race

PODCAST EPISODE #50: Brenda Wood, anchor, WXIA-TV

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Let me first say the following:

Thank you.

I did not anticipate reaching 50 podcast episodes — or four years of the blog as a whole — when I recorded my first one in 2013. I have continued to write these posts and produce these episodes, in part, because of the consistent and genuine encouragement I have received from readers like you. That feedback helps keep me going.

The other thing that keeps me going? It’s a sentiment expressed with beauty and brevity by my guest on this milestone episode:

“Always the student. Always learning.”

I would admire anyone who follows that philosophy, regardless of profession, but I especially admire those who preach it in local television news … because it can be so easy to do the opposite. The business often seems to conspire sameness, and I strive to find guests on this podcast who never get comfortable or complacent.

Fortunately for me, and for anyone who works at WXIA-TV in Atlanta, such a person has been the spirit of our newsroom for two decades.

Brenda Wood is the reigning dean of Atlanta TV news, and she has worked in the business for forty years. In that time, she has broken barriers, interviewed dignitaries, and collected numerous awards. Beyond that, she has always seized the chance to extend her reach. She has stood out in recent years for a daily opinion segment called “Brenda’s Last Word” and ambitious projects like a half-hour documentary spotlighting the work of the Carter Center in Ethiopia.

In whatever she does, Wood aims to spread influence and make impact. She has been the bedrock of our building for so long that we will face a mammoth challenge when she moves on.

On February 7, she is doing just that. Wood will sign off from 11Alive for the final time.

Brenda Wood is my guest on this 50th episode of the Telling the Story podcast.

This interview was supposed to last 30 minutes, but it went 45. Wood is rich with stories about the past, speaking about the challenges of starting her career as a black female reporter in the South. She also says plenty about the present, offering advice to young journalists on how to exercise their own influence and remain committed to their communities.

And, of course, she talks about her future, which will be filled with that wonderful sentiment:

“Always the student. Always learning.”

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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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My favorite blog posts of 2015: a look back

It’s been a heavy year for me.

I did not quite realize that until I scrolled through my blog posts.

This year I wrote about race, stress, and deflected dreams. Many of the most powerful stories I read by others were the ones that tackled grisly topics, from officer-involved shootings to international tragedies.

But I also wrote about the triumph of heart, the value in communication, and the joy of when a beautiful story touches millions of people.

As we wind down the calendar year, I present my favorite posts from 2015, with excerpts, in chronological order:

The lesson I learned telling a story about race (1/28/15)

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 storyteller’s trip to Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni (4/22/15)

My journey to one of the world’s most stunning sights began with an innocent click.

Really, it began because of this web site.

I launched the Telling The Story blog in February 2013 to inspire journalists and storytellers, using not just my work but that of others around the world. I included a weekly series called “3 Great Stories” to spotlight the best pieces I watched, heard, or read that week.

I began to relish my regular quest to unearth such gems, and I regularly scanned different outlets to expand my reach.

In January 2014 I discovered Medium.

Advertised initially as a long-form version of Twitter, the site had become — at its best — a beacon of creativity where both young and established writers posted their work. I started scouring its headlines until I stumbled upon this one:

Salar de Uyuni: my trip to see the world’s largest mirror

It was accompanied by this photo:

Salar post photo

My eyes widened, and my index finger raced to the mouse to click on the link.

Interns, Part 2 (or: the time I almost became famous) (8/5/15)

But when you “make it” in your career, something critical happens:

You have to live what you have made.

The process of “making it” encompasses much of one’s 20s and early 30s; one then must spend the bulk of one’s adult life “keeping it”. The initial challenge evaporates, and the day-to-day job remains.

I stumbled upon this thought during my latest car ride with an intern. He was asking for advice about whether he should pursue journalism as a career. As we talked, I thought about the Clemens story and realized I had never really articulated the advice I was about to give.

“Here’s what you should do,” I said, in one form or another. “Take some time and just watch newscasts. Watch as many as you can. Watch them here in Atlanta; watch them in smaller markets. Heck, go online and watch a live-stream of some random newscast in some place you have never visited. While you watch, see what they do. See what types of stories the reporters cover. Combine that with what you have experienced this summer watching the reporters and journalists here. Understand that this is the type of work you most likely will end up doing.

“And when you make your decision about a career in journalism, think about that. Don’t think about whether you can handle living in a small market. Most likely, you can. Don’t worry about whether you will ultimately ‘make it’ to a big market. Because once you do all those things, you will still have the rest of your adult life ahead of you, and you will need to be happy doing the job you have.

“So don’t think about the short term. Think about the long term. Think about your life, and think about whether you are willing to commit so much of it to this line of work.”

It is a lesson so many of us fail to truly grasp until much later.

The balancing act: journalism and stress (10/14/15)

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.

In my dozen years as a journalist, I have witnessed the wreckage of floods and tornadoes. I have interviewed people in their most vulnerable, anguished states. I have sat with children during times of extreme sickness; in some cases, I have even attended their funerals.

Even when I covered the Sochi Olympics, we received beforehand severe internal warnings about the potential for terrorism, which left several of my co-workers questioning their decisions to take the assignment.

Witnessing an execution is an extreme example; Hullinger described to me his need, early on in the process, to simply close his eyes for 20 seconds and brace himself for the horror he was about to witness. I often feel similarly on a smaller scale; I report countless stories where I must first steel my heart before heading into the field.

And yet, I cannot steel myself too much. I need to remain able to be moved by my story, to absorb its emotions and importance. I must stay attuned to the larger societal questions surrounding virtually every assignment I receive, even as those issues bring a level of stress that is sometimes overwhelming.

Being a journalist requires me to know about the issues. Being a good journalist requires me to care about them.

And I want to be a good journalist.

So I must often allow myself to absorb the stress that comes with access.

Logan’s big play: watching one story reach millions (10/21/15)

One million people.

I could not believe it.

Several days of posting Logan’s story to Facebook, I looked at the numbers and found it had been seen by a million users. It had been liked and shared thousands of times, and it had received attention and comments from north Georgia to southeast Asia.

My stories — and my Facebook posts about them — rarely get much attention. They usually, according to Facebook’s insights, reach a few hundred people, sometimes a few thousand.

But a million? That just didn’t happen … until it did.

People seemed particularly touched by the celebration of Logan’s touchdown. They loved that both teams got in the act, and they strongly cheered on the messages of sportsmanship and empathy. Many spoke about getting tears in their eyes.

I was overwhelmed by how quickly the video spread. New likes, shares, and comments arrived literally every second. People wrote comments in which they simply tagged a friend, so that the friend could watch the video. The numbers surprised even the 11Alive digital team, which monitors a Facebook account with hundreds of thousands of followers.

To watch it all unfold felt both shocking and gratifying.

We talk all the time about the power of social media, and we often view it in more personal matters: the ability to keep in touch with friends, to share the moments of our lives, or to rally communities around causes. This was something different. This was watching a single story — and a beautiful video of Logan — reach a global audience and affect a number of people I could rarely otherwise reach. This was realizing a singular strength of life on earth in 2015: the potential for one person’s action — anyone, not just Logan and certainly not just me — to spread communally and organically in ways that bust traditional boundaries.

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.

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring hearing, fatherhood, & photography

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.

Veteran gets overdue hearing aids after VA delay (5/18/15, KARE-TV): Like any great investigative piece, this epic from KARE-TV’s A.J. Lagoe and Gary Knox details the process of research, phone calls, and interviews that ultimately lead to results.

But unlike many investigative pieces, this one shines brightest from its human center.

Reporter Lagoe and photographer Knox tell the story of Denny Madson, who has been waiting more than a year for VA-approved hearing aids. Madson wants the devices for one overarching reason: so he can hear his wife, Darlene, who is suffering in the hospital and can barely speak above a whisper.

Lagoe’s script and Knox’s camerawork set up some touching moments between the couple, including the happy ending. This is a textbook example of how to personalize an otherwise visually challenging story.

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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. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Ferguson, Alabama, & Edward Snowden

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 front lines of Ferguson (8/15/14, Grantland): The startling and tragic events in Ferguson, Mo. have brought about some truly powerful reporting. I have read numerous pieces this week that have brought to light the pain, shock, and tension of the situation.

This one, from Grantland’s Rembert Browne, stuck with me the most.

I normally enjoy Browne’s more frivolous work, like when he hilariously recapped episodes of 24 this summer. But he can pack an emotional punch, and he does so here by intertwining his personal reflections with the front-line events in Ferguson. Browne describes himself early on as a “black boy turned black man who finds it increasingly miraculous that I made it to 27”. That point of view shines through throughout his descriptions of the protests and police response.

The Internet provides a variety of voices and perspectives for anyone willing to hear them. This week was a major example. (more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #12: Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, American Promise

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One of the biggest challenges of storytelling — particularly when dealing with stories of emotion — is determining what to leave out.

As a reporter for a local news station, I will regularly shoot several hours of video for a story that lasts several minutes. I realized early in my career I would never be able to tell someone’s full story — only as much of that story as I could fit into the allotted space. A news director of mine once crystallized the appropriate mentality: it’s all about eliminating the “good” in one’s story and keeping the “great”.

Of course, sometimes you don’t even get to keep all of the “great”.

And sometimes, as in the case of filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, you shoot 800 hours of video for a two-hour documentary — a documentary in which you are two of the main characters.

Brewster and Stephenson are the husband-and-wife duo behind American Promise, currently playing in select cities and premiering on PBS in February 2014. The documentary follows two young boys from Brooklyn, both black, whose parents enroll them in a prestigious, mostly white collegiate prep school in Manhattan. Brewster and Stephenson began filming in 1999, when both boys — Idris and Seun — were starting kindergarten.

They stopped filming after the boys’ graduation from high school — 13 years later.

To make matters trickier, one of the boys, Idris, is Brewster and Stephenson’s son.

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