March 23, 2005

Journalism 101

One of the first journalism classes I had to take covered some of the various methods of reporting news. For example, there are human interest reporting methods, hard news reporting methods, observational reporting methods, etc.

Personally, I enjoyed hard news reporting: being sent to the scene of unfolding news and trying hard to report what I saw as well as speaking with witnesses and available authorities. It's a rush, there's no question about it. It was fulfilling work, even though I was making $6 an hour.

I was often torn, though. On the one hand, I was getting the story, yes, but on the other hand, I definately inconvenienced my fair share of witnesses and authorities. Many was the police officer directing traffic that I annoyed in order to get an interview. It was a necessary but ugly aspect of hard news reporting.

I also did my share of observational reporting, which is basically just looking around and writing down what I saw. How many people were there? What was the mood of the crowd? That sort of thing. With observational reporting, I learned, you had best be precise. I once got an angry letter to the editor complaining that that I had used the term "handful of people" to describe the number of attendees at a meeting. After that, I made damned sure to do a head count during sparsely attended meetings.

There is a time and a place for hard news reporting and observational reporting. And it's usually up to the discretion of the reporter when it comes to which reporting method to use.

In the case of the Minnesota school shooting this week, I think it's pretty fair to say that a healthy mix of hard news reporting and observational reporting is required. As much as I'm turned off by the carnivorous reporting methods utilized by many in the media, I do understand the underlying desire to gather information and interviews and file a story. It's the nature of the beast.

All of which, of course, is a long-winded segue into the latest column by Nick Coleman, a journalism veteran with over 20 years of experience. I could just as easily rip on the latest lazy bit of observational reporting by Doug Grow, and his odd obsession with a pipe, but I'll stick with Coleman, who we all know I don't particularly care for.

PONEMAH, MINN. -- Way out on the ice, a small huddle of men squatted around a hole in Red Lake on Tuesday, basking in the early spring sun, squinting into the glare bouncing off a seemingly endless expanse of frozen water and fishing for perch. On land, parked at the tip of a peninsula, watching the action out on the ice, two guys in a car with a back seat full of kids rolled down a window:

"Hey, this is the end of the world, huh?" one said.

That's right, ladies and gentlemen. You're sent to the scene of the most tragic school shooting since Columbine, and probably the biggest news story to hit Minnesota since Jesse Ventura took office. So, what do you do? You speak to a carload of people watching ice fishing "action." And, not only that, you don't even bother to get a NAME for the person you just QUOTED. Hmm. Gosh, it's almost like, I don't know, he almost made it up or something.

*several paragraphs omitted here, because Coleman does his usual act of taking freakin' forever to even come close to getting to the point.*

Ten were dead, and the traveling ghouls turned out in force Tuesday -- the media horde that attends each new atrocity.

Hey, look! Nick Coleman's amongst them, too! That ghoul!

There were a dozen satellite TV trucks in Red Lake, a town of 1,889 souls where the fire lookout tower seems higher than the water tower and keeps vigil over the birch scrub and stunted pine forests along the flat southern shore.

Like I said earlier, I'm all for observational reporting as a necessary component to journalism, but what the hell does a fire lookout tower have to do with anything? It's like Coleman suffers from reporting ADD or something. "Ten were dead, and there were satellite TV trucks and. . . hey, look! A fire lookout tower! And that dog has a puffy tail! Here Puff! Here Puff! Hee, hee, hee!"

"Did you say you're the 'tribal leader?' " one guy with a microphone asked Red Lake Chairman Floyd Jourdain Jr., who was weary with exhaustion and from repeating the basic crash course guide to Indian Country.

One guy with a microphone? Wow. What a shock. And, apparently, Coleman is, himself, an expert when it comes to reporting from "Indian Country," so much so that he doesn't even bother to enlighten the readers with his own personal knowledge. Could it be that Coleman has no idea about anything even remotely associated with Indian Country, so he just belittles his microphone-wielding counterparts instead?

"This is Indian land," Jourdain repeated, over and over. "You are our guests. We are a federal entity without state laws and, as far as we are concerned, some of the last Indian land on the planet."

Yes, yes, the impatient media man said. "But some of us have been to school shootings across the country ..."

He must've realized how stupid that sounded, because, after an awkward and self-conscious beat, he added "unfortunately." But what he needed to know was when would Red Lake hold a memorial for the shooting victims? Because in other towns when people are cut down in cold blood, there are flowers and candles and visitors who come and build emotionally moving tributes.

Point?! Anybody see a point here?! If anybody sees a point, please call 1-800-NEEDAPOINT. The story, to Coleman, isn't that there was a school shooting, it's that the media (an admittedly often dense media) is trying to get interviews and information. Forgetting, of course, that Coleman is right there amongst the "ghouls." But, he's not ghoulish himself, because he's reporting on the ghouls. . . or whatever it is that makes sense in Coleman's mind.

Red Lake is not just another town. Poverty runs deep amid the squalid conditions for some who still live in backwoods trailers or tiny government homes. Red Lake is a place of deep roots, a place, elders often like to say, where human beings have lived continuously in one spot longer than anywhere in Minnesota.

To be accurate, a lot of Northern Minnesota consists of backwoods trailers. When you get up around Red Lake and Northome and basically anywhere north of Bemidji, you're going to see a lot of shanties and hovels. I'm reminded of one place in particular, on the way to Black Duck, I think, that's basically a trailer with so much junk strewn around the "yard," it looks like a landfill. The owner is so proud of his sprawling mess, he sports a big spray-painted sign facing the road that reads "Anti-DNR." Clever. Point is, Coleman's description of squalid conditions is definately not unique to Red Lake or Indian reservations, though I certainly can't deny such conditions exist. At any rate, poverty and squalid conditions, as far as I've read, weren't contributing factors in the shooting, so why mention them at all? Oh, right, it's a Nick Coleman column, which simply isn't complete without some mention of the poor.

School slaughters take place in suburbs or declining factory towns. Not in a place of connection and community. Not Red Lake.

Well, um, no, not really. But, simple research and fact-checking have never been much of a Nick Coleman strength.

The Ponemah Community Center, where some of the villagers gathered for grief counseling Tuesday, looks like a community building in a much bigger and badder city. Graffiti scar the back of the building, steel bars cover the lower windows; some of the upper ones have been smashed. While the grief counselors worked, cars full of kids wearing baggy clothes and backward baseball caps cruised by, hip-hop music booming from car windows.

Funny thing is, it takes a school shooting for Nick Coleman to acknowledge that the cultures developing on Minnesota Indian reservations are a bit, um, scary. Coleman forgets to mentions that the Red Lake school has featured metal detectors and security guards for some time, precisely because of the culture that Nick Coleman is just now apparently aware exists. Graffiti and steel bars didn't just appear overnight.

Not even an isolated Indian reservation in the muskegs of northwestern Minnesota can keep violent America at bay. Or Nazi chat rooms.

Yeah, we should really look into curbing that nasty free speech thing that's all over the Internet. As much as I loathe the darker side of the Web, and as much as I think Nazi chat rooms are vile fountains of hate, I can't deny their right to exist. Free speech can be a bitch, but it's a bitch I'm willing to die for to protect. Nick Coleman? Not so much.

Back in the town of Red Lake, the Seven Clans Casino was closed for the day, flags at half-staff and the parking lot empty outside the former hockey arena that now echoes to slot machines, not slap shots.

More Nick Coleman ADD. "Ten dead, former hockey arena-turned casino, lack of slap shots. Here Puff! Here Puff! Hee, hee, hee!"

By the way, extra points awarded to those of you who get the "here, Puff" reference. Even more points awarded for images of Wanda Nara nude. Man, Wanda Nara has big breasts.

Posted by Ryan at March 23, 2005 11:50 AM

Your fisking was terrific as usual.

And the "Here puff" reference is a Homer Simpson line. Episode 114 - Fear of Flying.

Posted by: Doug at March 23, 2005 01:31 PM

Ding, ding, ding! Doug get's it right!

Posted by: Ryan at March 23, 2005 01:44 PM

Hey Ryan, just want to remind you that you have an international audience - Nick Coleman might just be a shiny helmet, but we wouldn't know. We want more dirty mushroom - after all, you exist for our entertainment. Dance, you damn monkey!

By the way, have you emailed Mr Coleman to make him aware of your critical deconstructions? It's only fair to give him a right of reply. I'd be delighted if he started posting comments. It'd be even funnier if he started critiquing your blog in his 'paper column.

Posted by: simon at March 24, 2005 05:15 AM

Simon, Coleman has bigger fish to fry than me. He's been going after the guys at Powerline since at least December. I'm a pretty minor entity by comparison.

Posted by: Ryan at March 24, 2005 08:57 AM
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