11alive

REPOST: The lesson I learned telling a story about race

This past week I was assigned to do the lead piece for a half-hour special about race in America. I pitched an idea about the city I call home, Atlanta, and how it has seen massive race success yet continues to have a massive race problem. I intended to write a new post for this blog about the experience, but I found it mirrored my previous experience in this arena 18 months earlier.

I continue to be heartened with people’s willingness to talk about race. The topic seems taboo to discuss with friends and family, but it shouldn’t be. Experiences like mine prove it can be done, even with complete strangers in an on-camera setting.

My story from last week is embedded here; the post that follows refers to a story I did in January 2015 for an hour-long special called “A Conversation Across America”.

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Remembering Clem Ferguson, the 96-year-old honorary flight attendant

Most television news reporters try to avoid clichés, but we tend to stumble upon one when people ask what we love most about our jobs.

The recurring answer? “Meeting people and telling their stories.”

I can’t deny it. I love that part of my job. Nearly every day involves meeting someone new; nearly every meeting involves learning something new. I continuously meet people who make me think, laugh, smile, and even cry.

And on the rare occasion, I get to meet someone like Clem Ferguson.

This past April Fool’s Day, I was assigned to tell Clem’s story, and it was a great one. Clem, I was told, was a lifetime Georgian who had finally received the chance, after 96 years, to live her childhood dream.

That dream? She had always wanted to become a flight attendant.

Clem’s nursing facility, Christian City in Union City, Ga., arranged for her to receive honorary wings from Delta Airlines. The previous week, I learned, Delta employees had taken Clem through a sped-up “training day” and bestowed upon her the title she had long desired. I reached out to the airline and received video of the experience; to shoot my story, I simply needed to interview its star.

The interview turned out wonderful, but weeks later I remember everything else. Clem smiled the entire time and sparkled with gratitude for so many things in her life. She seemed genuinely touched by the opportunity to be interviewed for the local news. She also made sure I didn’t leave without looking at photographs of her five sisters and now-deceased husband.

This did not feel like a typical interview. It felt entirely disarming, so much so that when Clem poked fun at me during this little off-air exchange, she caught me completely off guard:

I cannot say it any more simply: Clem made my day.

Through my story that night, she made the days of many others.

I posted the piece on Facebook shortly after it aired. In three weeks, that post has reached more than 300,000 people, and the accompanying video has been viewed more than 100,000 times. I would like to take the credit, but in this case I think I must give it to Clem.

I’m sure, at some point in your life, someone has made your day like Clem made mine. At 9:00 that morning, I did not know she existed. By 1:00 that afternoon, I felt privileged to cross her path. By 9:00 that night, I was still beaming from the experience.

Three weeks later, I received unfortunate news that left me feeling the opposite.

This past Wednesday, Clem Ferguson passed away. I found out two days later while on vacation in New York, and it stunned me. Clem may have been 96 years old, but she had shown no signs during our interview to suggest the worst. She had displayed the charm, vibrancy, and sincerity of someone who possessed no plans to slow down.

When I heard the news, I felt genuinely sad.

To be sure, Clem by all accounts lived a full, rich, and happy life. She lived for nearly a century and did not seem to express any regrets.

Yet I still felt pained by her passing … largely for the rest of us. Three weeks earlier Clem had brought a beautiful joy to my world, and I imagine she had affected numerous people similarly through the years. Sadly she will no longer be able to do so for anyone else.

But I hope you watch Clem’s story below. I hope she makes you smile. And I hope, no matter what your profession or situation, you acknowledge and appreciate the Clems in your world who brighten your days when you least expect it.

I feel thankful she was able to brighten mine.

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.

Logan’s big play: Watching one story reach millions

One thousand people.

I could not believe it.

Twelve hours earlier I had posted a story I had just produced for the early evening newscast on Atlanta’s WXIA-TV. It surrounded a young man in northwest Georgia who, at age 5, had been diagnosed with autism. Since middle school he had served as the manager of the football team; now a high school senior, he had just done something on the field that had moved everyone in the stands.

That young man’s name is Logan, and he scored a touchdown.

And within half a day of my posting Logan’s story on Facebook, it had been liked by 1,000 people; it had reached 100,000. And it was just getting started.

Logan’s story was about to take off around the world.

***

I have the good fortune, through my job as a reporter, of continually meeting fascinating people. Sometimes they are famous figures; sometimes they are citizens championing a cause. So often, though, they are people who never intended to feel the reflection of a TV camera lens; they just did something to become worthy of it.

That was the case with Logan.

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The balancing act: journalism and stress

My fiancé did not want to hear it.

I had just turned on an interview I had conducted with a coworker, Jeff Hullinger, that I would eventually post as a podcast. I left the interview running in the living room as my fiancé walked in, hung out for a minute, and walked back out.

Why? Because Hullinger had earlier that week witnessed an execution, and in the interview he described in powerful detail what he saw.

“I hope that interview wasn’t too much for you,” I said later to my fiancé.

Her response? “Yeah, I went into the other room and closed the door.”

The curtness in her voice made it clear how she felt.

This situation is not unique to me. Hullinger’s wife, he said, had given him a clear instruction when he accepted the execution assignment: “I don’t ever want to hear about it.”

This situation is also not unique to my life … and that concerns me.

I accepted long ago that I receive, as a journalist, an extraordinary amount of access unavailable to most. That access is often a treasure: I have traveled to the Olympics, interviewed countless celebrities and public figures, and enjoyed fascinating and probing conversations with people I otherwise never would have met.

In other cases, that access is a burden, a necessary evil in the journey to inform. (more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #35: Jeff Hullinger, WXIA-TV, on witnessing an execution

Play

This is one of the more difficult interviews I have ever conducted.

But for journalists — and, truly, anyone — it is an important interview to hear.

For three years I have come to know my co-worker Jeff Hullinger as verbose, eloquent, wry, and sardonic. Starting a conversation with Hullinger means beginning a singular journey of quips, observations, and insights that can only come from someone of his experience and expressiveness. He has spent three decades as a broadcaster in Atlanta; he has won 19 regional Emmys, interviewed everyone from John Elway to Mikhail Gorbachev, and called the play-by-play on the radio for a Super Bowl.

Last week Hullinger did something he — and 99.9% of journalists — had never done: he witnessed an execution.

The state of Georgia had scheduled the death of Kelly Gissendaner, who had been convicted of orchestrating the murder of her husband, Doug. About a week before the execution, Hullinger learned he had been named of five area journalists who would serve as witnesses.

He did not back away from the assignment.

“I think, sitting in an anchor chair, I have a responsibility to represent this station publicly,” Hullinger told me, “and I take that very seriously. You have a responsibility to both yourself and your co-workers. I think word in action becomes significant.”

He added, “This is something that no one wants to do, from an intellectual standpoint. [But] it’s something I have to do.”

Hullinger joins me on this episode of the Telling the Story podcast.

I honestly would not have normally felt comfortable asking someone in his situation to speak about what he experienced. I felt compelled here by two factors. First, Hullinger had already done a beautiful job of recounting the evening, through Twitter and then on the air. He seemed willing, in that window, to speak about it, although he later told me he would not do so after this podcast. He did not want, I think, to feel bound to the experience for the rest of his career, constantly asked to re-tell his story.

“I can’t tell you how many requests I’ve had to come speak, and I’m not doing any of that,” he said. “My responsibility was one night … and I am done.”

Secondly, I believed in our rapport. Hullinger and I have talked about so many subjects over the years, and I trusted that he would entrust me with conducting an interview in a sensitive, professional way — the same way he had handled his assignment.

This interview — and his perspective within it — is extremely worth your time.

Hullinger discusses how he balanced his objectivity as a journalist with his emotions during a horrific act. He describes the otherworldly experience of entering a world few will ever view.

“We had been told by the state that this is a rather bloodless, painless, clinical, procedural thing, where there isn’t really a lot of emotion,” said Hullinger. “It was none of that. It was unbelievable … all of the razor wire, all of the check-ins, all of the freedom that has been denied. Even our ability to go to the restroom was not allowed. We had to ask men who would not make eye contact with us. It was a horrifying, terrifying place to begin with.”

Then he made eye contact with Gissendaner, and he felt the need to compose himself.

“I closed my eyes for about 20 seconds, just to say, ‘Okay … Understand what this is, and what you’re about to see.'”

Perhaps the above quote is the best way to listen to this podcast: understand what it is, and what you are about to hear. Hullinger’s descriptions are sometimes extremely graphic; his emotions and perspective, though, are critical to absorb for any journalist and anyone seeking to get a better understanding of a profoundly difficult issue.

“I think sometimes we put the issue of death way behind us,” he told me. “The truth is, it is always near us.”

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Nik Wallenda, Boston, & an execution

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 Wal-Mart of the high wire (10/2/15, BuzzFeed): I continue to be impressed by BuzzFeed’s legitimate credibility as a destination for longform journalism.

I have mentioned their work before, and this latest feature is a worthy addition to their canon.

Steve Kandell, BuzzFeed’s news features director, produces a profile of the high-flying wire-walker Nik Wallenda, whose notoriety has become a source of contention within both his industry and his family. Wallenda continues the tradition of performers who may not be the best at their jobs but are the best at self-promotion.

Kandell perfectly weaves these stories of conflict with under-the-tightrope visuals and descriptions. BuzzFeed’s web editors succeed here as well, filling the story with dazzling images and videos of Wallenda’s high-wire feats.

Call it another win for an unlikely web site.

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Why heart, in storytelling, is stronger than horror

Every day in local news, we fill our broadcasts with stories of horror.

We discuss fires, crimes, murders, and more. We present images that, under any normal circumstance, would be described as unsettling … and yet rarely do they provoke a reaction. Rarely do we receive e-mails decrying those stories; rarely do viewers seem fazed by them. Perhaps many have become numb to them.

Last week I produced a story that broke through. I received comments after it aired, from both viewers and my WXIA-TV colleagues, that the piece was unsettling, difficult, and heart-rending — and far more powerful because of those qualities. The piece, I was told, drew its power from not shock and awe but something seemingly more elusive in present-day local TV news:

Heart.

No, this was not a story about a local crime or a disturbing piece of video.

This was a story about a 100-year-old woman … in the final stage of her life.

Days earlier we had received an e-mail. A woman named Grace Beck, the viewer wrote, was set to celebrate her centennial birthday that Sunday. Her family and aides had prepared an old-fashioned birthday party at her nursing home. Knowing of Grace’s love for music and her church, they had arranged for a special performance — by her old church’s two-year-old bluegrass band.

It sounded, I thought, both precious and powerful. I flagged the e-mail and reached out to its sender.

Then I learned the upsetting back story.

Grace, I discovered, had become stricken with both macular degeneration — a condition that causes blindness — and dementia. She received hospice care and barely stayed awake for more than a few hours.

Her 100th birthday, I was told, would likely be her last. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Marvin Gaye, stocks, & Roanoke

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.

How Marvin Gaye’s NFL tryout changed his career (8/21/15, ESPN.com): I cannot believe I had never heard this story.

Marvin Gaye, Motown legend and one of the great soul singers of all time, once tried out for the NFL? For the Detroit Lions?

Really???

Really. Apparently Gaye’s dalliance with pro football is a well known story of that era, but credit ESPN.com writer Justin Tinsley for re-telling it in a thorough, powerful way. It follows the artist through the torturous moments of his singing career that led him to a different avenue … albeit for a brief, one-tryout-long amount of time.

Like any great piece of this nature, Tinsley not only lands the necessary interviews but writes with both interest and compassion. He serves as a great conduit for this remarkable tale.

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Interns (or, the value in thinking out loud)

“You know this is making me very uncomfortable, right?”

I said this in the car recently on the way to a shoot. My drive time at work usually consists of reflection. As a multimedia journalist, I produce stories by myself, which means I rarely ride with someone in the passenger seat. I spend most of my time thinking about either that day’s story or my overall outlook.

But this time was different.

This time, I was accompanied by an intern.

And that intern had questions.

And those questions forced me to speak aloud about my career, my journey, and my job in a way I seldom do.

***

Summer brings into the newsroom a unique atmosphere. Colleagues take vacations, which leads to smaller staffing. Our viewers take vacations too, which usually means fewer story ideas and a reduced audience. The enormous May ratings period gives way to a less pressurized environment, and the June and July heat brings its own challenges in the field.

The season also brings interns — usually a handful on summer break from college. (more…)

Two-hour turnaround: a storm story

Typically I use this space to showcase longer stories, in both time and preparation.

Not this story.

Here is an example of where good storytelling techniques can help produce a compelling report in a limited amount of time.

How limited? From start to finish, two hours.

Late last month, the Atlanta area got struck by heavy storms that brought rain, lightning, wind, and hail. Like many April showers, this one — to borrow a metaphor from a different month — came in like a lion, flying through the region and causing traffic back-ups on the highways. It also toppled several trees, and I was sent by my WXIA-TV producers to one such incident in Roswell, Ga., where a tree had fallen on a home.

That was all I knew as I arrived at the house at 3:30 PM, but I soon discovered the rest of the story.

And I learned it from the home’s owner: Yolanda Rossi, age 92.

Despite the fact that a tree had knocked out the corner of her dining room, Rossi seemed undaunted by the whole thing and welcomed me into her home with a smile. As she showed me the damage and provided her perspective on the event, I knew I could potentially put together a poignant piece about her experience that day.

I was supposed to be live at 5 PM, but I called the 11Alive assignment desk and asked if the 6 PM show producer would like this story.

That producer said no. The 5 PM producer said yes. (more…)