Friday, June 29, 2007
I think I always knew that, but it's still a slap in the face when someone reminds you.
I've been covering this trial for the last month. Seriously, almost 30 days solid. I've been there ever day, listening to testimony, watching crime scene videos and trying to piece it all together.
My first day on the trial, I went over to the group of people who were clustered together on the other side of the courtroom. Later, I'd find out they were the victim's family.
"Hi," I began. "My name is Talia, I'll be covering this trial for the local paper. Are you..."
"We don't want to talk," an older man barked. "At least not until after the trial. "
I can respect that.
"Okay, that's fine," I said. "But we'll be seeing one another for the next few weeks. We can still be friendly to one another, right?"
One of the women smiled and nodded. Over the next few weeks, I respected the family's privacy. I observed there seemed to be two distinct camps: the victim's immediate family and her husband's family. The husband's family were much more apt to engage in small talk and would often approach me. The victim''s family would stare me down when I walked in a room and I couldn't get a one of them to return a smile. So I chilled and stayed mostly to myself. I spoke when the husband's family approached me and I continued attempts to strike up convos with the victim's family. I even persuaded the father to send a photo of his daughter - the victim - to me to publish in the paper.
I thought we were getting along as best could be expected. Then, the verdict came. Sort of.
After more than three days of deliberation, the jury was unable to come to a unanimous decision. I can't say I blame them - I'd sat through the trial and couldn't come to a decision myself.
Once the jury was dismissed, I ran out of the courtroom and called in a Web update to the desk. Then, I waited to the side in an attempt to catch some of the family members. The husband and his family walked out of the courtroom, and didn't even give me a second glance when I called their names. Then, I saw the father walk out the door and ran/walked to catch up with him. He'd told me just 4 days prior that he'd speak to me once a decision came down.
"Mr. Duffy, Mr. Duffy," I said. "Do you have a second to talk to me."
"Why don't you go find the Stephensons," he said, venom dripping from each word. "You were hanging around with them for most of the trial anyway."
I stood stunned as the elevator doors closed between us. I tried not to take it personally - this was, after all, business - but I'm not going to lie: that comment hurt. But I had a job to do, so I hopped in the next elevator and went outside to try to catch someone.
As I stepped into the muggy air, I saw the Duffy family standing on the steps of the courthouse. The TV cameras were there, but again, I'd been here since day one. I tried again.
"Excuse me, folks," I said. "I just wanted to check to see if anyone would be willing to speak to me." I got blank stares in return. Then:
"Give me your card," a woman said. "I'll talk to my uncle (the father) and I'm sure he'll want to speak later." I smiled, thanked her and handed over my card. As I milled around the courthouse steps, I saw the TV cameras spring to action.
The father was giving a TV interview.
I put my pride aside and squeezed between two television cameras, scribbling notes and straining to hear over the wind and the father's low voice. I know he was hurting, but why choose to share your pain with millions of TV viewers, but not with me. I was pissy. I still am. But I got my quotes.
Afterward, I tried speaking to a few jurors. Of course, they had no comment. So I walked back to my car dejected. I'd invested a month of my life covering this trial and I'd gotten the same quotes that every media outlet in the Ocean State received after only being there for the verdict.
And people wonder why the media doesn't chronicle events blow by blow anymore. Because this is what you get in return.
(Don't get it twisted: I'm still proud of my story and the experience of covering a murder trial, but I am disappointed that all of that work was seemingly for naught because I got the same story that everyone else in the state got -- and they actually were able to have a life over the past month.)continue...
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
When I got into her car, she was on her cell phone, talking a mile a minute and an octave higher than her normal voice. When she hung up, she apologized for being distracted, and shoved a print-out of a blurb from a newspaper in my direction.
"Look at this," she said.
Dance saved Kim James from challenging circumstances growing up in Alexandria. Today it's her life. She directs Dream in Color, a nonprofit group that offers dance classes to economically disadvantaged youths in Northern Virginia. "I discovered that the single factor that helped me get past adverse circumstances as a child -- circumstances that others in my family couldn't overcome -- was dance," James says.The paragraphs may seem innocuous to most, but for those who work for Dream in Color -- Kim as its founder, me as a part-time instructor -- they just weren't accurate.
Now she uses dance to help youngsters lose weight. "I am concerned that the obesity rate is so very high, in the African American community in particular," James says.
The first sentence, particularly because of the word "saved," made me conjure images of a young Kim running for her life through the ghettoes of Alexandria, her brown hair flailing behind her in the wind -- something I knew didn't happen. Yeah, there were some issues in her family, but as far as I knew, her childhood was mostly happy and stable.
Then there was the helping "youngsters lose weight" part. In my two years with the group, Dream in Color's mission statement never said anything about trying to slim down kids. If anything, the program encourages kids of all shapes and sizes to dance. Kim often tells the story of how her childhood dance teachers told her her backside was too big for ballet, and how she didn't have the "right shape" for dance. She started the foundation to make sure other children didn't have to hear that. Still, the writer seemed to use Kim's concern about obesity to paint Dream in Color as a weight loss program.
"What kind of noise is this?" I said when I finished reading. "It makes us sound like a fat camp."
"I know!" she replied. "A black, ghetto fat camp. She could've gone to the Web site and saw what the whole point of the studio is."
Kim showed me an e-mail she sent to the Post, complaining about the assumptions made in the piece. I was slightly amused because her complaint was longer than the blurb itself. But it all reminded me of how important accuracy is. It's crucial.
Editors at my job had always warned me never to assume anything. Write the facts, they say, but never make any conclusions without verifying them. It seems simple, but we can make assumptions without even knowing it. I have on a number of occasions. Luckily I work with sharp-as-a-needle editors who point out even the smallest items of concern. And with their help, I've become sharper at separating the facts from assumptions.
What's the damage done from a little blurb? Who knows. But whether a story is big or small, it has no room for anything but the facts. continue...
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
For the last few weeks, I sat in courtroom 4E at the Kent County Courthouse, chronicling the ups and downs of the murder trial of James Richardson, accused of killing Margaret Duffy-Stephenson in 2005.
I sit across the aisle from the family. A seat behind the defendant has my name on it. I chat with the family members about the climate in the courtroom, and joke that maybe tomorrow, I'll bring my parka.
I'm the only reporter who's been in the courtroom since day one. I sat through the motions to suppress, jury selection and opening statements. I detailed testimony in tight stories for the next day's paper. I made corrections when the family pointed out mistakes.
But mostly, I listened.
I listened when Margaret's coworkers told about how their friend was a great teacher's aide and always willing to help someone. I listened when her husband, James Stephenson III, told us about the last time he hugged his wife. I listened when her father told the court that when he found his only daughter covered in blood at the bottom of the stairs, he reached over and touched her face.
So when the prosecution showed a photo of Margaret's wounds on the projector screen in the courtoom, I almost lost it. My mouth gaped open as I stared at her wounds. I swallowed hard as the medical examiner explained Margaret's killer had cut her throat so deeply her backbone was visible through the hole in her neck. Of the 11 wounds on Margaret's body, more than half were stab wounds.
My stomach started to churn.
I looked at those pictures and no longer was Margaret just another victim in another homicide. She was Margaret. The mother of Robert. A teacher's aide at a local elementary school. The only daughter amongst a gaggle of brothers. That was Margaret's body on the autopsy table.
I glanced over at the family when the pictures went up - instinct. To my left, Margaret's sister in law was visibly shaken, tears streaming down her face. Her husband - Margaret's brother - comforted her.
I glanced down at the wooden pew, almost ashamed for having witnessed the family at such a vulnerable time. I took a deep breath and focused on the notes I was writing. I had a job to do.
After court recessed for the day, I went to my car and stared out the windshield in silence. It was all I could do to hold back the tears.continue...
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Mr. Whiteside, along with being one of the few black beat writers in Major League Baseball as well as covering Civil Rights issues in Milwaukee, was the creator of the well-known "Black List," a publication that provided contact information for all black journalists and black sports writers around the country. Reading the comments, one gathers that Mr. Whiteside was a pleasant man, a damn good journalist, an outstanding mentor and of course a pioneer in the field.
Mr. Whiteside's passing along with the high esteem he is held in by his peers sparked several thoughts, feelings and ideas in my mind. One of those being, how can we as young black sports writers stick together and continue the legacy of such men as Sam Lacy, Ralph Wiley, Larry Whiteside, Mike Wilbon, Bill Rhoden, Stephen A. Smith and others? How can we make our mark on the industry and give back so freely as several of our elders have done over the course of time? It can't be stressed enough that there are not nearly enough of us, black sports journalists, hell, black journalists in general.
We definitely need to work together to uphold the standards and practices of those who came before us, and as we lose more of pioneers, role models and idols, it becomes vital that we establish contact with those who we follow and admire while they're still here. As a wise journalist from the Bayou once told me, "this industry is too competitive to be timid." So what I propose is that whomever is reading this, be it broadcast, print, new media, radio, public relations, whatever; contact a person in your field whose work you admire, respect, and check out quite often. E-mail, telephone, U.S. Postal Service, carrier pigeons, it doesn't matter. Give it a shot.
Establish contact with them, try to pick their brains as much as you can and let it be known that you are indeed about your business and would someday like to reach the level that your person of interest is at. I know some of you fear that some of them may be too busy to respond or may not want to respond, but the fact of the matter is, no one will accuse you of not making an effort to make contact and creating a network for yourself, which is arguably more important than any skill you may possess.
Then when we're old and gray or our time on Earth is up, maybe, just maybe, we'll have the next generation showering us with praise and compliments much like Larry Whiteside is deservedly receiving in his afterlife. continue...
Saturday, June 16, 2007
I think that's doubly true when it comes to your career.
I spent the weekend at Poynter re-evaluating my life. My girl, Jessie, was serving as a guest faculty member at the summer program we both participated in. So, I hoped on a flight and decided to mooch off of her and the Institute for a few days.
The look on my former teacher's faces when I walked in was priceless. I soaked up some sun at Passagrille. And I worked.
I helped one group find their story focus and dished with another girl about racist comments I've encountered on my beat. I sat in on classes, answered questions and encouraged a student to do the stories he wanted to do -- not the ones he felt were too large to do in four days.
Being here not only energized me, but it made me look at where my career has gone. Being here reminded me of how much zeal and passion I used to have for this craft. Being here reminded me why I got into journalism in the first place.
The result? Something needs to change.
I need to tell some stories. I need to do the journalism that initially drew me to this thing. I need something that will fill this void that I've been feeling lately at work.
These three days in St. Pete were exactly what I needed to clear my head.
Now, it's just a matter of making my resolution a reality.continue...
Friday, June 15, 2007
I'd certainly like to blame it on not being completely finished with school (I hope to finally be done with this hellhole by the beginning of August), but our own wordsmiths, Darren Sands and Marcus Vanderberg were able to land gigs, rather quickly, so that can't be the case. I won't ever question my talent as a writer and my passion for the business is a flame that won't be extinguished anytime soon, so that's out. It could just be that it's just the nature of the beast, with newspapers going through a vicious cycle of buyouts, layoffs, technological advances and the like, and that seems to be the most plausible of all reasons why the offers are non-existent. Whatever the case may be, it can certainly take a toll on an aspiring journalist seeking that first job.
My aggressiveness in finding a job is one born of desperation, a drive to be something more than a college graduate passing time at his mother's house, or even worse, standing at the register of the famed Golden Arches, suffering the indignity of asking folks I know "do you want fries with that?"* I decided three summers ago when I was unjustly let go from a temp job as a desk clerk only two days in that anything not pertaining to journalism was something I would not be doing. It's a stance I don't see myself changing or abandoning anytime soon, so there's definitely a stalemate going on between my heart and my head, common sense and the hope-laden feelings I harbor for becoming what I feel I was destined to be; a sports writer.
So what am I going to do? Just what the title of this post says, inspired by the monster hit of the same name by 1980s rock band Journey. I won't stop believing that I am cut out for this field and that I will get my foot in the door eventually and that it won't ever come back out. The saving grace in this is that I'm not alone and I have several great people in this field in my corner telling me to keep my head up and understand that while it may take longer than I expected, that job will come. That's the same advice I'd have for anyone going through the same struggles as I am. As long as we believe, there's always a future for us in this great industry of ours.
*No offense to those who work in fast food or the service industry. continue...
Thursday, June 14, 2007Hayward Daily Review starting July 2nd. I'm about as nervous as Miss USA during the evening gown portion of the Miss Universe pageant. I'll be, for lack of a better phrase, moving back to basics...
Not only have I not been writing very much in the last six months or so, I've also not been in a fast-paced, breaking news environment for a while. And from what I understand I'm going to be a general assignment/breaking news reporting intern.
I've spent the last year or so honing my multimedia skills because visual storytelling is where my passion is, but I'm worried that I've lost my print-style writing muscle. And when I applied for a multimedia internship within the same newspaper/media company, I was rejected.
The print internship spot opened, and I took it. But I can't help but feel extremely nervous.
Anyone ever experience this? continue...
Sunday, June 10, 2007
I love it. Simple. Informative. Somewhat artistic. Even poetic. The guy doing the voice over is hilarious. But I'll have to ask him to never yell 'Copy!' out like that again.
No, I'm not talking about personal hygiene. I'm talking about not feeling like you're on point, organized and focused.
I've not really settled in to my new gig as managing editor of the campus paper's online site because it really hasn't sunk in yet. And I don't know at what point I will feel on course, organized and focused on my goal.
I've not heard from the faculty advisor, who I'm supposed to work with on a complete re- engineering of the online site. I'm not sure what my staff will look like, as many of the students who have turned in applications do not have online/new media skills. And on top of that, one of my hired assistant editors confessed to me that he might go to Europe in the fall instead, citing missing his girl from Finland (he studied abroad for an entire school year). This would leave me with one other assistant editor.
Needless to say, I'm feeling tremendous pressure. I don't have as large a support staff as the newspaper has. And since most folks prefer to work on the magazine staff, the online side of things often gets ignored. (Why? Most students come into the department thinking magazine writing means less work and longer deadlines. Oh boy, they in for a rude awakening!)
So, how will I do it? How will I find a new assistant, when most of the other qualified people have graduated and moved on to internships or jobs? How will I get the attention and interest of an at least capable multimedia staff? How effective would it be for me to train those who lack the skills during my summer, without any pay? And how will I move to a new place, pay bills, and leave to attend the NABJ convention for an entire week?
I wonder if an industry level managing editor ever goes through the same sort of feelings...continue...
Friday, June 08, 2007
Yep. Alex Trebek Jeopardy.
When I was at home my dad and brother would always play, trying to answer each question before the other. But here in the newsroom, folks are more drawn to what questions each staffer didn't know. Here, Jeopardy is more of a curious obsession than it is a game to be played. As much as I'd love to join in on the fun, I dare not embarrass myself.
After all, copy editors are the kings and queens of useless info.continue...
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Or his dog.
I had no luck with his HS coach, whom I presume was fielding calls all day and wasn't interested in talking.
So I went the Mark Zuckerberg way.
Sending messages to people you actually know on Facebook is, at best, an inexact science; it lies somewhere in between complimenting a girl as your first line when you approach her, and life being akin to a box of chocolates: you really never know what you're gonna get.
So the fact that I didn't know this cat from a hole in the wall didn't do me any good.
I wouldn't recommend this as a standard effective reporting practice, but I will say that it worked. I got a contact that will lead me to the player in question, and if we run something else about him, I will most definitely be using those digits.
P.S. -- Anybody mad about this?continue...