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Reporter's Notebook

Credit user niclas / Flickr http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Michigan Radio reporters and editors share their thoughts on covering the news.

Here you find their thoughts on journalism ethics, the challenges in covering certain news events, and their personal reactions to events unfolding in the field.

Read more below.

Bottled water.
John McDonnell / flickr http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Back in January of this year, when I first decided to embark on reporting about bottled water in Michigan, I had literally no idea what I was in for. That’s probably a good thing, because I plowed ahead naively optimistic and enthusiastic.

Sarah Hulett

Ten Julys ago, I sat down with my grandfather at his kitchen table for a conversation that went on for a couple of hours. It would be the first and last time I would do this, just me and him. We talked about how he met my grandmother, their early life together, and many other things.

We also talked about his time as a cop in Detroit – particularly that summer 50 years ago in the 10th Precinct where he worked, when the neighborhood erupted in civil unrest.

I am switching roles a bit at Michigan Radio. The change requires me to sell my lovely house in Grand Rapids to work out of Ann Arbor.

Reporter's Notebook

I watched an old black man cry today.

Sitting at a picnic table in Chandler Park, by census estimates the poorest area of the city of Detroit, John Henry Irelang talked about poverty in his neighborhood. But, empathy for his neighbors was not the only reason he cried.

He cried because of lost opportunity.

“I put in 89 days,” he said. That’s one day short from transitioning from a temporary worker to a full time worker. “I was paid $5 an hour while the guy working next to me doing the same job was making $11.”

Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

Tourism has exploded in Cuba since the Obama administration announced a resumption of diplomatic relations with the country in 2014.

Danilo Gomez is a law professor and, as is very common in Havana, is also employed in the tourist industry. He moonlights as a tour guide. Gomez says tourism has nearly doubled since the thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations, because Westerners want to see Cuba “before the Americans ruin it.”  A million people a year used to visit Cuba, he says.  Now it’s close to two million.

Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

Resourceful does not even begin to describe Cubans.  There is not enough of anything in Cuba – food, money, freedom.  So they make the most of what they have.  They call it “luchando,” which means fighting the good fight, managing despite long odds.

Individual Cubans can sell you just about anything more cheaply than the Cuban government can.

Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

Mercedes Mejia and I have been in Cuba for four days, long enough to have ridden a bus, taken a shared taxi, used the local currency, interviewed many Cubans, eaten some quite good meals, and formed a few impressions.  Here are a few of mine.

Feeling a little of Flint’s pain in Cuba

Everybody, no matter how brave their character, agrees one must not drink the tap water in Cuba. It is treated with chemicals, but I’m told it still has microbes that an American stomach would find most objectionable.

Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

I was still getting my bearings after arriving in Havana, when I spotted a chicken wandering the street. Nobody was chasing it with a frying pan. It seemed sure of itself, as if it considered itself no different from the human passersby. 

Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

When President Obama announced a resumption of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba in the fall of 2014, we kept our eyes and ears open for possible Michigan-Cuban stories to tell.

It didn’t take long to discover there are quite a few.  The Michigan Agribusiness Association has been wooing Cuban officials for years now, hoping to sell Michigan-grown produce in a new market.  You want black beans, Cuba?  We got your black beans in Michigan.

On April 25, 2014, Flint officials toasted each other as they flipped the switch to the Flint River.
WNEM-TV

I don’t blame the governor’s press secretary for not understanding exactly who made the decision to have Flint pump its drinking water from the Flint River. It was a complicated decision making process with multiple key players that lasted at least a few months.

Back in the spring of 2013, when this decision was made, Governor Rick Snyder’s press secretary, Dave Murray, was one of “us”; a journalist working for The Grand Rapids Press/MLive.

This story was updated to include a link to the 2015  Event Price Structure.

After two weeks and several requests via email, telephone, and in person, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has finally revealed information which should have been easily available to anyone.

Government records revealed under the Freedom of Information Act.
Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

In order for parents to make the best decisions for their children, they need to know what’s going on. So do taxpayers and voters.

In my years of writing about school districts all over the state, I’ve learned everyone wants to brag about the successes. No one is in a hurry to admit when things aren’t working for students.

Brian Wybenga

All this week, Michigan Radio and the  Detroit Journalism Cooperative are looking at city services and quality of life issues in the city of Detroit. Michigan Radio's assistant news director, Sarah Hulett, is a Detroit resident and brings us this essay about living with crime. 

If you’re on the fence about staying in Detroit or moving out, there’s an absurd and irrational sort of calculus you do when it comes to crime.

General Motors

Media had their first chance to see General Motor's new CEO Mary Barra in action Sunday night.  Barra introduced the new GMC Canyon.

Afterwards, she went through the trial by fire known as a media scrum, her first.  Barra was surrounded on almost all sides by a huge crowd of reporters.  Her GM handlers made sure her back was to a truck, to give her an exit strategy.

Sometimes people don’t tell the truth. More often, they don’t tell the whole truth. Sometimes they do it on purpose to make their argument appear stronger. Other times they make honest mistakes. Sorting it out is my job as a reporter. Yesterday, the Sierra Club dumped a fair amount of work on my lap when it released an error laden press release giving Governor Snyder a failing grade on energy and environmental actions.

Here’s what I found that I think you should know.

Rick Pluta / Michigan Public Radio

It’s been quite a week in Michigan. Maybe you heard about it?

Our legislature introduced and passed so called “right to work” legislation in two days and Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed it within hours, dealing a harsh blow to the more than 12,000 union supporting protestors surrounding the building.

But – did you see what I did there? Did my bias jump off the page at you?

I heard a political ad for radio this week that really got me angry.

OK…sure…I’m probably not alone in that.

But I wasn’t angry because I agree or disagreed with the position taken, or because the ad was misleading or an outright fabrication.

I’m used to “pants on fire” statements in political ads and even expect it. 

What bothered me about this particular ad was that it was produced to sound exactly like a news story. A news story that’s close enough to being possible that many listeners could be easily fooled.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

I just spent about $5,000 at the two national political conventions.

No, I wasn’t out wining and dining with the heavy hitters, and despite how much my critics would love to finally be able to prove my biases, I wasn’t handing out political contributions to candidates either.

I spent the money to send Michigan Radio reporters to cover the Michigan delegation at each convention.

Last Tuesday was National Radio Day! How do I know? I saw it on Facebook, of course, which is where everyone who is younger than me seems to get all their news.

But not me. I’m still a radio guy. So I celebrated National Radio Day by working in the news room at Michigan Radio, where we also spend lots of time on Facebook.

Michigan Radio

The Boy Scouts of America recently reaffirmed their ban on allowing openly gay boys to participate in Boy Scouts, and openly gay or lesbian adults from being leaders.

(Full disclosure – I was a Boy Scout for many years during my teens, but that was decades before anyone was debating this issue.)

We live in an odd world where what side of the “homosexual agenda” you are on can now be demonstrated not only by your participation in scouts, but also where you buy your chicken sandwich.

Vincent Duffy

Last week, a bomb threat called in from Canada shut down the tunnel that runs under the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor. The tunnel is the second busiest crossing between the United States and Canada. The busiest crossing is the Ambassador Bridge just more than a mile down river. The tunnel was closed to traffic for most of the afternoon while authorities from both countries inspected the tunnel and found no bomb.

Michigan Radio reported on these events, keeping commuters up to date on the traffic situation and the rest of our audience informed about the events.

WBUR

In my large Irish family, our stories get better with age. It’s not that we lie about what’s happened to us, but when we get together for holidays or family events, we usually tell the same stories and they get better every time.

They start out as true of course, and the people, places and events all stay the same, but over time the funny parts get a little more funny, the dialogue a little more snappy and clever, and the reactions from onlookers a little more outrageous.

Scorpians and Centaurs / Flickr

Being married to someone in the news business isn’t easy. Our spouses deal with our long hours and travel, our preoccupation with news when we’re at home, unexpected interruptions on holidays and weekends, and our refusal to accept those free family tickets offered by the nearby theme park.

Lots of families have to deal with long hours and work that follows you home, but that theme park ticket example separates journalists from many other professions. We have an ethics code to follow.

“Well it’s been a quiet a week in my hometown…”

Fans of A Prairie Home Companion will recognize those words as the opening to Garrison Keillor’s weekly monologue about the fictional town of Lake Wobegon. But this week the real life of Garrison Keillor was probably more exciting than the tales from “the little town that time forgot,” because this week, Garrison Keillor hosted a fundraising event for President Obama’s re-election campaign.

Alan Cleaver / Flickr

It happens. Sometimes my newsroom misses a story, or we don’t staff a press conference. Every once in a while it’s because we didn’t know about it, but more often than not it’s because we have a small group of reporters to cover the state of Michigan, and we can get spread pretty thin.

Every news director or assignment editor has to pick and choose between coverage opportunities. While the occasional slow news days exist, on most days there are more stories than we can cover and choices are made.

Vincent Duffy

I always enjoy the holiday related updates I get from friends and relatives at this time of year. Some send old fashioned Christmas cards, others send elaborate newsletters highlighting the successes (usually) of each family member from the previous year, and still others just send a quick email or Facebook post to say they’re thinking about me.

It’s also the time of year when I’m frequently accused by listeners of being a soldier in the war against Christmas.

Australian Broadcasting Company / Flickr

I received an email last week from a listener angry enough to write the most common threat I hear from Michigan Radio listeners, “I will never donate to your station again!”

We hadn’t libeled or defamed this man. We didn’t misquote him or make an error in a story he thought was important. He wasn’t even accusing us of left-or-right wing bias.

Rich Rodriguez in 2007 accepting the coaching position at UM
Detroit News / Creative Commons

Lots of media outlets in Southeast Michigan reported yesterday that University of Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez had been fired. It wasn’t a surprise and everyone has been waiting for it to happen, and some listeners thought it was odd they didn’t hear about it on Michigan Radio. 

Want to know why? Well, couldn’t nail the rumors down as true, so we didn’t report it. Turns out that was the right decision.

Michigan Radio’s goal is to cover issues oriented news. What’s that mean? We look for stories that affect our listener’s lives, their communities, and our state. We leave the daily mayhem of crimes and fires to other media outlets, because those stories are not part of our mission.

Following that mission is not always easy.