By Fred Koenig
Tex Sample felt sorry for me. I don’t blame him. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself. I got him talking about the working class and class in America – his passion and life’s work. He had quite a bit to say. Midway through the interview, he paused and asked if what he was saying was helpful to me, and seemed concerned that he was probably going into too much detail. He remarked that he didn’t see how I was going to make a magazine article out of what he was saying.
“I’m glad I don’t have your job,” he said.
I tried to reassure him that I thought the interview was going great. I was honest – it really was. I appreciate interviewing natural storytellers like Sample. I can pretty much just introduce myself, say why I’m there and then just let them go. I don’t really even have to ask questions – they typically cover all the questions I have written down even before I ask them, as was the case with this interview. Sometimes when I interview people they give me one-word answers. Those are much harder stories to write.
I wasn’t concerned about Sample piling too much information on me because I knew I would do what I’ve been doing since I started working as a journalist 25 years ago – I’d leave most of it out.
Many years ago I was talking to a friend about something that had gone on at a county commission meeting the night before. I told him about some of the things that had been said, then I mentioned it wasn’t going to be in the newspaper. He was astounded that I would leave out something he considered so significant. I explained to him that I leave out most of what goes on at every meeting that I cover; I leave out way more than I leave in.
The aim of the ethical journalist is to leave in what is most important and to report that part accurately. Another key part is to tell the story in such a way that you stand a fair chance of it being interesting enough for someone to actually read it. That can be challenging in community journalism. Perhaps the most important thing going on is improvements, or lack thereof, to local infrastructure. A good reporter might be able to explain a new sewer line proposal in such a way that people will read it, but he or she only has one or two shots at it. You’re probably not going to want updates on that city sewer project in every issue.
It’s the same for every story, regardless on the context or the publication. When I was reporting on Lawson UMC’s Tuesday Night Worship Express, I had the opportunity to hear Rev. Gary Ponder Williams preach a nice sermon on the Gospel of John, chapter 6. I gave you one line of it. I had very good interviews with artist Jewell McGhee and author Hannah Shanks for this issue. You’re getting a tiny fraction. The story on Earthkeeper Cheryl Marcum is less than half of its original length.
The danger in leaving things out is that if you’re not careful, you can make something seem better or worse than it is. An honest story can leave an inaccurate perception when bias creeps in. Critics of the media sometimes contend the media isn’t telling the whole story. Of course it isn’t – to do so would be impossible. But hopefully it is bringing you enough of the story for you to be able to form your opinion.
So, I wasn’t worried at all about the things Sample was telling me that I wouldn’t tell you. You have the opportunity to hear more from him in an upcoming webinar (see page 12). You can also buy his book, “Working Class Rage” which comes out this month from Abingdon Press. It is my hope that this magazine helps get you started, and something that you read here inspires you to take the next step to learn more.