You have to be there

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

If you think you can fake it and make it in journalism, think again. Or, just read this post.

Much like a concert or a major sporting event, being there live beats watching it on the DVD that someone re-gifted in your Christmas stocking. Watching something through a director's often blurred lens can leave plenty of the intangibles on the whey side, you know, because of time constraints. When your there live, you're the editor. You're the judge. You're the reviewer. And, most importantly, especially if you're a journalist, you're the trusted voice.

If you haven't indulged in a Budweiser or 12, your mind should be clear enough to know what's happening. Details such as the emotional atmosphere, the amount of perspiration on the drummer's face, or the pugnacity of pot smoke in the air are just a few details you'll never get by cutting corners. Relying on the news release or second hand information just won't cut it in this business.

Jessica Cable, CreComm grad of 2011, reminded us of this. You have to be there. You have to. If not, you'll miss the intangibles. She told us that she would have missed out on an emotionally stirring story if she hadn't gone to the event in person. It would have been just another lifeless recap of an annual graduation ceremony.

Yes, readers want to know the 5 Ws, but it's reporting on the stuff in between is what separates the good journalists from the great ones.

Now, there used to be a time when pretending to be reporting live at the scene was doable.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the 40th president of the United States, the late Ronald Reagan. Before his stint in the Oval Office, The Great Communicator earned paychecks by acting in movies and by broadcasting Major League Baseball games over the radio.

Rarely, if ever, was Reagan present at the games he was broadcasting. He'd receive telegrams and wires (not tweets or emails) from people actually at the game, so he could report on the score. Everything else, he'd have to make up. (In fact, he would hit to sticks together to make the sound of baseball hitting a bat when there was a hit in the game.)

In a time when the word Internet had as much meaning to Americans as any word in Sanskrit, this was a feasible option. No one could call him out on it, because no one, except for the broadcasters, could ever possibly know. Ignorance, they say, is bliss.

I tried to find some examples of reporters and journalists leading their readers to believe their reporting was borne from their own eye-witness accounting, but I couldn't find any.

Then I remembered last Monday's excursion to the Manitoba Law Courts. I sat in on a civil trial where a man is suing the Winnipeg Police Service for liable and punitive damages. It's a trial by jury, which according to the judge, is very rare in civil suits.

As the jurors were introduced to the court, all six of them seemed nervous. They didn't smile or extend any polite nods to anyone in the room. They barely blinked as the judge lectured them on their duties and responsilibites over the course of the proceedings.

About 45 minutes into the hearing, Winnipeg Free Press crime beat reporter Mike McIntyre poked his head through the court room door. Since I'm a big fan of his, I was pumped that he'd decided to sit on a case that I too thought would be noteworthy and interesting.

McIntyre spent maybe five seconds in the room before moving on.

His article in the Freep the next day about the trial didn't mention any of the intangibles. Nothing about the nervous jury, the shifty and angry plaintiff, or the crusty old judge. All those themes would have made for a fantastic story. If he had stayed, I'm sure those points would have made his article. Instead, readers just got a lifeless recap of the 5 Ws, and nothing in between. (And, really, readers only got 3 1/2 Ws. Mike got the count on the jury wrong. There were six jurors. Mike, or whoever his source was, said eight.)

It's not really his fault. He has deadlines and word counts to contend with. Sometimes the 5 Ws is all he has time for. As a reader though, I expect more.


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