanted to push past my comfort zone. I found Jenny Heath, whose Florida home has been on the market for seven months, and let her tell the story of financial hardships during a real estate lull. I was winded by the end of the effort.
The following week I ran into blockades as I tried to write about a local transitional housing shelter. I changed the focus of my story multiple times. At first I planned to write about the house closing down and the impact on the community. I wanted to challenge myself. But I felt overwhelmed by the setbacks with the story. I was mentally prepared to tackle one story, but not necessarily to have to fight just to get to the story.
Roadblocks are not new to me. In eight years of running I’ve had two stress fractures, numerous shin splits, strained hip flexors and enough nagging injuries to make anyone want to throw in the towel. Instead, I gave my injuries time to heal and bounced back stronger.
I was about to call it quits on my story about the shelter. I was on deadline and didn’t think I could face any more setbacks and still have a story to turn in. Then I thought about that morning run with Tracy.
You can’t burn any calories if you always run the same pace.
Instead of slowing down, I picked up the pace. I found three men living in the house and explained each man’s struggle through a broken narrative. I had never tried this writing technique and was intimidated at first. I was tired of being complacent and found a different way to write an otherwise bland story. Despite being stale, out of practice and out of shape, I found another gear, a new way to write.
As my time at Poynter comes to an end, I’m left thinking about all of the lessons I’ve learned during these intense six weeks. Jacqui Banaszynski’s class about writing structure was valuable, and Roy Peter Clark’s classes about writing tools were insightful. But the one thing that will stick with me the longest is realizing that I had let myself become complacent and did something to change it.
With running I would never settle. I always wanted to be faster, stronger and tougher than everyone else. I would never let myself become stale in my running. That June morning when Tracy challenged me, I wouldn’t let myself back down. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t run in more than a month, I would find a way to pick up the pace. It didn’t matter that it had been more than a year since I had written for a publication. I had to find a way to move out of my comfort zone. Run away from complacency.
You can’t burn any calories if you always run the same pace. That’s why I try to push myself at the end. Read more
Before I could think twice, the lie was out there, and I knew exactly why I told it.
I had been on the phone with my mom, rehashing the first weeks of journalism boot camp at the Poynter Institute, and we were talking about a story I wrote. It was called “Same God, different prayer book,” and it was about the challenge of fostering unity among Christian denominations.
My mom wanted to know what the story’s central character, a Presbyterian pastor named Bobby Musengwa, thought of the finished piece. Musengwa was a community leader who valued church unity but struggled to promote it, and I featured him prominently.
“I haven’t heard back from him yet,” I said.
What I failed to mention was that there was a good reason I hadn’t heard back. I never sent Musengwa the story.
Reporters have a few guidelines regarding sources. No. 1: No surprises. Although Musengwa and I spoke extensively, I never made clear how I planned to use his voice in the story. I never told him he was the central character. A modest man, he would have been surprised, I think, to find himself in the spotlight.
Tucking my tail between my legs, I knew that though the rest of the story was well done, I had nonetheless committed a journalistic sin. Sincerity? Transparency? They each appeared dimmer than usual in my rearview mirror, and now that the story was published, it was easier for me to avoid looking back.
Musengwa, however, wasn’t the only source I avoided. For three of my four stories this summer, I never followed up to see what the people in them thought.
Surprising Musengwa wasn’t my deepest worry.
Consider the sources I evaded. There was Musengwa, a black South African pastor. Then there were the teachers at Lakewood High School (all African-American) and their students (mostly working-class minorities). And then there was Bill Harris, a white 70-year-old fisherman who never got past the seventh grade.
Now, consider me. I’m a white, upper-middle class erudite Jew born into New York City suburbia. Where do I intersect with any of these people? I don’t. I’m the silent majority, the status quo. My life hasn’t had a single hardship. No twists. No turns. For 22 years, I feel like I’ve been on upper-crust cruise control.
So, how can I understand where Musengwa is coming from? How can I comprehend failing algebra at Lakewood High School? How can I know what it’s like to be Bill Harris? I can’t. And I don’t know if I trust myself to do their stories justice. Who am I to filter out what it means to be them?
Reporters have one hard-line rule regarding the work we do: Get it right. Without that pillar, there is no trust, no truth, no journalism. If I send “Same God, different prayer book” to Musengwa, I give him the ammunition to tell me where I got it wrong. Why arm critics? If I’m wrong, I almost don’t want to know.
Of course, evading criticism does me no good. The one source I did follow up with was Lynn Carol Henderson, a white middle-class Ivy League-educated artist who was raised Jewish in Baltimore. Henderson was interesting, but I didn’t learn nearly as much from her as I did from Musengwa and Harris.
And really, just because we’re both East Coast Jews, does that mean I can understand Henderson any better than I can a man who grew up in apartheid South Africa?
Journalism ceases to be vital the moment we’re not learning. By design, it’s a profession that tries to help us understand. That’s why getting it right matters. When we get it wrong, we alter understanding. We determine social reality, and that is a scary responsibility.
The allure of opening a newspaper or logging onto the Internet is the discovery of something you didn’t know before. But what we know is limited by what we understand, and what we understand is limited by what we know.
I can’t expect to fully understand the lives of everyone I meet as a reporter; there are too many differences to cross. But difference is a good thing. It keeps us curious.
At its heart, journalism doesn’t promise enlightenment. It promises increments of understanding. I’ve spent so much time on cruise control that when it kicks out on me, I flail in panic for the gas pedal as I decelerate. With no time to think, it’s a reaction of instinct. I can still hear myself saying I haven’t heard back from him yet.
All things considered, I wasn’t going to send Musengwa the story, but when an editor encouraged me to hand him a copy and ask what he thought, I knew it was the right thing to do.
I left Poynter reluctantly, cranking the radio on the drive over to Musengwa’s church. As I mulled the idea of coming clean, though, I realized how much I needed closure. I wanted to put that story in his hands.
Musengwa, however, wasn’t there. He was on vacation, and the peace of mind I suddenly wanted was denied.
So, I left Musengwa a note and my e-mail address. Again, I am waiting to hear back. Only this time, it’s the truth. Read more
A black sedan with chrome rims and a rust-red bumper cruises by. Its bass thumps the beat of a hip-hop song I don’t recognize. I’m at Bad to the Bone Auto Shop and Accessories on 34th Street S, interviewing for a story about chrome car accessories.
“Liz,” calls a voice from behind, “why are you doing a story about chrome?”
A man who seems to be in his 40s walks toward me. He has a wiry frame and mocha eyes. He works at the carwash connected to the shop and must have overheard me talking with his fellow employees.
“What do you mean?”
He looks me in the eyes. “Why are you writing this story?”
I don’t know how to respond.
He leads me to a patch of shade. The air reeks of gasoline and hot metal. “You see that corner across the street? Go to that corner in the evening and you will find a woman there who is homeless. She has an infant child. Talk to her. She has a story.”
Walk around the neighborhood at dusk, he says, when the residents get off work and the streets buzz with life. The people who stay at the old motels, the prostitutes who walk the streets – they have stories. Chrome, he says, is not your story.
The man does not give me his name. Soon I will forget his face. But I do not forget his words.
That afternoon, I meet Arletha Jackson. She is at Bad to the Bone getting chrome added to the most chromed-out car I had ever seen. Arletha is 41 years old and a mother of five. From her neon fingernails to her gold chain-link necklaces, Arletha appears just as flashy as her car.
Arletha invites me to her home. What I thought was going to be a 15- minute interview lasts at least an hour. She told me more than the story of her car. She told me her story.
When I started reporting, I never guessed that I would meet someone like Arletha. She led me away from the shop and into her neighborhood. There I began to understand. For Arletha, it’s not just about chrome as a car accessory. It’s about pride, and behind that pride, anger. She wants the police to pull her over so she can prove she got her car the honest way.
Arletha lives in the “south side” of St. Petersburg, just a mile from Bad to the Bone. It’s a poor, mostly black neighborhood. I had read the stories in the newspaper. Shootings. Crime. Drugs. But I know there is more to this neighborhood than the crime it is known for. You rarely read those stories. I just want to learn and understand.
I grew up the bubble of an affluent suburb of Washington, DC. I went to Walt Whitman High School. Its nickname was “White-man.”
Mary, my colleague at Poynter’s summer journalism fellowship, wanted to write about a similar topic for her narrative – looking for stories in a supposedly “bad” part of the city. Mary grew up in a poor neighborhood in Seattle. She thought her background would make finding a story in a poor black community in St. Petersburg easy.
Although I met Arletha, I still want to go back at dusk to see if I can find the woman with the infant child. When I told Mary, her eyes lit up. “I’ll go back to that corner with you.”
We team up and go back to 34th Street South at dusk to look for the homeless woman with the infant. We park at Shirley’s Soul Food, three blocks south of Bad to the Bone. It is dusk; the sky is a swirl of orange and pink. As we walk, cameras slung around our necks, a man on a bike passes by. “God bless ya’ll,” he says in a southern twang. His voice is friendly, but I’m white in an all-black neighborhood and I’m nervous. What will the people who live here think of me?
Mary wants to get off the main drag and explore. I want to go, but I am hesitant. It’s getting dark. We detour into the neighborhood.
We walk half a block and a car approaches. It slows down as it passes. I feel the gaze of the passengers inside. I want to turn back and get onto 34th Street where there is more light, more people. Mary agrees. She wants to make sure I’m comfortable. Plus, she’s kind of scared, too.
We’re back on the main drag when a car pulls up next to us. The window rolls down. “Ay girl, come here,” says a voice from within the car. “Where your man at? Where can you make room for me in your life?”
Mary slips effortlessly into street slang. She lets him down easy. The car pulls away.
We walk to the corner across from Bad to the Bone. The homeless woman with the infant is not there.
I am surprised by the places the chrome story took me. Not only am I now well-versed in the aesthetic appeal of chrome rims and gas cap covers, but I also got a glimpse into the personal reasons behind one woman’s love of chrome. By leaving Bad to the Bone and hanging out on Arletha’s front stoop, a story that I thought was flat took on another dimension.
I know that not every story I write will be like this. But I don’t want to forget the nameless man at the carwash and his question – Why are you writing this story? Read more