Jeanie Groh column: The sticky stories
Covering education is normally really fun.
I love talking to students and teachers, going to schools and watching kids do cool projects. For the most part, I even find school board meetings interesting.
But like any reporter, sometimes this job puts me in sticky situations. This is true on any beat, but I think it’s especially true for the education beat because there’s nothing that gets people more emotional and passionate than their children.
Controversial policies, personnel and criminal matters are the stuff my nightmares are made of. Every story has two sides – or three or four or five – and it’s my job to accurately represent all views accurately and fairly.
There’s a lot that goes into writing a story for the Post, especially a controversial one.
Writing an article starts with digging up the background information on a topic. Sometimes this means sifting through state or federal law, while other times that means submitting a public records request for someone’s employment history or looking up old Salisbury Post articles from before my time here.
Next, I have to figure out who I need to talk to about the issue or topic at hand. The very most important thing to me is that I’m talking to people who are reliable and trustworthy and that have sufficient background or experience to be well informed.
This requires going through people who contact me, school officials, Facebook friends and a whole host of other sources.
After I figure out who to talk to, I have to get in touch with them and conduct interviews to fill in any holes in the information that I have and to better explain that person’s point of view.
This piece of the process gets particularly frustrating when people either don’t want to talk or legally can’t talk for whatever reason
Even though we know something is going on, if no one can provide credible information about it, there’s not much we can write.
It can especially be hard to get information about touchy situations from public school and college administrators — while there are some things that are public information and must be provided upon request, many other things must legally remain confidential to protect the privacy of its employees and students.
The name, age, title, salary, disciplinary action and dates of employment, along with dates, salaries and titles associated with any promotions or demotions are public record. Information pertaining to an active investigation, however, is confidential.
Finally, I have to take all that information and craft it into a concise, informative and balanced story.
I build an outline to make sure I hit all the important points, and then I sift through my notes, picking out the very best quotes that tell the story the best.
It’s also important to get the information out as quickly as possible, which has to be balanced with creating a story that represents all angles accurately.
My job is to peel away the layers of emotion and bias to try to help readers see all sides of a story so they can make their own decision.
These stories are the sticky stories. They’re uncomfortable, they leave you with an uneasy feeling and sometimes they fuel even more controversy.
You can never make everyone happy with the sticky stories. But the sticky stories are the important stories – they lead to awareness, transparency and transformation.