Forgetting the voiceless

My first big assignment as a news reporter came a couple of weeks after I was hired. We were about to enter a “sweeps” period, which is when TV networks compile ratings and push out special content to bring in more viewers. For a local news operation, it means producing special stories for sweeps, usually longer pieces that can be promoted in commercials and online.

I was fresh-faced and wide-eyed, and was still learning where the bathrooms were at my station when my assistant news director came to me with my sweeps assignment. I was going to do an in-depth piece of gang problems in southern Oregon. A man had been stabbed by a gang member two weeks earlier, and my assignment was to explain more about who these gangs were, the types of crimes they were committing, and what police were doing to stop them.

On patrol with a Medford gang enforcement officer.

I was a little scared – after all, I had been in Medford all of two weeks – but I quickly jumped at the opportunity. This was my chance to show the world what the gang culture was like, and give people a dose of reality of how it affects small towns.

I sat in the office of the county District Attorney, amid shelves of dusty law books, and spoke to him about how jail sentences send a message to potential gang members. I went into the heart of the police station and looked at crime statistics with an officer, who explained that small town gang members aren’t “wannabes,” they were people committing serious, violent crimes.

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Following a school resource officer around campus.

I took it a step further. One day I met with an officer assigned to a local high school and walked with him around campus. As he walked through the throng of students in the outdoor lunch area, he smiled and said hello to anyone who passed by. One student walked up and bumped fists with him.

“What’s up, officer Jackson?” the kid said.

“Hey man,” Jackson replied. He asked about the kid’s recent homework, and the kid smiled, gave him an “aw shucks” look, and said he would get on it. Jackson told me he tried to keep a close relationship with young students to encourage them to stay on the right track, and show that police can be viewed as friends. He never gave up on kids, even after they had joined a gang.

“Some of these guys are actually really nice kids,” he later said.

Driving down a dark alley in search of gang activity.

Then, my proudest moment in the story: a ride-along with a gang enforcement officer. I had never been in a police car before, but here I was, in the front seat, on a dark, rainy night in Medford. After having me fill out a form signing away my right to sue if I were to get killed on patrol (gulp) we cruised around the seediest parts of Medford.

A Medford officer shines his light on gang graffiti.

The dark streets were lined with old houses, broken down trucks, and crumbling sheds. The street lights seemed dimmer here, before they disappeared entirely. We drove by groups of three or four people, who would glance in our direction, then quickly turn their backs. Occasionally we would pull over, and the cop would shine lights at shops and houses tagged with gang-related graffiti. As I stood in the rain shooting video, I would often slowly turn my head to either side, to see who was around. In the dark, everything about gangs seemed so much more real, and so much scarier. And I wanted to capture what it was like to be the officer on that route every night.

After spending a couple of weeks putting everything together, I finally had my piece. “Gang Mentality,” they branded it. It even had a commercial. I had never been so proud of one of my stories at that time; to take such a big issue and expose it to our viewers.

After it aired, I sat down again with my assistant news director go over the work. I asked him what he thought.

He breathed in a deep breath through his teeth.

“…it was OK.”

OK? Just OK?

After I spent weeks with the best cops in the city? After I rode around in a police car through bad neighborhoods? After I recorded heartfelt exchanges between cops and kids? The material was good, the writing was good, the editing was good. After all that, how could it just be ‘OK?’

“Well,” he said. “You’ve got the DA. The police captain. The school officer. The gang officer.

All you have is cops.”

It took me aback.

“Where are the other voices?” he continued. “Where are the current or former gang members? Where are the neighbors who have to live next to gangs? Where are the family members? This issues affects more than just cops.”

It was my first lesson about trying to tell a story and completely missing the heart.

 Good reporting means moving beyond the obvious and the safe.

60 Minutes recently aired a report from Lara Logan, who traveled to Liberia to document the Ebola outbreak there. It was a solid report, which explained the efforts of American doctors who have set up an Ebola clinic in the region. But it received criticism in some circles, and was referred to as “Africa without Africans.”

In her report, Logan spent time with the American doctors who were treating patients, and interviewed five of them about their experiences. Not once did she interview any of the Liberians affected by the disease, or any of the African nurses helping at the clinic.

She certainly alluded to it, but it felt like she was treating the African perspective like someone looking through a window and describing what they see. She mentioned “most of the staff here are Liberian,” and showed them being sprayed with chlorine to disinfect, but never spoke to them about the experience. She presented the story of a Liberian father named George, whose young son William was infected with Ebola, and followed their journey all the way to the boy’s death, culminating with heartbreaking visual of the boy’s grave marker. But she never interviewed them.

Logan missed the entire heart of that story.

Good reporting means moving beyond the obvious and the safe. On the surface, it must have seemed like a no-brainer for Logan: she was reporting on the efforts of American doctors, so she interviews the American doctors. People with Ebola are quarantined, so she likely thought she couldn’t tell their story up close. But as a reporter, you need to push yourself past your initial ideas and dig deeper. The American doctors are only one part of the story. They see the effects of Ebola, but Liberians are affected by Ebola. The Liberians have seen their familes, friends, and neighbors die from the disease, and their experiences and voices carry much more emotion, and give the story more weight, than just the voices of doctors.

Surely this story affects more kinds of people than Americans?

Telling a story accurately means finding all the sides of a story. Who is affected by it? Who is actively involved in it? Doctors, police, politicians – these are all officials, and they are difficult for the average person to relate to. But the neighbors, the friends, the local workers – those people make a story real.

My story about gangs would have been a lot more impactful if I had reached out to gang members, former members, or families and neighbors who have experienced the problem. Those people likely have never had a voice, and have never been able to get their stories told. I could have given them that voice, but I failed in my efforts, simply because the thought never occurred to me. Just like I had forgotten the personal, heartfelt, relatable aspect in my story, even a seasoned reporter like Logan forgot to find the heart of her Ebola story.

As reporters, we all got into this business to make a difference in the world with our talents. We do that by going out in the world and sharing stories, and giving voice to those who previously had been voiceless. Often the most important voices are the ones we need to listen a little harder for.


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