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Press Pause

Feeding the Beast

What should readers demand from their reporters? Find the shadows. Examine the complex problems. And captivate us. Journalists from Slate, Deadspin, ProPublica, NPR, and more on what readers should expect.

Edwaert Colyer, Still Life, ca. 1696. Courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art.

If there’s magic to be found in journalism, it’s here: Journalists ask questions, and people actually answer them. It’s a charmed exchange, a door opened. Reporters need our help to find those doors.

Each day, we add a few sentences to the narratives of our lives, and to the stories of our communities. When we share those same sentences with journalists, we open doors together—to find a little light, or a brick wall, or another door. Without a shared sense of trust, however, those doors might remain shut to journalists and readers alike. If we want to build trust with reporters, then we’re entitled to our own questions.

I emailed a number of journalists whose work I admire, and asked them to answer the same question: What should we demand of our reporters? Here’s what they said.

 

Dahlia Lithwick

Slate senior editor; her coverage of the Supreme Court received the 2013 National Magazine Award for Columns & Commentary

Readers should demand that reporters act as windows into things unknown.

I think readers should demand that reporters act as windows into things unknown. That means not demanding that journalists reflect back to them something they already know and believe. It means opening a wormhole into another place, or idea, or set of beliefs. I think it’s too easy to read about ourselves, and journalists can make it even easier. We need to avoid the temptation and insist that readers take a leap with us into something neither of us fully understands.

 

Tim Burke

Deadspin assignment editor; his Manti Te'o scoop, with colleague Jack Dickey, has been viewed more than four million times

It does both readers and the journalism community well to bend back upon ourselves and make public our reporting process.

Readers should demand illumination from reporters. For stories that have yet to reach the public, this means casting as bright a light as possible upon the subject, so as to present readers a thorough discussion of core issues and events as well as the context within which these events are occurring. For stories that are already developed, reporters must be held to the standard of finding existing shadows—and explaining where, and why, the light has yet to shine. In both cases, readers must also demand reflexivity from reporters; it does both readers and the journalism community well to bend back upon ourselves and make public our reporting process. This includes editors’ voices, in which readers must hear how a story developed from its initial reporting to how it appeared on the page or screen.

 

Justin Elliott

ProPublica reporter focused on politics, money, and influence

Fairness, accuracy, and don’t be boring.

 

Laura Sydell

Digital Culture correspondent for National Public Radio; with Alex Blumberg, reported the excellent “When Patents Attack!” story for This American Life

Reporters should make every effort to be factually accurate. I want to clarify what I mean a little bit. Reporters are human, and they are not perfect. So, when a reporter makes a mistake, it’s not really necessary for the public to beat them over the head if the reporter and news organization have generally proven that they do care about facts. But, the audience should expect that when they point out an inaccuracy that the reporter and news organization make their best effort to fix it.

Reporters should strive to bring a variety of perspectives to a topic. I don’t think it’s humanly possible to be unbiased. If reporters simply threw out a bunch of facts, it would be dull to read. We need to have a perspective. However, I regularly try to challenge my own biases by seeking out other opinions. I try, to the best of my human ability, to bring curiosity to every topic.

Reporters should help you understand why certain stories are important to you.

Reporters should challenge the common wisdom. There are a lot of people out there spouting opinions and some of them take hold. However, if it turns out that a particular person’s version of events is not accurate, we should report on that. Don’t just keep doing the same “He said,” and “she said” reporting if it’s clear that what “he said” is wrong.

Reporters should bring you information that you didn’t know, but that you should know. I think it’s really important that journalists get beyond the common wisdom. They need to go find stories that everyone else isn’t telling. The world of online journalism has become too much of an echo chamber. There are certain breaking news stories where this kind of repetition is necessary. But, in the world of everyday reporting you should demand that reporters and news organizations make you aware of issues and problems you didn’t know existed, but could have an impact on your life.

Reporters should help you understand why certain stories are important to you. For example, it might have been helpful if some enterprising reporters had gone out and done more reporting on the banking industry before it fell and drove the country into a ditch.

Reporters should take complex stories and tell them in a way that makes them understandable and engaging.

Reporters should be the eyes and ears of the average person. Most people don’t have the time or the ability to question the powerful and wealthy. Instead, we are there as their eyes and ears. We need to take that opportunity to challenge people and evaluate their behavior from the perspective of the average person.

 

Josh Stearns

Journalism and Public Media Campaign Director, FreePress

Readers, viewers, and listeners should demand a conversation from their local newsroom.

Given the fundamental shift in the media, from a one-way broadcast model to a two-way participatory model, both journalists and the audience should welcome the chance for deeper dialogue. Readers, viewers, and listeners should demand a conversation from their local newsroom. At their best, truly reciprocal conversations are a path of discovery for both stakeholders, and we should want that same kind of discovery from the journalism we create and consume. A good conversation provides context, accountability, and questions. It honors the knowledge both people bring to the table, and it moves towards clarity and understanding. Conversation builds trust. If journalism today is a process, then conversation is the engine that drives the process forward. We should be demanding more conversation from our journalists and looking for it from our communities.

 

Dean Starkman

Edits “The Audit” at Columbia Journalism Review; author of The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark; led the Providence Journal to 1994 Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting

They should expect the story to be well told.

Readers should hope and expect that reporters, some of them, at some point, stop and examine the one or two big things—systemic, deep-rooted, long-term, complex problems—that have the potential to cause great social harm. The second thing is that they should expect the story to be well told. But yours may be the wrong question. Many reporters already know this, but it’s the structure in which they operate that imposes the constraints. Readers should demand—and that’s the right word—that news owners and managers create business models and institutions that allow reporters—some of them, sometimes—to follow these good instincts.

 

Robert Krulwich

Radiolab co-host, science correspondent for National Public Radio

Hmm. It’s the world “demand” that gets my attention. When I started many years ago, I’d go to work, write my scripts, have my say, go on the air, go back to my desk either smiling (What a nice story you just did!) or not smiling (You’re a total loser. You should be ashamed), then I’d pack up and head home. The audience was out there, on the other side of the radio or the TV; I just didn’t meet them or hear from them. The practice of journalism was oddly solitary. Now it’s different.

The audience is very present, very noisy, often churlish, but sometimes graciously nice; if I want I can spy on them as they tweet my name.

The audience is very present, very noisy, often churlish, but sometimes graciously nice; if I want I can spy on them as they tweet my name. (Which, alas, I do. I am a total loser and should be ashamed.) All this back and forthing has, I think, made me a touch more cautious, which is not a bad thing, a lot more anxious, and maybe a bit too aware of how many people are tuning in or tuning out. What I have to do is I have to sort through what the “demanders” demand—“How dare you…!” “What about…?” “I will never read your stupid…etc.” —from the ones who simply want to ask a new question, want to muse, want to share. I guess we need both, but I would be lying if I said I think the “demanders” are a delight. They aren’t. They’re rude, intemperate, but in an open system, you can’t live without them, so you learn to live with them.

So—to answer your question, what should a consumer demand of a reporter?

If you can lower your voice a little, what you should demand is a story that finds you. Not a story that sits in its place and says, “Read me. I’m here. You should know this,” but a story that steps out and pokes you in a sensitive place, calls you to it, holds you and doesn’t let you go until it, the story, is done. You should demand to be taken captive.

But demand it gently.

Brendan Fitzgerald is a reporter and writer based in Missoula, Mont. He worked as the communications manager for the Columbia Journalism Review, and spent six years as an editor at C-VILLE, an alternative newsweekly in Charlottesville, Virginia. He wrote the Press Pause column at The Morning News, and his work has appeared at The Believer, PopMatters, I Like You, and elsewhere. More by Brendan Fitzgerald