office space

Sometimes you try to write what’s assigned, and it just doesn’t work. The words are forced, artificially connected by too many conjunctions. When you’re a journalist, though, you’ve always got to write that story. Meet the deadline, even if the article is boring and you’d much rather be finishing up that investigative piece into which you’ve invested a semester’s worth of time. Meet the deadline, even if you’ve got a list-of-things-to-do afterward that will keep you up all night.

I’m sitting at my designated chair in the office at Jefferson City. In front of me, stacked legal pads scribbled with my notes, today’s New York Times, my planner which induces panic attacks when lost, a bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper Cherry that isn’t mine (although I tried it anyway, and then remembered how much I hate artificial sweeteners), a dictionary that probably weighs as much as I do, with yellowed pages, open to page 1027 which ends with the word “hand-minded.” I’m not sure why it’s in front of me. When I want to confirm that I’m using the right word, I’ll look it up on Merriam Webster online. That physical dictionary sits open, though, thousands of pages. An ancient relic.

There are no windows in this office—or there were, at one point, but they’ve since been “walled over,” apparently. The sports writers sit behind me. They are pretty fond of expletives.

Right now, it’s November and a cold front has made its dramatic entrance in Missouri. It’s cold inside the office, too. I’m wearing my red H&M coat to keep myself from freezing a terrible and avoidable death. I’m always cold.

This post isn’t written for anyone but myself. I don’t want to forget this space, not because it’s glamorous or exciting, but because it’s a physical place where I once worked and learned and avoided writing one story by writing another story and that means something, probably.

vote baby vote!

Gabriel Hackett/Getty Images

Gabriel Hackett/Getty Images

In journalism school, we like to talk a lot about reporters’ role in a democracy. Inform the public of affairs! Power to the people! Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable!

Too bad there’s a lot of pre-election reporting that falls into the so-called Horse Race; rather than covering the issues, journalists pick up on the minute details of a politician’s behavior, or unflattering fashion choice, or accidental speech flub. When paired with the negative campaign ads that saturate the t.v., is it any wonder that voters get turned off from politics?

In fact, on Tuesday, only one-third of Missourians are expected to go out and vote.

Perhaps our election coverage should cover voting itself. We’ve come a long way since the new American nation considered land-owning white men as the only people worthy of voting. It’s important to remember that women and minorities had to fight for their right to vote.  It’s also important to remember that laws continuing to disenfranchise minorities still exist.

I know that the upcoming elections are only the mid-terms. Maybe it’s not glamorous or exciting to vote on state amendments or local ballot issues, but they have direct implications for you. You’ve got a day left–that’s plenty of time to get educated about your state, district or town. (If you’re in Missouri, by the way, here’s a good place to get yourself up to speed.)

So in the end, it’s up to you. Power to the people! Go and vote!

audie cornish walked right past me today

No, she really did. Probably three feet away from where I stood, if that. I was starstruck.

Photo Credit: Kurt Wilberding, "NPR: What Radio Hosts Really Wear" from the Wall Street Journal (no, really)

Photo Credit: Kurt Wilberding, “NPR: What Radio Hosts Really Wear” from the Wall Street Journal (really)

I shouldn’t have been there. She was speaking to a class at Mizzou called “Cross-Cultural Journalism,” which is a class that I do not T.A.
As it turns out, I was supposed to be entering grades for my own students into BlackBoard. But instead, I was in the back of that lecture hall, my feet glued on the floor as she walked past.

She spoke to the class for a little bit, and I had to force myself to dash out because, contrary to my wishes, those grades were not going to enter themselves.

Ms. Cornish is at the University of Missouri’s journalism school today to receive an Honor Medal for her work with NPR’s All Things Considered. There’s a fancy dinner and acceptance speeches and a whole lot of pizzazz.

I couldn’t go to the fancy schmancy dinner. Instead, I sat in the Jefferson City newsroom behind a couple of sports writers who were cursing at the World Series game playing on t.v.

That’s okay, I thought. That’s okay because for fifteen minutes, after sneaking into that cross-cultural journalism class, I got to listen to the voice of Audie Cornish without the help of the radio. She’s the sort of woman who demands respect, makes you wish that she was both your friend and your mentor. She’s clever and well-spoken. She gets to the point, no fuss. To survive this week, I need to be Audie Cornish.

re: jian ghomeshi

Having a stressful day? Easy relief: switch on NPR.

Listening to the familiar voices of Garrison Keillor or Terry Gross or Ira Glass is comforting, even ritualistic. Radio is made up of disembodied voices, free from the faults that come with being human.

This is Jian Ghomeshi, one of those radio hosts.

jian

Photo Credit: Nightlife.ca

He hosts–excuse me, used to host, as of two days ago–a radio show on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called Q. I discovered it when I was apartment-hunting around Kansas City in the summer of 2013. It was a hot summer, and my car didn’t have air conditioning. My comfort during hours of driving and sweating was listening to Q on NPR.

But Ghomeshi’s voice isn’t one of those disembodied comforts any more.

The CBC fired Ghomeshi this week, after some incriminating “information” was brought to their attention.

Ghomeshi didn’t leave quietly. He’s suing the CBC for $50 million for breach of contract and bad faith. To boot, just a few hours ago, he published an open letter on his Facebook page. Here are some bits and pieces from it: 

I’ve been fired from the CBC because of the risk of my private sex life being made public as a result of a campaign of false allegations pursued by a jilted ex girlfriend and a freelance writer. …

We saw each other on and off over the period of a year and began engaging in adventurous forms of sex that included role-play, dominance and submission. We discussed our interests at length before engaging in rough sex (forms of BDSM). We talked about using safe words and regularly checked in with each other about our comfort levels. She encouraged our role-play and often was the initiator.

Bold move, getting his story out before CBC could release the findings of its own investigation. According to him, all the freaky bedroom stuff was consensual. According to his “jilted ex-girlfriend,” apparently, it was not. According to Ghomeshi, he was fired due to his private life. According to a whole lot of people, he’s a creep.

I’m not writing about this to gossip. I’m writing because of the implications of this situation. The crux of the story–do we believe Jian Ghomeshi?

If he’s not lying and the CBC fired him for the potential scandal that could grow from his private sex life, that’s obviously problematic. Ghomeshi is a journalist, and it’s a horrible phenomenon when journalists become the story. It’s a scary thought, that my professional life could be damaged by rumors and reputation. Reporter Gary Webb allegedly took his own life after this happened to him.

But what if the ex is not lying?

False accusations of sexual harassment and rape do exist. The percentage of rape accusations that are untrue is an incredibly difficult statistic to pin down, with estimates ranging from 2 percent (largely debunked) to 41 percent (thanks to men’s rights activists, so not a trustworthy number either).

And what about all the women who do endure sexual harassment who don’t speak up? They often choose not to, because their remarks will immediately be written off as false by the accused. They’re labeled as “attention-seeking whores,” demonized, having to relive that moment of violation every time they are verbally attacked. No wonder they don’t want to come out with their stories. Because of the gendered power relations of our culture, people are more inclined to doubt the accuser and believe the possible rapist.

Ghomeshi has already received hundreds of comments of support on his Facebook page. When the ex’s name is revealed, I guarantee you, she’ll receive hundreds of comments of the opposite sort. Hate, definitely. Threats, maybe.

So, I implore you. If you’re going to be skeptical of the ex-girlfriend, be skeptical of Ghomeshi too. He knows a lot about narration and molding stories to fit his frame. He is a journalist, after all.

UPDATE: The Toronto Star is reporting that it conducted extensive interviews with three women who claimed that Ghomeshi was sexually violent with them without their consent. He allegedly hit them and choked them. Another woman, one who worked at the CBC, said that Ghomeshi groped her buttocks and said that he wanted to “hate fuck” her.

None of these women were willing to give their names. They don’t want to be the object of threats and ridicule. In journalism school, we’re taught to never go with sources who speak off the record. It hurts credibility. But I believe protecting sources who are victims is even more important.

Talk about an ethics moment. This is tough.

UPDATE, Oct. 29: Eight women. Eight.

sourcing: a dance

Start the waltz with a phone call, maybe an email.
The first steps: Sometimes with a secretary  sometimes with a voicemail, and sometimes “I am currently out of the office” automatic reply.

Follow up, follow up, follow up.

Finally, reach the source–the first twirl.

“When can we meet? Are you available today or tomorrow?”
“Oh, you don’t have time until next week?”
“And you won’t have the data until the week after that?”

Again, again, again. Beginning to get dizzy.

Show up at the office. Time for the interview.
“So you’re saying that you need to reschedule?”
The first misstep. Clumsy! Hide that frustration. A proper performer never shows that she’s made a mistake.

But the waltz goes on, following this same pattern, twirling and missteps–weeks, weeks.

A proper performer never shows her exhaustion.

She’s not the only one. Everyone’s tired, everyone’s busy, everyone’s booked. She reminds herself to be understanding. Still, she wishes that she didn’t have to draw out this waltz for so long. She wants a quick tango, then to move on to the next one. She would rather sit down and write.

Dizzy, feeling ditzy. But: Follow up, follow up, follow up.

BOOM (a comparative study in reporting)

*Note: another blog post brought you by graduate school! Too blessed to be stressed, everyone.

Take a look at two different articles on Texas’ natural gas boom, and chances are, you’ll be first be struck by the photographs. Both stories are visually stunning, even though they are printed in different platforms.

The piece in Texas Monthly, called “‘Y’all Smell That? That’s the Smell of Money’” has photographs taking up entire pages. You can see oil rigs and pump jacks juxtaposed in front of blank blank blue skies, or maybe a sunrise lighting the landscape in gold. It’s a compelling contrast–nature and machine, that is–and there’s something beautiful about it.

Copyright Jeff Wilson Photography

Copyright Jeff Wilson Photography

Now, turn to the piece from the Center for Public Integrity. The portraits are grim, people staring solemnly into the camera. One woman holds up the mask that helps her breath. Machines make an appearance in this photos too, but the sky is no longer painted in blue or gold; it looks more like mud than anything else.   The Center for Public Integrity makes great use of multimedia on the web, showing different frames that move as you scroll down. There’s a horse galloping behind dead trees. There’s a rusty swing in an empty playground. The visitor can’t help but wonder, ‘where are the children?’ Perhaps the title of the story will clarify: “Big Oil, Bad Air.”

Copyright, Center for Public Integrity

Copyright Center for Public Integrity

You don’t even need to read a single word before you realize that these two stories have very different takes on the oil boom.

…But you do decide to read the stories, after all, because you’re curious. Good. The differences don’t stop at the photos.

Bryan Mealer, the author of the Texas Monthly piece, does not just report the facts. He writes from the first person and doesn’t shy away from a literary style of narrative. Mealer begins with his own experiences with the oil boom as a child, but remains a part of the story arc throughout the duration of the article. It’s personal, but not self-indulgent, which adds to a sense of suspense.

Mealer interviews several people who have received the financial fruit of the boom–oil men, people who found work after years of being unemployed, others from the Hispanic town of Cotulla who finally saw money being poured into their schools. It’s a celebration economic prosperity! When Mealer does interview people who have been negatively affected by the boom, it seems to be more of an obligation or an afterthought. “Oh, by the way, this person lives in a tent. The wealth gap is growing increasingly large. But, you know, winners and losers, right?” This isn’t to say that Mealer’s story is completely without nuance, though. After he begins with story of his father losing  his wealth after an oil boom, the whole article gives off a foreboding feeling that those indulging in oil-soaked cash are gambling with their livelihoods.

Let’s switch gears and consider the research piece from the Center for Public Integrity (CIP). It begins with an anecdotal lead too, but in a completely different manner. There’s a distance between the narrator and the subject–that’s called third-person narrative voice–and it gives a sense of authority over the entire article. Once you’ve finished the lead, you might notice something else that sets it apart from Mealy’s story: the content.

Sure, both are about the oil boom in Texas, but the CIP story (authored by three people) is focused on a consequence of the boom that Mealy barely mentions: the environmental impacts, both immediate and long-term. CIP is highly critical of the environment policies of both Texas and oil companies. Yet it manages to avoid moral judgment and prop up its sense of authority by providing statistics to back up its research. The article has breadth and depth, covering  both the science between the detrimental environmental effects of the industry and the regulation of the industry (or lack thereof). CIP interviews numerous people suffering from the immediate health consequences of the oil boom. Further, any dissenting viewpoints seem only to be included in order to sharpen CIP’s own argument rather than offer a legitimate perspective.

But that’s all right, I think. CIP is not trying to avoid debate; on the contrary, they are trying to stir up objections from the dominant ideology. Plus, with such thorough research, CIP does make a convincing case.

So, which story is more persuasive? You should read them and decide for yourself, Reader. You could even learn something new.

look up, look up!

Anonymity is contentment.
When I was studying abroad in Cambridge, on a given lazy Sunday I would take the train on my own to London. Then I’d take the Tube to whatever stop seemed compelling: just me, my Oyster Card and a city running on the energy of millions of strangers.

Self-portrait in Hampstead Heath, London. January 2012. Feeling content.

Self-portrait in Hampstead Heath, London. January 2012. Feeling content.

On a cold but crisp January day,
Walking with feigned purpose,
You can see the whole of London on Parliament Hill.
It’s crowded,
But the people don’t recognize you.
They don’t even look.
How refreshing, how energizing
To observe an entire ecosystem of humans
And languages and words
And trains, boats, buses
And trees, bushes, ponds
To feel like you’re involved in it all, but removed from it too.
No need to live up to expectations in the city.

First time in London, and I found myself properly lost on Abbey Road. I didn't mind. September 2011.

First time in London, and I found myself properly lost on Abbey Road. I didn’t mind. September 2011.

In high school, I had a fantasy that I would move to New York City. I’d go in college, of course, as any respectable eighteen-year-old would do. I had never been to the Big Apple before. This wasn’t uncommon in the Ozarks. People didn’t have a lot of money in that neck of the woods.

But I didn’t move, of course, because reality stopped by and forced me to look down. My feet were planted firmly into the Missouri soil, and I couldn’t afford to relocate.
(Technically, I couldn’t afford to attend a small liberal arts college and spend an entire year abroad, but I suppose $30,000 in student loans is better than $100,000.)
The desire to live in the city–to look up at a skyline of glass buildings instead of looking down at dead grass–never left. What a thrill it would be, to live in a space miles larger than I am, made of multiple histories, cultures, lives, stories. The thought scares some. It vitalizes me.

In two days, I’ll finally be in New York City. I’m going for a conference in business journalism, and I’m eager to learn what I can. But I’m also pining for that city sensation,
the paradox of being both a part and apart.