The lesson I learned telling a story about race

I was expecting 25%.

Typically I try to avoid person-on-the-street assignments — the kind that involve humble reporters like yourself asking “regular” people to opine on a certain issue. I prefer to hear from experts or the newsmakers themselves; I dislike the concept of 2-3 random interviewees somehow speaking for a whole community.

I also despise the rejection.

People are often, understandably, reluctant to speak on-camera about a potentially controversial issue. Look at the situation from their eyes: a reporter, who you likely have never met or even seen on TV, approaches you with a camera and microphone. You don’t know where your words — with your face attached — will wind up. Will you be edited? Almost certainly. Taken out of context? Possibly. And even if the reporter represents your words perfectly, can you trust yourself to say exactly what you think without somehow garbling the message? Think of how many conversations or arguments where you thought afterward, “If only I had said …” Do you want to stand by recorded answers to questions you have not yet heard?

It’s a tough sell.

Throw in the potential land mine of race, and you have my recent assignment.

My station, WXIA-TV in Atlanta, was planning an hour-long town hall called “Conversation Across America”, about race relations in the aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police. I was tasked with the introductory piece, setting up a panel discussion that examined numerous difficult questions facing white and black America moving forward.

Here, in an atypical moment, I advocated for a person-on-the-street approach.

My rationale? The hour-long special would be filled with experts, from protesters to retired police officers to a political pundit. It would even include a taped interview with Charles Barkley. But it would not feature a component that included the rest of us.

What kind of conversation could we promote without hearing from the audience we wished to reach?

So I championed an introductory piece that focused less on the events themselves — the Brown and Garner deaths, the subsequent lack of indictments of the officers responsible, and the many protests that took place throughout — and looked more at how we, as a society, discuss race.

Usually we simply don’t.

I thought of a study that had made news late last year when it claimed that 75% of white people have zero black friends, and 65% of black people have zero white friends. I thought of the competing stories and columns that had developed out of Ferguson and New York, interpretations that often differed based on the background of whoever wrote them.

I wanted to produce a piece that encapsulated that disconnect, and I decided to dedicate a day to simply hitting the streets and asking people to share their thoughts on where we stand, as a nation, on race relations in 2015.

But I expected a low success rate.


On most subjects, when I ask people for their thoughts, I get a “Yes” response maybe a third of the time. With a less threatening subject that still breeds opinions — say, the performance of the local football team — my success rate jumps closer to 50%.

With a subject like race? I braced myself for a steady diet of rejection.

I received the exact opposite.

Nearly everyone I approached agreed to an on-camera interview, from a diner in downtown Atlanta to a panini shop in the suburbs. I asked people of different races, ages, and genders, and I heard a lot of yeses.

And those responses paved the way to powerful conversations.

I spoke with more than a dozen people, and I used nearly everyone’s words in the resulting story. I found their thoughts compelling and varied; many remarked how they had rarely discussed such weighty matters — particularly race — in their day-to-day lives.

What made them open up here?

I credit two things: my approach, and my station’s intentions.

Every time I approached someone, I laid out the request in as sincere and thoughtful a manner as possible. I described the hour-long special and pressed the importance of hearing numerous voices; I spoke about our desire as a station to promote conversation, and I never rushed or tried to push anyone who might not be sure. My story required honesty and openness; I needed to display both if I wished to receive it.

But I also felt heartened by the fact that so many people held such deep, poignant thoughts about race. We tend to only see the most polarizing, often offensive, comments in matters like these. This story reminded me how many people remain in the middle.

A few months ago, legendary KARE-TV reporter Boyd Huppert and KING-TV photographer Jeff Christian did a similar story in Ferguson that asked, “Why can’t we talk?” I called it my favorite TV piece of 2014, mainly because Huppert and Christian took a seemingly taboo, volatile subject and made it immediately accessible.

I tried to do that here, and I am proud of the result: both my story, and my “Yes” success rate.


Not bad at all.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.


3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Batman, Oregon, & Tamir Rice

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Batman (1/9/15, NPR’s This American Life): Whenever I listen to This American Life on NPR, I marvel at its producers’ ability to consistently find truly fascinating stories.

They then turn those stories into enthralling hour-long programs.

This month’s “Batman” episode fills the bill. I actually rolled my eyes a bit at the title and constant references to the super-hero, which seemed somewhat forced and even subjective in glamorizing the program’s main subject.

But that subject — a blind man who can ride bikes and hike, among other things — and the program’s overall examination of the capabilities of the blind make for a superb listen. Producers Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller weave their way through a story that absorbs from start to finish.

Read More »

Piedmont Park photo

#GoodMorningAtlanta: Photos from 1/19-1/23

In October 2014 I began posting a photo every weekday morning with the hashtag #GoodMorningAtlanta. The goal? To inspire, enlighten, or just plain help others start their day with a smile. See each week’s photos by clicking on the #GoodMorningAtlanta category, and view the daily photo by following me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

What a difference a week makes.

A week after chilly, foggy, rainy conditions in Atlanta, we had a beautiful weekend ripe for photo opportunities.

And everyone seemed to head outside.

Here are five photos from the past weekend in Piedmont Park:

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John Kirtley profile

PODCAST EPISODE #25: John Kirtley, photographer, WLOS-TV


Roughly seven minutes into this episode of the Telling The Story podcast, guest John Kirtley said the following:

“No one said this was easy. If it was easy, the world of storytelling wouldn’t be such a unique thing.”

During an already honest interview, this was a particularly honest moment. So often in this business, we try to maintain an optimistic, even idealistic, point of view. But Kirtley made his opinion perfectly clear: this job is difficult.

And to do it well, and to do it regularly? Even tougher.

“It’s practice; you know that. You gotta work on improving a little detail each time, and eventually you’re going to get to the point where it all adds up.”

Kirtley has seen things add up. He has worked in numerous cities in his ten-year career, but he has found a home in Asheville, N.C., where he has now become the assistant chief photographer at WLOS-TV. He has also claimed seven regional Emmy awards.

He joins me for Episode #25 of the Telling The Story podcast.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring the world’s most mysterious chicken dish

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

The Search for General Tso (January 2015, Wicked Delicate Films): A new documentary, exploring the history behind one of the world’s most famous dishes, is playing in seven cities this week.

Luckily for me, one of those cities is Atlanta.

I had the pleasure of seeing The Search for General Tso – he of the famous General Tso’s Chicken — and I highly recommend it. The subject matter sounds whimsical at best, but it provides a stupendous launching pad for a 75-minute film that touches numerous fascinating topics.

Credit to filmmaker Ian Cheney for putting together an entertaining — even absorbing — documentary that has already dominated the awards circuit at various film festivals. And by the way, the movie is also available on demand through iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, and other outlets.

So you can watch it anywhere … and you should.

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#GoodMorningAtlanta: Photos from 1/12-1/16

In October 2014 I began posting a photo every weekday morning with the hashtag #GoodMorningAtlanta. The goal? To inspire, enlighten, or just plain help others start their day with a smile. See each week’s photos by clicking on the #GoodMorningAtlanta category, and view the daily photo by following me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

Let’s be clear: winter in Atlanta is far tamer than winter elsewhere in the U.S.

When I look at single-digit temperatures in Chicago, Milwaukee, Boston, and Buffalo, I know we’ve got it good. (Sometimes I feel slightly differently in the summer, though.)

That said, cold weather still comes, the trees still lose their leaves, and a normally outdoorsy city becomes less so. With that in mind, here are five photos from warmer times in the city of Atlanta:

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5 reasons for hope for journalism’s future

I realized it the other day: I started the year by highlighting a sobering story for any storyteller.

I linked to a brilliant piece by Andrew Marantz called “The Virologist”, which profiled a web site/content creator who aims for clicks and money without any nod to ethics or storytelling. Sites like this — think Buzzfeed, but even more calculated — drive on the highway of journalism without getting into the lane of journalistic responsibility. Marantz gave an absolutely brutal assessment of the landscape of the Web.

The piece, to be sure, started the year on a low note.

So let’s take it back to a higher one.

Let’s use this space to talk about what excites us for the new year — and the future of journalism and storytelling.

Here are five things that give me hope: Read More »


3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Atkins, custard, & Stuart Scott

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Getting back with carbs (1/9/15, The Atlantic): Sometimes it all comes down to tone.

Strike the wrong tone for a story, and it will stick out like a cactus spine.

Strike the right tone, and it will flow like a waterfall.

In this case, The Atlantic strikes it right.

James Hamblin authors this piece about the redesigned Atkins diet — It limits protein! It allows for carbs! — and treats it with all the skepticism of a Daily Show correspondent. The wariness is warranted, as Hamblin chronicles the history of the diet and its several mutations.

The article is informative and entertaining, and it is accompanied by cartoon graphics and a musing sub-headline, all the underscore the curiosity of its subject:

“The reinvented Atkins diet flirts with reason.”

Read More »


#GoodMorningAtlanta: Photos from 1/5-1/9

In October 2014 I began posting a photo every weekday morning with the hashtag #GoodMorningAtlanta. The goal? To inspire, enlighten, or just plain help others start their day with a smile. See each week’s photos by clicking on the #GoodMorningAtlanta category, and view the daily photo by following me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

Winter has set in.

And even though winter in Atlanta pales in comparison to the winters of most American cities, it can provide some pretty gloomy days.

Here are a few examples, I hope, of poignant photography during the dog days of January; enjoy!

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PODCAST EPISODE #24: Natalie Amrossi, @Misshattan


New York can be a competitive place.

Just look at Instagram.

As of this writing, the hashtag #newyorkcity had been used on more than 4 million Instagram posts. Even the less obvious hashtag #newyorknewyork had been used 200,000 times.

New York City may be the most photographed city in the world.

And my guest on this episode of the Telling The Story podcast may be its most popular Instagram photographer.

Natalie Amrossi is a freelance photographer who is better known by her Instagram name: Misshattan. She uses her account to showcase spectacular photos of the Big Apple, usually from an aerial or rooftop view. With barely a thousand posts under her online belt, Amrossi has already amassed more than 200,000 Instagram followers.

That accomplishment becomes even more impressive with the knowledge that Amrossi is not a full-time photographer … or, at least, she wasn’t until last November. She was holding down a corporate job when she decided, in part because of her Instagram success, to become a freelancer and make a living solely from her photos.

“It was definitely emotional the day I decided to leave my job,” Amrossi told me. “I haven’t looked back since. Whether I make it or I fail, it doesn’t matter. The fact is, I don’t want to look back and wonder.”

Amrossi is not a journalist by trade, but she is certainly a storyteller, and she makes for a fascinating interview. We discuss a variety of topics, including the paradox of showcasing her mural-worthy photos on the tiny screen of a phone.

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