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Home > Generation J > Wish I'd Known Then...

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Lesson No. 4
It’s About Your Audience, Stupid!

Ed Williams writes:


I got into this business to write, to express myself. All this window dressing our copy desk is ga-ga over, who cares? What are we, a comic book?

Ed Williams
Ed Williams
I kept photographers and artists at a distance. Every fever chart, blurb and photo they added meant the ham-handed copy desk was cutting my story — usually from the bottom!

A few years later, when I got the chance to work on larger enterprise pieces and weekenders, I'd have a photographer assigned to my project. Right off, I'd see the photographer was seeing things I wasn't seeing. So I started asking her: What am I missing? What struck you about that scene, about that interview?

I also noticed that artists could take large blocks of dry copy out of my story and transform it into a visual element that very effectively captured what I was trying to say. And my story was better for it.

I wish someone had reminded me: We're journalists, not just "writers,” or “broadcasters," and journalists use all the tools at their command if they're working for their audience.


My thoughts:

I'm about to share with you one of the dumber moments in my career — and it has a lot to do with the issue Ed has raised.

It was my rookie year out in the field for the News & Record. I was heading out of town for the weekend when I noticed a highway patrol officer make this incredibly fast U-turn through a grassy median in front of me. He shot down the highway, and all of a sudden four more cars, their lights flashing, appeared out of nowhere. It was a real blue-light special.

I decided to follow them, so I, too, whipped around and went to the scene: A rural road surrounded by woods on one side and a huge field dotted by a few small houses on the other.

Troopers were everywhere — and so were dogs. Turns out someone living in one of those houses watched an officer chase a man across the field and into some woods. (Sorry — can't remember why the guy was the subject of a chase ...) The person heard gunfire and assumed the officer had been shot, so he called 911. (There's nothing like a call concerning an “officer down”to send the troops running ...)

I got there about the same time as everyone else — and so did the newspaper's photographer. He went in one direction; I headed in the other. I asked questions, and so did he. We came to very different conclusions, and I'm ashamed to say I scoffed at his the night this story broke.

Here's what we found:

Cops told me the suspect fired at the officer and must have ditched his weapon somewhere in the woods. They were looking high and low for it, they said. When I saw the guy "escorted" out of the woods only a few minutes later, he was wearing no shirt or shoes. I couldn't see a gun on him — so I assumed they were right. In fact, I bit their line hard.

The photographer, on the other hand, took photos of the houses, the field, the woods, the cars, the people — and, in the process, he talked with neighbors who swore they heard the gunfire.

But get this: They thought it came from the officer. The officer who got impatient because this man wearing no shirt and shoes was running from him into some woods. The officer who wanted to scare this man by firing a shot or two in the air. The officer who one neighbor said even appeared at one point to be aiming at the man. When both disappeared into the woods, neighbors feared for both men's lives and wasted no time in calling for help.

I was dumbfounded that I had missed all that — but only after I had written the breaking story. I included none of those details, preferring to play it straight because I didn't trust the photographer and didn't think I needed to talk to all those neighbors. (I had, after all, talked with all the "official" sources, right?!) And besides, I reasoned, that photographer was just some chump with a camera, not a trained, seasoned "reporter" like me.

I learned that night that "official sources" will look you straight in the face and lie their brains out. When he emerged from the woods, I asked the officer who fired the shots three times: “Did you fire your gun?” Each time, he said, "No." (Told me the neighbors must have been hearing things. Said it was possible the man he was chasing might have had a weapon and had fired at him instead. "They're still looking for it," he said.)

I kept my eye on the story — but it was months later that I finally cultivated a source who broke the code of silence and told me I'd been duped that night. A ballistics test later revealed that the officer had fired his weapon. He was very quietly suspended — and I thought at the time that he was simply on vacation.

The lesson learned?

"I wish someone had reminded me: we're journalists, not just “writers," and journalists use all the tools at their command if they're working for their audience.

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