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Home > Publications > Quill > Diverse sources make for best stories


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Friday, February 2, 2007
Diverse sources make for best stories

Commentary by Jon Marshall

I like writing about black Christian women. Since I’m a white Jewish guy, this habit puzzled me until I realized that I simply enjoy learning about what’s unfamiliar.

This instinct, I think, leads to the kind of stories that are exciting to report. That’s why I advise students to examine who they are — their age, religion, gender, race, health, economic status, educational level, sexual orientation and geographic home — and then look for sources with different backgrounds. Lately, I’ve seen some great work by reporters who have done that to enrich their stories:

Working poor

The Long Beach Press-Telegram ran a terrific series this fall by reporters Greg Mellen, Felix Sanchez and Kevin Butler, and photographer Stephen Carr, that looked at the plight of people who work one or more jobs and still can’t make ends meet. Part of what impressed me about “The Working Poor: Living on the Edge” was the wide range of people they interviewed, including a single mom with an asthmatic daughter, an elderly Cambodian father and a security guard working two part-time jobs while struggling with multiple illnesses.

Ninth-graders

Reporter Ron Matus and photographer Lara Cerri of the St. Petersburg Times brilliantly brought ninth grade to life with “Ninth or Never.” Matus and Cerri profiled four diverse students as they navigated the tumult of their home lives and the increasing demands of a year that some educators consider the toughest.

They introduced us to Ronnie (who already attends Alcoholics Anonymous), Marquetta (who alternates between sweetness and rage), Alex (an ace flute player and karate kicker) and John (who is torn between his girlfriend and the church friends who call her a “whore”).

Outsiders

What happens when Hispanic immigrants settle into a community known more for its Southern charm than its diversity? The Roanoke Times explored this question with its ambitious “Land of Opportunity” series.

Photographer Josh Meltzer and writers Beth Macy and Evelio Contreras created stories about employers learning Spanish to communicate with their immigrant workers, a mother desperately praying for the life of a son who disappeared along the Texas-Mexico border, and an immigrant man who has struggled to develop a chain of restaurants. The Times packaged these stories well with lively slide shows and a reader’s forum featuring heated debates.

Mentally ill

James M. O’Neill of The Dallas Morning News broke through the stigmas, misunderstandings and denials surrounding mental illness with the powerful “Rosie’s Journey.” To paint his nuanced portrait of Rosie Sims, a schizophrenic mother of three who died in jail, O’Neill talked with family members, hospital workers, jail officials and other people she encountered during her last days. He also reviewed medical records, court files and other documents detailing her turbulent life.

Through Sims’ story, McNeill showed us the human cost of living in a state that ranks 49th in per-capita spending on mental illness and a county — Dallas — that warehouses the mentally ill in jail. He also included valuable information about schizophrenia, a disease that has been diagnosed in 2.4 million Americans.

Overweight

We’ve all read about the alarming rise in childhood obesity, but what’s it like being one of the kids who struggles daily with dangerous weight? In “The Weight,” Sacramento Bee photographer Manny Crisostomo put us in the shoes of three teens desperately trying to shed excess pounds at a place they call the “fat school.”

Crisostomo made more than 70 visits to the school and to the students’ homes around the country to gain a close look at their daily victories and defeats in their battle against obesity. Crisostomo, who won a Pulitzer Prize while with the Detroit Free Press, not only took fantastic photos, he also wrote the story beautifully.


To read these and other News Gems, visit http://www.spj.org/blog/blogs/newsgems/

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