More than 30 years ago I became a volunteer photographer with a weekly newspaper in Linden, Ala.
Since then, I have covered every beat at a newspaper except for sports. Reporting, like any other occupation, has much more behind-the-scenes work than people realize.
In 1997, I got my first writing award, third place for Governmental News Writing from the Florida Press Club. The stories weren’t earth shattering, but they did shine a light on abuse by the Panama City Beach City Council. The actual writing was approximately eight hours for each story. The research took two weeks on one and almost a month on the second. It’s what we used to call “doing the legwork.”
Back then, there was no internet. Legwork meant going to the library and the police station and the courthouse. If I needed to find someone, I checked the phone book or property records or marriage licenses or divorce filings. I found the family of a murder victim through a parking ticket the victim got the day before he was killed. And of course, there were the interviews, some with people who really hated me.
If I spent too much time at my desk, my editor started to wonder if I was really working.
Legwork was drilled into my brain by every editor I worked for. And, when I became an editor, it became my mantra as well. When Woodward and Bernstein were blowing up Watergate, the editors of the New York Times got tired of being beat. They told their reporters to “GOYAKOD.”
“Get Off Your A—, and Knock On Doors.” It’s what you have to do to get a story right.
A journalist does the legwork because readers deserve the truth, because publishing rumor and innuendo is cheap and lazy and vile and mean and people don’t deserve that regardless of what they’re accused. The reporter may have to write a difficult, distasteful story, but it better be true and it better be documented.
I thought the internet would be a boon to reporters. And, in many ways it was. I suddenly had a world of information at my fingertips, and cat videos. Paper records? I left them behind with my Walkman. But, of course, there’s a downside.
We humans have the annoying tendency to jump to the worst possible conclusion. And nowhere is that more evident than on social media. People who have never done any serious writing in their lives have a megaphone previously unheard of. All it takes is a cell phone, an Internet connection and a Facebook account. Block anyone you disagree with and you have your own echo chamber, the perfect breeding ground for a political base.
The difference between the journalist and the social media warrior has been illustrated right here in Durant.
I’ve been covering City Manager Tim Rundel’s resignation. I have accurately reported the city council’s refusal to explain why Rundel needed to resign right now. I haven’t assigned motives or made accusations that aren’t based in fact.
In social media land, there have been remarks from both sides about people getting caught with their hands in cookie jars, or how the council is prohibited by law from discussing personnel matters. They’ve complained about the newspaper coverage but surprisingly, few have actually read the paper. Even fewer have expressed any desire to read the story. It’s easier to spout uninformed opinion and complain about bias without addressing the facts of the story. The council, by its silence, enables this behavior.
So, perhaps the social media warriors who doubt my integrity over a story I wrote can be convinced by a story I didn’t write.
The day after the new council was sworn in, I got tips about the mayor and new councilmembers having breakfast together. That would be a quorum of the council meeting in a public place without giving the legally required notice. That would definitely be a story.
If I lived in social media land, I would immediately pound that out for my Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Of course, I would want to sound like I had some special insight. So, I would write something like, “Why is the mayor and council eating eggs and biscuits and gravy in public when they aren’t allowed to talk about city stuff outside city hall? SMH #thereallcrooks”
Fortunately, I don’t live in social media land. Ask my wife, I live at the newspaper. So, I decided to GOYAKOD.
First, I asked the tipsters, “Did you see this?” None of them did. That’s a red flag.
So, I would have to ask the politicians. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Two of them have made no secret of the fact that they don’t like me. Calling them would antagonize them, especially if the story wasn’t true. That would only make it more difficult to reach out to them in the future. I didn’t see the point in doing that if there was no need.
Of the other two, one is an old acquaintance that I knew would be honest. The other, I don’t know as well, but he has always been cordial and I had no reason to believe there would be a problem.
In separate interviews, each man denied being at any such meeting. Neither man was defensive or angry. They simply answered my questions, we exchanged some pleasantries, then ended our conversations. After those interviews, I knew there was no story. The meeting simply didn’t happen. And even if it did, I had no evidence or proof so there was no point in devoting any more effort to it.
It may not have the hair-raising excitement of social media, and a story not reported won’t get me any Twitter followers, but it’s how journalism is done.
I’m a journalist; social media warriors are not.