The pitch was a slam dunk.
We had been seeking potential stories for our November ratings period — promotable pieces that would provide those moments everyone shares and discusses the following day. Since I specialize in those emotional epics, I had been tabbed with securing them.
And then the e-mail came in.
A 92-year-old World War II Veteran, who happened to be the e-mailer’s father, would soon receive the chance to fly in the very type of plane he flew during the war. The man, named John Tarabula, was celebrating 69 years of marriage to his wife, Jo.
The e-mail caught the attention of many in the 11Alive newsroom, and I volunteered to do the story. No matter what happened on the actual flight, we assumed, the piece would practically write itself.
I arrived at the Tarabula household the morning of the flight, planning to interview John and Jo and shoot some footage of the couple before heading out to the airfield.
Within minutes, I learned John had no intention of going up in that plane.
John told me off-camera he had not flown since the war, and he did not intend to change that now. The family still planned to go to the airfield and check out the B-17, which was arriving for a weekend-long showcase in metro Atlanta, but John would keep his feet on the ground.
Momentarily flummoxed, I resumed shooting the story, except I had no idea what that story would now be.
And then it unfolded right in front of me.
Looking back, I do not know if I could have successfully pitched to my bosses the story that wound up occurring. But that story, to me, felt even more poignant than the original idea.
It was one of several stories this past month in which I embraced the unpredictable … and, as a result, produced a better story.
Around the same time as the e-mail arrived about John Tarabula, another one landed in my Inbox.
A young boy named Max, it said, was scheduled to receive cochlear implants in both ears. He currently could not hear, but when doctors activated the implants the following month, Max would instantly pick up a new sense.
“Another slam dunk,” I thought.
And then I learned Max’s age: 1.
Max would gain the ability to hear, but would he realize that? How would this infant, who had not even spoken, visibly respond to an unfamiliar — and potentially frightening — sensation?
No one knew. Not his parents, not the surgeons, and not even the audiologists who perform these activations on a regular basis.
“Every child is different,” I was told. “We won’t know what Max will do until he does it.”
A few weeks ago, the big moment arrived. Max had undergone surgery and received both implants, and his family brought him to the medical office to activate them.
The moment, when it happened, did not go in storybook fashion.
But, precisely because of that, it made for a more powerful story.
When the grand jury in Ferguson, Mo. reached its verdict regarding Officer Darren Wilson last Monday, I knew what I would be covering in Atlanta that Tuesday.
Rallies had been planned. The officer, who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown, would now go free, and many in Ferguson had already responded with protests, marches, and in some cases, looting and rioting.
The verdict left me with so many emotions and opinions, but when I received my assignment the following day — to cover the numerous daytime rallies occurring across Atlanta — I knew I needed to shelve my own thoughts and listen to those of the protesters.
I could not enter with preconceived notions; I had to ask questions, absorb the answers, and truly reflect before I wrote my script.
I could have easily done the opposite, especially given the massive time constraints I faced that day. My photographer and I were given five hours to shoot three rallies and produce a 90-second package. That assignment would have seemed far less daunting had I approached it with a cookie-cutter feel.
But if I had done that, I would not have told an honest story.
And this story — like every story, for that matter — demanded an honest, genuine approach.
Naturally, many of the protesters surprised me with their answers, offering insights I had not expected. I made them the centerpiece of my eventual story, in which I aimed to encapsulate the day’s events in a meaningful way.
I have learned during my early career the value and necessity of embracing the unpredictable. To be sure, experience is almost always a benefit when telling stories and interviewing people; a wise storyteller learns from every assignment and uses that knowledge as perspective in future pieces.
But that same storyteller realizes that every story is its own animal and requires unique treatment. I have always admired the journalists who have worked for decades but still approach each day with fresh eyes — an ability that, in this field, really should be a prerequisite.
I have tried to replicate that in my own work. Doing so rarely provides an easy road, but it usually leads to the right path.
Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.