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What reporters can learn from SPJ’s Journalists of the Year

The Society of Professional Journalists Western Washington chapter honored journalists from across the state on Thursday.

Among them, Seattle Times reporters Lewis Kamb and Jim Brunner were named Journalists of the Year. Kamb agreed to share the speech he gave during Thursday’s awards party:

It’s a terrific honor to be named SPJ’s Journalist of the Year. We’re deeply appreciative and humbled, and of course, grateful to all the support we received from the hard-working folks at The Seattle Times, especially our editor on the Murray stories, Beth Kaiman. (And to our families, who we take our work home to every day).

What I’d also like to share tonight is that the stories we covered about Ed Murray reminded me about the importance of one of our core missions as journalists, to give a voice to those who don’t have much of one, and about one of the tools that we employ as reporters that I think sometimes gets overshadowed amid all of the resources at our disposal these days. And that is, listening.

You know, I view myself as a watchdog, and I feel a responsibility to hold the powerful accountable. To that end, I file records requests, lots and lots of records requests. And I connect with important people who provide me with tips and information. And I talk to whistleblowers, who put themselves in peril to share with me. And I’m often running to this official, or to that powerful person or that expert, to that politician, or to this flack, to get a quote.

But a lot of times, in that quest for truth, or even just turning that story for the next edition, we can overlook those people who don’t have much of a voice, or much of a platform, or much power at all. The poor, the elderly, the homeless, the sick, the victimized — we talk about them a lot, sometimes very generically so. We include the latest stats and trends and figures about them in our stories. Sometimes, we quote them or a representative of them, when someone stands up at a public meeting or we run into them at a crime scene, and we think we’ve covered our bases.

But how often do we ignore them? How regularly do we disregard them? We’re eager to talk to our important “sources” in the know, but when that guy who seems a little bit off or a little bit nutty calls or emails us, do we answer? Are we really hearing what he has to say, or just looking for the next excuse to hang up the phone? Of course, we know that people on the margins live hard lives. Some use drugs, or commit crimes, or sound funny or seem paranoid. And so it’s easy to just blow them off, dismiss them, discredit them. But maybe there’s something more there.

One of the most powerful tools we can use as journalists is just to listen. Hearing people. Really sitting down, face to face, and letting someone tell their story -– and hearing it.  To me, that was the essential tool that Jim and I relied on during our coverage of Ed Murray.

As the Murray story developed – in April and May and June, before our coverage bore out to what it ultimately became — people would sometimes ask me – friends of mine, family, others – “Did he do it?” And early on, I think, this city really was in turmoil, struggling with that very question. I know Jim and I struggled with it every day.

And what I would say when someone asked me that question probably wasn’t very satisfying: “I don’t know. None of us do. We weren’t there.”  But then, I would usually say something else. “What I can tell you is that the men who came forward to accuse our mayor, we found them to be believable. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have covered these stories like we have.”

And that wasn’t picking sides. Jim and I were still wide open to the possibility that Murray didn’t do this. We were still giving him every opportunity to respond. If those old records we finally pried loose from Oregon had told a different story about false accusations, we were prepared to tell that story, too.

But what we discovered from the accusers, one by one, was a certain credibility that you couldn’t see on paper, in their rap sheets, or in their counseling notes, or even in their allegations spelled out in a lawsuit. It emerged through listening to them.

It was a gray Sunday morning in March last year, cold and pissing rain, when Jim and I drove down past Portland to Gladstone, Oregon, to knock on the door of a low-rent apartment unit.  A big, middle-school kid in T-shirt and baggy shorts flung open the door to a cramped and dark living room. We could barely see the man lying there, shirtless on the couch. Jeff Simpson shielded his eyes as the brightness from outside flooded in on him as he wondered aloud to us just who the hell we were. And, no sooner had we gotten the words out of our mouths that we were reporters, he was calling out, “Thank you, Jesus!” and told us that he had prayed this day would come.

For the next half an hour or so, and again the next day, he unburdened himself in vivid detail with his story of alleged abuse. Did you know, that years earlier, he had called reporter after reporter, and lawmaker after lawmaker, trying to tell that very same story?  And did you know, while some people talked to him on the phone, nobody had ever just gone and met with him, sat down, face to face, and listened? Looked him in the eyes. Saw them well with tears. Heard his breathing turn ragged, his voice pitch higher, when he got to the part about how he was raped the first time? No one had just gone to listen to him, person to person, until we did that day.

A few days later, we had a very similar experience – face to face – with a man named Delvonn Heckard, the first man to publicly accuse the mayor last year, in his lawsuit. And again, we listened. We heard the anger in his voice, and saw the humiliation on his face when he recounted what he did to make a few dollars as a crack-addicted teenager. We observed the way he answered our unscripted questions spontaneously, describing the layout of an apartment he supposedly never was in, and reeling off the digits of a three-decades-old phone number seemingly embedded in his memory.  We questioned him, yes. But we also listened to him. We heard what he said and how he said it.

There’s a power to that. Listening. Hearing a person tell their story. Yes, we need to file requests, and obtain records, and sift through data, and call officials and fact-check what people tell us. Yes, we need to be skeptical. But we also need to listen, person to person, to what people are trying to tell us. It can make you a better journalist.


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