Going After the News
Fourteen people interviewed by a team of reporters on Ford Parkway called today's weather "great."
IT all started on a visit home two weeks ago, when I suggested to my seven-and-a-half-year-old cousin Ari that we interview our grandparents.
"They can tell us about when they were kids," I suggested.
"Naw," Ari said defiantly. "Let's be real reporters. Let's write a story for tomorrow's newspaper."
I went along with it. After all, I was curious to find out what being a reporter meant to a seven-year-old.
I gathered a few sharpened pencils and two stenographic notepads. We headed to the living room for a private story conference.
"Well, what do you think is a news-worthy event, something worth asking about?" I tried to lead him on, anticipating some fresh news judgment, or at least something as imaginative as his drawings of robots.
We sat for a while, puzzled. Searching for that elusive story idea that would please both of us and our hypothetical readers.
"How about the weather?" he offered.
USA-Today-full-color-weather-map news judgment in its incubating stages? I wasn't eager to find out. Not wanting to quash his enthusiasm, however, I jotted this down as the first question.
I tried to think of a question he would like to hear answered, and remembered the preeminence of Nintendo in his world.
"How about 'what toys did you play with when you were young, and how do they compare with toys nowadays?'" I suggested. Not exactly news, but a features angle that might keep him interested. He agreed.
Now what we needed was an issue of global importance. Death, politics, controversy. What would he grasp?
The environment, I offered. "Instead, how about asking them about their habitats," he wondered. He had spent too much time learning about his pet snake.
WE had scrawled our three questions onto our pads--including his last entry, "Invirment"--and now we embarked on the search for people to interview. I thought we'd stop after the two adults in the house.
But after interviews with his dad and our grandmother, he beelined for the door. "Let's interview people on the street," he suggested.
Not wanting to stand in the way of initiative, I let him lead the way. My grandparents' house backs up on an alley that leads to a commercial street, Ford Parkway. There we could find plenty of shops, a gas station and a mostly elderly clientele.
How would Ari present himself and his mission? I figured this usually quiet kid would turn around as soon as he realized how hard it was to approach strangers. No such luck.
We started off with a captive audience. The man behind the counter in the gas station was busy, so we turned to an elderly man pumping gas. I had forgotten to coach Ari on how to introduce himself; what would he say?
"We're two young reporters," he said hurriedly, prompting a stifled chuckle from me and the interviewee. The man seemed to acquiesce, so he proceeded.
Often when people are interviewed, they are on guard, wary that they may say the wrong thing or be misinterpreted. The more controversial the question is, the more guarded the answer. When we first introduced ourselves that day, people put up their guard, unsure what was coming.
Never have I seen guards dropped as fast as when Ari asked the first question, "What do you think of the nice weather we're having?"
People seemed relieved that: 1) they weren't forced into answering a confrontational query, 2) they actually cared about the issue they had to discuss and 3) the reporter seemed to agree with them that, indeed, the weather was nice. Not exactly a primer to objective, investigative journalism.
ARI'S notepad was packed with a list of 1 to 3 for each subject. For most questions, he lost interest in taking notes after the first few words. So his pad reads something like this: "1) nice 2) dolls now 3) liter" and "1) fantastic 2) none 3) losy, teach more" and "1) great 2) great 3) bombs."
Ari felt quite comfortable with the interviewees. After a man waiting for a haircut told us his concerns about air pollution, Ari recommended a restaurant to him: "You ought to go to Denny's; it has your same name."
When "Dug"--the name Ari wrote in his notepad for the xerox store proprietor--suggested building higher smokestacks to alleviate the problem of acid rain, Ari knew exactly what he meant. "That way the pollution would go into outer space." But then the potential side effects began to disturb Ari. "It would pollute the Martians."
Ari compiled a good list of subjects, including Bart the gas pumper, Yi the Cambodian high school student at the bus stop and "Jhon" the construction worker. It made our jaunt sound more like a trip around Mr. Roger's Neighborhood than interviewing.
We discovered that many interviewees didn't have many toys when they were young--they said they made boats out of bark and pretended a lot; we also found that most people are terribly concerned about the environment, but have no clue what to do. Everyone seemed pleased with the weather.
Ari had eagerly approached each subject, asserting confidently, "We're two young reporters," and launching into his questions. He seemed genuinely interested in scouting out the trends of the times. After our 14th interview, weary but elated with our findings, we headed home.
When we arrived, we got yelled at for talking to strangers. So much for a budding career in journalism.