October 26, 2016

CHICAGO — For Chicago-based journalist and author Alex Kotlowitz, storytelling is about pulling readers in and taking them on a journey.

“The power of storytelling is this question of empathy,” Kotlowitz said at a recent Poynter seminar on economic inequality. “The challenge for us as storytellers — we have to find empathy with the people we’re writing about and be able to imagine ourselves as somebody else, and, of course, then get our readers to that same place.”

Kotlowitz’ journalism career has revolved around cultivating that kind of empathy. One of his books, “There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America,” which was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the 150 most important books of the 20th century, follows two boys growing up in Chicago’s crime-ridden housing projects in the late 1980s.

He advises journalists to be honest with their sources about their intentions and says sources should disclose anything that could compromise their safety. He recommends reporters keep their notebooks out as a reminder to sources — whom they may inevitably build relationships with — about their purposes for being there.

Kotlowitz’ reporting tips

  • Be upfront and direct with sources
  • Keep your notebook out, remind people why you’re there
  • Be prepared to walk away if a source isn’t ready

“Here’s the bottom line: there is nothing that we write or report that should surprise your subject,” Kotlowitz said. “In other words, you’ve got to be absolutely straight with them about everything you’re doing — I feel really strongly about this.”

There are certain grey areas, especially related to compensating sources, he’s struggled with. While he would never pay a source while reporting for, say, The New Yorker or The New York Times Magazine (which both have clear rules against such practices), he says he has paid sources connected to books or documentaries.

By way of example, he mentioned Jon Krakauer, a journalist who has spoken openly about paying a source $20,000 for her unpublished journals. In the 2007 book “The New New Journalism,” Krakauer said he did this because he was disenchanted with the notion that highly paid journalists owe nothing to the subjects they make money from.

When writing

  • write down way more than you’ll actually use
  • Look for moments and scenes, then flesh them out
  • Use dialogue that will give your reader a real sense of immediacy

Similarly, many people Kotlowitz has covered have lived in poverty or violence, he said. In these cases, buying a lunch or movie tickets was a way of connecting and building trust with those sources. But he warns to be careful when going any further than that as a reporter.

“Again, recognize that you’re asking people for access to their lives, and there’s this kind of unstated quid pro quo that you’re gonna treat them well and decently, which is important, but you shouldn’t let that compromise your honesty as a reporter,” he said. “Be aware of what asking for access might imply.”

It’s also important to empathize with your readers, Kotlowitz said. In his book “There Are No Children Here,” he chose to open with the benign scene of kids hunting for garter snakes rather than a violent one he thought readers might struggle to connect with.

“The way to get past the stereotypes is to tell people’s stories with all their complications and fullness and richness,” Kotlowitz said. “Because people are complicated and if your characters aren’t in some way complicated, your readers will see through that.”

Ultimately, he points to advice from novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who says to avoid the danger of the single story. Be careful, Kotlowitz said, when using words like “homeless,” “gangbanger,” “ex-felon,” “teenage mom.”

Why data journalism?

  • Data compliments journalism, it does not replace it
  • Data is not just for data journalists
  • Watch out — data can also be biased and lie to you

“Do not define people by a moment in their lives, by who we think they are,” he said. “We need data to cover inequality”

Data is indispensable for journalists covering stories of economic inequality, FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman said during that same conference.

“Data aids storytelling, this is something that I think gets lost a lot when I hear discussions of data journalism,” he said.

As a senior editor and chief economics writer for the statistics-centered news site, Casselman has written about income inequality, education and criminal justice. Data, he says, can drive reporting and vice versa. In 2014, he wrote a piece on the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson called “The Poorest Corner of Town.”

Data journalism on deadline

  • Pick a specific dataset
  • Look for quick stories
  • Build in “off ramps”
  • Push your data skills one more step each time
  • Don’t be afraid to phone an expert

When he began talking with the city’s residents, they complained that national reporters were getting the story all wrong. Many were painting Ferguson as some sort of extreme pit of poverty and despair, he said.

Casselman’s team began to look through demographic data. It became clear that Ferguson was actually not particularly poor or segregated, contrary to that initial media perception.

But the data showed that there was one corner of the city with an almost entirely Black population that was extremely poor. It happened to be the area where Michael Brown lived and died.

That information helped Casselman focus his reporting.

“This doesn’t necessarily look like capital ‘D’ data journalism, but it’s very much informed by the data, which then gives us confidence in the story,” he said.

Measuring data accurately is also important, Casselman said.

We need data to cover inequality

  • Data cuts through rhetoric
  • Data persuades skeptical audiences
  • Data identifies your protagonist
  • Data adds precision to the complicated subject of inequality
  • Don’t be afraid to phone an expert

“There are certain things that are true — inequality has been rising over the last several decades in the U.S.,” he said. “We can cut that a lot of ways, we can look at how, maybe it hasn’t been rising as much recently or maybe it has risen less if you look at it a certain way.”

Casselman recommends Pew Research Center as a great resource for adjusting data. But if the information is unclear, don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call an expert, he said.

“Getting someone who knows the data set on the phone quickly is gonna be far, far faster than trying to figure this out on your own,” he said. “Every time I launch into new data set, I call either the agency that produces it or some academic or think tank that works with it person and say, talk to me about this.”

Especially when it comes to the murkiness that exists around an audience’s concept of “inequality,” data can boost a story’s credibility in that same audience’s mind, Casselman said.

“The inequality debate is just so full of assumptions and rhetoric on all sides, that we need data to cut through that to some degree,” he said.

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