In journalism school, it was engrained in me to always be impartial. You are there to report the story, show both sides, and not form judgments, opinions, feelings or at least not to let them influence your reporting. But in practice, in the real world, I’ve learned sometimes it’s difficult to meet people, walk into their home, cover an event and remain an outsider looking in. Some of my most memorable stories have been those that in the days, weeks and even months after reporting the story, I couldn’t forget about the people I interviewed, how they were doing, and, in some cases, hoped that my story had an impact.
Take, for instance, the students and families at Trinity Lutheran School in Stapleton, Staten Island. Their school is slated to close this June, and I was there in December when it was announced that despite their efforts, the school was shutting down at the end of its 50th year. When I was assigned to cover a rally parents and students were having to keep their school open, I thought, ok I’ve done this before. But this story was different. When I got there, I interviewed a 7th/8th grade teacher whose two children had attended the school. Tears streamed down his face as he told me that he would do anything to save the school. I interviewed a group of students who told me they didn’t know what they would do if the school they called home since kindergarten were to close. And I interviewed parents, many of whom were alums themselves, who said they couldn’t believe the church that ran the school was considering closing it. I waited in the school hallway with them for four hours as the church council voted on whether to close. During those hours I listened to them share stories and memories about the school. While waiting, parents and teachers had even devised a plan to set up a donation fund for the school, which I would then refer to at the end of my story. But after waiting, all of us gathered in the hall got the final word – the church just could not afford to keep the school open any longer. Everyone around me was crying and while interviewing them, I couldn’t help but feel for the teachers who were out of a job, the students who would have to find new schools, and the parents whose hopes were dashed. I wrote up the story, explained the church council’s decision, but I still felt bad for those affected. I felt bad that there was nothing I could do as a reporter to help.
Another story I did in Staten Island made me realize that sometimes stories can make a difference. In a series of state budget cuts, Governor David Paterson decided to slash the budget for the Office of Parks and Recreation, meaning the state’s Physically Challenged games would have to be cancelled. I interviewed a 15-year-old in West Brighton who had competed in the games each year since she was 8. Her spinal muscular atrophy kept her confined to a wheelchair, and she told me the games were the highlight of her summer because it was the only time she could compete in sports. Her mother shared pictures of her daughter’s victories and told me seeing her daughter compete in the swim race was a moment she’d never forget. When they found out the games would cost two hundred thousand dollars to put on, they told me they hoped someone would take up the cause. Soon after my story aired, I got an email from the Where to Turn foundation saying they saw the story and were taking up the cause, that they would like to help raise money for the event.
The most rewarding part of my job is when my stories do make a difference. When they have some sort of impact, whether it be inspiring a group to take up a cause or shedding light on an issue that more people should be aware of. And I realized that feeling sympathy for my interview subjects is natural and that often people feel more comfortable talking to me and answering my questions because of that.
Links to each of the stories mentioned:
Trinity Lutheran School to Shut its Doors