Friday, August 21, 2009

Knowing Your Town

I had my public affairs reporting students read this article about how disconnected many journalists are from the places they live and cover for their news organizations -- and how the news they produce can suffer as a consequence. Then I rattled off in class some places in Athens and asked if they'd visited or knew where they were, like Memorial Park, which sits less than a mile off the edge of campus. Only about two of 16 knew where the park was.

In a society where people move around a lot, that sense of place can suffer, especially if you don't join community organizations and link yourself up somehow with where you live (ala Bowling Alone and the whole social capital argument).

My point? What people know about their homes, their neighborhoods and their communities, must somehow ring true in the kinds of stories we craft as journalists. That's damn hard to do as a reporter if all you know is where you live, the concrete-and-brick buildings of your beat, your news organization's office, and the bar with the cheapest drinks at happy hour. I worked for three daily newspapers in three different states, and I admit to not being a joiner, not knowing much about the places I covered beyond my beat. Yeah, I could tell you which local politicians hated each other, or where most crimes happened, but I didn't know the places. I suspect my stories suffered as a consequence. And what people knew was, my stories -- good as they were technically -- didn't always ring true.

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