If you studied Journalism at school you maybe shouldn’t read this. Read this instead. But, if you’ve been working in some other field and you are starting to report on it, I hope you’ll find my hard-learned lessons helpful.
First, you should know this: I’ve been a nurse specializing in mother/baby care since 2008 and I became a radio producer after attending the Transom Story Workshop in Spring 2012. I love making radio, but I had never covered any big news stories until last month.
The story I covered is about Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman who was convicted of feticide for what she said was a miscarriage. Julia Barton, editor of The World’s series Across Women’s Lives, said she assigned me the story because of my nursing background and because I’m from Indiana.
I was excited, but as I dug in I started to wish she had assigned me something like, “Mayor Cancels Ice Cream Social.” However, as you know, most things worth doing are hard to do. Here’s what I learned:
Use Multiple Approaches
Purvi Patel is the daughter of Hindu parents from India. Before I even left for Indiana I began contacting people I knew who might know people in the Indian or Hindu community in South Bend. I truly thought that the President of the India Association of Indianapolis would have some kind of contact with Purvi Patel’s family or community. No dice. That was scary because that seemed like my best hope. While I was waiting to hear from them, I contacted various immigrant advocacy groups, an old teacher from high school (very active in the Indian community), professors at the Universities in South Bend, and even Chicago contacts working in immigrant advocacy. When none of these worked out, I cold called Patel’s family’s restaurant and the leaders at the local Hindu Temple. I was totally shot down by both.
I was thinking: this is it. I’m going to screw this up and Julia is going to tell every editor she knows not to work with me. My career in radio is over before it even started.
Resigned to writing my way out of the story, I made an appointment to interview the leaders at the Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice. That’s when I got lucky:
Purvi Patel and her family followed her lawyer’s advice and never spoke to me, but at least the IRCRJ ladies knew her personally and could offer some information about her point of view.
Go Where the Action Is
I felt dreadfully stuck and hopeless when no one would talk to me, so I dropped off my kid and drove three hours north to South Bend with no real plan except to go to the Right to Life center that wouldn’t respond to me. I’m so glad I did because I accidentally wandered in to a different Right to Life group that was in the same strip mall and they agreed to talk to me! You read that right.
In a big story with lots of players and dates and evidence, it’s easy to get turned around. To help me focus I made a bubble chart with important players and how they’re linked. I also made a timeline of events and wrote little notes about the various experts’ testimony.
Don’t Forget Characters and Scenes
My first read-through with Julia was an out of body experience, as if I were floating and yelling down at myself, “You sound like a talking head! What are you doing?!” Her feedback that what I had written was a bit too “newsy” was a severe understatement. I’m not totally sure why I had amnesia about the importance of characters and scenes (after all, I was taught by Rob Rosenthal!), but I suspect it was my way of coping with all the incredible details of the story. She got me back on track.
Take Lots of Photos
I failed here. All I have are a couple pics of two people I interviewed and some sad shots of the highway between Indianapolis and South Bend.
You and I should both read this. I think the reason I failed is because I was all kinds of turned around with wondering who was important and who wasn’t. I was so consumed with the interviews and how the whole thing fit together that I just plain lost perspective. Anyway, it’s something to work on.
Use Your Unique Knowledge
Someone who was considering attending the Transom Story Workshop called me recently. We had a nice chat and I asked her what her interests or jobs have been up till now. She told me she worked as a farmer and I said well there you go! You have a skill set and experience that gives you a great lens for particular stories. And that’s true for lots of folks. In my case, I wasn’t confused or intimidated by the medical minutiae that permeated this story. In fact, that’s where I felt most confident.
A word of warning here: Don’t forget to consider your listener when you begin to discuss your specialty. Using jargon or assuming a certain knowledge base can leave people behind. You may have to explain things more than you think is necessary. Like, an umbilical cord. We all know what that’s for, right?
Don’t Assume Someone Won’t Talk to You
When Julia suggested I try talking to Dr. McGuire I pshaw’d (in my head) as loud as I ever have. I’m like there is no way a doctor, who is bound by the federal laws of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and the mandates of the hospital that pays him is going to talk to a reporter. But he did. The reason he wanted to talk about what happened, he said, was because the media had already gotten so many things wrong. It’s possible my being a nurse made him comfortable giving me an interview. In fact, he called me the day after we spoke and asked me to leave out anything that was a HIPAA violation, saying something like, “You’re a nurse. You know what that might be.”
Go For It
While I was reporting this story there were times when I lacked confidence, but a journalist friend reminded me that reporting doesn’t require a license. Essentially, anyone can do it. She said media outlets benefit from reporting by people who have a professional perspective on the topics they’re covering. So whether you’re a farmer, a factory worker, or a teacher, don’t just tweet about an issue you’re thinking about, pitch a story. We’re all be better off for it.
And a big thank you to my editor, Julia Barton who assigned a non-journalist reporter, knowing that it would mean more work for her. Editors are busy people, but hopefully Julia’s choice inspires others to look beyond familiar circles to get greater perspective on stories.