Monday, June 19, 2006

Serving those who read us

By Elaine Shein

For those of us who work at Capital Press, it’s always a pleasure when we get out of the office and meet the people we serve: the sources we depend on, the people we write about, the customers we write for and whose ads we publish so it helps their business.

Some days the people we meet might be from a national agency talking to us about a new product, other days it may be a farmer that has some hay to sell or wants to buy a used tractor for the farm.

Our sources are many: it can be the head of agriculture for the country or state, an organization’s leader, or a farmer who has never talked to the media before and must put trust in us as we promise to handle a story competently, factually and fairly. We sometimes spend a lot of time hearing both sides of a story, with each side being quite passionate about what they believe in and want their story told.

Often when we do stories we don’t have a chance to go out and meet the people face-to-face, spend as much time as we would like, and worst of all, we don’t always get to do the follow-up meetings later.

We want to know how did people like the story, did we get it right, did we do a story justice? Would these sources ever want to talk to us or any other journalist ever again?

The last one is especially important as the media continues to be blasted about our lack of credibility, and how fewer people trust us than perhaps they trust lawyers. Ouch.

Unfortunately we don’t always have the time and resources to check what people thought of our stories. We can invite them to send feedback, by phone or electronically, but that isn’t always easy to convince people to do this.

We don’t find out there was a problem until the next time we try to use them as sources.

As time passes, it is disturbing how often we contact people who tell us they plan never to talk to the media again. Why? They felt they had gotten “burnt” by some journalist or newspaper or broadcast station. It might have been us, or it might have been some other publication. It might have been last week, or it could have been five years ago. But a bad experience with the media lingers on for a very long time.

It is sad and unfortunate and a lot of good sources no longer are accessible for us who wish to tell their stories or get their viewpoints into stories. Often we do not even know what the circumstances were, why this source feels a certain way, or what we can do to rectify the situation.

However, there are also success stories we don’t always hear about: the times we did get the stories right, someone really loved a story, and we touched someone — a source or a reader — by what we wrote. When we have a chance to follow up and find out more about this side of journalism, this helps inspire us to continue to try our best to be responsible journalists who get the story right — the first time.

Journalists are storytellers at heart. We yearn to share great stories with audiences, to have readers, listeners and viewers become so involved that they care about those people and issues we write about.

Sometimes it might be national political issues, but other times it might be we are simply sharing a glimpse of someone’s life story.

Our best reward for our work? It’s not awards and paychecks.

When people thank us for doing a story about a difficult, complicated, controversial issue and they say they believe we covered it well, that means a lot. We uncovered sides that may not have been revealed before, we held people accountable when they didn’t want to be, and perhaps we changed how something was being done in the world by the careful research and extensive, responsible and accurate reporting we did.

And when it’s someone’s life story we share? It means the most when we get a hug and someone thanks us for doing what we did, a modest compilation of words and images that shared what was special about someone for even a few brief moments if not a lifetime.

Then we truly feel we have done more than just been a muckraker, a stenographer or a gossipmonger that day.

We have truly been journalists who people can respect.

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