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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Why certain stories can't be told in newspapers

Great article in this month's Columbia Journalism Review. Unfortunately it's not yet available online, so I'll pull extensive excerpts here because I believe it's very illustrative of why reporters leave newsrooms to write.

"Unshackled: Why one reporter left a newspaper to write books," is written by Linda Perlstein, whom I've mentioned here a few times in recent weeks as the author of, "Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade."

My initial interest in her work related to my own work in reporting and writing about small school transformation for KnowledgeWorks Foundation. The new "Legacy" books detailing the work done in the 2006-07 school year will be out on Sept. 26, so I'll be sure to link to them here. I have two stories about Cleveland Heights High School: "Building Trust in the Power to Change: One leader of a small school hopes to build momentum by inspiring those around him" and "A Tale of Two Students: One reluctant, one enthusiastic and both testing the limits of Heights Schools."

Perlstein mentioned the upcoming CJR article to me when I spoke with her two weeks ago. Her article does a fine job of addressing the importance of in-depth and contextual reporting for such complex issues. While she is not dissing newspapers, she is cognizant, as a former Washington Post education reporter, of the limitations that prohibit such work from appearing in newspapers.
"...principals and elementary school teachers, not a rebellious bunch by nature—middle managers and line workers of a big bureaucracy, after all—can't afford to be that forthcoming with reporters they barely know. That's especially true with prominent newspaper like The Washington Post, where a glowing mention can buoy a school community for months.

And so in articles in the Post as well as in the Baltimore Sun and the Annapolis Capital, Tyler Heights Elementary is portrayed simply as a model of school reform done right, headed by a cheerleading, effortlessly optimistic principal. The stories don't delve into the heavy costs of the success; they rely heavily on interviews with the principal, and why would she have wanted to discuss the messy stuff?"
But in a book, such as Perlstein's, the messy stuff appears organically as part of the natural observation and the twin luxuries of space and time.
"Freed from the strictures of space, I was able to focus on issues I felt were crucial to understanding the inner workings of a school, which are the types of topics a newspaper editor is likely to consider inside baseball and the first things that get cut from an overlong newspaper article. Too often, education is covered as a consumer issue, with stories geared only to what editors think readers want to know about how their own children spend their time."
"A 'news you can use' approach to stories is fine in many cases, but not when it crowds out the comprehension that can come from seemingly wonky stuff."
That "wonky stuff" is the what drives much of education and certainly many educators. So to brush it off and to focus instead on loss of sports or recess or music or art is to miss that what also gets lost in the test-prep mania is explorations of science and social studies. But you only know that, only get to see those things when you are there—often.
"...For what I wanted to accomplish, I needed to paint pictures that could only be created through the kind of direct, rote observation that allowed every tiny piece to be put into perspective, and I needed to see enough to be convinced of my own judgments."
"I had to watch kindergartners take a certain literacy test thirty times before I felt comfortable drawing conclusions about the assessment and before picking one scene that both represented the students' experiences and illustrated my concerns."
While there is a certain detachment that comes from observing, the power in book writing is that you can express your opinion. Our mantra during our KnowledgeWorks writing workshops throughout the year is to show not tell. While we are not writing in first person, some of us struggle to put scenes into larger context. It's challenging trying to resist the temptation to tell when you've spent enough time to "just know" that certain things are. Perlstein believes that it is better to show than to tell, "but sometimes the strongest thing you can do is both."

Even with our challenges and struggles in storytelling and constant need to select, focus and reduce, what I enjoy most about my reporting on small schools is that it frees me somewhat from newspaper strictures that can get in the way of telling the story.
"You are allowed to say, 'It's hard to get parents to school in a poor community,' rather than, 'Experts say it's hard to get parents to school in a poor community.' "
To average readers that may sound like splitting hairs, but attribution is a block in the foundation of a newspaper's credibility.
"Nearly every scene I paint in the book I witnessed myself ... But in general, I get to be my own arbiter about whom to trust, about distinguishing gossip from reality. This is a weighty burden, but it becomes manageable when you get to know people well over a year."
Other freedoms found in reporting in book form including not needing the "journalistic shortcuts" often found in articles. For example, she didn't say "test scores rose" when the truth is the percentage of children who passed the test rose. A book doesn't require to provide equal time to opposing arguments considered baseless. Sarcasm can be used to illustrate a point without the fear of offending readers. And you have the freedom to change names to protect people's identity. This is not used in reporting, though anonymous sources are. What gives any unnamed or changed name sources credibility, whether in a book or newspaper, is that it's used with such specificity that it narrows the potential pool of people providing the sourcing.

Finally, you can tell the story without the risk of offending people.
"When I reported long ago for the Post about the growing behavior problems of elementary schoolchildren, everyone I interviewed, from the teachers to the administrators to the social scientists, implicated parents in some way, a point of view I passed along in the story. My editors let me know that I was being 'too hard on parents,' and that part of the story was excised considerably."
Perlstein concludes that newspapers' commitment to balance, objectivity, attribution, etc., while an impediment to telling compelling stories, necessarily keeps the focus tight. But that the best non-fiction books combine that journalistic discipline with looser narrative storytelling.

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