Intro from Jay Allison: "Embedded reporting" traditionally connotes journalists attached to military units covering conflict at the frontlines. For Meribah Knight, a reporter at WPLN, embedding meant attaching herself to the largest public housing complex in Nashville, the James Cayce Homes, where she's been reporting for over two years now.
Meribah says, "The act of embedding takes patience, determination and humility. It requires you to stay open — open to new information, open to having your opinion change, open to having stories shift beneath your feet."
In her Transom manifesto Meribah shares some of the practical wisdom she's learned from her experience. It's an excellent guide for those of you who want to try this yourselves. We strongly encourage your editors to let you.
Sit. Stay. The Act Of Embedded Reporting.
I’ve never been a fast reporter. Or a fast writer. I tend to wander off any beat I’ve been assigned and my knees quiver at the thought of tight deadlines. And so, going somewhere and staying there for a rather long time appeals to my professional insecurities.
And while the term “embedded” is most often associated with military reporting, that’s not what this essay is about. This essay is about finding a place you want to report, going there and staying. For me, that place was the largest public housing complex in Nashville, the James Cayce Homes. A thicket of two-story, red brick, government-built apartments. Cayce feels very isolated from the rest of Nashville, even though it’s less than a mile from downtown and smack in the middle of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
It felt like a community cleaving apart right before my eyes. Wealth on one side of the street. And poverty on the other.
The tension was palpable. I figured there must be stories there. Important stories. Stories the whole city and maybe even the whole country needed to hear.
So, I went. Then I went back. More than two years later, I am still reporting there. I visit multiple times a week. In fact, I went there this morning. And I still got lost trying to find an apartment. I thought I knew every inch of the place. Turns out, I don’t. So I’ll go back again!
The art of settling in somewhere and reporting is, to me, one of the most fulfilling things a journalist can do. So often we spend our days running from press conference to interview to deadline. Rarely do we get to stop and spend an open-ended amount of time in a place. It can feel like a luxury, but it always makes a story better.
The act of embedding takes patience, determination and humility. It requires you to stay open — open to new information, open to having your opinion change, open to having stories shift beneath your feet.
What follows is a brief list of some of the most helpful strategies I’ve found while sticking around somewhere to report.
Find A Story That Can Sustain The Endeavor.
Not just any story can be the type you embed with. First, you need access. You need complexity. A sense of place. Really interesting people that can be reflective. You need good stakes. Good action. And, of course, time.
When I look for opportunities to spend a lot of time in a place, I subscribe to the less is more philosophy. Can one place act as a proxy for lots of other places? Does a person’s story or a place’s story capture the nuances of an issue? Or does it knock us off balance and throw our assumptions for a loop? Is there one fundamental question that’s an access point for many other questions? Is a journey about to happen that warrants observation every step of the way?
Getting back to access, this is really important. And it’s often a delicate negotiation process. If it’s an official place like a school or tight-knit community like Cayce, it always takes some finesse to communicate your endeavor and get people on board. If it’s somewhere like a school or an institution, that is out of your control. It’s up to the powers that be to say yes or no. But there are some things that can help you get to a “yes”:
- Look for a place that has an obvious story to tell. Is a school going through a recalibration? Is there a public institution that’s got an unsung hero or is wrestling with a challenging or important issue that the public should know about? Pitch it to them as an important story that needs to be told and accentuate the benefits rather than the risks.
- It helps to be frank about what you want to do. Explain that you’ll be fair. That you’ll make whatever reasonable accommodations possible to help make folks comfortable with your presence. And that you will always communicate along the way so that nothing is a surprise.
- Work your way in, gently and deliberately. Be determined but not aggressive. Listen and be humble. People love to tell their story to someone they feel is honestly listening.
I am going to harness my inner John McPhee and show you a diagram of how I see this working.
In essence, it involves starting at the “top” or “surface” of the community and drilling down into the center of it. I find people connected to the community that are more public facing — politicians, pastors, school principals, academics, executives of community resource centers. I take meetings with them, ask them a million questions. Then I ask them to connect me to more people — teachers, social workers, outreach workers. Then I meet with those people and ask them a million questions. And I ask them to connect me with more people — their clients, neighborhood fixtures, remarkable people. You see where this is headed . . . Eventually, I make a network of people who know the community well and once I get to the residents, the people who actually live there 24/7, I have some context for the place and its history. Then the stories start emerging.
There is nothing efficient about embedding in a place. You get lots and lots of tape you won’t use. You meet people you won’t end up writing about. You inevitably get distracted and lost in a mental corn maze, searching for great stories. But this is all part of the process. Because you pick up important information along the way. And believe me, you will use it. It could be as small as one telling detail about something or someone. It can be as big as changing the trajectory of a story. You don’t know until you know. I like to think of embedding as eating like a Baleen Whale. We open our mouths, guzzle a bunch of stuff and then strain out what’s good. The wider we open, the more we let in, the more we have to sustain the story.
Small Is The New Big, Narrow Is The New Wide.
When I thought about spending time in public housing, I purposely stayed in one single complex. Because the story of that complex told the story of other complexes. It told the story of inequality, the story of gentrification, the story of bad housing policy, of systemic racism, and on and on. I think stories are strongest when they are focused. When reporters go deep rather than wide. It comes back to my “less is more” approach. Stories can be portals. So find one, double down and take people there. Plus, embedded reporting works best when you have a strong sense of place. Topic just isn’t enough. You need more. You need some architecture for the narrative.
Find Your Guide.
It’s hard to walk into a place/community/neighborhood/social group and present yourself. You need a guide. Someone who can vouch for you. Someone who won’t get tired of your endless stream of questions. I usually find that person at the end of my “drill down” period. And I often have more than one. I will go back to them again and again. Sometimes they are featured prominently in my final story. Other times they are like a constant advisor, nudging me in the right direction, keeping me focused, calling me on my BS; basically saving me from myself.
Know What You Don’t Know.
You’re not a native. That’s okay. Be self-aware about what you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions. Embrace feeling a little uncomfortable at times. You don’t need to assimilate. You just need to be genuine, curious and a good honest listener.
When I began reporting in Cayce I never forgot who I was: a white woman of privilege reporting on an almost exclusively black community in poverty. Because of this, I knew I had limitations of understanding. I am not sure there is a “right” way to handle this fact other than that newsrooms need to be much more diverse generally and across all beats. But it was really important to collaborate with as many people of color as I could — I played stories to friends and colleagues to make sure I wasn’t missing the mark. I went back to my “guides” and reviewed material with them. I kept myself out of the stories as much as possible so people could speak for themselves. And I tried to acknowledge my shortcomings in conversations and ask more questions, questions that got at the root of feelings and experiences. I made sure not to “typecast” in any way; to embrace the complexity of the people I spoke with. Here is an example of my initial description of a guy named Dexter Turner. He goes by Big Man, and he’s one of the main people I spent time with in Cayce.
Go Back, Again and Again and Again and Again.
I guess that could also be the title of this essay. But it bears repeating. Go back, even if you don’t have a specific agenda. Go back to wander. Go back to ask someone to repeat a story. Go back just to say hello and check in. One time I went back to Cayce three times to look at a tree and the shape of its leaves.
Yes, yes, yes...
Help Transom get new work and voices to public radio by donating now.
Run Away From Your Editors.
You need time. Don’t volunteer for a million things at the office. You won’t be able to leave so you can look at trees!
Then Run Back And Cry On Your Editor’s Shoulder.
Oh wait, editors are really important. So inevitably when you get lost in your story, when you are too close to see anything clearly, go back to your newsroom, apologize for being MIA, and then ask them to help you see things clearly again. This might mean playing tape. Talking through story ideas. Or just getting stuff off your chest that you know won’t go into your story but that still haunts you for some reason.
Organize Your Sound.
When you report on a place for months or years, you’re going to end up with a lot of tape. So you need to organize it before you start to forget it all and get lost in the dense cloud of sound. I’ve never been the most organized person. But I have found two ways that help me organize my tape.
- I create a folder for each day, sometimes I add a subject to jog my memory. Say, I spent the whole day with one person or it’s the last day of school, I add those ID’s. Then I clearly label and organize my tape by date with slugs (salient moments from that tape) so it’s easier to search.
2. I also create a tape log that can serve as a quick reference when I am writing and looking for something. So often we walk away from a day of reporting and there are moments and scenes stuck in our mind. That is really important to document because three months from now, you will not remember what moved you. I guarantee.
Know When To Turn Off Your Recorder.
Our job is to report and record, so it seems like we should never stop recording. But the fact is, when you spend a lot of time in a place there are moments when people get tired of you. They don’t want to be on tape anymore and you need to respect that.
Here is an example of when Big Man asked me to turn my mic off. We were having a conversation about the death of a friend. We were both devastated by the loss. I wanted to unpack it on tape. He didn’t.
And When Not To.
Most of the time, though, I keep recording through any situation. For example, when a detective approached Big Man to question him after a fatal shooting outside his apartment. The detective requested to talk off mic, but Big Man replied, “I don’t mind being recorded.” And so, I kept recording. It was a tense exchange. It was obvious neither trusted the other. And I kept recording because it really illuminated just how tenuous the relationship is between Cayce residents and police. However, I did understand why the detective wouldn’t want me to record and I acknowledged it in the piece.
Yes, we are reporters. But we are also human beings. We get to know people, we gather friends along the way. At least I do. That’s one of the best things about embedded reporting. I guess what this means is that while you may be sticking a microphone in someone’s face, it’s not a one-way street. You are building relationships with people. And the more time you spend with people the more life happens. Tragedies. Celebrations. Milestones. Be there for these moments not just as a reporter, but as a human being. It’s okay to console. Or get mad. Or share your life. When I gave birth to my son, more than a year into my reporting, I took him back to Cayce to meet everyone. They’d seen me pregnant so it only made sense to show them what came out. Now when I walk through people holler, “How’s the baby?” I love that. It’s made me closer to the community in a way.
I think once you do this kind of reporting it’s a hard habit to break. At least for me. I am always searching for my next perch. Always looking for the next story that can’t be told in a two-minute radio spot. Right now I’m working on a second season of The Promise, this time pivoting to the children of Cayce’s neighborhood. I still feel like this part of the city has so many stories to tell, but it’s time for a new set of stakes. And so, I’ve parked myself at the neighborhood public elementary school. Despite the growing diversity in the area, the school is 90 percent black and 93 percent of its students live in poverty. I wondered, why is almost half the neighborhood missing?
I’ll spend the school year there, telling stories of kids and parents and teachers, looking for that answer.
Editor’s note: Featured photo by Joe Buglewicz for WPLN