March 9, 2009

One idea follows another

One of the biggest complaints many have against most journalism is the "pack mentality."

Often the journalism scrum heads off in the same direction. Some of that is because where the journalists are headed is where the news is. And woe be the reporter who doesn't have what everyone else has on what happened that day.

But some times one reporter sees something others do not and the rest then scramble to catch up.

Here is a good example:

March 5 The Financial Times did an excellent piece on how local Chinese governments and businesses are using an old system where the people can complain to the ruling elite as a new means of repression. (Punished supplicants)

The basic story is that the one system the communist government of China allows for people to officially complain about corrupt or inefficient government leaders is now being used to silence criticism. Local government leaders send thugs to the national Office of Letters and Calls to "persuade" petitioners from their area to "rethink" their complaints. Often times, the petitioners are "helped" in making their decision by being held without charges.

So, this story comes out in the Financial Times March 5. It gets a lot of publicity from the China watching crowd. (That's how I saw it.)

And lo and behold, out come more stories along this vein.

National Public Radio did a piece March 9. (Chinese In Search Of Justice Face Arduous Task)

And a day later, the New York Times has a piece, Seeking Justice, Chinese Land in Secret Jails.

I am not complaining about the copycat reporting. We all do it. But would it not be better if we could give our students the encouragement to be the reporter who does the FIRST story that everyone else copies?

To me we must help develop our students' natural curiosity about the world around them. We should point them to different means of getting data and story ideas. And we must reward, as teachers, those students who do break away from the pack with unusual stories.

I still recall one student, when given the feature writing topic "Green," thought he would do a story about why George Mason uses green as its official color. (Other students looked at money, the environment, jealousy, etc.)

This student made a number of calls to various university offices and associations. No one could tell him why green was chosen.

He called me, rather downhearted, that he could not do the story because he could not find anyone who could tell him how or why the decision was made. I told him the LACK of solid information is now the story. I suggested he write about his search and how the university has no record of how or even when it made a decision to use green as its dominant color.

I am sure that with a few more years under his belt he would have thought of that different angle himself, but then again, maybe with a more rigid professor or editor he might have been afraid to step forward and suggest a change in the focus of the story. A change that was mandated by the lack of information about the first focus.

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