Sometimes The Story Is In The Numbers

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always have a lot of patience with data. It’s a lot of numbers, and my head will start spinning, and then I’m checking Instagram or something. It takes a lot of patience and skill to search through rows and rows of data and put them together to make more sense.

Well, some journalists specialize in and thank God for these people. Many of the biggest stories have been published over the years that have brought light to some of the biggest scandals ever.

I consider one of those journalists a friend and one of those reporters playing the game at another level, Lawrence Mower. We met in Las Vegas when I was at the public radio station, and he was working at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. We talked about finding stories in data, covering politics, and dealing with vitriolic readers. But, we started by discussing how he got into journalism. It all started with a letter to the editor.

Listen to the interview in its entirety on the podcast

TRS – How did you get into journalism? 

Lawrence Mower  – I was actually an accounting major first, and I never thought about being a journalist until I was in my third year of school. I wrote a letter to the editor of the Review-Journal about a professor at the time. The Review-Journal has an extremely libertarian editorial stance. They were talking about double-dippers, people in the legislature who also work in state government. And at the time, that applied to Dina Titus, the Senate majority leader back then. She was also a professor at UNLV teaching state government. I had her for one of these classes in a giant lecture hall where I sat in the back, and I knew who she was.

I knew that she was in the legislature. I think somebody had written a letter to the editor saying that she was probably indoctrinating all of her students because she was a Democrat, indoctrinating them to be liberals. And I’ve always been staunchly nonpartisan. I wrote a letter after taking her class saying I was on the lookout to see if she would be like some raging liberal. And she didn’t tell anyone who she was until the last day of class. And it was a very entertaining class. I had a lot of fun. I wrote a letter to the Review-Journal editor, and they printed it. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I like seeing my name in print. I had professors in other classes notice and actually say, hey, that was a great letter to the editor. After that, I decided to take a journalism class and really liked it. I started working with the student paper, took a couple of classes, really liked it, and switched my major. I eventually was interning for the Review-Journal on the cops beat. 

TRS  – I remember when I met you. You were at the Las Vegas Review-Journal and had been working on this big story about police use of force. This turned into a big series, and it changed things. Tell me how you found that story.

Lawrence worked with a group of reporters on a year-long project to uncover use of lethal-force by some Las Vegas police. The series was called Deadly Force.

Lawrence Mower  – I was covering. I think it was on night cops at the time. I was working a swing shift, 2 to 11 p.m. covering police, covering the police beat, going to crime scenes, you know, writing about crime and Las Vegas at the time, like a lot of police departments, but Las Vegas, in particular, had a lot of police-involved shootings. And by that, I mean police shooting people. And sometimes killing people. And this was weird because it seemed to follow like this, this, the cycle. There’d be a lot of shootings in a row, then there’d be a drop-off, and then there’d be another round of shootings and controversies because a lot of these shootings were on unarmed people. A lot of them (victims) were Black. And there was one shooting, in particular, Trayvon Cole, the case of a young man selling small amounts of weed from his apartment. And police ended up doing a raid on his apartment. He was flushing weed down the toilet when an officer shot and killed him. And this was really on the heels.

I believe it was right after another really controversial shooting involving – I think it was an Air Force veteran in a Costco parking lot in the suburbs of Las Vegas. But anyway. John Cole, there were questions raised about this right away. This was an officer who had been in multiple shootings before. And the officer’s story was refuted by the medical examiner. The officer said this guy turned and pointed with two hands at the officer as if he was holding a gun. And, of course, he had no gun. The medical examiner said he was not facing the officer and the evidence showed that he was flushing weed down the toilet. And so my sources in the police department were the ones who told me that there was something seriously wrong here. My attitude towards it was, well, there have been so many shootings, I want to actually know what’s really going on. So I took a look at every shooting for the last 20 years across all of the Southern Nevada police departments, including Las Vegas. The big one, of course, was Las Vegas Metro. We dove deep into examining every single incident, including any incidents where somebody was not hit by a bullet. You would take all this data to analyze the time of day where this happened, the officer’s characteristics, how long the officer had been on the force, where this officer was assigned, and what unit? We looked at multiple shootings published in 2011. This was a year, two years before Ferguson. It was the only examination of its kind and indeed of its scope of police shootings and many police shootings by the police department. 

TRS – And that that the series, by the way, it was it was called Deadly Force. 

Lawrence Mower – It’s called Deadly Force. And it ended up publishing over five days. Within a week, the Justice Department contacted us. The Department of Justice had the COPS office, a division of the Department of Justice that works with police departments to improve them, notice problems, and go in and try to help. And they had noticed the series and contacted the sheriff at the time, Doug Gillespie, and said, ” Hey, we’ve got a problem here. And specifically, you have a problem here. Let us help you. We combed through all the police department homicide records after each shooting; we went through each of those records and actually spent $10,000 to buy those public records from the Las Vegas Metro Police Department, which the paper had never done before. We read through every single coroner’s inquest that had happened over the last 20 years. We had the coroner’s office dig up these old dusty binders with transcripts of each coroner’s inquest after each fatal shooting, read through those, and basically enter them into a database. I had the former metro undersheriff, the former sheriff, and all kinds of detectives and police officers on the record talking about these incidents and saying, yes, there’s something very wrong with this police department. And, of course, what they were doing is they were shooting people and not analyzing why they were shooting at people. They were just covering it up. And the state attorney was doing that, too. They relied on this bogus coroner’s inquest process to clear all these shootings. 

TRS – What was it like after that report came out? Because you’re covering the police beat, and this comes out. Did anything change on your beat afterward? 

Lawrence Mower – Yes and no. I mean, frankly, after it was published, I was shocked by how little things changed. It was kind of like crickets. It was bizarre. And I was very down about it because you spend all this time and nothing really happens. The dam really broke. I didn’t know what the Justice Department was doing behind the scenes at this time, but they were in contact with the sheriff’s office. Then in early 2012, Metro shot and killed an unarmed disabled Black man who was mentally ill and happened to be a war veteran. He was an Iraq War veteran or Gulf War veteran. It was on video, and it was just an absolute outrage. I mean, even people in the police department told me this was genuine outrage; something was really wrong here.

The Justice Department, soon after that, I think, announced they were looking at Metro. I got a lot of pushback. Some of my sources in the police department were like, wow, you’re right. But this is tough to see, and I’m not happy to see it. My sources got a lot of blowbacks. Because you want to protect the people willing to speak with you on the record, pretty much more than anything, her absolute priority is to protect those people. The DOJ office used our reporting as a template for reforming other police departments around the country.

TRS – Coming back to what you just said about your sources. You know there’s a risk for them, obviously. What do you tell them ahead of time when you’re working on a story? 

Lawrence Mower – I tell them I try to be as straight up as possible. I say, hey, are you comfortable saying this on the record? Because here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to get blowback here. You have a high chance of losing your job, and some people know that. Some people aren’t. Anytime you deal with sources, they fall into two categories. Those who are experienced dealing with the media and being a public figure and those who aren’t. And the people who aren’t are the ones you got to be really careful. I’ve quashed stories. I had to figure out another way to tell the story because my source would be too exposed. At the end of the day, you’re the one who is supposed to be looking out for them. We’re in a tremendous position of power in our business, which we need to keep in mind all the time. And if a source is going to lose their job and livelihood, you have to ask a serious question: is this story worth it? And let’s be honest, the impact of a news story is probably less than it was 20 years ago, 30 years ago. And so you’ve got to weigh that factor in here. 

TRS – Now you’re covering politics for the Tampa Bay Times in Tallahassee. And so talk about Florida politics. What’s been the most enjoyable part of the job and the most significant challenge? 

Lawrence now covers politics for the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times from Tallahassee.

Lawrence Mower – Well, I should back up. I was hesitant to take the job up here because I’m not a huge fan of politics. Politics, in general, doesn’t interest me. I’m much more of a policy person. But it has been a pleasant surprise. The part of the job I really do like is the people. I really do enjoy meeting the politicians, the staffers, and the lobbyists. There’s a perception out there that many of these people are good or bad. And really, it’s just a gray area. You’ve got a collection of people up here who have their own motivations. And some of those motivations are bad. Some of those motivations are good, and some are somewhere in between. Most of them probably are. You may hear a lawmaker have some kind of big, blustery speech or something, and then you sit down and talk to them for a while. And you find out they’re just regular people. I really enjoy learning about the different issues up here. The best thing about journalism, in my opinion, is you’re always learning about new stuff, new topics.

You try to become an expert on different topics, from tax policy to law enforcement to environmental policy to voting; it just never ends. The hard or difficult part is that things are toxic right now. Politics is pretty toxic. I get angry e-mails from people on both sides of the issue all the time saying I’m either in the camp for DeSantis or I hate DeSantis. There’s obviously been an effort to kind of demonize the news media, traditional news media. I do think some of the criticism is legitimate. But it’s just flat toxic, more than it used to be.

TRS – If you’re talking to a group of people who judge the news media but don’t know us? What do they get wrong about us?

Lawrence Mower – There’s a lot. One thing that I think they should keep in mind is that we are just people. We are just regular people who are generally trying to do the right thing. We’re trying to do the right job here. We don’t want to get things wrong. That is still a big black mark on a journalist’s reputation is getting stories wrong. We are badly outnumbered. Nowadays, there are far fewer of us than ever before, yet more demands on us than ever. I don’t know how long they will be independent journalists. As I said, the financing model is kind of going away. Frankly, most papers are shrinking. At least local papers are shrinking. There are some local outfits or nonprofit outfits that are trying to fill the void. As far as independent journalists, there are not many of us left anymore compared to what there used to be. 

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We All Need To Admit It.

There’s a show that played on Broadway some years back called Avenue Q. It was a spoof on Sesame Street. It had puppets and dirty jokes, and quirky songs. One of those songs is “Everyone’s A Little Racist.”

It’s the kind of song that leaves you feeling a little guilty when it’s over. You have to ask yourself, OH, GOD! Am I racist too? Even a little?

I remember talking with my girlfriend, who took me to the show. We laughed at most of the jokes, but we couldn’t stop talking about THIS song. And I asked her, do you think it’s true? We’re all even just a little?

Talking about race is a challenging topic to discuss, but that’s why I started with the story about the Broadway show. Sometimes you have to approach these heavier issues with something light so everyone can begin in a place of comfort. But for this week’s episode of The Reporter’s Studio, I wanted to talk about this topic with someone called on by companies, corporations, and newsrooms to help them better handle the issue within their organizations. 

Celeste Headlee has been an NPR host for years, and you still hear her hosting shows like Here and Now from time to time. She’s also the author of books like, We Need To Talk: How To Have Conversations That MatterDo Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving, and her latest book, Speaking of Race: Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Racism—and How to Do It.

TRS – How often are you talking to newsrooms and reporters about the issue of race? And I’m just wondering the type of questions that you get. 

Celeste Headlee – I started a nonprofit called Headway, which is focused on bringing racial equity and reform to public media in particular. So I am talking to newsrooms quite a bit. Generally, if they’re calling me, it’s because something has gone wrong. And so it’s very often crisis management at that point. I try to tell people that we have to change our tactics and move away from these crisis reactions to being proactive and creating muscle memory in an institution, especially a newsroom. Because when you have muscle memory, it means that even when people quit, even when new people come in, the institution knows how to be equitable, fair, and just. There are systems in place that are automatically equitable, fair, and just. It’s not about accommodating personalities. And so that’s sort of what I try to get across to people: not let’s deal with this crisis, let’s find its root causes. Let’s bring up all those undiscussed bubbles that nobody’s talking about and get to the root of what created the tension here. We are especially prone to racial bias and discrimination in the news business. And a big part of that is because we rely on gut instinct. We call it news instinct, but it’s really gut instinct. And gut instinct is the most vulnerable kind of thinking to discrimination and bias and unconscious and implicit biases. You think a news story is important because you think it is, but there are all these unconscious biases making you think that stories, that economic story about Boeing, is more important than the story about the Latino community in Detroit or whatever it may be. So it makes us vulnerable. 

TRS – Going back to the Black Lives Matter marches of a couple of years ago, one of the things that kept popping up and this has been a real big challenge is, we’ve seen the reaction from the party on the right. In Florida especially, they’re pushing laws that, as a human, you just stop and say, that’s just racist. But as a reporter, you’re like, how am I supposed to talk to this person?

Celeste Headlee So I think media writ large is kind of responsible for, in a small part, for where we are. Even at NPR, we took the lazy man sort of cowardly way out for a quite a long time, meaning that we did the ‘he said she said’ false balance where rather than putting our own reputation on the line because NPR kept getting attacked as being liberal, which is not true. They’ve done research studies. It’s not true. But they kept getting attacked as liberal. And so, to fix that, they would just always include an opposing voice. And you can’t have an opposing voice on climate change or the safety of vaccines. That’s not feasible, but that’s what we did. And so, it created a little bit of this combative environment. Not taking full responsibility. When you’re approaching somebody like that, I always approach them from the standpoint of how wide the agreement is.

So, for example, if I were reporting in Florida, I would say I’m confused, and I’m really hoping you can clear this up because I’m super curious about your standpoint. We know that the support for the LGBTQ community’s support for same-sex marriage is incredibly popular in the United States. That’s bipartisan that everybody agrees on. So let’s dig into what you’re trying to prevent here. Give me the example of a real-world example of what you’re trying to prevent. You have to really use those five why’s; (Sakichi) Toyoda’s five why’s. You have to really dig down into specific examples. The problem becomes when you start talking about generalities, the liberal agenda, and the gay agenda. That’s just talking points. You’re never going to find anything of use in that conversation. You have to drill it down to specific stories, specific examples, what they specifically have experienced, and what did their kids experience? It’s about telling stories. And yet we don’t do that when it comes to politics and economics. We allow people to give us talking points instead of specific true stories. 

TRS As you pointed out, depending on which market you’re in as a reporter, the newsroom will look a certain way. Most newsrooms I’ve been in have been very white. The bigger the city I got into, obviously the diversity was better. In your experience, in your travels, what have you seen? Have things gotten better? Or are we still way behind? 

Celeste Headlee

Celeste Headlee  – Yes. They have gotten better, and we’re still way behind. At the same time, we are seeing some improvement in the recruitment of diverse staff. But, over the past year, we’ve seen an unprecedented exodus of talent from public radio, not just the network, but also at local stations, especially women of color. We have thrown all our energy into recruiting diverse talent and not throwing enough energy into creating inclusive environments where they can feel supported and feel that they have a chance for promotion and growth. It’s funny; I was talking to somebody at NPR about the Bureau system. NPR has bureau chiefs in different regions of the country, and they’re generally that portal through which local reporters get their stories on national air. And I said, okay, so how many? Where’s the record of the stories they’ve turned down? And they said we don’t keep a record of the pitches they turn down. And I said, Okay, well, where’s your record of which stories they’ve accepted that were successful versus those that weren’t? And they said we don’t keep a record of that. And I said, Okay, well then how do you know how biased you’re bureau chiefs are? They’re 100% older white people. How do you know if they’re biased or not? And they said I don’t know. And I was like, you have a complaint where a black reporter in Atlanta pitched the story about Kamala Harris’s sorority, and the bureau chief turned it down. And not that long later, a white reporter pitched a similar story, and it was accepted. How do you know if that was biased or not or a fluke? And they don’t have any way of doing so. So when I talk about retention, this is part of it or growth or promotion. As a reporter, growing in this industry has a lot to do with how many stories you get on the network. That’s one of your bragging rights, right? Your news director usually wants you to get stories in the network because then all their listeners and donors hear your call letters. So these portals of power that we don’t give much thought to are not recording what they’re doing. They’re not measuring their efforts. We don’t track whether a bureau chief is good or bad because we don’t know how good they are at their jobs. 

TRS  – Is it at a management level where we have to start?

Headlee’s latest book

Celeste Headlee I mean, always, but it’s a systemic level that we must start. We’ve approached diversity badly, and I write about this in the book. We have to stop thinking that racism and ageism, and any of the isms are a knowledge problem. For the most part, we approach it as though we have to teach people how bad racism and discrimination are, and we have to show them examples of discrimination and say, see how bad this is; look how much this hurts this other person. Everybody knows that. Everyone knows racism is terrible. Everyone knows sexism is wrong. They just don’t think they’re racist or sexist because the vast majority of discrimination and bias you will encounter is the product of unconscious bias or implicit bias. It’s not so much whether it’s at a management level or not. It’s that we have to create systems that are about behavioral science, that are about either rewarding inclusive behavior or punishing exclusive behavior. We have to create those systems. For example, I was working with a large station where, after a series of surveys, we discovered their news pitching process was a real problem. And I went through the same thing. Okay, who’s accepting the pitches? How do you know if they’re good at their jobs? What are the stories? They’re turned down, etc., etc., etc. They kept no record. And so I said, okay, you have to start. Including other people in the pitching process, you can create a rotating calendar in which literally everybody in the newsroom, including interns, gets to be part of that discussion on what stories get accepted and what don’t. Otherwise, you’re not taking advantage of your diversity, and you must keep a record of which stories with pitches were turned down. And that becomes your system. And that’s yeah, that’s about management, but it’s really about the process. 

TRS – I grew up thinking that as a journalist, I need to be objective. But things changed when I came to Miami. I saw Latino journalists who spoke up about immigration issues and people telling them, hey, you’re a journalist, you’re not supposed to take sides. This idea of objectivity, we need to rethink this and how we are approaching our jobs. 

Celeste Headlee –  For those interested, there’s a great book from Louis Raymond Wallace called “The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity.” Louis was fired from Marketplace because he wrote blogs about being trans and how the recent debate was affecting his life and Marketplace was like, well, if you have a point of view on these trans issues, then you’re not objective. You’re fired. How do I not have an opinion on my life and my safety? It’s the same thing as Black Lives Matter. How will you go to a Black person and say you can’t have a point of view on Black Lives Matter? What? No. Transparency is the way.

I had to do a bunch of interviews about the Confederate flag after the massacre at the church. And there was a real reconsideration of the Confederate flag in the south. And I was broadcasting out of Atlanta at that point. And I started every time we had an interview like this, I would say, look, I’m black. My family was on a plantation in Georgia. I obviously have strong feelings about the Confederate flag, but I will be fair. And if I’m not – call us. Email us if you hear me being unfair. My goal is not to be objective. My goal is to be fair, and objectivity has got to go. 

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Ready, Aim, Click.

I have a deep appreciation and envy for photographers. When I was a child, I wanted to be a wildlife photographer for nature shows and films. I wanted to lurk somewhere in the tall grass and point my camera at a lion in the waiting. Or, I dreamt of swimming alongside a whale and clicking away with my camera at its glory and beauty.

Photographers are rock stars in my mind. They do the same job I do; they’re storytellers. But, where I tell stories with the spoken voice and audio, they tell it through images. Just check out these photos and think about the stories they are telling without even having a caption.

These are photos by award-winning photojournalist Carl Juste of the Miami Herald. I recently talked with him about the first camera he ever owned and some of the most powerful moments looking through the lens. I can stare at these for hours and feel the power, the emotion of these moments and these people.

He makes a strong point about how we, as journalists, all journalists, approach a story. This comes back to the question about bias, and I want to point out that even though we come into a story with our own bias, we can still set most of it aside and just try and find the facts of the story.

Catch the full episode on the podcast

TRS – What is it about being behind the camera, looking at the world through that lens? What does that mean to you? 

Carl Juste – The camera means to me the same as a pen to the writer, the microphone to a broadcaster; the camera is just an instrument. It’s my passport; it’s my weapon of choice. I’m always learning through the camera. Because, yes, it’s a tool. It is a tool of my choosing. What I make with that tool really, it’s up to several things: what’s happening in front of me, the memories that I have, how I connect with that moment, the present moment, and the camera is the tool that I use to engage in moments. 

TRS – What was the most challenging assignment for you? 

Carl Juste – All assignments are challenging. Even today, when I have an assignment, there’s always this fear of failure. And you have to accept that fear. Failure for me happens in milliseconds. You miss something, and you have to wait again for it to come back around. And my successes have been the sum of failures because I’m learning at the moment. The worst thing a photographer can do is not to be surprised. If you’re not surprised, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. 

TRS – Sometimes you wait; you have to wait for that moment to come back around. But it doesn’t always come back around. So does that mean when you go into a situation, do you have a plan, or do you just have to be in it and see what happens? 

Carl Juste – I think it’s a combination of both. You have to be fluid. If the moment requires you to be solid, that means in your space, in your position, then you take that position, and you take all the advantages of being in that position. If the moment requires you to be more fluid, you come in and flow through it, then use that. But the moment demands you to be more in it like air itself, not invisible but irrelevant. I’m a black man, and most people I photograph tend to be different from me. I can’t be invisible. I just become irrelevant because I built trust. Your intent is to be fair. I hate saying that phrase that they just chopped up, fair, and balanced. But the intent is to be fair, not to be right, not to be first, but just to be fair. I think you get more out of people when they can relax and be themselves. 

TRS – You’re not the story, but you’re going to get in there sometimes. So I wonder if there’s ever a line where like, there’s no more beyond this, I won’t go. Or will you go wherever you have got to go? 

Carl Juste – No, it depends on what is at stake. First of all, I’ll say this, there’s no picture worth dying for because images don’t have and don’t happen in a linear paradigm, they happen in a circular paradigm. Because if images really were impactful as much as we say they are, then there would be no more war. How many pictures have we seen of war? How many pictures have we seen of starvation? How many pictures have we seen of environmental desecration? We’ve seen these images over and over again. So in my practice, I’m not trying to change the world. I’m trying to change people’s ideas. I’m trying to introduce them or engage them where they’re at. How far I’m willing to go is now more critical than engagement? I’m not going to go to the KKK rally and expect them to love me; that’s my intent. You meet people where they are at. And as visual storytellers, we meet people where they are at, and we are allowed to retell their stories. I don’t think we give people voices. I think people already have voices. We get to retell their stories in the context of whatever story or narrative we’re trying to push forward. 

TRS – You’re catching people in emotional moments, and you got that camera right there in their face. How often are people like, please leave me alone? Stay out of my life. 

Carl Juste – It happens. I have different approaches for different situations. I think you have to do every opportunity to document as a gift, not a right. We can elicit that type of idea that we’re the fourth estate in the press. So when we’re speaking to the government, when we’re speaking to public figures, I will pull my freedom of the press card. Because, at the end of the day, you are operating on the public trust. If that trust has been violated, it’s my job to bridge what you’re doing and what people hear and see. It’s my job to kind of compress that space. I’ve had people leave the courthouse, like, ‘No, you don’t get a pass.’ But if I’m doing a personal story and I ask myself, how do I engage this person and expand their humanity because my job is not to record them. My job is to find myself in them. 

TRS– I wondered, like when you go out on a story, how many photos do you tend to take? And what’s the process of choosing the right one?

Carl Juste – I don’t see pictures in terms of a product. I see pictures in terms of a process. Regardless of the approach, the intent is to be as accurate in getting the spirit of that moment. I’m not concerned with your flesh. I’m trying to understand your soul. Anybody can get your flesh. But to understand in that brief moment, your character, your truth, then I must open myself. I must be willing to have a conversation with you that’s beyond. It doesn’t start with pressing down the shutter. It starts with a hello. The shutter is the last thing. It’s the period to the sense. 

TRS– I know there’s always a give and take in my relationship with my producers. I want to do something. They don’t see it. With you, what’s that relationship like with the editors? Do they ever pick a photo, and you’re like, that’s not the story, man. 

Carl Juste – It’s about how it’s presented. What’s next to it? It’s all about proximity. It’s all about, OK, does it really pertain to the tone of my experience? Some writers see photographers as illustrators, and some photographers see writers as fillers. I see photographers and writers and editors as fingers to a fist. If our intent is to be fair, if our intent is to retell, and to put the reader in our shoes, then we should all work for the exact cause. And I think as photographers, writers, and editors, we need to find that common ground to move like fingers to a fist. And that’s a process. Sometimes it works, and sometimes you have to fight. Like Teddy Pendergrass says, you just got to let it go and take the TKO. Just let it go. 

TRS – I wonder with the camera, since now you’ve gone from film to digital, and I don’t know if the technology has gotten so much different or better, has that changed the way you do things?

Carl Juste – I think technology has been an equalizer. It allowed people to produce images, quality images at a certain level. But it doesn’t address the reason why that creativity occurs. I think those things, those individual experiences, those elements of storytelling, the variables are still the same: timing, relationship, and outcome. When you approach a story, you can produce a better product if you have a lot of time. But if you have time with no resources, you’re back to square one, or you have resources, but no time, you’re back to square one. We’re constantly trying to navigate things that we cannot predict. We have to be better listeners, and as we become better listeners, we tell more stories. The technology doesn’t give you that. The experience, the intent, and the dedication bring that. That cannot be bought at B&H; there’s no app. You gotta put in the time, you got to put in the work, and you’ve got to be able to listen. 

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The Truth, The Whole Truth, Nothing But The Truth

As a talk-show host, one of the challenges I face is to stay on top of topics so that if a politician begins spewing out questionable information on air, I’ll be prepared to fact-check their claims live and not allow them a free pass. It’s not easy.

I need to prepare for that show. It requires a thorough understanding of specific topics, usually laws. I have to anticipate what they’re going to say to pull up any counterpoint or fact-check that quote on the spot. Sometimes I fail.

But that’s why journalists are leaning more and more toward a small group called Politifact, part of the Poynter Institute. These are former journalists dedicated to ensuring that all things said by a politician are either true or completely false.

We spoke with Politifact’s editor-in-chief, Angie Holan, about the launching of the fact-checking organization and some of the challenges they face in a time where truth is being rewritten by politicians and their followers.

Angie Holan from Politifact

TRS – How do you define what PolitiFact is and its mission? Also, how did it get started?

Angie Holan – Well, PolitiFact is a national politics fact-checking website. We started it in 2007 as a special project for a newspaper. Back then, it was the Saint Petersburg Times. Today it’s the Tampa Bay Times. And it was something that was the brainchild of a journalist named Bill Adair, who had a personal belief that there needed to be more fact-checking in political journalism. He recruited a team from the St Petersburg Times newsroom, of which I was a member. I worked in the news research library, and we started fact-checking the 2007 presidential primaries for the 2008 election that ended up as the contest between Barack Obama and John McCain. And we’ve been fact-checking ever since. So when people come to our site, they see speakers making claims. We’re rating the claims for truthfulness on our Truth-O-Meter, as we call it. So you can look at the list of things we fact-checked, look at the ratings, and quickly get a sense of relative accuracy. And our ratings are true, mostly true, half true, mostly false. False and pants on fire. 

TRS – Obviously, as journalists, we all have to be fact-checkers. But what do you see in newsrooms? How are different organizations making sure they keep people accountable if they can’t have a dedicated fact-checker? 

Angie Holan, editor-in-chief Politifact

Angie Holan – I think journalists learn it as part of their skill set. I think it’s becoming a standard part of the journalist’s skill set that they know whatever the topic area they’re covering. They have to be keeping up with the fact checks of that topic area. It’s harder for a general assignment reporter since you’re given something different every day. Thanks to the Internet, it’s possible for a journalist trained in searching and curating content to go out on the Internet and search for the facts, work and evaluate it, and maybe look at some of the controversies around fact-checking. I’ve seen journalists grow in their sophistication in handling fact-based corrections as they interview. But it is really challenging. And one of the things that I really like to watch every presidential year is the moderators of the presidential debates because some of them have to deal with some very high-profile falsehoods, and they have to be ready on their feet to correct them. And it’s fascinating. If you watch enough of these, and I’ve watched them all since 2007, some moderators are superbly prepared. They must prepare for it the way you would prepare for, like the bar exam, because they know they seem to be ready for everything. I’ve noticed Jake Tapper of CNN, when he moderates debates, he spreads all these papers out on a desk in front of him. And I have to believe there are notes and fact checks there for him to be ready.

TRS – I think some politicians are a little bit easier sometimes because they say the same thing repeatedly, and it’s the party line, and you’ve heard enough interviews. So you can prepare to an extent. Sometimes they surprise you. You started the meter in the late aughts. Since then, what has been the response from the audience? 

Angie Holan – The audience reaction has been fascinating. I think I hear a lot personally from people who feel passionately one way or another. I get regular emails from people who are like, thank you, PolitiFact. Thank you so much for what you’re doing. It’s so important. It’s the only thing that’s going to save democracy. Please keep doing what you’re doing. And I love those emails, obviously, but I never got emails like that when I was doing my standard journalism stories. People who appreciate fact-checking really have a personal commitment to truth-telling. It’s the same basic skills that all journalists use. But we’re using this intensive, fact-based format, and the audience does love it. In recent years we’ve become the focus of a lot of audience anger. People are like these fact-checkers; they’re not really umpires. They’re the liberal media. They’re trying to put their thumb on the scales, and worse than that, you’d be horrified by the profanity and emails I receive. So there is that. In addition to still fact-checking politicians, I should add that we fact-check a lot of social media claims and a lot of viral misinformation. And we, like other fact-checkers, are in a partnership with Facebook that uses our fact checks to screen false content. If you’re scrolling through your Facebook feed, you might see a grayed-out box that says independent fact-checkers. You have an audience who are not looking for fact-checking, and they didn’t particularly want to be fact-checked. And some of them become irate that fact-checkers have this role on social media. 

TRS – What’s the state of our industry right now? 

The harshest verdict of the truth-o-meter

Angie Holan – It seems to be really in flux. The big players are doing best while the smaller newsrooms have struggled, especially local news. The print advertising model is busted. We’re in this online world where all the advertising revenue is controlled by platforms like Google and Facebook. That hurts news a lot. It hurts journalism. There’s still a lot of media and entertainment, but it’s hard journalism. There are still some bright spots because now I think we’re starting to see the growth and spread of nonprofit newsrooms. And I would put PolitiFact as part of this. We started at the newspaper, but now we’re owned by the Poynter Institute, and we are a self-sustaining nonprofit newsroom. And other nonprofit newsrooms are doing great work. We seem to be moving toward a national culture in ways that we didn’t see 30 or 40 years ago. So it’s kind of a perplexing time. When I looked back five years ago, I was astounded at all the change. And I wonder how many more changes we’ll see in the next five years. 

TRS – What’s been the good of social media? How has it helped journalism? 

Angie Holan – Well, I think it’s helped journalism research first, like to be able to go to social media and search for experts and profiles. And public opinion has been a game-changer for many journalists. It’s also an excellent distribution network. We can reach so many readers through social media and online without the cost of print distribution or some other traditional method of distribution. So it’s had a lot of positives. 

TRS – What about the negatives? How does it hurt journalism? 

Angie Holan – Well, nuanced or complicated things tend not to do well on social media. A Jonathan Haidt article appeared this year in the Atlantic about how the past ten years have been so dumb. He is a social psychologist, and he talks a lot about how social media, with its kind of reaction architecture, likes, retweets, and shares, that reaction architecture drives a lot of negative emotion. And I think that has hurt journalism. But there are also things going on in the country and politics that hurt the whole country. And journalists are one of the groups that suffer. 

TRS – Is it on us as journalists to explain ourselves and what we do? Should we be on a PR campaign helping people understand what’s the news and fake news? 

Angie Holan –  I think we absolutely have to do PR for our industry because it feels like nobody else is going to do it right now. I think it’s also an ethical journalism practice to explain yourself. At PolitiFact, we have a long story on our Web site that explains all of our processes and how we do everything, determine the ratings, select items to fact check, handle corrections, and who owns us and where our money comes from. I just think that’s absolutely critical. And to this day, I’m still surprised by some of the most prominent media organizations in the country and how hard it is to find that kind of information. It’s not written in a compelling format. Sometimes it’s out of date, and it’s just like, why can’t these big media companies be more transparent with their audience online? I hate to say it, but some parts of our industry have a lot of arrogance and don’t feel like they need to explain themselves. I hope journalists are having a moment of humility in these past few years when we’ve been so attacked and vilified by some quarters that we need to be humble about what journalism can do. And we need to be humble about serving our audiences because I think journalism is essentially a service profession now. 

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Why People Will Always Love Reading About Food.

Some reporters live for politics. They want to be in the halls of Congress or a state capitol, following the endless debate over bills and the controversies of the latest politician’s tweet.

Other reporters need to be on the field of play, covering the big game, chasing the action of the ball as two teams, two athletes, battle like the gladiators of old, for glory and victory.

And you have reporters that have to be in the center of danger, covering war, battle, and death. I’ve always wondered what goes through the minds of these reporters. I won’t deny I envy their courage but prefer the cozy confines of my radio studio far from all of that risk.

One type of reporting that is truly fun and tasty, writing about food. Here’s a piece of what I mean.

Puerto Rican mofongo is a garlicky mash of sweet plantains, usually with a healthy dose of pork chunks and pork fat. But at Manjay, the Mofongo My Way dish is transformed using semi-sweet plantains and rolled into balls that are deep fried. Make sure to dip them into a tomato sazón and have each bit with a pop of Haitian-style pikliz, pickled slaw that brings the heat but also a tart vinegar that punches through the richness.

Carlos Frias, The Miami Herald

OK, now I’m hungry. And that’s what great food writing does. It brings the food right to the Olfactory Cortex and eventually to the medulla oblongata that makes my mouth salivate.

Carlos Frias is a James Beard Winning writer. He’s the food editor for the Miami Herald. And if you’ve never heard of the James Beard award, it’s basically the Pulitzer of food writers. I talked with him recently about his incredible journey when he returned to South Florida and got his opportunity to write for his dream paper, as well as his take on the bias that journalists battle through.

I couldn’t write about food. If I did, I’d gain a hundred pounds. I used to work in food service for years, and I did literally gain a ton of weight. But I have to say, I love this guy’s work and his commitment to the job.

He’s really good at using social media as well, and putting together fun videos that really engage audiences. I also love his March Madness Restaurant edition he does every Spring for the Miami Herald.

Carlos shares what he’s learned from storytelling on podcasts

TRS –  What were the early days of your career like? 

Carlos Frias – When you’re writing early on, you’re trying different styles and learning different techniques, applying fiction-like narrative to nonfiction. It’s reading a lot. It’s following orders. And I had a great editor named Leon Carter, who was with the New York Daily News for a long time. More of a mentor. And he used to tell me, never say no to an assignment when you’re starting out. Just always say yes. And get yourself into a bunch of uncomfortable situations. I learned early on that that was such a valuable lesson. Any time I went into a situation where I felt insecure and uncomfortable, I knew that I was going to learn something that day. I would be in a room full of people, maybe like at a press conference, or I went to interview somebody who had had some kind of life-thing happening that I couldn’t relate to, and I would tell myself, you’re going to learn something today. 

TRS – You were writing about sports early in your career.

Carlos Frias  – Yeah, primarily sports. At 19, I was the regular sports correspondent in Gainesville for the Sun-Sentinel. I’d write weekly practice reports and little features, and then on game day, the primary writer would come up from Fort Lauderdale, and I would write the second story, the sidebar, and maybe the notes column or two sidebars, and they paid me great money. That all happened because every day, for a week, I called the late Fred Turner, who was the sports editor at the Sun-Sentinel, and I said I’ll do anything. Fred Turner said to me, Carlos, so you want to be a sports writer. 

TRS –  Here you are now, award-winning food editor at the Miami Herald. How did your previous experiences help you now as a food writer? 

Carlos Frias –  I think it helped me see that all the beats have one thing in common: finding more intelligent people than you and talking to them and asking them questions. And that’s really all of journalism is being a conduit, knowing that you’re not the ultimate arbiter in the room; it’s talking to lots of people and hearing lots of different opinions and facts. And I think that’s what helped the most because, like I said, I covered everything in a newsroom, and that’s usually how it goes for journalists. 

Carlos co-hosts the Miami Herald podcast La Ventanita

TRS –  The first time you were writing about food was at the Palm Beach Post? 

Carlos Frias – So, I was writing the Big Sunday story in sports for a while. The food editor at the Palm Beach Post is Liz Balmaseda, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at the Miami Herald for many years. She was the one that told me you can tell great stories in food and through food. And so she kind of recruited me to start writing food stories, and the rest is kind of history. 

TRS  – What was it like when you dipped your toe into that topic? 

Carlos Frias – I remember thinking – is this important? Are people interested in this? Does this resonate with readers? And I was stunned to learn that it was not only essential and relevant to readers but much more so than anything I wrote in sports. For example, I’d find an interesting family and write about their restaurant, and I’d write about the trajectory that led them to open this thing that provided income and brought them meaning. Then people in the community read about it, and they went, which changed the restaurant owner’s life. And then a community feels like they learned something like, I have a new pizza place; I have a new Mexican place; I have a new taco place. It really affects people’s daily lives. And I really was surprised by that. And that has been the thing that’s really kindled an interest in it. 

TRS  – How much time do you spend at your desk compared to how much time are you out visiting with people, going to restaurants? 

Carlos Frias – Some may know, but there’s no newsroom at the Miami Herald anymore. We’re all working from home; a 100 little bureaus scattered throughout Miami, and that’s how it should be. Good editors will tell you to get out of the newsroom and talk to people. That’s where the stories are. Like, your phone isn’t going to ring, and you’re going to pick it up, and you’re going to have a Pulitzer. I spend my time, I’d say half the time lining up interviews and the other half interviewing people. I constantly check myself to make sure that I haven’t been sitting down inside my house for too long. 

TRS – What is it you wish people would understand more about you as a journalist and what you do? 

Carlos Frias – I think that number one, we are not stenographers. We don’t go and talk to the senator and talk to the chef, and they say 75 words, and then we write them down. We are not the Library of Congress. We are not a transcription service. Writing journalism is thinking; it’s using your head. And by that, I mean talking to people and then going home and sitting in silence in a quiet place and thinking, what does that mean? It’s reading over the quotes, and it’s being attentive. So when someone’s talking to you, and they’re telling you something, you’re taking in the facts, and then you’re stopping to catch something and say, tell me about that again. It’s revealing your lack of knowledge and letting yourself be curious. If you and I go to a thing and we report on a subject, we will have different takes on it. It’s going to read different because you’re different than me as a human being. You hear things and see things slightly differently than I do. So that’s part of it. We can’t say that there’s no implicit bias we may have. We do. We walk around as human beings with implicit bias. But it’s listening to everybody, and then it’s thinking, what does that mean? And if you don’t know, it’s about making a callback and saying, did you mean this? And I think that that’s what people miss. 


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Follow Carlos’ work here. Follow him on Twitter.

Life In The Big Grass

Can you remember a moment when you first tried your hand at that which would later become your career?

For example, I recall one of those moments when I was ten. I was hanging out with a couple of friends when one of them picked up a tape recorder, pressed record, and started talking in a loud radio announcer voice. He made a joke or two, our other friend chimed in with some sound effects and laughter, and I came in and began to laugh and clap and maybe try my hand at a joke that likely fell flat.

We played for hours, recording ourselves doing football games, radio interviews, and other gags. It never dawned on me then that I would end up doing radio for a career. Amy Green sort of has a similar story. It turns out she’s just a natural storyteller and has been since she was very young.

She tells stories, sometimes in written form, but mainly on the radio. And she’s gone from writing about her family vacations to perhaps the biggest story in today’s world, the environment.

Amy Green – It’s a lifelong passion. From the time I was in grade school, I wanted to be a writer. And when I was a little kid, when my family would take trips for vacation, I would come home, make a little book and write a little story about our trip and everything. And I’ve always been a reader. And so, as I got into middle school, I just imagined that journalism would be a way to actually make a living as a writer. 

TRS – When did you become an environmental reporter? 

Amy Green – So I got into environmental journalism a little later in my career. I spent most of my career in print journalism, and I transitioned to radio back in 2011. I started my professional career in Nashville, Tennessee, and I worked at the Associated Press for a few years, and then I freelanced for many years. In Nashville, I specialized in religion and spirituality, which is, you know, a massive part of life in Nashville. It’s the buckle of the Bible Belt. Eventually, I moved back to Florida. When I moved back to Florida in 2006, it was like, man, what happened here? Because the state had experienced this explosive growth in the early 2000s. I grew up in Clearwater, in Sarasota, and when I was a kid, my family had a boat, and all of my parents’ friends had boats. And so, after I moved back to Florida as an adult, I can remember a boating trip out near Crystal River, and the water was just infested with jellyfish to the point where you really couldn’t swim off the back of the boat. So I just kind of started pitching more and more environmental stories. And then, in 2008, I pitched some stories on the Everglades, and I just became hooked on the Everglades. 

TRS – You were in print first, and then you came to radio. Was that an easy transition? Do you prefer one more than the other? 

Amy Green – I’m not bilingual, and I don’t know what that’s like, but I imagine this might be a little like that to a small degree. It’s two very different ways of writing. I’ve been in public radio for ten years, and even now, when I’m first beginning a story and I’m writing out my reporting plan, I’ll do an initial outline as a print story. Then I’ll do the reporting. And then, I’ll do another outline as a radio story. So they are two very different writing styles, but I’m so grateful that this is where I ended up, and journalism is a challenging place.

TRS – Your first book came out last year, about the Everglades and Big Sugar. After publishing the book, have you spoken to any politicians or anybody in the sugar industry?

Amy Green – The book is called Moving Water: The Everglades and Big Sugar. Obviously, during the course of writing that book, I visited the Everglades agricultural area many times and talked with as many farmers as I could, and many of them just asked not to be named in the book. So I respected their wishes. George and Mary Barley are fascinating figures in Florida’s environmental history. Since they’re very controversial figures in Florida’s environmental history, many people just didn’t want to be named in a book about them. 

TRS – Compared to doing a radio story or even a print story, what are the challenges of writing a story in a book form?

Amy Green – It was a lot of work, and it was very stressful. But it was a great experience, and I recommend doing it. 

I met Mary Barley in 2008. Former Governor Charlie Crist announced plans where the state would buy out U.S. Sugar Corps and put that land toward Everglades restoration. And so I did a story on the Everglades Foundation, which was behind that deal, and met Mary Barley that way. A few weeks later, I did a personality profile on Mary for the Christian Science Monitor and just was fascinated by her and fascinated by her story. And I always knew that was a good story. I always knew it was a book. And as you said, a book is a big undertaking. And I had some things going on in my life that made it challenging to dedicate the time to it. My daughter was born, and things like that. It took a while to get an agent and a contract and do the writing. And then, of course, my deadline for my manuscript was the end of the year 2019, and my deadline for edits was March 2020. So my book was going through production at the same time. Our newsroom was very stretched by the pandemic news and everything. 

I took vacation the first week of March 2020 to finish up my edits, and I can remember working on my book and having my computer on in the background and DeSantis doing a news conference where he’s announcing one case in Florida and then the second case in Florida. And so I got my edits done, and I went back to work the second week of March, and that was the last week that we were all in the building together. 

TRS – Well, give us a synopsis. 

Amy Green – So moving water is the story of George and Mary Barley. They are two very well-known influential Everglades advocates. In the early nineties, George Barley was a wealthy real estate investor in central Florida, very politically connected, and he loved to fish in Florida Bay. So as Florida Bay was experiencing severe environmental degradation, he became enraged. He learned how the problems in Florida Bay were connected with problems farther up the peninsula and the Everglades, and it enraged him. George also believed that it was a result of government corruption. He thought that sugar growers, who are part of a vast farming community in the heart of the Everglades in a region called the Everglades Agricultural Area, were not paying their fair share toward Everglades restoration. And so, he was pushing a ballot initiative that would have taxed sugar growers to raise money for restoration. He died very suddenly and very tragically in a plane crash, and at the time of his death, his political stature was probably close to that of the secretary of the interior. And so, after his death, Mary Barley picked up his cause and, in 1996, pushed a ballot initiative that was the most expensive political campaign in 40 years. And today, she is still very engaged and very influential. You might remember that the Everglades Trust gave a critical endorsement to Governor Ron DeSantis in 2018. The Everglades Trust is another organization started by the Barleys’, so moving water is their story. It’s the first book to tell their story, and it also tells the story of how the Everglades restoration got started, kind of in the context of their story.

TRS – Where do you see environmental reporting? Where is it going from here? Where does it need to go for this next generation coming up? 

Amy Green – Climate change. That’s what I’m focusing on now. And lately, I’ve been focusing on clean energy and renewable energy in Florida and water issues in the Everglades. It’s such an integral part of being a Floridian. And so, water issues will always be an important story in Florida. I’m starting to turn my attention to clean energy, renewable energy, and climate change. 

TRS – What does your audience want when it comes to environmental coverage?

Amy Green – Probably one of the biggest stories of the year for me will be just this horrible manatee die-off that we’ve been experiencing in the Indian River Lagoon. And that’s a very complicated situation because the Indian River Lagoon has suffered widespread water quality problems and seagrass losses, leading to the manatees’ starvation. And it’s the other kind of theme to a lot of my reporting in central Florida and across Florida really is this mind-boggling population growth and the strain that is putting on our natural resources here in central Florida. I have been reporting recently on skyrocketing housing costs, and of course, that’s an issue across Florida, and the population is just going to continue to grow. I did a story last week on Split Oak, which you may have heard about, and that is a plan to put a toll road through protected land in central Florida. And many people are worried about that because it’s protected land. Many people feel like, well, if we can put a toll road through protected land, no place is really protected. And that’ll just continue to be an issue that population growth. 

TRS – Having grown up in Florida seeing the damage that’s being done, climate change being the problem that it is, how does that shape you personally, your view of the future? Are you a pessimist, an optimist? Can you stay neutral? 

Amy Green – You have to be an optimist, or else what’s the point of anything? But, the thing that I think about is my daughter. We just had the story last week where State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried announced new renewable energy goals for the state. And these goals are a result of a petition filed by Florida youths associated with an organization called Our Children’s Trust. And Our Children’s Trust is an organization that specializes in climate change litigation on behalf of young people. I was talking with the attorney about the experience these kids have as a part of this litigation and how the attorneys talk with them about climate change and climate anxiety and all of those kinds of things. And it’s a very different time to be growing up. And I think about that a lot. Yes. 


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T-Minus 10…9…8…

There are a lot of fascinating beats in journalism. Crime reporters go places most of us never would, looking to find the scoop on a heinous crime. Political reporters will spend thousands of hours following politicians’ every move on campaign trails. Environmental reporters will sift through hundreds of research studies to help us understand the science behind the world we inhabit.

Then there’s Brendan Byrne, the space reporter. Much of his beat includes conversations with scientists, engineers, and astronauts. He can tell you about every type of rocket that launches out of Kennedy Space Center.

Brendan is also the creator of the WMFE podcast Art We There Yet, a space podcast that has grown rapidly on iTunes. We spoke recently for The Reporter’s Studio about how he fell in love with all things outer space and if he would go to Mars if he had the chance.

Brendan Byrne discusses Alexa going into space.

TRS – When did you start reporting on NASA and the space industry? 

Brendan Byrne – The space shuttle program ended in 2011. We really didn’t talk about space for a very long time. And in 2014, there was a special even that happened, and I covered it. That was around the same time Space X was getting big here in central Florida. And soon, other private space companies came in.

TRS – What’s happening with NASA right now since the space shuttle missions ended, and so much of what we keep hearing is about billionaires and their rockets? 

Brendan Byrne – So NASA still has the International Space Station. We’ve got this international collaboration where humans have been in orbit for the past 22 years. Every six months these private companies are launching crews of NASA astronauts up to the space station. We’re seeing them go up there and then return back to Earth every six months. And that’s just the government agencies. We’ve also seen some private citizens go up. Over the summer of last year, we saw the inspiration for a mission for private citizens. It’s lead to many more human beings leave this Earth than we’ve ever seen before in the past ten years, all because of these commercial space companies.

What’s this latest story that there’s going to be an unmanned mission to the moon, but they’re sending in Alexa? 

Brendan Byrne – Yeah. So Alexa is going to the Moon. But, the whole point of going to the Moon is knowing that there will be people coming right afterward. This Alexa mission is going on the next NASA mission to the Moon, Artemus One. That’s launching in the next few months here and will be an uncrewed mission. It’s going to go around the Moon and then come back. And then the next mission after that one or two people will be in the capsule, and they’ll go around the Moon and come back. Eventually, they’ll stop at a space station around the Moon, and then they’ll go down to the Moon’s surface, plant their flag, and do all the things. But to answer your question. In Artemis One, they’ve put Alexa inside the capsule. And they want to see if astronauts are flying in this capsule, if they can talk to this computer, and how will that help them stay connected back here on Earth? And how will that help them feel more connected to Earth when they’re 250,000 miles away? So it’s fascinating to see Alexa and all this stuff heading to the Moon. 

TRS – I want to pull a practical joke and ask Alexa to order a pizza and see if the pizza guy goes, I’m sorry, where’s your address? 

Brendan Byrne –  It’s a locally distributed Alexa. So you can’t say like, hey, Alexa, send me whatever. But you can say, hey, Alexa, turn on the capsule lights, and the lights will turn on. Or you can say, hey, Alexa, how long until we have to do this burn to get us into orbit? And she’ll say, oh, it’ll be 204 seconds. So they’ve definitely catered it towards this particular mission. You can’t order a pizza on the Moon just yet, Luis. 

TRS – Not yet. I know. It’s interesting when you think about it, and you can appreciate this, too; where did we see this before? Oh, yeah. There was a movie where guys were talking to a computer. Hal, do this for me. Hal, do that for me. 

Brendan Byrne – I talk to the folks that have programmed this particular Alexa. And I said, have you all seen that movie? Their response? We promise you. They said, Alexa will not be able to open the pod bay doors. So at least they’re thinking about that. 

TRS – You have a space podcast called Are We There Yet? The Space Exploration Podcast. When you pitched that, I mean, it seems like such a no-brainer. Was it a hard sell? 

Brendan Byrne – I pitched that podcast six years ago, and it was correct when we talked about how there weren’t many space missions happening here. And I had pitched a lot of space stories to my news editor at the time, and she said we don’t have any room in the newscast for these. Why don’t you start your own podcast about all these space stories? And that’s how it started. And. I’m glad she said that. 

Testing the replica of the Space Shuttle toilet, which was on display at the Orlando Science Center.

TRS – In a short period, you have had a lot of success with it. Let’s use the metaphor like a rocket – like a rocket that thing took off, and it’s been doing really well. Congratulations. What have you learned from the audiences about the thirst for this kind of storytelling? 

Brendan Byrne – I’ve learned that everybody is excited about this. This is something that I thought was just something that I was interested in. My news director was like, well, nobody’s really interested in this stuff. So I just go and pitch a podcast. And if there are people who will listen to your podcast, they’ll listen to your podcast. We launched the podcast and it was in Apple’s top ten the first week we sent it out there. I think everybody is super connected to what’s happening in space. Because we’re all really interested in our place in this world. We’re interested in where we are, where we’re going, and where we’ve been. And I think all of those questions can be answered through space exploration. And especially in Florida, there is so much happening in our own backyards. Why wouldn’t you be excited about what’s happening in your own backyard? Floridians just have it in our DNA that we are explorers, especially space explorers. The old folks like you and me are products of the space shuttle generation, and we watched those growing up. I’m sitting here in my home office in Orlando, looking out of my window. My window faces east. I can sit here and watch rockets launch when I’m reporting on other things. And that is not different for a lot of people here. Many of us have these eastward windows so we can see what’s happening in our own backyard and see these things launch. It’s so cool. We’re so lucky. 

When did you fall in love with the idea of space?

A selfie of Brendan looking into the flame trench of Kennedy Space Center’s LC-39B (2017). This is the pad NASA’s next moon rocket SLS will launch from later this year.

Brendan Byrne –  Yeah, it started early for me. In fifth grade, my class won a field trip to a space camp. But I didn’t want to go. My dad wanted to go, and he needed to get his kid to go. So we went and that was 1997. And it was awesome. It was such a great trip. And I learned so much about space because of that. I learned so much about my dad’s passion for it. The following year he died. And so I always kept that with me that he took me to space camp, and that was what he wanted me to do. I didn’t have a chance to talk to him more about that. And we watched Space Shuttle Discovery launch together. And that was a moment that I’ll always keep with me. That’s always been something that was very close. So, in middle school, I decided I was going to be an astronaut. That was, until I got to algebra and realized that wasn’t going to happen. So I ended up taking another path. Eventually, as an adult, I was able to find a way to write about this stuff and talk about it again. And I think the most extraordinary thing that ever happened was the last space shuttle or, the last human mission that launched which was a SpaceX crew Dragon mission. It was on the anniversary of my father’s death. I think he was looking down on me that day. I’m covering this and watching this mission happen in real-time and he was the one that planted that seed. I always think about what would he think about what’s happening right now? I think that he would be completely blown away by the fact that not only are there are rocket launches happening pretty much every week here, but that humans are leaving this planet every six months, which was something that he wanted to make sure that I saw when he took me up to the Kennedy Space Center. I think he’d be entirely impressed by what’s happening. I always think about every story I write and think about what my dad would say. I hope he’s proud of the stories I’m telling. 

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Show Your Work, Always.

I started this podcast with the intent of helping people who are not in journalism or have never met a journalist to better understand what the world of the news media is really about. Because other people, like politicians, are trying to control the narrative, I thought to take it back.

Honestly, this podcast became an effort by me to show you how the sausage is made (sorry to any vegetarians or vegans). I’m not here to say that all reporters are perfect and the news media is not fake. Sadly, some of it is.

Nope, I just want to show you that we’re humans trying our best to seek the truth and then give you all the information you can attain to become a better-informed citizen. I will wholeheartedly agree with you that we haven’t done a great job of that in many ways, but in all fairness, we’ve done a lot of great work that unfortunately gets overlooked because politicians don’t want you to see it. They want you to be angry with us, so they’ll call us names and try and convince you that we’re the villains. Well, let me introduce you to someone trying to prepare young journalists for a future in the business. Lynette Clemetson wants reporters to remember to show your work to regain trust.

Listen to the full interview on the podcast

TRS – Let’s talk about the audience. How do you think over your career that the audience’s needs and opinions have changed?

Lynette Clemetson – I think that in those early days of the web, we made assumptions that things couldn’t be over 600 words and people had concise attention spans, and they wanted things very quickly, and as we see now, people want much deeper substantive content, things that they can spend time with, but they want it more on their terms. They want to listen when they want to listen or watch, and they want to be able to carve out the bites on their own rather than be really driven by what is a traditional clock for broadcast. I do think that all of our consumption habits have changed. In journalism, the business model had changed, and in many cases, news organizations were just scrambling for their survival. We looked at trends and ran toward them in many cases without remembering what are our principles and what is our mission? What are we really bound and committed to doing? And so, I think many news organizations have lost their way. I mean, I think we indeed ran toward whatever shiny penny looked like survival. 

Lynette Clemetson, University of Michigan

TRS – It was around that time when you had every cable channel switched news to commentary. Was that the shiny penny?

Lynette Clemetson – I think that that is what people thought the shiny penny was. It is easier to have some money and just express their thoughts than to send people out in the field to do reporting. I think most reporters get into the business because they are curious about the world, and they are curious about going out and asking people questions and seeing what is happening and reflecting the world back to people in a way that helps them see what is shaping their lives. The situation we are in now has to do with fifteen years of chasing trends that were ultimately abandoned. What journalism is supposed to be serving? If we think about January 6th as a document entry of the failing of the systems in our country. One of those failings is that we allowed local journalism to crumble and disappear. That lets local communities off the hook for being invested and involved in their own systems and structures. It weakens all of our systems and structures. We can blame tech companies for that. But I think journalism failed to make a case for why and how it was necessary for people’s lives. In the past five years, I think journalism has recognized that and has started to reinvest in local news and make a case for what journalists do. But it wasn’t until somebody was out loud calling us the enemy. And people were beating up journalists at press conferences, and news organizations had to station security guards with their reporters; we started becoming very serious about making this case. 

TRS – I found you in a piece in Politico. It was a piece asking, ‘is the media doomed?’ And they talked to 16 or 17 different people about where’s journalism going in the next 15 years? And I remember reading your take, which was a big focus on local. So, in the next 15 years, how do you think this industry will change or is it that you think it has to change to survive? 

Lynette Clemetson – I think it has to change to survive. I think it already is starting to, and I think that there are a lot of awe-inspiring local efforts, people doing intense journalism about things that may never get national attention. I would say this about the New York Times and The Washington Post; they’re both doing outstanding journalism. The L.A. Times is making a fantastic comeback. And we’ve got a few regional papers that are holding on. Still, I think at the community level, at the ground level, thinking about local journalism in a way that is better than it was before, in a way that is more reflective of the diversity of the communities they serve more in a way that’s more focused on accountability and really looking critically at systems. That’s what’s going to get us back, I think, to get us back. I’m careful about saying back because I don’t want to be overly nostalgic about how things were, but I think it would help us get to a place where people can be functioning productive citizens because they’re armed with information. 

Lynette is the director of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship for Journalists

TRS – Big tech companies are putting money into some organizations. But are they part of the solution, or are they part of the problem?

Lynette Clemetson – Newspapers were lucky if the family that owned them stayed out of the way of the editorial and didn’t try to meddle and just supported the reporting. It has always been the case that people who support journalism want some sort of a wall protecting the journalists. Journalism from the interests of the people producing the journalism has always been the case. The tech companies know that they are part of the system to help. And then journalists have to be journalists, and we have to be critical. We have to know that if you take $100000 from Google or Metta to help start or pay for a reporter or two in your local area, you have to enter those agreements to understand what that money does and doesn’t do. Understand where the money’s coming from to protect the integrity of what the money is going toward. There are people in every state that can support a symphony or a public library or a theater or an art museum. We have to make the case that those same people, that some of their money, needs to go to support journalism and. And then I have to think that we have to make the case that reporting costs money. I can tell you what I think about something, but until I go do the reporting and dig and find records and talk to people and verify my facts, which takes time. It’s not something that is best done on the cheap.

TRS – As journalists, what are we doing wrong? Do we need to go on a PR campaign to help people understand what a journalist is? 

Lynette Clemetson – It’s a tricky question. PR campaigns only go so far because people understand that as PR, they understand it in some respects as spin. I think the industry is starting to learn from the fantastic data journalists who have become integral to our newsrooms that it’s that old math assignment; you don’t get total points unless you show your work. And I think we have to show our work and explain to people that this is the story we created. How do we do that? Why do we have to talk to people? I did a story recently that had to do with criminal justice, and I was talking to a family; someone was in jail, and the woman was talking to me about arrests, and I just explained, now the next thing I’m going to do is I’m going to go and look up all the records of the arrests, and I’m going to read the police version of the account of that arrest, and I’m going to compare the two. It doesn’t mean I don’t believe what you’re saying, but I have to look at it from several different angles for the work to be credible. And I think that we can explain to people how we do our work and why we’re doing it that way, to the extent that we can be transparent about when we make mistakes. That will get us some way toward having people’s trust, and again, this is where I think local is where you build that up. Because if there are journalists in a community who are running into the people they’re covering at the grocery store, and at the dry cleaners and at the coffee shop and at the park, then you can have a casual conversation if somebody thinks you did a terrible job on a story. I think it makes the reporting stronger. And it may not change everybody’s mind, but at least people can see that there’s a process to it, and it’s not just people sitting somewhere far away making things up.

TRS – You got to let them into the kitchen, see how everything is made. You’re working with younger journalists, you’re catching them at a certain point in their career, and I wonder what you’re seeing with the younger journalists? 

Lynette Clemetson – I think the future is auspicious. I run the Wallace House Center for Journalists at the University of Michigan. We have two programs, the Night Wallace Fellowships, which work with more accomplished journalists. Typically the people in the fellowship are in their 30s, 40s, and sometimes their 50s. And the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists Awards, excellence in journalism by journalists under thirty-five. I tend to see journalists as sort of in those early years of their career and at the stage where they’ve had some significant accomplishments and are trying to figure out what they’re going to do next. But I’m also on a university campus where I see students interested in journalism. And I think every year. I see so much good journalism. And journalists armed with tools that I could have never dreamed of knowing how to use when I was sitting with a razor blade and tape in my hand trying to put people’s sentences together. They understand; again, I think fundamentally kind of understand this show the work thing that you can write a paragraph. One thing in American public education that I feel I see reflected in journalism now is the concept that people absorb information in various ways. There are different kinds of learners. And by the same token, there are different ways to tell a story. When I was working with teams at NPR and with multiplatform form teams, I would say, let’s start with the story and then talk about the best platform and way to do that story. When I think in the early days of the Web, whatever was your primary medium, you sort of assumed, OK, we’re going to do a three and a half minute radio story, and then you toss that over some invisible fence to the digital people, and they do their digital thing with it. And then they toss it over to the social people, and they do their social thing. And that’s not really the best way to approach storytelling. The way you communicate a story on social or, on a web page, or with numbers or graphics needs to be organic and original to that storytelling platform. And I see the young journalists interested in telling stories, really thinking about the information and who they’re trying to reach and what might be the best way to reach them. And that gives me actually a lot of hope and. And I think that we can do PR campaigns, but I think in a very old-fashioned way, we protect journalism by doing more journalism. And showing people how we do it, why we do it, and why it’s essential to involve them in the process. And realizing that there’s a whole country to cover and that it can’t just be Washington and New York and a little bit of Florida and a little bit of California and Texas. Driving what people should do or think or feel or how they should act in the rest of the country.

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The Reporter Who Started A Career During Spring Break

There’s a romanticized notion of the roving reporter traversing the globe seeking that one story that turns into a Pulitzer-winning epic or at least a novel. I often think of one of my favorite writers, Ernest Hemingway, who started his life as a reporter. Heck, throw another of my favorites in there, Mark Twain.

This reporter lives out of a bag of clothes, a typewriter (because that’s more romantic an idea), and possibly a camera. That’s it. Nothing more.

I met such a person years ago. While working at WGCU as the host of a program called Gulf Coast Live, someone told me about a student at the college, FGCU, who had a great spring break. I met Alex Pena a few weeks later, and I knew he had to be on the show.

When Alex was a junior, he decided to take his Spring Break in Juarez, Mexico. Now, understand this was the late 2000s, and Juarez, at the time, was considered one of the most dangerous cities on the planet. Alex wanted to go on a reporting mission, and mind you, he wasn’t working for any news organization. He was a freelancer. That launched him into a decade-long journey through places like Kenya, Sudan, Afghanistan, Cuba, and Haiti, just to name some of the many places he’s reported from.

We spoke in The Reporter’s Studio to get an inside look at the life of a war-correspondent and world-traveling reporter.

Here’s a portion of our conversation. Listen to the full interview on the podcast.

Alex Pena – It’s interesting to reflect on that now because perhaps some people would have done that story and moved on. I haven’t been back to that city every year since, probably multiple times. Some of my best friends still live in that city. I have taught classes back in that same city, so I almost don’t want to reflect on what I said at that time because my friends have a kick over probably how terribly I misinterpreted the story and situation at the time and have such a better understanding of it now. But the idea was it had essentially become the most dangerous city in the world at the time. It dealt with eight to 10 murders a day for over a year. So I remember thinking, I’ve got a camera, I’ll go. I reached out to some local students, and these are the ones I ended up becoming friends with. So I documented it. We sort of rode along with some police. We went to some crime scenes, ended up selling the footage to CNN at the time, and sort of spiraled from there in terms of like talking to you and where it was published. That still is the most dangerous and violent time in the city’s history to date, sort of how the city got there. It’s been really fascinating. So it sort of was this like climax of me being ready to get out into the world and what was happening there. And it all sort of unraveled and happened at once. But it’s a story that I live with. 

TRS –  I remember you telling me that at one point you were meeting with somebody at a restaurant, and you had missed – like by a day – a shooting at that restaurant. 

Alex Pena – Yeah. At this point, that’s happened multiple times in my trips back there. Not to say that it’s no longer violent. It’s just not as violent as it used to be. But, yeah, that was a common occurrence, especially what would happen more often is that you would end up in a neighborhood, that there was a shooting, and you would leave or get there earlier before the police, and there would be another shooting. Or sometimes, you would hear the gunfire go off. I think that specific incident was a shooting in a nightclub in that area. I mean, it’s sort of like you don’t see the violence until you do. And sort of as your time goes on in these dangerous areas, you go, Oh, you know, that was five hours ago, that was two days ago. Had I been there six hours earlier, three hours later? And you sort of try not to think about all those things, but that’s sort of daily life for people who live under these circumstances. 

TRS – When you finished school, where did you go? 

Alex Pena – Right after I graduated, I freelanced in Nairobi, Kenya, for several organizations, mainly for Voice of America news, television, and radio. I continued trying to build on what I had experienced in Juarez, Mexico, and using some of those contacts. With just a camera and a backpack, I learned that you can do a lot. You didn’t need all the gear, crews, and technology that I had thought you might need to do the work. And so I just sort of went for it. 

TRS – How did you end up in Nairobi? 

Alex Pena – One-way ticket. I just found it fascinating at the time. It was the height of the war on terror, which defined my generation in terms of our international news and our consumption of what was happening globally. So I was going to go straight to Iraq or Afghanistan, where all of the action was happening. But there was this younger brother group to Al Qaeda operating out of Somalia, who actually I learned through one of my favorite rappers. His name was K’naan. He was a Somali refugee who lived in Kenya and made his way to the United States and became sort of like an underground hip hop artist where I started learning about what was happening in East Africa. So my thought process was, I can’t just sort of roll into Kabul and embed myself with the military, but I can move myself to Nairobi, Kenya, and get on to the leading edge of what was going to happen, where the war on terror was going to go, and eventually, it did. Our war sort of shifted to this drone warfare, technological warfare that was playing out across Yemen and East Africa at the time, as opposed to the Middle East and Central Asia. So that was my thought try and go there, see what I can pull off. I lived there for six, seven months, embedded myself in Somalia, made my way to South Sudan and was selling radio and T.V., really anything. I was a yes man, but it worked out and I just sort of made my way around from there. 

TRS – In all of these places you’ve been in and all the travels you’ve had, how often did you find yourself in a situation where you thought, I don’t want to be here, or this is too dangerous, or maybe you didn’t? 

Alex Pena – I feel like we journalists suffer from this a lot, which is we sort of constantly comparing ourselves to what other journalists are doing or what other journalists are uncovering. I would find myself, let’s say, living in Nairobi, Kenya, covering a water crisis. But the next journalist over was under fire in southern Somalia. And so, there was always this sort of degree of separation from what the danger level could be. And I never felt like I was this war correspondent. In a sense, I just felt like I was trying to make my way through these sort of like uniquely challenging places and then in retrospect going, yeah, actually, I had been under fire, or I had dealt with these dangerous people. So it’s hard to process; was it ever too dangerous? Was it not too dangerous? Probably. But we are also very mission-driven, mission-oriented people, and that sort of always comes in retrospect. But it’s one of those things that you sort of decide early on, are you willing to pay the ultimate price for this job? And if you are, that becomes a part of it. A well-known journalist war correspondent who I started following said that there were three phases that war correspondents go through, and the first one was like the Superman phase, where it’s like I can do anything, and I’ll never be harmed. And then the second one was, I can do most things, maybe I’ll be harmed. And then the third one was, something will happen to me if I stay here any longer. I think probably throughout the last 10 years, I’ve been through all of those phases now, which has brought an onset and change in my career and how I want to sort of do things. But maybe you need those different phases to get things done because if you approach everything very objectively, it’s actually maybe this is not worth it for me to be here right now, but we need people to do that, right? 

TRS – You lived with your backpack and gear, traveling around and embedding yourself in all kinds of locations. Obviously, there’s a romantic version of this story, but I mean, what was life like for you those five years? 

Alex Pena – There’s is no doubt that there was absolutely a romanticized version of what war correspondent life would be like, or even just foreign correspondents and journalism in general, whether it’s abroad or domestic, that goes away very quickly. The plane touches down in the new sites and the smells and the new foods, and then it’s like, well, where am I going to get my next paycheck? Where am I going to sleep tonight? Suddenly, this idea of traversing the globe with your backpack and a camera and meeting fascinating people becomes a job. You have to figure out how to do it. When I moved to Kenya, I moved into a Kenyan Boys Youth Hostel in a slum in Nairobi because it was eight dollars a night to stay there, and they gave you free breakfast and tea. So it was only up to me to eat dinner. So little tricks like that. And that’s where my saving grace if you embedded with any sort of military, whether it was Kenyan U.S. military eventually, I ended up doing 13 months with the U.S. military in Afghanistan, free housing, free food. That was a freelancer’s dream, really. I loved what I was doing. I was happy, but it was very much a struggle. 

TRS. – What’s the scariest moment you had? 

Alex Pena – Up until recently, I was embedded with CBS correspondent Manuel Bojorquez, and we were crossing into the Darien Gap, which is run by the cartel del Golfo in Colombia, and they’re essentially trafficking all of the Haitian migrants from Colombia to Panama through the jungle. And it sounds so silly, but we had a terrifying moment when the boat we were on in the middle ocean started taking on water. And I remember thinking out of all of the places and things – a boat in Colombia – I would not have guessed that. Luckily, we had two engines, and we were able to sort of, our guy, I don’t know what he was doing. I’m a boater for life, and he had put some plastic bags in rubber bands into that engine. I don’t know how he made it work, but he did, and we kept going, and we just sort of looked at each other like, man, you know, if you would’ve told us how we’d go, we wouldn’t have guessed this situation. So, people think the war and the bullets and the bombs, yes, absolutely, but it’s not always that. It’s maybe a car ride somewhere, a crazy taxi driver, it can be anything like that. I mean, that’s not to downplay the dangers that we face while embedded in Afghanistan. There are times when shelling was a big issue. Insider attacks. Sometimes the fear of what’s your most dangerous moment is worse than actually being in one. I was there in 2013-to-2014 when the Afghan soldiers were turning on the U.S. soldiers on their bases. And you just didn’t know who to trust, which was so sad because these were the people they were arming and training to secure the country. You know, that was really scary. 

TRS – Is there a moment or person you were talking to that you found most fascinating? 

Alex Pena – I think I cried interviewing a young girl crossing the border in the Rio Grande, like three or four months ago. I think people want to hear; that I spoke with this drug cartel. I’ve interviewed sicarios, and I’ve interviewed militants and all that. It’s almost less fascinating to me than just the raw human emotion of somebody that wouldn’t have had a voice. There are these moments where I feel like if I wasn’t here, nobody would hear what these people have to say, and that is so powerful to me. Those are like, they’re really moving interviews that I really live for. If I can secure an interview with the president, great, but I’m not the only one who can do that. But when you find yourself in these places where you’re pretty confident that this person’s story would have been told had you not been there. I think that, to me, is journalism, right? That’s why we do it. 

TRS – You see how journalists are treated here, in the U.S. What are journalists treated like beyond our borders? 

Alex Pena – Unfortunately, you don’t have to go far to find the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, which is Mexico, quite literally right across the border. I think about it almost every day because I still have friends that operate in and cover scary stories. There is a level of privilege for Americans and foreign journalists operating in these locally dangerous countries, say Somalia or Afghanistan. There is a level of geopolitics, a sort of spear of coverage that you have that people don’t want to involve themself in. That’s not to say that American journalists, let’s say in Mexico, are not in danger, but we are far safer than local journalists ever will be. I’ve experienced it myself where people want to go with me on stories if they’re local because they think it gives them extra protection. Now, of course, American journalists have been killed across the globe, but it pales in comparison to the number of local journalists who are jailed, killed, and kidnapped. It is deplorable, and unfortunately, that number is going up across the globe. 

TRS – What do you think about what you’re seeing these last few years here? 

Alex Pena – I never really worried about my safety as a journalist in the United States; that was never an issue. Over the past four or five years, CBS has hired security for us in specific assignments domestically. Considering the political violence that we’ve seen, we have been arrested, and we still get attacked for the protesting side on both sides of that aisle. The level of respect for journalism and people will come up with their own conclusions of where that came from. Definitely has deteriorated, and that to me is just like a sentient feeling that I’ve had over the last few years where I felt like we were very respected in the field and people wanted to talk to us. To now, that level of disrespect has actually become violent at times. 

TRS – You’re working on documentaries. And that’s a massive shift. You’re working on these huge projects that take time. Why the shift? Why did you want to do that? 

Alex Pena – It’s been roughly a little over a decade in the daily news. And I’m sure I will miss that rush. I mean, that feeling of watching that sort of headline drop and then you go, I’m going, or who am I going to call next? That’s a really vivid way to live life. It’s exhilarating. But after sort of reflecting back on the last years in journalism, I sort of wanted to find what’s a way to dive deeper into certain narratives. They make this joke about journalists. We can talk a bit about a lot of things. And that’s probably very true. So perhaps as I enter this new phase of my life, I’d like to become more hyper-focused on one thing or choose one issue and take a deeper dove and help people really understand it. I absolutely understand the nuances of television and what I work for, and how much information we can give in a one-minute and 30-second television piece. I’ve always felt television is very important to show people what’s happening, but it doesn’t necessarily always do the best job in helping people understand why or contextualize what’s happening. So me moving into documentaries, the T.V. version of context, right, is to take an issue that perhaps I’ve been working on for the last 10 years but only talked a bit of a lot of times and really bring the viewer into those moments and help them sort of understanding. It’s a different beast. I’ve been seeing these headlines and breaking news come across, and my first reaction is to grab the bag. And I’m like, wait, no, I can’t go. I’m working on something else that’s also important. So that part’s been sort of complicated, but I’m happy to try it. CBS is investing a lot right now in streaming and documentary. It’s undoubtedly where the future of television is going. So, a part of it is me trying to get involved in that as well. And we’ll see. I mean, I think journalism is reinventing itself right now, and this is my sort of trying to be a part of it. 

TRS – Do you think you’re going to go back to that life? That wandering life? Or is that done? 

Alex Pena – It’s not done. I don’t know that that ever goes away. Again, as you have known it for longer than I have, journalism is a lifestyle. There are a lot of other ways to make a lot more money. That’s for sure. And if that was the case, we probably both be doing that. But once you’re in this? It’s for life. 

TRS – What do you think people get wrong about what we do? And is that on us to try to help them understand it? 

Alex Pena – If they do not understand it, perhaps it is on us. I’m absolutely a believer that if we’ve lost the faith of the American public, then it’s perhaps something we’re not doing right. What I think is lost, and people don’t understand, is that we are trained to do what we do. For the most part, most of us. Most of us wanted to be journalists, a trade, and we studied how to do it properly. We learned the correct methods, and we implemented them. And so I feel like what gets lost in this really politically divisive world is, let’s say, in the blue and white world, take a carpenter, for example, who may like blue and squares, but he’s a trained carpenter, and if he has to make a red circular table, he absolutely can. Nothing would stop him from or make him do it inaccurately. And I feel like because people have all of these assumptions of us as journalists and where we come from and what we do in our backgrounds -you and I are both Latino journalists – there is no doubt that when we step into a room, people make assumptions about who we are and where we come from and what we believe. But we’re journalists at the end of the day, so we have learned to approach stories as unbiasedly as possible. We have learned how to craft stories and tell voices to people we agree with and disagree with; it makes no difference to me whether I agree with you. And I think that’s been lost in the really politically divisive world, the social media world, where people feel like they’re getting raw news from live feeds on Twitter and live feeds on Facebook. But those people have a

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Video, Another Way To Tell A Story.

There are three ways to consume the news and many platforms to choose from. We either watch, listen to, or read the news. For decades the only way we gathered information about what was happening in our communities, states, country, and planet was either the newspaper, radio news, or television news.

Please forgive me for reminiscing here, but I remember the days when it was so much simpler (not necessarily better). We had one to two newspapers. Magazines were something you consumed on the weekends as an extra. There was radio news that filled the drive time. It finished off by the five or seven o’clock news and again at eleven. That was it, and the best part was that we consumed some news every day but never all day.

OK, let me get back into the modern world and stop falling into the old man’s daydream. Today, the news is coming at us from everywhere. But, they still come in three forms for now. We either watch, listen, or read the news, and that’s it.

I have spent most of my career in radio because I love the medium’s intimacy. Still, I will never say that one is better than another because I consume news in all forms. Video is necessary. That’s why I wanted to talk to someone who knows how to tell a story on television. Let me introduce you to Sandra Gonzalez.

Sandra Gonzalez

What was it about television that was a draw for you? 

Sandra Gonzalez: I think it’s just the power of the images. I miss being a radio journalist and being able to draw a picture in people’s minds. I could describe the defendant walking into the courtroom wearing his orange prison jumpsuit, walking slowly in shackles. You can describe the beautiful sunset coming up over the city landscape. You can hear the birds chirping. Television has a very important place in journalism. I think the written word, the television images and radio and podcasting are all hugely important. But I wanted to tell those stories, and while you can hear someone’s tears, you can hear someone’s anger when you’re listening to the radio in your car. There’s also something about the silence, the pauses for seeing the teardrop coming down the face just a different medium that I really wanted to explore.

How do people respond to you when you’re out in the field, and maybe you’re wearing your press badge? How do people respond to you and how do you handle that? 

Sandra Gonzalez: Think about it. They’re on their worst day or their best day. They don’t know us. They don’t think of us as humans. And there’s a lot of anger. Like after a murder or something in a neighborhood, I used to cover a lot of crime, especially in New Orleans. That anger has to be directed. And you come over there and you disrupt the environment just by your presence. You come in, you’re dressed nicely; you’re carrying all this electronic equipment. You can put yourself in some precarious situations, and then all of a sudden, the family who just lost a loved one is all of a sudden really mad at you. In the last decade, we’ve become some sort of a scapegoat for something. It’s the media’s fault. And then because they probably have never met anybody who works in the communications industry of any sort, all of a sudden it’s your fault. Other times you’re like treated like royalty. They’re so happy that you’re there to tell the story and they roll out the red carpet and make a big deal about it and they’ll say, I just love you so much from your reports. Can I get your autograph and you’re happy to do it for a nine-year-old girl who’s got dark hair and brown skin. You got to have thick skin and a compassionate heart; this is hard work. It’s hard mentally and emotionally, because you become like this cup, right, and they pour all their pain or celebration or concern, they’re pouring it all into you. And no one even addressed that until, like maybe the last decade that, you know, maybe we need to have to deal with some of this stuff. 

What could we be doing better as journalists to help people understand who we are and what we do? Is there something we’re not doing right in getting the message across? 

Sandra Gonzalez: A couple of things come to mind. First of all, we need to diversify our newsrooms. We need to be bringing in a different, more rich culture of people with different perspectives. To tell stories that need to be told, we can’t be telling the same old, same old, we can’t be reaching the same experts. We need to do a better job of that. There are a lot of things going on in the world that is never covered with a lot of invisible communities that we need to make visible. We as journalists, we as decision-makers, as newsroom leaders need to start showing other perspectives. Things are not black and white or always two-sided. Start showing things in shades of gray. There may not be a solution. We need to let people know we’re so hugely important. Think about this, how did we find out about some of the most historic events in the world (in modern times)? Because of journalists. How do we know that a hurricane is coming? Did we find that on a blog? No. A news media company was on top of it with extremely credible journalists and meteorologists. Newsrooms are crucial during crises. How do we find out about missing children? We’re there for them during elections. Where do they turn to get election results? Who’s going to be in the courtrooms? Are they going to spend hours doing it? No, they depend on us. We’re vital. We’re a vital, thriving industry, and with all the things going on in the world and with all this technology.

Are we doing a better job being diverse? Have we gotten better? I’d like to think we’re making strides somehow, right or not? 

Sandra Gonzalez: I see it. We could do a better job. What I’d like to see is a different change and more changes at the managerial level. We have a lot of boots on the ground. We have a lot of diverse people on the front lines doing hardcore journalism. Good leaders don’t even need a title. If you’re a go-to person, you’re a leader. So I hope we see some of those changes, and I’m always pushing to bring in fresh blood, newer generations because there’s so much going on in the world and there’s so much corruption and there’s so much being not told to us that we need some good journalists. We really do. We got to bring them in and we got to keep them. They’re losing hope and getting out of the industry within five years. They’re not lasting as long as we need them.

This is a production from City of Dreamz Media Inc.


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