3 GREAT STORIES: Starring life, death, and the DMZ

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.

What does it mean to die? (2/5/18, New Yorker): I was sitting at a restaurant at the Mall of America, midway through covering the Super Bowl, when I spied this headline in my Twitter feed. I clicked, began reading, and sat for 20 minutes unable to focus anywhere else.

The case of Jahi McMath, declared brain-dead by a hospital in California, has been covered before. Rachel Aviv tackles it with tenderness, handling extremely weighty subjects with sensitivity and exploration. I had little interest in this story before reading it, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it afterwards.

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Equal representation in media isn’t just a task for the underrepresented

Representation is what counts. I hear this all the time from people whose communities lack it in politics, entertainment, and media. And in my field, I support that cause fully.

Newsrooms need voices that represent their communities. We must surround ourselves with people of different backgrounds and encourage those people to raise their voices about issues that affect them. This applies across the spectrum, from race and gender to political party, sexual orientation, and religion. I promote this in my work, from ensuring a diverse guest list on my podcast to encouraging younger journalists to understand their power. In the short and long term, representation matters.

But in preaching this message, I worry that we assign too much responsibility to the underrepresented. Yes, we should prioritize finding a diversity of voices, but we should not absolve journalists in the majority of understanding those voices.

The fact is, if you are a journalist, you will be required to cover people who are not like you. Maybe they don’t look like you. Maybe they don’t follow the same faith as you. Maybe they don’t share share any number of beliefs and values that affect perspectives and perceptions. But stories will arise that will place you on unfamiliar ground. You must be willing to take the extra step. Beyond that, you should not only seek stories from those with common backgrounds. You should work to connect and build trust with other communities, especially if their stories too rarely get told.

Journalism is an imperfect science. We must turn unfamiliar assignments into accurate, compelling, relevant stories, often in a matter of hours. We won’t always get it right, and we should forgive ourselves for the occasional slip. But we cannot avoid the responsibility or expectations of our positions. One shoddy, superficial story can inflict massive damage to a reporter’s credibility. Each piece requires the same grind and outreach, no matter the barrier.

This brings me to my latest project, KOREATL.

A manager approached me with the idea in the fall: “There’s this huge Korean community in metro Atlanta that no one knows about, so let’s use the Olympics as a springboard to focus on it.”

It awoke my appetite. I had spent time in the community on an assignment over the summer, and I saw the potential for a powerful segment about identity and integration in immigrant communities.

I came back to my manager with a structure. I pitched a 20-minute mini-documentary that would explore those themes and could be broken down into two Olympic weeks of on-air segments. He loved it, and I got to work.

My first step was to seek out voices. My producer and I met at bakeries, made phone calls, and held a month’s worth of conversations before shooting a single frame. We digested what we heard and discussed how to present it. Then, during my various shoots, I kept my ears open and resisted to impulse to make judgments and blanket statements. I did not want to paint a community with one brush. I wanted the individuals to provide their own perspectives.

I also made an early decision that, in my mind, became crucial to the project: I kept my own voice silent.

For the first time in my career, I produced a long-form story that didn’t include my audio track as a reporter. This made my job much more challenging; in the end, I shot 15 hours of video for a 20-minute clip. But the work paid off in clarity and mission.

I take great pride in the work we produced, mainly because it has received unanimously positive reaction from both inside and outside the Korean community. The mini-doc went live Monday and became one of our most-watched YouTube videos of the week. I hope it will continue to inspire conversations and expand perspectives.

Representation matters most, but it should not simply be outsourced to the underrepresented. All of us in this field must prioritize it, with an empathetic ear, an open mind, and a willingness to not always seek the easiest path.

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The Solo Video Journalist is available for purchase. You can find it on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and the publisher’s web site.

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. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

Covering the Super Bowl means staying focused amidst the circus

I landed last night from the Twin Cities wondering how I would answer a frequently asked question:

“What’s it like covering the Super Bowl?”

I never know how to answer, because a week at the Super Bowl brings experiences that seem so detached from each other.

Covering the Super Bowl means arriving in Minneapolis, stopping at the hotel, and driving immediately to the Mall of America. As a tourist I had never felt compelled to visit this seven-stadium-sized monstrosity. On this trip it hosted the main media workspace, so it became a hub of press conferences, interviews, and live shots. I ate six meals there in eight days.

Covering the Super Bowl means developing on-the-fly routines to keep track of equipment. At home I lean on muscle memory; on the road I quickly formed mental checklists so I didn’t lose any of the cameras, microphones, and accessories that filled two checked bags and a carry-on. (I did lose a pair of a headphones, but I have made peace with that.)

Covering the Super Bowl means using public spaces for critical business. I sought shelter at a nearby Starbucks between sub-zero live shots outside US Bank Stadium. I interviewed a major Atlanta official in the lobby of a Doubletree in Minneapolis. Two days later I used the dining room of a Doubletree in St. Paul. And I wrote and edited several stories from the comfort of my hotel bed.

Covering the Super Bowl means having in-the-room access to company heads, billionaires, and even the NFL commissioner … and noticing the force field of PR reps and media relations workers surrounding each one.

Covering the Super Bowl means attending the press conference for Justin Timberlake’s halftime show and realizing the loose definition of “press”. One entertainment reporter led the room in singing “Happy Birthday”. An ensuing entertainment reporter regretted she couldn’t top such a performance. Timberlake took ten questions, none of which posed controversy and all of which seemed pre-screened to prevent it.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring #MeToo, mock trades, & Mars

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.

#MeToo: Rape on the Night Shift (1/20/18, Reveal Podcast): With momentum for the #MeToo movement growing mainly in Washington and Hollywood, credit the producers and reporters at the Reveal podcast for investigating its impact in more hidden venues.

This episode repurposes a report from 2015 about an epidemic of rape and assault among female janitors. The report grips and devastates, and it leads into a follow-up and several strong discussions about the future of #MeToo. This is exactly what journalism should do: inform listeners about an issue, expose them to unheard stories in a compelling way, and expand their overall awareness and understanding moving forward.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring a pair from the Marshall Project

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 volunteer (1/18/18, The Marshall Project): I have long admired the Marshall Project’s gripping coverage of the complexities around criminal justice. This piece, from staff writer Maurice Chammah, displays so much of what makes the site shine.

Chammah tells the story of Scott Dozier, a Nevada death row inmate who waived his legal appeals and, essentially, requested he be killed by the state. The problem? The state wasn’t prepared, and officials have spent the past year seesawing over Dozier’s case. Chammah finds a powerful subject and case study in Dozier, but mostly he exposes the chaos in the world around the inmate, particularly, in Chammah’s words, “states that want the harshness of death sentences without the messiness of carrying them out.”

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PODCAST EPISODE #59: Eric Mennel, senior producer, Gimlet Media

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My first podcast of the year was inspired by a podcast I found late last year.

I have listened to Gimlet Media’s StartUp Podcast on and off since its inception. This past December I rediscovered it thanks to a five-part series called StartupBus. The premise? Per Gimlet’s web site: “This past summer, 20 strangers got on a charter bus headed from New York to New Orleans. For three days they had one goal: Build and launch companies from inside the bus. And then? Compete against each other.”

Sound like a reality show? It did to Eric Mennel. The Gimlet senior producer pitched StartupBus as an episode, got on the bus, and realized after two days he had struck audio gold. He turned it into a five-part series, with one episode for each day of the competition.

Think about the challenge. Mennel faced the curse of few limits; he had plenty of time and roughly two dozen people who could potentially become main characters in his story. He needed to find them, figure out the main stories, remain open to new events, record it all, and then – upon returning – winnow an absurd amount of audio into 150 minutes of content.

Mennel succeeded. He joins me on Episode #59 of the Telling the Story podcast.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring the value of photos in TV storytelling

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.

Stains on the sidewalk: picturing Baltimore’s murders (1/9/18, WBFF-TV): Turns out a photo can make for some poignant video. Turns out a year’s investment in a project can pay off in six stellar minutes.

Reporter Paul Gessler and photographer Jed Gamber of WBFF-TV spent twelve months tracking the mission of Amy Herbert, a photographer with a school project. Her plan? Document each Baltimore homicide from the previous year, exactly one year later. Herbert graduated but continued the work. Gessler and Gamber continued to check in. They found moments and scenes that are displayed in their final product: a powerful piece to kick off 2018.

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I’m back in J-school. And I’m back to being unsure of myself.

I arrived on the University of Georgia campus with a steadily growing to-do list.

Pick up paper towels. Run to Target. Try to go to bed early. Check my work e-mail in case of an emergency.

I had just driven 90 minutes from midtown Atlanta to downtown Athens. I work full-time as a TV reporter but this past August began a 2 ½-year MFA program in narrative nonfiction at UGA’s Grady School of Journalism. Each semester kicks off with a mandatory weeklong residency on-campus; this past Sunday, we all converged on campus from across the country. The program directors threw us a welcome dinner, and on the walk back, I asked a classmate about his plans for the night. He said he would head to the hotel bar and hang out as late as anyone wanted.

Not me. I planned to make my Target run and retreat to my room for a hopeful eight hours of sleep.

My classmate shook off that idea. He heralded the week as a chance for us hungry writers to revel together in our ambitions, to encourage and inspire each other. He closed with a line that would flatter any hopeful Hemingway: “This is like Paris in the Twenties!”

I needed to hear that … because my first semester felt like Times Square at rush hour.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring leftover gems from 2017

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.

Terry Crews: How to have, do, and be all you want (12/10/17, Tim Ferriss Show): I spent much of December catching up on podcasts, and I couldn’t stop listening to this one.

The Tim Ferriss Show often features engaging guests, but actor/former NFLer/furniture designer (?) Terry Crews captivates from Minute 1 to Minute 100. Ferriss knows how to prod a guest into a revealing story, but in this case he recognizes when to sit back and let Crews dominate. The guest provides piles of anecdotes about his childhood in Michigan, struggles with family and Hollywood, and words of inspiration for anyone needing a boost. (more…)

Pondering over pancakes: a story of gratitude to open 2018

I could have eaten anywhere.

I could have walked a half-mile to the birthplace of General Tso’s chicken. I could have hopped on the D train to America’s oldest pizzeria. New York City overflows with restaurants, and I had just touched down. But I left my hotel, walked to 57th and 9th, and opened the door to an old friend.

Morning Star Restaurant does little to stand out. Its white awning and blue lettering seem faded. Its pancakes require a healthy pour of syrup. But one summer, 16 years earlier, I ate there repeatedly. I popped in before, during, or after my shifts as an intern at WCBS-TV.

In college I deified New York. I lived with my parents in suburban New Jersey and itched to someday call The City my home. For three months, three days a week, I traveled 40 minutes by bus and 20 minutes on foot to reach the station. I passed the bars on Eighth Avenue and envied the adults on the other side of the glass. They drank, smiled, and percolated in perfectly tailored shirts and ties. They had “made it”.

I couldn’t enter the bars. But I could wolf a stack of pancakes at Morning Star. Sixteen years later, I felt the urge to do it again, this time in triumph.

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