Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Writing about Public Safety Might be Hazardous to your Health

My latest story is a piece on public safety at my university. For the story, I attended a school senate meeting where Public Safety Director Dan Lawson gave a speech and answered questions about the issue. He gave a very interesting talk about school safety, and went into a variety of topics ranging from self-defense classes to disaster preparedness.

Although Lawson and the Senate tried very hard to make it sound like the meeting was fairly routine, I think that recent incidents on the student shuttle and the attempted rape earlier last month probably had something to do with Lawson coming to the meeting at this particular time. In any event, the news that the school is working on completely restructuring the security system is very interesting, so I used that in conjunction with the recent safety related events as my lead.

I was able to take very detailed notes because I had my computer with me. I also had the opportunity to record the entire event, although I really only used the recording to make sure I had my quotes right. The notes were so detailed that I was able to go right to the places in the recording where I thought the best quotes would be, so I did not have to transcribe the entire recording. I hate transcribing, so that was a nice change of pace.

I was also able to use my story and my notes to help Alia al Sharif with her story on the same topic for USF TV. I also did some editing for the piece based on my knowledge of where the best quotes were. I am really enjoying working for the TV station, because it gives me experience in another medium that I may eventually use in my journalism career. I would like to be able to do multimedia journalism online, so learning how to use Final Cut Pro has been invaluable.

I have not yet received a grade for the story, so I am not sure how I did. I hope that my lead was a good one. Lawson had a lot of interesting things to say, but he went off in many different directions. Picking just one to focus on was a difficult task. It was a very good experience, though. I liked being able to pool my resources with my classmates.

Asking all the Right People all the Wrong Questions

My budding journalism career is coming along fairly well, but I am still running into problems with sources. For example, in my recent story about virginity pledges and virginity in general on campus, I had a hard time getting a professor to reply to my questions. The one professor I did write was so upset about the questions that she notified a colleague. Her protest was then made known to my professor/editor, Dr. Robertson, who was very understanding but gave me some pointers on what to do differently next time.

First, I should have never e-mailed the professor as an introduction. Dr. Robertson calls this a "blunt instrument," which makes sense given the highly impersonal nature of e-mail exchanges. It is very easy for someone to misinterpret the tone of an e-mail, because it is virtually impossible to create a tone with plain text. Had I approached the professor in person, I might have been able to ease into the conversation and conveyed my own discomfort with the project, which might have put her at ease to speak with me.

Second, I never should have asked the hard question first. I am not entirely sure what questions I might have used to soften the blow of, "Have you ever taken a virginity pledge?" but I probably could have come up with something.

In any event, I was able to get two good student interviews. I was actually lucky in that regard, in that I just happened upon a friend of mine in the lunch room who was eating with a friend of his who I did not know. The fact that I had known at least one of my interviewees for several semesters gave me an in with both subjects, and got me some pretty interesting quotes.

I was then able to turn my limited data, along with the data from the rest of the class, into a fairly decent story. I got a good grade, and a good lesson about how I should approach sources. All in all, it was not a bad experience.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Writing the News is Great ... and Not So Great

I have wanted to be a reporter since I was a little boy tying red towels around my neck and pretending to be Clark Kent. The idea of writing for a living, finding out the truth about the world and telling people about it, somehow clicks with me.

At my old school, though, there was no journalism department. So I decided that the next best thing, for the time being, would be to choose Political Science as my major. Luckily my current school, the University of San Francisco, there is a Media Studies department and a journalism minor. My first class in this department other than the introductory course is Journalism I: Reporting.

My first big assignment for my reporting class was a mock press conference. My teacher, Dr. Michael Robertson, came into class dressed in odd clothing and told us he was a sheriff retiring from his job due to problems with the city council and with voters.

The press conference was funny, but also very hectic. I didn’t have my computer set up that day, so I couldn’t record the audio. I had to rely solely on my notes. Luckily, I take very good notes, but even the quickest note taker misses things. Dr. Robertson was talking very fast, probably on purpose. It was good experience, though, because I am sure I will run into situations similar to this once I’m in the field.

The hardest part about writing a news story is finding the lead. I am used to writing essays, where I can take time building to my central points. With a news story, the most important information has to be right up front, and everything must be as concise as possible. This takes getting used to, although I am enjoying the mental exercise.

I was pleasantly surprised with my grade on the press conference assignment, although there are many areas that I still need to work on.

The biggest problem I have right now is finding the time to get everything done. As a student reporter, I not only have to deal with not being taken seriously by some of my sources, but also the normal time crunch that every student faces.

Still, I am getting closer and closer to my dream, so I just keep moving. I won’t get anywhere standing still.