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

"Good reporting: Moving from suite-level to street-level" Continued...

The Washington Post once sent journalist Walt Harrington to—from a Post perspective—the wilds of Alabama to do a story about what a fundamentalist Christian family was like. Harrington recalled, “I didn’t know how to begin my interview, so I asked for a tour of their house. Mrs. Webster, a sweet woman, walked me through the house, full of tacky teddy bears and knickknacks. ‘Boy, these people have bad taste, I thought.’”

Prejudices sustained. Reporting over, right? Wrong: Harrington continued, “Then she made comments like, ‘This really ugly teddy bear was a gift from the thirteen-year-old girl who moved in with us after her mother kicked her out when she was two months pregnant. She stayed with us, and we took care of her through the pregnancy. And this silly little knickknack is from the eighty-four-year-old woman who my husband takes to the pool twice a week. He carries her out of her wheelchair and into the swimming pool so she can have some exercise.’” Harrington had the honesty to change his perspective when he found that these were not just words from Mrs. Webster but a true reflection of deeds.

Sometimes reporters need to do what others consider yucky. In Boynton’s The New New Journalism, magazine writer Richard Preston describes how he interviewed a chemist and asked, “‘What does DNA really look like? How do you handle it?’ He took out a vial of human DNA … and pulled out a little mucus-like strand with a toothpick for me to look at. I wanted to know everything about DNA: how it tasted, what it smelled like. So I ordered some calf DNA from a lab supply company. It arrived in powder form and I put it on my tongue. It was faintly salty, and a bit sweet. I used that detail in the article, and I think it helped make the whole idea of DNA more concrete for readers.”

The willingness to taste DNA

If you want to be a reporter, you should be willing to taste DNA and go even further than that: Preston explains that he once “had to learn what it felt like for a doctor to cut open a cadaver. A doctor one Saturday morning called to say that there was an autopsy scheduled in thirty minutes. I rushed over to the hospital and watched the whole thing: the assistant cutting and opening the body, the pathologist using a bread knife to slice organ samples. When the pathologist cut the skull and lifted the brain out, she handed it to me. It was a soft, gelatinous blob. And the smell during the autopsy was profound. The contents of the large intestine stink, and the freshly cut human flesh smelled, I must say, a little like raw pork.”

Journalists are the eyes, ears, and noses of readers, providing vicarious experience and going places that readers have not visited and could not visit. That’s why it’s vital to dump vagueness, be specific, and show rather than tell. Use factual rather than judgmental describers: Instead of “Eric Liddell ran a brave race, astounding observers by brilliantly recovering from an early disaster,” try “Eric Liddell, knocked down by another runner, got up and saw that he trailed by 30 yards, but sprinted in pursuit. Gasping for breath, he somehow accelerated to the tape, won the race, then collapsed.”

In Mark Twain’s words, “Don’t say the old lady screamed—bring her on and let her scream.” Good reporting helps us to see how the other half screams. We can help an executive to see how the poor have materially hard lives. We can help the poor see how the executive in a fine house still has to bear up against what can often be a crushing load of responsibility. We can help to break down ethnic and racial prejudices.

Suite-level vs. street-level: The difference was clear in a story I wrote about the housing crisis in February 2010, following President Barack Obama’s pledge in his State of the Union address to “step up refinancing so that homeowners can move into more affordable mortgages.” To get at the street-level understanding I decided not to write a general essay but to focus on one microcosm, the Fort Myers, Fla., metropolitan area.

It was useful to drive around the city with a housing counselor who could show me (and readers) what hard hit areas were like: “That house is empty … that house is empty … that house was robbed … someone set that house on fire.” We drove by blocks with abandoned homes purchased several years ago for $250,000-$300,000, three times what they were now selling for in 2010, if they sold at all. We saw how those homes had become magnets for criminals who steal refrigerators, ovens, air conditioning systems, and copper pipes.

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