Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Each time the phone rings

I get the craziest calls as a newspaper reporter. Usually, I try to answer the question if I can, direct them to someone else if I can't or talk them down from the ledge if necessary.

Ma'am, I don't know where they're holding tryouts for the Old-Tyme baseball league, but I'll connect you to the reporter who wrote the story...

I understand what you're telling me, sir, but just because the newspaper boy throws the paper in your begonias does not mean our publication has a personal vendetta against you...

So, let me get this straight: your father walked into the day care at St. Mary's in a dinosaur outfit and urinated on your daughter, after the other children had already beaten her up and the teacher was just standing there? I'm going to give you the number for the police because if that did happen, you might want to file a restraining order...

One thing I've learned in dealing with these callers is how to keep my cool when they blow a gasket or begin cursing me out. I was thankful for those skills the other day when a call came in around 5:30 p.m.

He was looking for information about the proposed casino in my town. What, he wondered, were the questions the Governor had about the constitutionality of it all. I scoured the archives for the answer and while I searched, we chatted.

You used to cover another part of Rhode Island, right? I remember seeing your bylines in other places. Yes, I covered the Blackstone Valley section.
So you like it? How long have you been there? I like it. I've been here about a year now.
You sound pretty young - 24? No, 22.
Wow, you're really young. So you've been out of school for how long? Going on two years.

I find the information he's looking for and recite a few graphs from the articles. He tells me the reason he needs the information: he's a radio talkshow host and wants to talk about the issue on his show.

You have a great laugh and tone. You should consider radio, you have the voice for it. Thanks. I'll keep that in mind if I ever tire of writing.
You'll probably make more money, I know print people don't make beans. I make enough to survive.

We talk about how I like Rhode Island and where I went to school. We trade jokes about my home state when he mentions how his hubcaps get stolen every time he goes to Detroit. He tells me stories about his excursions into Whole Foods and the people he meets there. Then, the conversation turned.

You sound attractive, and slim, - are you? Um, I suppose so.
So how would I recognize you in Whole Foods? I'd be the one with the byline.
What nationality are you? I'm African-American.
Really? I would have never guessed it. You don't have a black accent.

My neck rolls as I sit up straight in my seat. In my head, a flurry of curses and self-righteousness consume my thoughts. It feels like I've been slapped and called every racial slur beneath the sun. The epithets ring in my ears.

I take a deep breath and remain calm.

Unfortunately, in Rhode Island, I've learned conversations turn from friendly to borderline racist in the blink of an eye. I try not to get offended, and instead, chalk it up to the fact that people of color are few and far in between in the state - let alone at my newspaper.

I haven't gotten upset at anyone who's made racist statements to me. Honestly, I don't want to give them any grounds to demand I be disciplined by a supervisor. I don't raise my voice. I don't curse or insult them back. I use questions, not statements, to talk to them. I let the person continue to dig themselves into a hole until they realize how silly their statements are because I, the black person standing before them, defy all of the facts they think they know about black people.

"What does a black accent sound like?" I say to the caller, almost with concern that someone believes accents have colors.

Well, I rent properties in Worcester, and I can always tell if the person who is calling is African-American. You don't sound like that. Maybe it's because you're educated, but I would have never known you were black.

I'm quiet as he continues to explain his reasoning.

Well I guess I won't see you in Whole Foods! African-Americans don't shop there. It's too expensive. I interject that, indeed, black friends of mine in Providence routinely shop at Whole Foods and midway through my statement, I realized I didn't need to prove myself or my race to this guy.

"Well, I'm glad I was able to help you out with the information about the casino," I reply. "You have a nice day."

I hang up the phone, but the sounds continue to ring in my ears.

Posted by T Dot at 6:25 AM | link | Tell us what you think [5]

Monday, September 11, 2006

Rock the Vote

I cocked my head at the words coming out of the mouth of my former professor and current mentor.

"I've never voted," she said, matter-of-factly, just before taking a sip of coffee. "I take my journalistic objectivity so seriously that I don't vote."

It was the summer of 2004 and I was visiting her Syracuse home during a long weekend from my internship in Binghamton, N.Y. As always, the conversation turned to the craft, and then, to politics.

"I may have to cover these people one day," she said. "I don't want them to be able to point to my voting record as a sign of bias."

The other reason, she said, was that she didn't want to form an opinion about the candidates - which you have to do in order to vote - and subconciously become biased toward the other candidate.

She made the decision when she was a Washington correspondent for a midwestern newspaper.

For her, she said, the decision was simple. She was a journalist in the 70s and 80s, when women were still fighting for equality in the newsroom. She'd climbed her way to bigger and better beats by being able to "write any throw-away story onto A1." She'd travelled to other countries investigating civil wars, and the deaths of a set of nuns in Africa.

Of course, she said, you can never be truly and completely objective, just by nature of living in the world, but you could do your best to limit the judgements you allow yourself to pass on others.

Some journalistic pundits say, it's really not that serious. Robert Jensen, a University of Texas associate journalism professor with a Ph.D. in media law and ethics, told the San Antonio Current this when an issue about journalists signing petitions for politicians came up:

“Everyone knows that journalists have political opinions, just like all people,” he said. “I see no reason why journalists shouldn’t be able to sign petitions for candidates or issues, so long as they don’t directly impact the beats they cover.”

I knew her view was an extreme one, but that conversation still sticks in the back of my mind. It comes to the forefront in times like these.

In Rhode Island, tomorrow is Primary Election Day.

I registered as an Independent when I came to this state. I mince my words when I speak to residents who ask me my opinion on a politicians actions. I agonize over stories about political candidates who are always friendly to me, but who have a sordid past. When a friend of mine held a garden party fundraiser for a local politician, I had to call my mentors to see if it was okay if I attended.

I take my journalistic objectivity seriously. But, I value my civic duty even more.

I think a lot of it comes down to race: my mentor is white; I'm black. For me, it's a lot harder to ignore a right that my ancestors - that my mom - fought so hard to give to me. By virtue of my age, I've never actually voted before. I cast an absentee ballot during the last presidential election. So, tomorrow will be my first chance to actually pull the lever. Or punch the chad. Or touch the screen, however they do voting these days.

I'm excited about it.

"Not voting is what's right for me," my mentor told me on that summer day. "You have to make the decision that's right for you."

Guess that means I have to get up early to make it to the polls before work.

Posted by T Dot at 10:57 AM | link | Tell us what you think [0]

Thursday, September 07, 2006

MJ: Victim or victory?

Despite whatever you learned in history class, democracy is is a flawed political system. The fathers of free speech -- Locke, Pulitzer, Cato -- helped frame the philosophical framework for journalism that, while solid, was not perfect. Journalism gets a lot of things right, and prevents a lot of grimey people from doing a lot of secret, grimey things. But perfect it ain't.

That's why if the local priest gets brought in for questioning based on suspicion that he raped a little boy -- innocent or not -- the story that the police brought him in runs the next day on A1. The story that he was actually cleared by police? That one will be lucky to make the briefs in Metro. Such is the nature of the beast.

Her name has already been dragged through the mud, but Marion Jones's B sample came back negative today. True to form, the news clearing her of any wrongdoing -- and a minimun two-year ban -- sat buried the bottom of the sports webpage.

Do we have a responsibility as journalists and readers of journalism to restore public figures like MJ when they get cleared of wrongdoing?

Posted by Darren Sands at 12:14 AM | link | Tell us what you think [7]

Monday, September 04, 2006

Communication? What's that?

You'd think by now we'd have this whole communication thing down pat.

After all, we do get paid for it.

Journalists - reporters, producers, photographers, videographers, et. al - our entire job is to talk to people, tell stories, convey information to the public. Yet, everyday, I'm amazed at the lack of communication that occurs within the four walls of my office, let alone the close-lipped nature of the rest of the company.

The other day, I got up early to go to a kindergarten orientation in my school district. Friday marked the first day of full-day kindergarten and I was doing a story about it. I put in a photo request Wednesday, asking for a photog to come document the orientation with me.

When I left that evening, I checked the assignment timetable. There, next to my request, was a photographer's name. I printed out a copy and went about my day, confident everything would be fine.

At 9 a.m. Thursday, I'd introduced myself to the class as a reporter and told them a photographer might want to take their pictures as they walked through the orientation. I chatted with parents, observed the kids and checked my watch.

By 9:30 a.m., I was beginning to feel like Boo-Boo the Fool.

As we shuffled to the lunchroom, the teacher came up beside me and whispered, "Do you think the photographer will be here? I don't want to let the parents go before he gets here."


"No, Mrs. Tourangeau, don't keep them if you don't need to," I said, sheepishly. "I don't know when he'll be here. I put in the request, but we come in seperate cars. I just hope he'll get here before it's over."

At 9:50 a.m., I officially gave up hope.

I got permission to come to the afternoon orientation, just in case we could get another photographer to make the noon session, and headed back to the office.

Irked wasn't the word.

I ran through the sequence of events, trying to figure out where I'd messed up with the photo request. Correct time and date? Yup. Directions to the school? Indeed. Listed the right school location? Righto. Given a detailed description of the story. Check.

So what happened?

That's what I asked the assignment editor when I got into the office. Sometimes the photogs don't check the updated lists if assignments come in late, he said. Apparently, the photog had complained earlier that he didn't know about this morn's assignment.

I put the request in at 3 p.m.

So, what you're telling me is basically assignments mean nothing because on any given day, the photog may not know about it or just won't show up - even though it's been assigned? There's got to be a better way.

Word of the photo snafu had made its way up to my office and when I got there, my boss was listening to a passionate message from the photog about how he wasn't informed about the assignment. Why, he asked, hadn't someone called him?

I prepped myself for the verbal jousting I'd have to go through once the photog made it into the office. I'm sure somehow, this will turn out to be my fault. But I think the real problem lies not with the reporter or photog, but with the system.

As reporters, we're asked to put in assignments for all stories that warrant them. The assignment editor then takes the form and assigns a photog, based on his or her availability. Problem is, assignments aren't always relayed to the photographers. Until we can figure out a way to either instill a deadline for all photo assignments or a notification system for late assignments, we'll continue to have problems like the one I had today.

And that makes no one happy.

Maybe I should communicate about my thoughts on the photo process to someone. But, somehow, I doubt they'd get the memo.

Posted by T Dot at 11:25 AM | link | Tell us what you think [2]

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Hate Him Now

For most of us, blogging is just a way to pontificate, contemplate and mostly, procrastinate from doing our actual jobs.

But for some lucky ducks (*coughmarcuscough*), blogging is their job.

Now the question is, how can the rest of us be down?

(Yes Marcus, we hate you too. But do yo' thang, homie. Do yo' thang.)

Posted by Veronica Marché at 11:17 AM | link | Tell us what you think [0]

Friday, September 01, 2006

Turtle journalism (sighs)

"How many internships have you done?"

Um. How about none! That's right. I'm in my fourth year of school, majoring in journalism, and have only published one article in my life. I was paid and proud of that freelance piece. Only until online readers posted some not-so-polite comments demanding more context, to which my word count and editor did not permit, did I actually realize that my one measly article didn't mean much in the scheme of things. (A longer more detailed follow-up to my story was then assigned to a reporter based in New York. Life's a bitch.)

And then I attended the National Association of Black Journalists Convention in Indianapolis. There, amongst my peers, I felt like a scrawny Asian kid in the locker room shower surrounded by "big footed" black football players. I didn't quite measure up. They all were on there second and third internships, slinging fatty clip and resume packets in their NABJ convention bags, ready for the recruiters to scoop them at the career fair. I had nothing. And I still have nothing but my one clip.

Some say that the turtle never wins the race, but at some point the turtle has reach the finish line. Well, I'm going to reach the finish line. And at that finish line, a Pulitzer Prize awaits.

Don't sleep on that.

Posted by Aaron Morrison at 9:55 PM | link | Tell us what you think [3]

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