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Good reporting: Moving from suite-level to street-level

Media | Pavement-pounding journalism—watching, listening, observing, recording—provides readers with the specific details important to a story

Psalm 131 says, “I do not concern myself with great matters. …” That should be the credo of a pavement-pounding Christian reporter: Maximize attention to street-level activities, and report suite-level talk and theory only as necessary to provide context.

Let me explain why by mentioning that one year I surveyed 1,000 University of Texas students in courses I was teaching mostly to sophomores, and found that 74 percent said yes to this proposition: “There is no such thing as absolute truth; two people could define what’s right in totally conflicting ways, but both could still be correct.”

That sounds like three-quarters of students are lost to any absolute, trans-cultural statements concerning right and wrong. And yet, 88 percent said rape and child abuse are “wrong everywhere,” 86 percent said female circumcision is wrong even in West Africa where some tribal traditions uphold it, and 80 percent said that slavery in the Sudan is wrong, even if it is traditional in some cultures there.

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Here’s the point: Specific detail of right and wrong moved them to state that there is universal right and wrong. After big talk of “rights” had them identifying with secular left perspectives, specific detail had them affirming parts of what the Bible says. For example, 60 percent of the students agreed, “A woman should have a right to an abortion,” but 75 percent said, “Unborn children should be protected.”

Some theoreticians hate these tendencies to back away from grand statements when specific cases are examined—but reporters should love them. That’s because stories that look one way at suite-level, from the vantage point of executives or theoreticians, often look very different when we ask questions and see what’s happening on the street. The essence of journalism is watching and listening, observing and recording details that help to characterize a person, a meeting, a movement.

The importance of specific detail

Experienced hunters don’t just shoot at a bear; they shoot at a particular part of the bear. Reporters need to be specific as well. They should not just tell us that a bear is big, but give us his height and weight, and show him charging. Similarly, we should not say that a particular politician is energetic; we should show him running to 30 meetings a day. (I once spent such a day with former Sen. Rick Santorum that taught me more about the folly of centralized power than had many speeches and interviews.)

Reporters should be always watching and listening—observing and recording details that help to characterize a person, a meeting, or a project. Telling readers that a school curriculum is messing up children is not as effective as showing us a child frustrated at not being able to read, a girl putting a condom on a banana, a boy joking about God. Instead of telling us that a teenager has good manners, show us that he knew which of six forks to use, that he opened doors for elderly folks, that he wrote thank you notes before the sun went down.

How do you accumulate material? You pound the pavement and always carry a pen. You describe what they saw, not what you inferred from the situation. Example: If you have seen the front of a house, do not say, “The house is blue.” Say, “The front of the house is blue.” Only after substantial reporting can we sit at a desk and put into practice the advice of novelist/historian Shelby Foote, who once said, “When you have enough specific detail, grit it out.”

To go from grand to gritty, a reporter needs to observe specific detail and then give readers a sense of those observations. David Halberstam, a celebrated journalist who visited my college four decades ago and convinced me to go into journalism, won awards for his street-level reporting in Vietnam and at home. (In 2007 he died in an auto accident at age 73 while visiting a college to talk with students about journalism.) In a terrific book published in 2007, Telling True Stories, Mark Kramer and Wendy Call quote Halberstam saying, “The more reporting—the more anecdotes, perceptions, and windows on a subject—the better. The more views of any subject that you get, the better.”

Telling True Stories and one other book, Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism (2005), contain great advice on how to report and interview. Other veteran journalists told Kramer and Call that they did not take words too seriously, since deeds speak louder. Katherine Boo recommends that if an interviewee says, “Now I’ve got to go and pick up my kids from day care and go to the grocery store,” the reporter should seize the opportunity to go along and see not just how a subject talks but how she lives. Lane DeGregory asks interviewees, “Can I go along for a ride or take a walk or be at a meeting, a trial, or a funeral? Can I be a fly on the wall at an already scheduled event? If my subject has a regular routine, I go along.” The reporter’s goal at that point is to learn not what a subject says about himself or his views, but how he relates to others and puts his beliefs into practice. Following around a person allows a street-level look at life. (We have to keep in mind that the presence of an observer may cause some to put on manners they normally don’t wear, so follow-up reporting is important.)

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