Friday, March 9, 2007

No News Is No News

Years ago, I worked at a weekly newspaper. I learned a ton, from how to run a publication to how to write in an entertaining way. It was a great job with an excellent mentor, but the one thing I hated was interviewing people, particularly ones who didn't want to be interviewed.

My beat, if unofficial, was the arts, women's issues, music, and dining. I also got the stray homosexual matter. It wasn't exactly hard news most of the time, but these were the days before widespread email. Before I picked up the phone, I'd sit at my desk, trying to psych myself up. Hello. This is Jennifer Niesslein from C-Ville Weekly, I'd practice under my breath. I was twenty-two. I'd always have a list of questions at the ready on my yellow legal pad.

Most of the time, it was fine. I'd learned that it's easier to come across as stupid on the phone than to make a mistake in print. It got somewhat easier the more I did it and the more I developed a relationship with contacts.

But there were the few times that weren't easy at all. Once, I noticed the obituary of a man active in the classical music community, and (after much psyching up), I called a friend of his for a statement on his life. As it turned out, she hadn't heard of his death yet. I heard her breath catch, then after a silence, she said, "I'm going to have to call you back, Jennifer."

Another time, I was investigating a new shelter for battered women. Flyers about it had popped up around town and it wasn't affiliated with the known shelter. I called the guy who was founding it. He told me that his shelter provided a place for women to stay while their husbands or boyfriends "cooled off." He saw his job as "reuniting families." He kept spooling off one bad idea and another, and I sat there for a good hour at my desk, phone at my ear, scribbling away.

I knew that this would be a good story. But it was so insanely uncomfortable for me. It was all I had not to interrupt and set him straight. I didn't want him to be so wrong-minded. I wanted to tell him the ways in which he was wrong, that the goal of a shelter is to help save the life of the abused. I wanted to tell him that abusers don't cool off and that's it. There's a reason why they called it a "cycle" of abuse.

It was our cover story. The flyers disappeared, and I like to think that the article had something to do with that. (FYI, the National Domestic Violence hotline is 800-799-7233.)

So how much do I admire reporters, in those uncomfortable situations day after day? Oh, quite a bit. I believe in the value of reporting and the importance of people getting the news the way that Caleb believes in the right to a daily two hours of Gameboy.

During my experiments, one expert advised me to take a "fast" on the news. He believed the news can cause undue stress on individuals. I can see his point: It's hard to feel healthy and at peace when you start your morning reading about war, rape, murder, homelessness, random accidents. Also, there's the problem of sensationalism. ARE YOU POISONING YOUR CHILDREN WITHOUT EVEN KNOWING IT? IS THERE A HOMICIDAL MANIAC UNDER YOUR BED? IS THAT BAD SMELL IN YOUR TRASH CAN A LETHAL MILDEW? WHAT REALLY HAPPENS WHEN YOUR HUSBAND GOES ON A BUSINESS TRIP?

But reading the news makes me feel connected to the world. I tried the fast for a few days, but I felt unmoored. I like to know when certain bills are up for a vote. I like to know the school system budget. I wanted my horoscope and the troubled people writing to Dear Abby. I felt isolated.

The news fast, like a lot of things, is probably one of those pieces of advice that's highly dependent on the person taking it. For the non-fiction junkie? Probably not such a good idea.

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