Beginning a two-day reporting assignment in Flint, Michigan, I was in a Über rushing to a town hall meeting scheduled that evening, and on the phone with a wary resident.
“Who are you? Why are you here? What information do you want to know? And what are you going to do with it?” Sarah Bailey, a local church elder, asked me pointedly.
Caught off guard, my mind raced to figure out how to convince her that I wasn’t the enemy.
“Are you working for the Senate or the House committee on investigation?” she asked.
“Oh! No,” I responded, relieved to get a word in for myself. She peppered me with more questions. As I re-explained my project, she cut me off again.
“Can I just be honest with you?” Bailey asked.
“Yes, of course.”
“No one in Flint right now really wants to trust other people coming in from outside of Flint wanting to know anything until we find out who you are, why you are here, and what it is that you want to know and what it is that you’re going to do with what we tell you,” she said loudly. “We have a community here. We’re not just people in a petri dish for people to come in, grab information from us and then they’re gone.”
I had been waiting for such a response. Wasn’t I just another invader, descending on this town to gather what I could before returning to my easy, privileged life in the Chicago suburbs? Why would residents talk to someone who didn’t even know Flint existed before it was a national headline? What is a journalist without trust on her side? I knew the answer to that one: nothing.
I talked on the phone with Bailey for nearly an hour. After she shared her frustrations, I explained who I was, why I was there and what I wanted to know. She told me what her community had gone through. When we got cut off, she picked up right where she left off. I asked if anyone from the church would speak to me in person the next day. Trust was on the line.
I interviewed seven residents and public officials in Flint. Sometimes, that meant sitting for hours with someone, trying to process the crisis together. They welcomed me into their offices, their homes, their places of worship, their lives. I promised to not hijack their stories like they said others had. We exchanged contact information. Trust was built and maintained with care.
Many people went out of their way to help me. The hotel shuttle driver took me downtown each morning. A random woman walked with me two blocks to help me find a coffee shop. Another Uber driver gave me his cell number after I said it was hard to find cars sometimes. One source drove me to the closest restaurant – and made sure I texted her how the food was.
A 4-year-old boy whose life I was in for a total of 2.5 hours told me he loved me, while his five siblings ran to gather all the toys they wanted to show me. Meanwhile, their parents paused their busy lives to share with me the harsh reality of Flint’s situation, and the pain of knowing that the government had poisoned their children and fundamentally changed their futures. Their mom didn’t have time to cook that night, so dinner was clementines and microwaved hot dogs.
The most powerful thing I took from this reporting trip is that Flint has a heart of gold. For as many empty houses and challenges this community faces, there are as many strong, kind people. The city has limited funding, but they work to improve with what they have. As they drink, bathe, cook and clean from bottled water, they speak of good water as being a privilege. They face social challenges and neglect, but are unwilling to place blame indiscriminately.
What is happening in Flint is a disaster. The people are rightfully angry. Yet, their strength is humbling. This city had one of the nation’s worst public health and humanitarian crises of the century thrust upon it. Still, it made a nosy little outsider like me feel at home.
As Bailey ended her account, she paused to backtrack. She wanted me to know that all the pain she had told me about did not mean her community was down for the count.
“This is a resilient community,” she said. “And we will rise up.”
One of the 23 curse words running through my head escapes its poorly-constructed corral and gallops to my mouth and past my lips.
This year, I’ve been interning for the Marquette College of Communication’s O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism. The first half of the internship was research-heavy, as our team of four interns and O’Brien Fellow Miranda Spivack (a freelance journalist who formerly reported and edited for the Washington Post) combed through every open records and open meetings law in the country. With that done, we’re starting to report.
When I first heard about the government poisoning its citizens in Flint, I couldn’t believe something like it could be happening in America. How does a system that involves so many organizations and has so many safeguards fail to protect those in its care?
I knew my story’s angle could only attempt to answer one facet of this question, but as a (student) journalist, I felt it was my duty to try. So I researched, I pitched, I called big people who represented even bigger ideas. You know, the people who were profiled by the New York Times. The players in a national scandal. I waited and I called again.
Four exams and two papers later, I have made it through midterms week and can finally think only about Flint. I fly out tomorrow (better late than never, or so I tell myself). I survived half the semester and I’m sitting at home afraid to fall asleep for fear that I’ll miss my 8:30 a.m. flight. The fear in my head is loud and screaming. It reminds me of dollars invested in me by my university, phone calls never returned, cities never visited and an adventure unlike any other.
I have never done this before - just dropping into a city to talk to whoever will look my way. Murphy’s Law rattles around my head: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Could I have tried harder to create a more structured trip for myself? Always. Can I go back in time? Never. So my fear and anxiety feeds off the uncontrollable – the person who I can’t force to speak with me, the city I can’t control with my gaze. I am horrified and honored that I’ve been trusted to do this on my own. I just don’t want to fail.
What is it that I’m feeling? Mortified? Pressured? Clueless? Proud?
All those feelings, swirling around, make me wonder why we do this to ourselves. Why do journalists pack their backpacks (one pair of jeans + two shirts = two outfits) and wander into the unknown? Why do we gravitate to where people are hurting and where they have been wronged? Why do we recklessly talk to complete strangers and ask pointed questions on our quest for the truth?
So, if I had to answer the question of why journalists do this, I would guess it is because of those voices in our heads. As scary as the loud ones are, yelling and warning us of failure, we somehow hone in on a quieter one. It whispers in our ear of atrocities and pain, of beauty and curiosity. It pulls us to untold stories. We know we can’t heal or share everything. We know people will criticize us when we try. But the voice tells us that if we don’t venture out, no one else will.
So, tomorrow, I’m venturing out. Here we go.
The Marquette University College of Communication held its 2014 Nieman Conference today on data visualization, much to the excitement of a certain aspiring science writer (that would be me). The three morning speakers, Robert Griffin, Mark Horvit, and Andrea Brennen, each presented their take on the necessity for journalists to be able to crunch numbers.
Griffin opened the line of speakers with a short talk about why statistical reasoning skills are essential to successful data visualization. He discussed the struggles journalists face in dealing with people who don't trust scientific information and in trying to present a large amount of information in a a simple, informative manner. He referenced a study in which different ways of showing margin of error espoused different levels of trust in the data. It all came down to how much the researchers or journalists were leaving up to the reader to interpret. In this case, the less, the better.
Griffin's talk was interesting because it showed that there is a morality issue in data visualization, just as there is in other parts of reporting. How the journalist chooses to portray their data (with or without a margin of error or a denominator) has an incredible impact on the way people respond to information. Griffin used the example of how the story of two people getting Ebola is hyped up because there is no context to the number "two". Two out of how many thousands? It is true that science and data have a great impact on readers and must be used carefully.
The final speaker I had the fortune of hearing was Andrea Brennen, who is more on the data side of things than the reporting side. She works to develop different ways to visualize increasingly complex data for people. She talked about her process and what goes into creating a clean data visualization.
"Design is more than just picking colors or making it look pretty. Its a way to present problems," she said. Her presentation of people's problems allows them to look at their challenges in a way that is manageable.
As a journalist, my goal is not only to present a problem, but also to inspire a solution. Each of the speakers presented the potential of numbers when used correctly. As Horvit pointed out, in the case of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's "Deadly Delays", data is literally saving lives. As a science writer, I will be doing a lot of research and synthesizing large amounts of complex information. I now have the guideline to do so effectively so I can enhance my storytelling skills and my readers' responses to those stories.
As a teen, I attended Hoffman Estates High School. Many of the students there were from low-income families and it was so diverse that the concept of "being a minority" was a foreign one. It was not a shock if less than half of my graduating class went to college.
So saying that coming to Marquette University, a predominantly white Catholic university, was "culture shock" would be an understatement. I am in the minority religiously, ethnically, and according to my educational and socioeconomic status. From the moment I first got on campus, I found myself frantically searching not for a place where I would be like everyone else, rather for a place where everyone was different - and proud of it.
When I learned today that our #loweclass final project would be about the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) on campus, the lower class first-generation Hindu woman inside of me jumped for joy. It supported what I have been slowly realizing about diversity on campus: it exists, but you have to look really damn hard to find it.
There are so many things that this project can reveal about the way Marquette responds to the minorities. A technical aspect that could be included could be an interactive map showing where the EOP graduates are today. The big underlying question there is an important one: are they moving on, or are they moving back? Each of those two decisions carries a different weight. If they're going back, they are not making a place for their ethnic group in a different area of the city, which maintains the sharp segregation of Milwaukee. If they are moving out, they are not specifically impacting their community, which begs the question: What are they impacting?
Another question that is worth looking at is what Marquette's current struggles are. Even if that is nothing more than a paragraph in the final tab of the website, it is the question that will make this story relevant. The EOP graduates lived in a time when protests were the way to get things done. They stood strong for what they believed until they got it. They had their Martin Luther King Jr. My generation is a quiet one on these matters. I don't know who our MLK is. Yet, diversity bills are still shot down in student government because there is a belief that minority students do not face struggles at Marquette. The reality cannot be further from that. Being here is just as much of a struggle for students like me as it is a blessing. Today, as a Hindu on campus, I have no place to pray while there is a chapel in every residence hall on campus, plus several others elsewhere. The challenges regarding diversity at Marquette are far from being overcome.
Therefore, I maintain that the real purpose of this project is twofold. First, it is to increase awareness about a program that made thousands of Marquette success stories possible. Second, it is to motivate and inspire current students to push for the rights they deserve. To follow by the examples of the people we will profile so that no student ever again has to ask, "Am I Marquette?"
MILWAUKEE – Four panelists discussed barriers preventing Wisconsin from lowering its carbon emissions in the final session of Marquette University’s O’Brien Fellowship Conference this past week. Panel members Kevin Croswhite, Charles Franklin, Erin Heffernan and Gary Radloff each gave a different view of the issue to conference attendees.
The panelists each presented their argument for the central question of whether or not the government should have to take action for the environment. Radloff, director of Midwest energy policy analysis for the Wisconsin Energy Institute, spoke first. He used several slides of data to make his point.
“Wisconsin has completely gone the opposite way of the U.S. trend,” Radloff said, referring to a slide from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism outlining national solar PV trends. “The U.S. trend for solar PV is going off the charts. In Wisconsin, just in the last 3 to 4 years has taken this incredible dive. It’s all about public policy.”
Radloff detailed how certain policies in Wisconsin were making it difficult for solar PV to become a more beneficial source of energy in the state, such as the third-party business rule.
Erin Heffernan, the 2013 O’Brien Fellowship Intern and Marquette alumna, spoke next. During her time interning with the fellowship, she visited the town of Forrest, Wisconsin with Seattle Times reporter and 2013 fellow, Hal Bernton. She reflected on her time in the barely 600-person town, where she saw the divide created by the debate over a wind farm proposal.
“One of the biggest complaints these people had was that wind turbines make people sick,” Heffernan said. Though she was unable to confirm or deny that claim in her reporting, Heffernan was able to delve into the arguments that ordinary people had over alternative energy solutions.
On a larger and more representative scale, Charles Franklin detailed the results of a poll released by the Marquette Law School. The nationally recognized pollster has directed the Marquette Law School Poll since it began in 2012. The results showed that though there was no influence of income on the belief about whether or not global warming was real, when it came to the support of a revenue-neutral tax on fossil fuels, wealthier people were more opposed.
“It means that the education effect is driving up support [for a carbon tax], while the higher income is driving down support,” Franklin said. “You have a social status effect that pushes in opposite directions on a solution.”
The results are indicative of the complexities surrounding environmental policy. According to the poll, 63 percent of people surveyed believed that global warming was real while 31 percent did not. Yet, in terms of a carbon tax, the vote was less decisive. There were many more factors coming into play around the issue of how to deal with the problem than whether or not there was one. One of these factors is partisanship.
Kevin Croswhite, Wisconsin state director for the Energy and Enterprise Initiative (E&EI), was then presented with the major question left after the other panelists had their say: Is a bipartisan solution possible?
Croswhite mentioned that the conservatives that make up E&EI believe that climate change is real and that something should be done about it. He said that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would not harm the economy, so long as taxes were cut from elsewhere, preferably the income tax. Croswhite also addressed the potential argument of international competitiveness by saying that in order to get other countries to make equal cuts in carbon emissions, tariffs should be put into place. He brought the panelists’ speeches to an end with the hope for such a solution.
“Conservatives don’t have to choose between addressing climate change or hurting the economy, we’re keeping the economy strong with this policy.”
I honestly did not know what to expect when I walked into Genevieve Grdina's presentation at Marquette's PR and Social Media Summit. I had misread the schedule in a rush, so I was in the wrong room. When Grdina, associate manager of corporate communication at Facebook, started talking about journalists as people who cloud Facebook's company goals by reporting using any possible Facebook connection to attract readers and who always barrage the personal relations (PR) people for information, I started to feel like I, as an aspiring journalist, was probably not in her target audience.
Yet, as her talk went on, I realized that she had many PR gems that I could apply to my career as well. Here are her three challenges Facebook has to face as a new company, and what they mean for journalists and news outlets.
Challenge #1: "Facebook was first"
Grdina talked about how Facebook is the first of it's kind. This results in their having to face unique obstacles. It also means that Facebook is breaking down barriers and having to make sure the world is ready for that. Grdina talked about how many laws surrounding communications are from the 1980's and are therefore long since outdated.
Similarly or journalists, lines are increasingly blurred. In a world where information is shared across platforms in the blink of an eye, it is important that reporters are increasingly cautious about who they get information from and what said information is.
Challenge #2: "Lack of branding"
This is applicable to journalists individually and media outlets as companies. Grdina explained the debate at Facebook about whether or not to have advertisements. They thought that ads would not be needed. We discuss branding everyday in JOUR 2100: creating a personal digital brand. Everyone needs to know how to market themselves. As Grdina said, "If you don't give your product a brand, someone else will."
Challenge #3: "Intense scrutiny"
Though this is particularly appropriate for a worldwide company like Facebook, it's true on a small scale as well. In applying for internships and jobs, everyone is subject to intense scrutiny. Social media puts a person's entire life on the internet for employers to read. Yet, Grdina pointed out that that scrutiny can be harnessed in a productive manner, like Facebook did with internet.org. Journalists and students can also use their personal brand to show the professional world who they truly are and what they stand for, rather than thinking of it as a way for employers to find reasons not to hire them.
Hearing from the PR point of view was refreshing. Grdina's advice is useful, not just for people who are trying to run a business, but for anyone entering the professional world - including the journalists who give those in her position a bit of a hard time.
As for my own brand, the Facebook motto is apt. The journey really is only "1 percent finished."
The Online News Association declared the winners of its Online Journalism Awards (OJAs) this past week, giving #loweclass and other aspiring journalists the opportunity to view and analyze the some best works of online journalism out there.
Here are the pieces that had the greatest impact on me as a budding journalist:
"Hollow" is an interactive documentary on McDowell County, West Virginia. It is one of many "dying" counties across the nation. The documentary describes the state of "dying" as one in which more people are leaving than staying. What I appreciated about this piece was that it was engaging. It opens with a scroll-through timeline which could have easily been presented as a video. Yet, because the creators required that the reader scroll through it themselves, they were able to physically bring people into the timeline and into the story of this place in a way that I had never experienced before. The navigation bar is hidden at the bottom of the screen and does not disrupt the viewer's experience as they scroll through photographs, video content, and interactive data in the timeline. The website also makes incredible use of natural sound. Each of these elements are what make this piece infinitely more engaging than if it had only been in print. The site draws the audience into the world of McDowell County so well that all that is lacking is the smell of the mountain air.
2. "Wild Horses In Crisis"
This story was different from "Hollow" in that it was supplemental to a documentary. The story is a great example of how to effectively write stories that involve a lot of number crunching in a way that is understandable for people who are not knowledgeable about the subject. I am sure that there is much more research and data that contributed to the Patton's ability to write and create this story than simply what was presented on the site. I learned how to present information in a balanced way while also providing copies of studies (if available) so that readers of more advanced skill sets or those with more interest could read the data in full and analyze it themselves. Patton also made it a point to fairly present both sides of the argument for and against corralling wild horses before he presented his own opinion through his phrasing and story angle. It allowed him to gain credibility and trust from his readers.
3. "Return to Elwah" and (3.5) "Sea Change: The Pacific's Perilous Turn"
Both of these pieces provided me with a view of more in depth coverage of issues that I previously knew about. Neither the essential role of salmon in the ecosystem nor the problem of ocean acidification were new topics to me. What excited me about these two is their overall job of digging further into each of the issues. I was reminded that even though there may be topics that have been a part of scientific dialogue for a while, there is still a story to find in them. There are more people who are affected by these problems than the average reader knows and they have a greater impact on our lives than we care to notice. Each used video, audio and text to tell the story and also made a point to keep it about the impact that the changes will have on humans, more so in the case of "Sea Change: The Pacific's Perilous Turn".
(For a crash course on why ocean acidification happens and why it's a problem, read my blog post about it.)
4. "Planet Money Makes A T-Shirt"
In this Mister Rodgers-esque NPR report, the extraordinary is brought out in the ordinary. It uses video, text, and infographics like many of the other finalists and winners, but what set it apart was its style. Perhaps that is why this one is the best of the winners I have seen from the OJAs. This report proves that no matter how advanced technology gets, there is nothing that can replace the value of the soul of a story. The reporter taught about cotton and machinery in humorous ways. He contrasted the lives of people who rely on the garment industry for subsistence, while others are using it as a stepping stone into their dream profession. He puts a human face to an inanimate object, making the audience truly see the story behind a simple t-shirt.
Each of the qualities that I have highlighted from these stories are ones that I value in my goal of being a science writer. Though some are more specific to science writing, such as digging deep into scientific issues and research, the majority are relevant to anyone who is aiming to be a successful communicator of information and ideas. Drawing the reader in, presenting large amounts of data in a fair and comprehensible way, and finding incredible stories in old or uninteresting places are all things that any reporter should be able to do. The technology is the easy part.
To read more of the OJA winners and finalists, click here.
While straddling the worlds of science and communication, it is not rare that I feel out of place. Running from my biomedical sciences lectures to my journalism courses, my majors show me that each side of campus is its own little world - and that I don't quite fit into the mold of either.
In my anatomy and organic chemistry lectures, I'm constantly surrounded by aspiring doctors, physician assistants, scientists and pharmacists. "I'm going to med school," they say. No room for mistakes in the atmosphere of cutthroat competition. Each knows exactly what they need to do to reach their goals.
Theirs is a more well-trodden path than mine, and they are able to find solace in that.
In my journalism classes, I sit with the soon-to-be sports reporters, TV broadcasters and novelists. They each have an air of confidence that I've noticed in most communication students. They are unafraid to ask anyone a question. They never seem to be intimidated about sharing their work with the world. For that, I envy them.
I'm a scientist who loves writing; a journalist who loves her chemistry models. For the most part, I stand firm in my dream of being a science writer. Yet, there are weeks like this past one, with anatomy and organic chemistry exams bookending basic photography and journalism assignments, when I think I should just give up and choose one or the other. After all, how many papers and magazines are even looking for science writers? By the time I have enough experience to specifically write science, will my science major even be relevant? Our #loweclass guest had an answer for me.
On Wednesday, Mira Lowe, senior features editor for CNN Digital, spoke to our JOUR 2100 class. Though it was the middle of one such tough week, I was thrilled to be in the presence of such a successful journalist and editor.
She had us look at the first chapter of "Sandy's Story" prior to meeting for class. It was a beautiful piece of medical journalism which aimed to put a face to Alzheimer's disease. (Side note: The story is partly reported by Sanjay Gupta, which I was very excited about since I want to be the not-a-doctor-female version of Sanjay Gupta when I grow up. Not an astronaut nor a ballerina. Sanjay Gupta.)
There are ultimately two things that Lowe reminded me that day. First, that specialization is the way to go. She told us that though it may be a bit harder to break in to the industry, in the long run, specialization is what she looks for in reporters. Second, that there are people out there who are writing about science in amazing, emotional and relevant ways. Science writing may be a shrinking profession, but there are still women and men out there who are passionate about teaching readers about how science is changing lives on a daily basis. We can all empathize with the frustration and fear that Sandy must feel as his Alzheimer's progresses. His story still matters and it always will.
So, yes, my double major is difficult. Yes, people give me looks of horror at the thought of merging the (seemingly) unrelated paths. But just as often, people are excited for me. They are impressed. They are the people who fuel my passion for science writing.
They remind me that as long as I keep working at it, one day, I can be Sanjay Gupta.
It’s nearly 5 p.m. and Officer John Peterson of the Milwaukee Police Mounted Patrol watches the doors of Marquette University’s Al McGuire Center. He’s been there with his Percheron mare, Beth, for about three hours. Suddenly, the doors open and hundreds of people flood into the closed-off street.
“It’s nice now that people are around," Petersen said. "We’re just watching them go by. Until now we were watching the empty street."
He and his three fellow officers are enjoying being on Marquette’s campus thanks to a special request made to their captain for their presence on the momentous occasion: the inauguration of Marquette's first lay president. While the Marquette community celebrates the beginning of their president’s term, he and Beth keep the peace.
“Usually we’re downtown at special events. We do Summerfest, Jazz in the Park, River-Rhythms ... we work protests too, if there are any of those. We also just patrol around and focus on quality of life. … We’re police officers; we make arrests,” he said.
Despite their ability to make arrests, the patrol’s presence has a different air to it than with other officers. The mounted unit is one way the Milwaukee Police Department aims to presents itself as an approachable presence. So they try to work as much as they can, including the winters.
“Last year was just too much. When it got around October we knew that, so we couldn't do the winter,” he said.
Attendees of the ceremony continue to exit the Al. They stop to admire and stroke Beth and to take photos of the two. They then move on to attend the reception across campus. Peterson goes back to surveying the area. He does not know much about the event, the new president nor Marquette’s campus, but as he sits atop Beth on the warm fall day, it is clear he is in his element.
“I just love being able to spend time with horses," he says. "And the job itself - every day is different."
For more on the inauguration, see my Storify.
"Journalists go and cover where others run for cover," said Professor Herbert Lowe in a 2011 video interview for the Marquette Tribune. As the reporter assigned to cover the unfolding 9/11 tragedy for Newsday, Lowe witnessed firsthand the horrors of that day.
Listening to his statements in an interview and reading his account of the attack was a very moving experience. Yet, of all his comments, I feel the most remarkable was that despite the unimaginable fear and chaos of such an event, Lowe got people to talk.
"The more you talk, the more you recognize you're alive," said Lowe. It seems counterintuitive that people want to talk in such situations, but this reaction holds true in similar cases.
By willingly going into dangerous situations every day, journalists around the world and at home continually remind us of the importance of speaking for those who are silenced. They risk everything to put words to events of unspeakable terror, to help us imagine unbelievable pain and suffering.
"Whenever I hear about how those in the military are sacrificing their freedoms or sacrificing their lives ... I think that sometimes that's propaganda. I mean, journalists have to go into the community every day in this county and tell stories where people don't want them," said Lowe regarding the danger in a journalist's life.
The job is certainly difficult, but it is needed more and more in today's chaotic world. Many have answered the call, and their contribution to the media is irreplaceable. Even today, after his time in the newsroom has ended, Lowe continues to teach young journalists (like myself) the value journalism. Such knowledge truly is priceless.
This site is my way of connecting you to the happenings of my journalistic adventures and the rest of my digital portfolio.