Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What Really Smart Reporting Looks Like

Between January and November last year, John Russo and I were interviewed about the presidential election by more than 40 journalists from around the world. Most wanted to know how white working-class people would vote. Would traditional values keep them from supporting a white woman? Could they set aside their racism to vote for Obama? Would they be lured by Sarah Palin’s small town patriotism and her hunting photos? The questions were predictable, and most reflected reporters’ assumptions that working-class voters are a homogeneous and old-fashioned group.

Jonathan Kaufman, political editor for the Wall Street Journal, was different. While other reporters asked us to help them get in touch with one or two workers or direct us to the local union hall, Jonathan asked us to set up focus groups and invited us to come along for the conversation. While other reporters assumed that the working class today is pretty much the same as it’s always been, Jonathan asked thoughtful questions about how people’s experiences in the workplace might influence their ideas about race, gender, and class in politics. I was impressed from the beginning.

It wasn’t until Kaufman came back to Youngstown last week and we had time to talk about his life and work that I fully understood why he took a different tack. First, he’s just an incredibly smart and well-informed guy. He doesn’t rely on stereotypes or common wisdom for his stories. He analyzes trends, based on his own critical understanding that how people think -- and how they vote -- is shaped by complex social factors. You can hear the complexity and sensitivity of his thinking in our conversation; he takes time to develop an answer, coherently and engagingly, revealing the multiple layers and angles of a topic.

Second, he has a long track record of reporting on issues of race, class, and gender, so he knows the terrain well. Not only does he understand the issues, he also understands what it takes to get people to talk honestly about it. In our interview, he describes his approach – the value of focus groups, the advantages and limitations of his own persona, the importance of having a good editor and colleagues to check his thinking.

Kaufman also understands why some people in Youngstown didn’t like his story, and why he heard comments from so many friends and colleagues from other places who told him that his story gave them a whole new, and much more complex, image of this community.

If you missed the panel discussion where Jonathan Kaufman, Marilyn Geewax, and Connie Schultz discussed how the media has reported about Youngstown, you can view the video on the Vindicator’s website.

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