Washington Post editor and columnist Meg Greenfield put it this way in her posthumous autobiography: “Few journalists have much appreciation of the enormous impact we have on the lives of those we write about.” In a speech “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw gave earlier this year at Harvard University, he said: “If I could, I would take anyone who comes to power in American journalism and make them subject to a [front-page] news story. Then they would have a keen understanding of what so many interesting people go through.”
In this issue of Nieman Reports, we feature the perspective of people who, because of extraordinary circumstances, found themselves in the glare of the national media. What happens, we wondered, when journalists arrive? We pair these stories with those of journalists who have explored this topic in their reporting. And we also examine what happens when information about an issue that is as sensitive and explosive as the effects child care has on children’s development erupts into the media’s spotlight.
On Saturday, January 27, Audrey McCollum’s life was transformed by the murders of her neighbors, Dartmouth College professors Half and Susanne Zantop. For the next few months, as she mourned the loss of her friends, she also became someone to whom journalists turned for information and comment. She recounts her experiences as she explores whether her attempt to “honor dear friends actually caused harm?” As Chandra Levy’s disappearance became the summer’s biggest story, Kim Petersen, executive director of the Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation, helped Chandra’s parents deal with the avalanche of media requests. She writes about this and about how the coverage affects the Levy family. Robert Salladay, a political reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle, observed coverage of the Santana High School shootings from a different perspective as he sat in the hospital room of his nephew, who was injured in the shootings, and fielded calls from the media. Barbara Schardt, the mother of a junior at Santana High School, writes about what it is like to watch her 17-year-old son, John-David, become a source on which many in the media relied.
Barbara Willer, deputy executive director for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, writes about what happened when preliminary findings from a long-term child-care study erupted into misleading headlines and sounds bites. In his work as television writer and media critic for The (Baltimore) Sun, David Folkenflik realized that some of the toughest people to interview were TV reporters, who expected others to answer their questions, but were muzzled when it came to answering his. As he writes, “I am not suggesting that anyone should be required to speak. But for journalists, in particular, I think it can help restore trust with the public.” And Ike Seamans, a senior correspondent at WTVJ (NBC) News in Miami, reveals what he learned when he reported a story about what people don’t like about local news.
In our Books and Commentary section, journalists write about either a book they have written or a book they’ve read. Carol Polsgrove, a former Associated Press writer and now professor at Indiana University’s School of Journalism, borrows from research she used in writing her book, “Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement,” to describe the ways in which editors at influential national publications all but silenced the voices calling for racial integration after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. As she writes, “At a time when national magazines might well have been leading the way to change, they instead opened their pages to those who resisted it.”
William F. Woo, former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who teaches journalism at Stanford University, writes about Jack Lule’s book, “Daily News, Eternal Stories: The Mythological Role of Journalism,” in which he examines how a lot of newspaper stories can be read as versions of our oldest myths. But Woo wonders (and worries) aloud about how these eternal stories are also journalism. “How will this theory be reflected in the news product?” he asks. “How will they play out in the day-to-day work of assigning, reporting, writing and editing stories?” Warren Watson, a newspaper reporter, editor and designer for 26 years, observes that Kevin G. Barnhurst and John Nerone’s book, “The Form of News: A History,” examines “how social, economic and cultural forces led to the development of the modern, professional product we call today’s newspaper.” Nancy Day, director of Advanced Journalism Studies at Boston University and a freelance editor and writer, describes what makes “Beyond Argument: A Handbook for Editorial Writers,” a worthy companion for “editorial writers [who] enter the craft suddenly and without formal preparation.”
Dallas Morning News writer Dianne Solís, who reported from Mexico City from 1991 to 1997 for The Wall Street Journal, read “Looking for History: Dispatches From Latin America,” a compilation of essays by Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto and reports that the author is at her best “in her psychological portraits of Latin America’s unconventional politicos.” Wilson Wanene, a Kenyan-born freelance journalist in Boston, introduces us to “This House Has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria,” a book by Karl Maier, the Africa correspondent for The Independent of London from 1986 to 1996. “The reporting is a skillful mixture of recent Nigerian history, carefully selected interviews, and vibrant local color,” Wanene writes. John Herbers, who for 24 years was a reporter and editor at The New York Times, reveals what he learned about Daniel Schorr when he read his autobiography, “Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism.”