In my years as a reporter, I’ve covered my share of grim events. Homicides. Deportations. The separation of families. The slaying of children. Police corruption cases. Police killings. The list goes on.
The stories are almost always difficult to report. But throughout my career, I’ve found that having empathy for the people I write about and wanting to hear what they have to say, whatever it may be, makes a difference when I want to get closer to a story’s truth.
Last year, I wrote about a family of eight living in a decrepit two-bedroom apartment in Salinas, Calif. The family lived with a man who was not related to them and who lived in an illegally converted laundry room. The apartment had no smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. There was mold in the bathroom and, according to city code, there were too many people living in the apartment. The mother was undocumented, something the landlord actively used as ammunition to not fix the building’s problems. “If you don’t like it, get out,” the mother told me the landlord would say. “You’re not going to find another place without papers.”
To get access to this family, who already feared deportation, I had to earn their trust. Another issues was, why would a family, with children in their teens, voluntarily share their poor living conditions with a stranger? A stranger who would write about it in detail and put the story on the front page of a newspaper?
I found that by treating them candidly, giving them a little piece of me just as they gave me a chunk of themselves, helped immensely.
When the story line is grim, I strive to treat the people I interview with respect and to never forget to truly listen instead of just bombarding them with questions. After all, they are not just subjects for a story. They are people talking with a person.
I write my best stories when I take the time to get to know people. Maybe this means skipping time at the gym, getting home a bit later or spending less time with friends and family. When in the storytelling business, I’ve learned, dedication, listening and caring are everything.
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