Get closer

“They” say you can miss the forest because of the trees, but many times it’s easy as journalists to show the forest and fail to let people know what the “trees” are really like. I’ve had times like that. When I worked at the  Fort Scott Tribune, I found that forest in things like the summer street festival that I’d covered year after year or the school board’s monthly meetings. Yet, it was by stepping closer and closer that I started finding “trees” that helped both me and my readers find out what an interesting thing these forests really are. Here are four tips that I’ve found help me take a step closer:

  1. Get past the pros. The professionals are great for the stats and figures and they even have anecdotes that get you closer, but if you don’t let them introduce you to the real people who are directly affected by the issue you’re covering, you can get stuck showing your readers the forest. By stepping closer you can show them things like: the family that can’t pay their winter gas bill, the farmer who’s corn is turning brown because of the drought, the 28-year-old who’s just signed a mortgage on a condo in a tax-free zone and bring those numbers into vivid color. Many times the “pros” can put you in touch with the real people who are affected. Then, you can tell their stories and help the stats and figures come to life.
  2. Let your feet do some walking. Sure your fingers are faster, but there’s nothing like getting down in the action and walking through the neighborhoods. Get out of that car and walk around the block. You’ll meet people and you’ll find stories you can’t get in a drive-by.
  3. Take the time. The relationships that I build with time tend to be the ones that keep providing me with valuable tips and open doors. Because of a relationship I had, I was once invited to be the only media present when two Vietnam war buddies met and cried with a family. The veterans had come to share the story of how that family’s brother and son had died beside them some 20 years prior and it was the first time for the family to hear the story. Several years after that story, I ended up getting a personal account story from that same family from a son who had been in New York City on September 11th, 2001.
  4. See again for the first time. Whether it’s that street festival or the city budget meetings, try to look at it with the fresh eyes of someone who’s seeing it for the first time. It works for photographers and it works for writers, but sometimes it just takes work to see it with a fresh perspective. I’d covered the school board’s battle with the teacher’s union for months, but when I stepped closer and investigated pay and benefit rates compared with surrounding districts, I was able to show people more than an ongoing debate and let them see the reality of the situation.

————–<p>Michael Shead is a photojournalist and writer with experience in small town journalism as well as  international video documentaries. He serves as Communications Director at Resurrection Life Church in Grandville, Michigan. He also teaches photojournalism at Cornerstone University.