Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Personal experiences in reporting: An aid? Or an ethics problem?

Obviously, journalists are supposed to be unbiased presenters of fact who work in the interest of the public and not in the interest of personal agenda.

But what about simply reporting on something that you have an inherent understanding of, something that you're familiar with because of personal experience? That serves to make reporting better, assuming it doesn't add bias to the work, right?

I recently wrote a story on how UT basketball coach Cuonzo Martin has revitalized a recruiting pipeline to West Tennessee/Memphis.

However, this is a story that I had a personal interest in because I am actually from Memphis.

Would I have thought to write the article if I was not a Memphian? Maybe. I believe it would have crossed my mind as a potential story idea, but I honestly doubt I would have gone through with it.

My personal experience and background pushed me over the edge, though. I was in attendance at the UT-Memphis game in 2012 when Stokes sat behind the bench just days after ditching Memphis to pick the Vols.

I was simply a student enjoying one of my last nights of winter break in my hometown that night, not a journalist. But when this story idea popped into my head, I immediately began drawing on my experience at that game and I knew it was an article I should give serious thought to writing.

At UT basketball media day, each UT player was available for 1-on-1 interviews for more than 30 minutes.


Because the Beacon had a dedicated basketball beat reporter and other writers there to handle the majority of the content for our basketball preview series, I was free and able to focus on one thing: my story about the Memphis pipeline.

In addition to my 5-10 minute recorded 1-on-1 interviews with Robert Hubbs III, Antonio Barton and Jarnell Stokes, I was able to establish rapport with each player by briefly discussing aspects of commonality that we shared because of our familiarity with Memphis.

No worries. Those brief conversations didn't come near crossing the line of journalist and friend, but I do believe they helped loosen up both parties. Establishing with Barton that Knoxville BBQ doesn't compare with Memphis BBQ helped me relax and view Antonio more as a person I could relate to rather than just a basketball player. I think it helped him view me more as a fellow student and less as a random guy holding an I-phone in his face.

In my story - though I do have a history of expressing distaste for the Memphis basketball program from my pre-journalism days - I avoided taking unnecessary shots at the U of M. I attempted to treat it as if it were any other basketball program I might address in an article.

I firmly believe that my story was better because of my personal experience and connection with it. Yes, until I arrived at college my connection to this story was as a fan. But with a professional approach to the situation, my hope is that I simply told a detailed, relevant story that received a boost because of my own knowledge of it.

I'm essentially my own boss at the Beacon, so no one was going to shoot me down, but it is sincerely my desire to be as professional as possible during my time as a student journalist here, and this story was a pleasure to write.

While most stories pertaining to UT football and basketball are better told by the seasoned journalists working for well-respected outlets, I enjoyed telling this one because I feel like my familiarity with it allowed me to tell it well.

It's refreshing to write a story on something your readership cares about that they can't instantly get a better version of from a different media outlet. (frustrations of a student journalist covering SEC football).

If I hadn't grown up in Memphis, I wouldn't have been able to tell this one with as much insight as I did. Heck, I might not have told it all.

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