Scared of me, really?

Last week, I spoke to a group of environmental professionals about how the news media work. I was joined by my colleagues (and competitors!) David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post and Alex Dominguez of the Associated Press.

I was surprised when Chuck Fox — a high-up EPA official who deals with media regularly — told us that people often are scared to death of reporters. (For the record, I don’t think Chuck is scared of me, though.)

Scared to death? Of little ol’ me? I was surprised.

But as I thought about it, I realized there is a lot of mystery about what we do. The general public doesn’t really know how articles end up in the paper.

So here are some basics about how I do my job, in a Q&A format. Let me know if there’s anything else you’d like to know about how journalists and newspapers work.

How do you get your story ideas?
I have a mix of ways to get ideas about stories to write: things I think up, assignments from my bosses, events that just happen (thousands of fish turning up dead in a creek, for example), press releases, personal phone calls or e-mails from sources or readers who have ideas, letters to the editor, things I read in other media or spot on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. I’ve even gotten tips from people in my book club, bowling league and dance classes.

Who decides what you write about?
I am fortunate to get a lot of leeway in deciding my stories. But I do keep in constant touch with my editors, and we have ongoing discussions about what’s newsworthy. They have veto power over my ideas, and they also can assign stories to me.

How do you figure out the slant of your articles?
As a news reporter, I try not to have a “slant,” politically or otherwise. Sure, I have my own ideas about politics, policy and the environment, but I’m on constant guard not to let that influence my work.

I try to approach my stories looking for information that my readers want to know about, or what they need to know about. I try to stay skeptical, but not cynical, about what I’m hearing when I’m doing interviews, reading reports, etc.

Are you a full-time reporter?
I am fortunate to be employed full-time as a staff writer for a daily newspaper. I get paid by the hour, not per story. This is a good arrangement, because it means I can spend extra time on certain stories to get all the facts straight, and my pay won’t suffer.

That said, I work for a newspaper that needs stories each and every day to fill the pages and the website. Unless I’m working on a special project, I write four or five stories per week, plus news briefs, online updates and sometimes taking photos.

Do you have special environmental training?
No. In college, I studied journalism with a minor in government and politics.

While some reporters are fortunate to earn graduate degrees in their specialties, most of us are generalists. We learn on the job, and we work hard to digest complex information quickly and explain it accurately to our readers. The scientists, activists and policy experts working on the Chesapeake Bay have always been generous with their knowledge and quite patient with me.

Do you shoot all your own photos?
I end up doing the photography for many of my articles, and occasionally I shoot video as well. I’m lucky that photography has been my hobby — as the newsroom has been cut due to the downturn in the newspaper industry, we’ve lost photographers and I’ve had to fill that void.

I’d always rather work with a professional photographer on assignment. That way, I can focus on reporting and writing, and the photographer can focus on the pictures. And pro photographers are light years better than I am, and I want the best pictures possible for my articles.

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