My ideas about what constitutes good journalism have changed a lot over the years. I’ve tried to do a lot of self-examination and fine-tuning.
One flaw I discovered in my own reporting was the tendency to boil down complex issues into superlatives. Best, worst. Most, least. Good, bad. This is partly due to the format of having to tell a coherent story in a very short time period: sometimes as little as 40 seconds on the evening news. Rarely more than two minutes.
It’s also the nature of the beast. We go to cover a flood and want to bring home the most incredible pictures and stories (superlatives). But our story may lack the context that most of the city isn’t suffering from the flood. We cover violence in Iraq. But our story may lack the context that much of the country has grown more peaceful.
Although necessity still dictates some degree of this, I now try to provide some broader context to stories beyond the superlatives. I am also mindful that there is a lot of grey in many stories. The grey areas may be difficult to explain concisely, but sometimes they are the most interesting and important parts of a story.
I’ve also modified my interview style over the years: more listening. Most of my reporting is non-political, but whether I’m interviewing political figures, watchdogs, whistleblowers, or someone accused of wrongdoing, I try to ask the necessary questions while letting the interviewee make his best points. It’s not about me. I ask myself: how can I get the most interesting and insightful information from this person I’m interviewing?
Many years ago I also changed how I look for people to interview on various sides of an issue. Was I subconsciously finding a reasonable person on one side of an issue, but finding a more radical, unlikeable person to represent the side I didn’t agree with personally? Now, I try to find the best representatives of a given position to make their best case for it.
And when someone won’t give me an interview or statement of their position, instead of giving up, I go out of my way to find another person who might represent it, or I look for a place where a representative may have spoken in the past and I can pull from that explanation so that at least it has representation in my story. I remember a story consultant at CBS News telling me years ago that our audience finds our news stories much more credible when they hear the rational explanation for “the other side,” even when the other side doesn’t want to provide it themselves. I think that was great advice.
This technique of truly wanting to hear “the other side” or gather more information has led to far more interesting stories than I otherwise might have found. I often learn something new that changes what I thought.
But the biggest and most important strategy I started using many years ago was devising and implementing an intellectual exercise: suspend my own preconceived notions and personal beliefs as much as possible on a story so that nobody can guess where I stand. (Or if they do guess, they are just as likely to be wrong, because I am not necessarily representing my own views, I am covering an interesting fact-based story.)
Too often, we journalists seek to prove our own point or convince the public to agree with our personal feelings, rather than seek facts. By really listening to what can be discovered by talking to people in the field, I have found more amazing and interesting stories. Sometimes they include angles I knew nothing about or could not have imagined, but for listening to somebody in the field. Don’t make the mistake of thinking any particular story necessarily reflects what I personally think on a given topic. I have given a great deal of air time to smart people with whom I may not agree, personally.
An outgrowth of this is that I often find something to agree with–or something reasonable– in most everybody I interview, even on topics with which I may personally differ. I now approach most stories with the idea that most of the people I’m interviewing have common goals: they want what’s best for their families, their country and themselves. They just differ on the best ways to get that.
Season Five of my Sunday TV news program Full Measure beings September 8. Time has really flown! And I plan to continue my commitment to report on underreported stories and angles.
This means not just repeating what you’ve already seen on the news all week. It means reporting on topics that are newsy, but different than the narratives that the powers-that-be are pushing. Sometimes that ruffles feathers. It can even create powerful enemies.
That comes with the territory!
I have a small but terrific team of journalists working with me. They, too, are committed to bringing you original, interesting stories. David Bernknopf was my colleague at CNN years ago and now produces my cover stories with me. He’s brilliant. So is Daniel Steinberger, who I worked with years ago at CBS News. He went on to ABC before joining me at Full Measure. The amazing Mark Orchard, another producer, brings his experience from BBC and Al Jazeera and puts his incredible touch on stories. Andrea Nejman is my line producer and is so talented, she’s been field producing some terrific stories as well. Editor Tony Szulc brings his CBS News 48 Hours background and skillset to Full Measure to help make it look top notch every week. I couldn’t ask for two better photographers: Bryan Barr and Lee Jenkins. The view they provide from the field, is outstanding on a daily basis. If you could see the work that both of these men do, day in and day out; with smarts, patience and kindness; it would boggle your mind. On top of everything else, they are both skilled editors. Sarah Attkisson is our incredible associate producer. She’s a whiz at some of our technical needs, research and social media, among other things.
I’m lucky to have terrific contributors on the program including James Rosen, Scott Thuman, Lisa Fletcher, Joce Sterman and Jonathan Elias. They bring smart, in depth reporting to Full Measure week after week.
Sinclair’s talented head of news, Scott Livingston, allows executive producer Batt Humphreys and I to do all of this with a freedom not typically afforded a national news program. That’s what helps make the program as unique as it is.
What’s in store for Season 5? I have been off shooting original stories in Northern Ireland, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, England, Puerto Rico, Greece and Arizona. There is much going on in the world that impacts all of us but is not being widely reported.