Missing the ‘Big Story’–on Purpose
This journalist finds that the essential story is the one occurring after the national media leaves a neighborhood in the news.
When I arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, to cover the saga of Mississippi’s one remaining abortion clinic and whether it would remain open in the face of a new law and constant protests, most of the journalists had left. Yet, I knew I had not missed the story.
Let me explain. It goes back to a conversation I once had with a former colleague, Isabel Wilkerson, when we both worked at The New York Times. She told me that by the time she had arrived to report on the aftermath of 1993 floods in the Midwest, the residents were telling her to turn around and go home because a parade of journalists had already reported on every possible angle. She stayed to report the story of Hardin Cemetery in Ray County, and the history washed away “when the Missouri River barreled through town like white-water rapids.”
In creating images impossible to shake, she wrote: “Now people who lost everything else to the flood are left to weep for the parents they mourned decades ago, the stillborn children they never saw grow up, the husbands taken from them in farm accidents, the mothers who died in childbirth. It is as if the people have died all over again and the survivors must grieve anew.”
In a way eyewitness description of raging waters could not, Wilkerson captured the pain in the heart that remained once calm weather was restored. She tapped into emotions felt even by those who lived far from the devastating flood. That story was part of the entry that won her the Pulitzer Prize.
It was an important lesson for any journalist who strives to tell universal stories between the lines of news events. More are learning. You can see it in the coverage of the shootings in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, in stories about a woman who carried her wounded friend to safety and the young men who shielded loved ones and paid with their lives. In the efforts to find tales of heroism amid the carnage and deprive a gunman of the attention he craves, journalists are finding lead stories everywhere.
That practice has to, of course, be balanced by the insatiable appetite for hard news, quick news, for pictures of the accused with a blank look on his face and a shock of orange on the top of his head. Though he’s not talking, too many “experts” continue to speculate on his motives and mindset. Others, though, try to be sensitive while noting the news of the day.
It’s difficult, particularly when TV and radio ratings and surveys of reading habits prove the public wants the headline news.
The Mississippi abortion clinic story made news when a state law triggered the will-it-or-will-it-not-be-forced-to-close deadline and all waited for a judge’s decision. For those on one side, it is a matter of life and death of the unborn. For others, it is a woman’s right to choose and make decisions about her body. There was no shortage of images of angry confrontation. The judge’s ruling was ambiguous and not so final: The Jackson Women’s Health Organization can operate while it takes steps to follow the new law that requires all abortion providers to be OB-GYNs with privileges to admit patients to a local hospital.
For those in the surrounding neighborhood, the story had been developing for a while. The Fondren district of galleries, shops and restaurants was a player in the drama, a fact some business owners and visitors welcomed and others deplored. Some sympathized with those who would give up days to protest what they consider a moral wrong and others found common cause with those who withstood the shouts to provide a legal service to women in Mississippi. And there were those who just wanted it all to go away. I was fascinated by what it must feel like to have something affect you, your business, your everyday life, and not really have any control over it.
That’s the story I tried to tell—the one that taught me something new.
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