Saturday, November 18, 2017

A Year Later, A New Career

Thanksgiving weekend, 2016.

I was reeling from the Presidential election result, and not only because I was worried about the future of the country: I saw the handwriting on the wall that my current career might be over.

There were some ominous signs that things might take a turn for the worse. After 17 years of full-time magazine freelancing and 12 previous years in newspaper and wire service newsrooms, I could see clear signs that my industry was changing. Newspapers were shutting down. Long-time reporters were flooding the freelance market. And there were two other disturbing trends. One was that bloggers, who I call, "self-styled journalists," were trying to fashion themselves as legitimate news reporters, despite not having solid news gathering experience or training. They were muddying the validity of the news cycle. As a result, the industry was taking a serious credibility hit. The other looming issue was that I had spent the election cycle observing Trump and his treatment of the media, starting with Jorge Ramos at that infamous news conference. Here, I thought, was a Captain of Industry, accustomed to having people kowtow to his whims and wishes. Here was a future authoritarian, not a democratic President. Trump was already attacking members in my profession, accusing them of producing stories that were "fake news" (what a laugh). If he consolidated power, as I suspected he would with a GOP-led Congress, the free press could become a vapid memory of bygone days.

And then there were some other practical issues I was facing. As a self-employed freelancer, I heavily relied on the Obamacare subsidies for my health insurance. I also am now over age 50 (gasp!) and worried about being diagnosed with a pre-existing condition. If Republicans made their threat good to sweep away my health care protections, I would be a sitting duck.

What to do?

I spent the month of November and early December 2016 pondering all of this. Then, one Sunday in early December last year, I attended a family dinner. My dilemma became a topic of table discussion.

"I've always thought you'd be a great teacher," someone said.

Everyone around the table nodded.

I thought about that. Throughout my adulthood, I've spent time volunteering as Sunday School teacher, usually with teenagers and young adults. I thought about how I especially loved being around middle schoolers.

"The problem," I told my family, "is that I would need to go back to school to get a teaching certification. At my age? Everyone would laugh."

"Try substitute teaching first," someone said. "See if you like it, and then cross that bridge later."

It was worth a shot. I could keep freelancing while substituting on the side, and if I hated it, I could cross that option off of my list.

I applied to my local school district, which had a shortage on substitute teachers, and I was accepted immediately. On my first day of work in February 2017, I came home completely exhausted -- and completely elated. I'd spent the full day substituting with non-verbal special needs elementary school children. One wanted to just hold my hand and walk in a circle on the playground perimeter during the full 30 minutes of recess. Saying nothing, we walked round and round as his tiny, chubby hand held mine in a tight clasp. I felt like I shouldn't even be paid for the privilege of spending time among such precious and innocent souls.

The next day, I was in an inner-city elementary school, with 33 raucous third graders. I played classical music as they entered and jumped into the teacher's lesson plan. The school principal came into the classroom and sat in the back (not intimidating at all!) and asked me who I was and where I had come from. "This is my second day substituting," I whispered to her. "I don't know what I'm doing." Her jaw dropped. "I thought you were an experienced teacher!" she exclaimed.

Later, one of my trouble makers in the classroom tapped me on the shoulder.

"I heard you tell the principal you were new," she said. Then she smiled broadly. "Guuuuuuuuuurl! You somethin' else!" She laughed as she trotted away back to her desk and started working feverishly on a worksheet I had given them.

That was all it took. I was hooked.

I spent the next four months traveling around the district. I decided to "try out" every age group, every socio-economic variety of school, every intellectual level (gifted versus non-verbal special needs, to "average" kiddo). I was in kindergarten and pre-school classes. I was in special needs rooms. I was at elementary, middle and high school. I was in the richest neighborhoods and the poorest alike.

In addition, I had picked up a part-time job at Junior Achievement, helping 5th graders learn how to run a newspaper in an imaginary town called, "BizTown."

I had a strategy after those first two days: The first part of the winter, I would rely on freelancing for 90 percent of my income and teaching for 10 percent. The second part of the winter, I would go 50-50. And by spring, I would rely on teaching for 90 percent of my income and freelancing for 10 percent. I decided that I would ease into this slowly, to make certain this was the right move for me.

By March, I had achieved the 50-50 ratio, and by May, I was at 90 percent teaching and 10 percent freelancing.

In July, I interviewed for a "paraeducator" special needs position at my son's former middle school. It would involve assisting special needs teachers. I landed the job and started in August with a room of  some non-verbal autistic students and others who were high on the spectrum but verbal. Two weeks later, the school transferred me to work exclusively with two autistic children. I follow them to their classes and assist them so that they can complete work alongside everyone else. It is the most fulfilling thing I've done since I was a cub reporter at my first newspaper at age 23.

And yes, I am still freelancing.

I whittled my freelance client list down to three key clients. I chose them because 1) They pay well, 2) The editors treat me professionally and 3) They pay on time -- a magic combination.

Ironically, 75 percent of my income still comes from my freelance clients. I spend my nights and weekends reporting and writing, although it's about 25 percent of my work time. And 25 percent of my income comes from my new teaching job. I spend 75 percent of my work time with the children.

It doesn't matter. I have achieved a balance in which the writing still supports my cost of living, and I can enter a new field and help make my tiny corner of the world a better place.

Oh. And the teaching job also provides an amazing health insurance package that costs one-fourth of the cost of what I was paying under Obamacare. The benefits are astounding, and I also have the support of a teachers' union, which provides more perks.

After working solo in my home for 17 years full-time, this also has opened my world to a different type of workplace, where the goal is to bring up an educated and kinder generation. The past three months have been nothing short of incredible for me.

So what are my next steps? Originally, I was going to head back to school this fall, but I wanted to see how I would first manage my new full-time job and freelancing. Now that I have a handle on the physical toll (it's exhausting), I will probably hold off until the summer months, when I'm off, to start on my Master's degree. I'd like to get a Master's in learning behavior disabled children and continue working with troubled kids on the middle school level. I intend on continuing to freelance as my income needs demand it, but hopefully will transition eventually into a full-time teaching job after my school work is completed.

Some people might say that after a certain age, life is over. I'd say a new chapter in my life is beginning again. My son, who has Asperger's Syndrome, is also doing exceptionally well in the International Baccalaureate Programme at his high school as a freshman. This is a transitional time for both of us, but very exciting.

My story here isn't to discourage anyone from entering the news media profession. I have had a fulfilling journey as a journalist and later, magazine writer. Writing is still very much a part of my life and my personality. But so is the joy I am deriving from teaching young minds. I look forward to every day with a smile on my face and hope in my heart.

A year does make a big difference.


Sunday, October 15, 2017

The "Harvey Weinsteins" in the News Industry

While everyone is focused on Hollywood turning its blind eye to the Harvey Weinstein saga, many wonder why it took so long for the story to come out. Although there are legal reasons (fear of libel lawsuits), no one is really discussing the obvious:

There are Harvey Weinsteins in the news industry.

I know.

I worked among them and side-stepped them during my time at four newspapers and The Associated Press earlier in my career.

This weekend, I've been reading testimonials and calling up Youtube recordings of interviews with women actors who had the unfortunate (and similar) experiences with this powerful man. Many have been criticized for not speaking out sooner. Many have explained that they thought they were "the only one" or that they would not be taken seriously. They were trying to preserve their careers. It took the voices of many for them to come forward today. I understand this. And I'm going to break my own silence about a former news editor, who will remain anonymous, if it helps other women to understand they're not alone -- no matter what industry you're in. Maybe if we talk about our own "Harvey Weinsteins," it will help to not only change Hollywood, but every single business and corporation. Voices count.

I'm not going to identify the news outlet where this took place, because frankly, it's the Internet, and anyone can find this blog entry and accuse me of false accusations. But let's just say that this experience led to some major career-altering decisions. Before I launch in, let me also say that I have nothing to gain by telling this story. I've long-since been out of mainstream newsrooms, and after a lengthy time of solo freelancing, I'm now segueing into a teaching career. The only purpose in my telling this story is to help others see that this is a rampant problem, across the board for women.


I was single. I was moving up. I was in a very competitive environment as a news reporter. My stories were constantly on front pages across the country. I had my sights on a next career step and knew where I wanted to go. It was within striking distance, and I felt that it was just a matter of time before I made that move.

Then my editor quit, and we had a replacement -- a guy who was about 15 years older than I was and who was going through a divorce. He seemed affable enough and easy going. Immediately that first week, he started inviting me to take my lunch break with him. Like many of the actresses who encountered Harvey, I felt that these lunches were important to building a working relationship that would help me achieve my career goal. I was able to discuss developing stories and ask for advice about managing my sources during these lunches. I was able to discuss my long-term career goals.

At the time, my widowed mother lived several states away from me, and she started raising alarms. How did I know that this new editor didn't have "expectations" of "something else?" I told her that she was over-reacting. This was a harmless person, I said, and besides, no one "did that type of thing anymore."

"It's not the 1960s or 70s anymore, Mom," I remember telling her. She strongly advised that I stop accepting his lunch break requests.

My boyfriend worked in the same newsroom, but with a different news outlet. He also was concerned. He wasn't the jealous type, but he also felt that this wasn't a good idea.

I didn't take either of them seriously until the new boss started asking me questions about my relationship with my boyfriend. At that point, I decided it would be prudent to stop accepting the lunch break invitations. I explained that I had too much to do on deadline, and although I appreciated the invites, it was better for me to take lunch alone.

Suddenly the atmosphere in my little work environment changed.

Before, I could do no wrong with my writing and reporting. Overnight, there were multiple inane questions about my sentence structures, my paragraph order, my choice of a lead. My stories were being rewritten to mangled garble before my eyes, and there was nothing I could do about it. The editor became critical of the types of questions I was asking sources. I would have to call and re-call people, asking questions that I had already posed, but doing so because the editor wanted to "be sure" that they "said what I thought they said."

Nothing was right. Nothing was good. Everything I tried to do was "substandard."

All of this time, the editor persisted in inviting me to lunch or dinner. I decided to try an experiment and see if the editing criticism was linked to the days that I declined an invite. On the days that I accepted the lunch invites, miraculously, my stories were "perfect." On the days I didn't, the stories were terrible.

I shared my frustrations with my boyfriend. He suggested that we take a photo of him, blow it up, put it in a giant frame and put it right on my desk. Maybe that would send a message that I was unavailable. I did it, and the behavior worsened. It was as if the photograph of the boyfriend sent this editor over the edge. It was so prevalent on my desk. And from that point on, my stories were obliterated every time I turned them in.

It wasn't just the editor, either. A married male reporter who was in charge when the editor was absent had a habit of calling up pornography while he sent the rest of us out on assignments. One day after work, I and a woman colleague decided to collect evidence of what this man was doing. So we downloaded a record of his computer cookies on a memory stick and held onto it in case we needed it. When my editor tried to corner me one day for not following this reporter's directions, I pulled the memory stick and said I would send it to higher-ups unless both of them backed off.

I was miserable. I should state clearly that there was not an overt attempt to "paw" at me or corner me sexually. I never allowed myself to be alone with this man. But there was a persistent wearing-down on my decisions as a reporter -- a persistent questioning of whether I was accurate -- a persistent maligning of my writing and rewriting of my work until it was unrecognizable. In a few instances, I demanded that my byline be removed from stories that had been ruined.

Finally, I'd had enough. One day after everyone had cleared the newsroom and the place was silent except the buzzing of the florescent lights over my desk, I called a lawyer. I had seen this lawyer testify before legislative committees that I had been covering about women's rights. I identified myself to his administrative assistant and explained why I was calling. He got on the phone immediately, and I gave a short summary of my hostile work environment.

"Well, let me ask you a few questions before we proceed," he said.

"Do you have trouble eating or problems with your appetite?" No.

"Do you have problems sleeping?" No.

"Do you have any problems like ongoing vomiting?" No.

"Do you have migraines?" No.

"Do you feel that your physical health has been affected adversely in any way by what this man is doing?" No.

"Have you told him to stop asking you to lunch?" Yes.

"Have you made a report to his supervisors?" Yes, but I was told by his supervisor to "act like a professional and maybe you won't have problems in the future." (His boss was a woman, by the way.)

"Have you kept a journal?" No.

"Do you see a psychologist or psychiatrist for emotional issues?" No.

Basically, he told me that there was not enough to prove that my life had been hurt in a negative way by what this editor was doing. I still had a job. I had not received a negative report on my work quality. I was considered by many within the industry and those who knew me in that community to be a strong reporter. My reputation was intact and had not been maligned. I had not been held back from promotions -- yet. And all he had done was ask me to lunch. Repeatedly. But that wasn't enough for a lawsuit.

You may say that I had a chip on my shoulder. You may wonder if my work was substandard and whether this guy just was being a good editor. You may think I'm crazy. There are many reasons that people may question whether this person was willfully making my life difficult and whether I am making all of this up.

But the people who know me, people like my mother and my former boyfriend, would remember that I was under such stress that I could barely function. After a time, my stories probably were not up to par, because I was always fearing that this man would take his idiot pen and rip them to shreds.

So how does this story end?

Well, the lawyer told me that if I really wanted to "nail him," I should keep a journal for the next six months, and then we would look at filing a lawsuit.

I thought about that, and in the end, I decided against it. Like many women in my generation, I had to weigh whether it was worth the fight and whether my reputation could take a hit when he defended himself against my accusations. Plus, I also felt that part of my soul was becoming embittered. I wanted to live a good life, not one where I was constantly looking over my shoulder and trying to "get back" at someone else.

I decided to take the high road and keep my mouth shut. I put out my resume and landed a job within three weeks of my search. I took a $15,000 PAY CUT to move four states away and start over. I abandoned my earlier dream and felt that I was escaping with my soul and reputation intact.

But the saddest thing about this, for me anyway, was when I called one of my sources to inform him that I had taken a new job.

"Where are you going?" my source asked me.

"To North Carolina," I answered. "I'm taking a pay cut. I can't tell you why I'm leaving, but I wanted to say goodbye, because you've been great to work with."

He paused, and there was about a 10-second silence on the other end. I waited. And then he said the words that have haunted me to this day:

"How the mighty have fallen. I'm so sorry. I wish you well."

I've always wondered if he knew.

So yes. There are Harvey Weinsteins in every industry, as well as in the media. They may not all look and sound like Harvey Weinstein. They may not perpetrate the same level of vicious attacks as he did. But the effect is the same: Women are silenced. Women put their careers second to their need to survive. Women feel they are alone. Women don't talk about it out of fear of not being taken seriously.

The bright side of this story is that if I had never had this change in my life, I would not have my son today. I eventually married a U.S. serviceman who went to war, and although we are now divorced, our kid is pretty great. I look for a silver lining in every cloud, and my son is my "platinum lining."

But the issue still remains.

What can a woman do when a man who has power over her controls her career? I'm not sure there is an answer. But I'm grateful to actors like Rose McGowan for standing firm and discussing their painful histories with Harvey Weinstein. Maybe by doing so, they will see a world of good done for women not only in Hollywood, but also throughout industries far and wide.

The next time you hear someone on TV say, "Why did it take so long for the Harvey Weinstein story to come out?" just remember ... There are Harvey Weinsteins in the media, just like there are Harvey Weinsteins in your workplace. You may not know their names or their actions, but they're there.

And now I've added my voice to the others about how my own "Harvey" affected me.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The "Anonymous Source" Game

I've seen a lot of people on Twitter fussing and fuming about the "anonymous sources" cited in Washington Post and New York Times articles regarding the Trump-Russia investigation. They seem to think that because a source is unnamed, it makes that source less credible.

As someone who has been in the journalistic profession for 27 years, I'm stepping outside the intended audience for this blog -- fellow journalists -- to those of you who are NOT journalists and who do not understand how this works. Hopefully, this insight will clear up a few misconceptions. And if not, at least I've put pen to paper to explain how "The Anonymous Source Game" works.

Now in case you don't believe that I know what I'm talking about ... I spent 12 years in mainstream newspapers in Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina as a reporter and editor. I also spent four years covering Pennsylvania state politics in the Capitol for The Associated Press as a Newswoman. For the past 15 years, I have been a solo freelancer, writing for a variety of military, business and health publications. When I was with the AP, I covered the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, as well as the state Department of Education and the state Public Utility Commission during the deregulation of the electric industry.

So I know a thing or two when it comes to "anonymous sources."

Let me explain how this worked, using my experience with the AP in a highly-charged political environment. Let's pretend you are an AP reporter in the Pennsylvania statehouse.

So the day starts this way:

You come into the newsroom with your coffee, and the phone rings. It's a staff member for a state representative with a tip about a plan to secretly railroad an unpopular bill through the Legislature. The staff member says explicitly: "This is not for you to quote me. I am giving this to you anonymously. I just want you to know what is going on."

Now it's up to you as the reporter to ferret out whether this is true.

So you go downstairs to the press spokesman for the House Majority Leader and ask if it's true. He flatly asks where you heard the rumor, and you demure. He says he cannot confirm or deny it, but you could ask the committee chairman where the bill is currently sitting.

Now how are you going to get the story? You don't want to go to the committee chairman, because the second he knows you're onto it, he could impede your reporting. Before you hit him for an answer, you have to go to some more anonymous sources.

Using the information that the caller gave you while your coffee was getting cold, you start calling other press officers for other representatives. You find that no one wants to go on the record, because this bill is so controversial. But you give each person details that the caller gave you, asking if they can confirm or deny those details.

The reaction is always the same: "Where did you hear that?" You don't reveal where you heard it, but you ask for confirmation of whether it's true. Each person says, "Yes it's true, but I don't want you to use my name." You follow up with more questions, and each person adds more "meat" to the skeleton. With that "meat," you have more detail to ask MORE people about the bill. As you add more meat to that skeleton, each person who is subsequently interviewed confirms it. Or they may say, "Well, that is partially correct, but there is a little more you should know so that you have the full context." And then they may "correct" some of the story, all the while adding more details that you didn't know.

This process usually takes one to two hours, depending on how much the original source wants to bury the story and hide it from the public.

Now you have your ammunition. When you get a minimum of three independent confirmations, even though they are anonymous, you can feel confident that it's a story. I usually did not stop with three. I often went above and beyond and took the interviews to the next level, pushing for more detail.

All of these people are ANONYMOUS. But all of them have each independently VERIFIED information that started with a phone call. And all of them have also given you information that MATCHES the phone caller's tip, even though they are not talking to each other, and even though all of them do not know where you got the tip.

At this point, you go to the committee chairman. You ask about the bill, and he denies that anything is happening. "Where did you hear that?" (They always ask that question before they answer.) Again, you decline to respond and press on with the information that you know.

In that moment, the committee chairman always does the same thing. He turns white. He goes silent. He thinks for a few seconds. If he threatens you that you will be running with false information if you print it, then you say, "Well, these anonymous sources all confirmed it. Would you like to provide your version of the story so that it is fair and balanced?"

Boom. He will spill in that moment, because he doesn't want the story to go out without his words represented.

This is how anonymous sourcing works. It is a tool of the journalistic trade to unearth information that public officials want to hide from their constituents. It is very effective, and it is done with great care and thought. I never ran with a story that had one "anonymous" person. I always confirmed, reconfirmed and reconfirmed again. I always went through the process that I have outlined above.

And my editors never would have printed a story unless they were certain that I was damn sure it was 100 percent correct. At a minimum, we had to have three sources to cross-confirm each other's versions -- all of whom were not talking to each other, and all of whom did not know who the others were.

The Anonymous Source Game. Next time someone (*cough* *cough* *cough* Donald Trump or Sean Spicer) says a story can't be confirmed because of "anonymous sources," just remember the process I went through as a reporter. And I wasn't even on the national stage. I was in one state, just one cog in the media machine wheel.

If I went through those machinations, you can be certain that reporters at the Times and Post have also.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

CYA in Trump's "Dishonest Media" Climate

So when I was a sprightly, ruddy-faced child out of college, my late father imparted some wisdom that has governed my career. And to paint this scene fully, my dad looked, acted and sounded like Captain Jean-Luc Picard on the Star Ship Enterprise (no, that's not a joke).

When he wanted to have a "serious" discussion with me, he'd call me over to the dining room table, and I would sit expectantly and silently and wait for him to clear his throat.

"Cover your ass."

Now this made me sit up in my chair a little, because my dad was a pastor, and wow, that one was a shocker.

"What did you say, Dad???"

"Cover. Your. Ass. It's the only way you're going to make it in today's world. And you know how you do that? You keep handwritten notes on everything, and you keep them in this nice file ..."

(at this point, he pulled out a prepared manila file folder, on which he had very neatly written, "Heidi's CYA File") ...

"You keep them in this nice file, and then when anybody tries to say they didn't tell you what they really told you or tries to say you misunderstood or tries to say that you ... sorry, kid, but I have to use this language ... that you 'fucked up,' then you pull out your file here. And you put your notes, that are dated, and you say, 'Oh no. I think you're mistaken.' And after anyone tells you something, if it's your boss, you send them a note explaining what you think you heard, and you date it, and you put it in an office CYA folder, too."

You know what, my dad died 26 years ago, about four years after that little speech, and I have implemented his CYA advice every day.

Which brings me to today's sermon for you, my fellow journalists:

In today's manic environment ,where we have a sitting U.S. President that is churning public opinion against the free press, COVER. YOUR. ASS.

Since Trump took office, I have started to see a disconcerting trend among people I interview for stories, especially if they are affiliated with the U.S. government in some manner. They are starting to accuse me of misquoting them or misrepresenting what they actually said.

Now understand this. I've been doing this job for 27 years, and I type as I interview people at a conversational rate. I average about 80 words per minute.

But even with my lickety-split typing skills, when I saw how Trump was attacking "the dishonest media," I decided to go one step further. I started asking for people to answer questions via email. This is a common practice nowadays among slap-dash, green journalists, and for the most part, I disagree with it. I think it's lazy. I much prefer phone conversations.


Trump has shifted the sands in our profession by accusing us of making things up.

The best way to "cover my ass" in this environment is to request emailed interview responses, when I am interviewing someone who is connected to his administration.

I'll give you one example, something that happened recently. (I will not name the government agency for my own reasons.)

About a month ago, I did a story for a university publication and had to interview top researchers across the country on a particular issue. I included a top official at this government entity. And following my newly self-imposed "CYA Rule," I asked for the interview answers to be submitted via email. This person did, and I lifted the quotes directly from the email and plugged them into the appropriate and pertinent areas of the story.

This week, I approached the person's press representative for a second interview, this time for another magazine. It was on the same topic but for a wholly different audience.

The press person responded that when she fact checked the first story, she had to change several things before sending the story back to the editor. (We can discuss fact checking policies in another blog entry.) In a terse and condescending email, she demanded to see the final story before she agreed to the source's participation. The inference was that I had taken comments out of context or misrepresented the individual.

Not to be cowed, I fired back a response. Would she like to clarify what was miscommunicated, precisely? I explained that I had requested emailed responses and had not changed a word of the responses that were emailed. I further explained that I had the original email to cross compare to any "issues" that she saw in the story.

And I copied my editor.

The press person responded several hours later, that she would agree to the source's participation. She did not follow up to my questions about where I had misquoted or misinterpreted or miscommunicated the source in the first story.

Cover. Your. Ass.

I don't know if this person's attitude was in any way, shape or form affected by the current Presidential administration's stance on the free press in the United States of America. But I do know that years ago, my late father gave me advice in his Jean-Luc-Picard-no-nonsense-voice, and I listened.

And now I'm telling you.

Cover your ass in this climate. Keep copious notes. And if anyone challenges your reporting, refer back to those emailed answers and say, "Oh. I quoted this word for word, the email that YOU sent me. Where exactly is the issue?"

Chances are, they'll back down without another word on it.

As for my inclusion of this source in this next story? I'm skipping her. I have plenty of other sources to fill it out, and I don't need her. Her press representative is too much trouble, and frankly, I have more important things to do than worry about covering my ass again when the story comes out in two months.

I just can't be bothered.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Response to Trump's "Dishonest Media" Charge

For months, I have largely kept silent while Donald J. Trump has maligned my profession and my colleagues as, quote, "the dishonest media."

But this morning, I need to say a few things about that, and it's largely drawn from a personal realization about my own career. Since 1989, I have been either a news reporter, news editor, AP staffer or freelance magazine journalist. Over 27 years, in one way or another, I have been part of what is now being unfairly labeled, "the dishonest media."

Today started like most days. I had two magazine interviews right out of the gate, and they were with researchers at a large university. The topic was about ground-breaking discoveries this university is making in the field of opiate addiction.

As I hung up from the second interview a few moments ago, the researcher said to me, "Thank you for doing this story. We are so grateful."

And that's when it hit me: The one thing that has driven me for nearly three decades in my career is that I have attacked every single story with the goal of making the world a better place.

Do I sound like a Pollyanna to you? No matter. Let me give you a few examples so that you know I know what I'm talking about:

  • When I covered child abuse stories as a news reporter, I was criticized for capitalizing on the suffering of innocent children. However, I saw it as a way to shine a spotlight on the evil being perpetrated. I saw it as an opportunity for teachers to know how to spot warning signs of abuse. I saw it as a chance for moms and dads to also be aware of potential abuse among people they trusted -- Scout leaders, youth pastors, the list goes on. I saw it as a way to make people aware to safeguard future potential victims.
  • When I covered political corruption, I was criticized (often) for being biased, for causing trouble where none was present, for stirring waters of dissent and hurting elected officials. However, I saw it as a way to shine a spotlight on those in power who were abusing their roles. I saw it as a chance to show regular citizens how they could get involved with their government and be informed about ways their government was not serving them. I saw my role as a checkmate on the chess board.
  • When I covered tragedies like fires where children were burned alive, I was criticized for yellow journalism, for being a heartless money-grubber seeking headlines. However, I saw it as a way to shine a spotlight on fire prevention. I saw it as a way for poor people to know why they shouldn't use space heaters and why it was important to have a working smoke alarm in your house. I saw it as a way to save lives.
  • When I cover any topic relating to the military, I am sometimes criticized for giving credence to the nation's violent past. However, I see it as a way to shine a spotlight on the role that veterans have played in preserving our freedom. I see it as an opportunity to help military families make connections between PTSD and issues that are plaguing their families and children. I see it as a chance to make their lives a little bit better with information shared by pediatricians, psychiatrists, social workers. I see it as a way to help military members find jobs after they have served our country. The list goes on.
Dishonest media?


Tell me how we are being dishonest. My colleagues may be unveiling information that makes you uncomfortable or that makes you wince or that makes you want to get on with the rest of your day in comfort. My colleagues may be questioning someone that you idolize and who you don't want to be questioned, because perhaps that might indicate you made a wrong choice in the voting booth. My colleagues may be reporting both sides of an issue so that everyone gets a fair shot at expressing their views.

But do not, for one second, call us "the dishonest media."

We got into this business for one reason: To make the world a better place.

If that's dishonest to you, then maybe it's time to visit the dictionary and get acquainted with what dishonesty really is.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Telling the Truth in a Trump World

Twenty-two hours ago (at the time of this writing), President-Elect Donald Trump tweeted something that has been nagging at me as a journalist with 27 years of experience in both newsrooms and the freelance magazine landscape:

"If the press would cover me accurately & honorably, I would have far less reason to 'tweet.' Sadly, I don't know if that will ever happen!"

Initially, I freely admit, I took offense. My knee-jerk emotional response was, "You are the President-Elect, and critical press coverage is part of the package."

I covered politics for The Associated Press in the Pennsylvania Statehouse from 1995 to early 1999, during the governorship of Tom Ridge, who eventually became known in the aftermath of 9/11 for heading up the Department of Homeland Security. And I should first say this about politicians, and it is meant as a sincere compliment: They have really thick skins. I can remember chasing stories that would have raised the ire of the gentlest of souls, and yet every politician with whom I ever came in contact always treated me with grace and respect. You have to understand that my office was right in the center of the Capitol, too -- right at the top of the sweeping marble staircase of the Rotunda. I was *in* and *among* these politicians, hour by hour, day after day. I saw them at committee meetings, at lunch counters, in hallways, even in my office. Regardless of the political party, regardless of the story I was writing, they were always courteous. Of course the things that I wrote made them angry, when I was revealing something they didn't want revealed. But they never complained about my objectivity and never gave me pause to think that they held personal ill will against me for just doing my job.

Now let's speed up to Trump's tweet yesterday. Given everything I've just told you, you might understand why I would initially feel that he needs to man up and learn his new role as Commander in Chief and how the press corps figures into that relationship.

But as I contemplated it some more, the fairness that dictated my life during those days at the AP also must apply to Trump.

So to be fair to him, you have to look at the history of what has happened in the past 12 months leading up to that tweet:

First of all, Trump needs to not be so disingenuous by ignoring the fact that he was given unprecedented favorable coverage for his rallies during the months leading up to the primaries. Anytime I turned on any news station, they were rolling those rallies in their entirety. I have never seen anything like it. While networks cut away from other candidates mid-speech, Trump commanded the air waves night and day, and many of the rallies were broadcast without interruption.

I also would point out that there were many times when Trump's surrogates were allowed to spew falsehoods -- sometimes unchallenged by the broadcasters who had them on their shows. And one network -- CNN -- even hired Trump's former campaign manager. Tell me that isn't favorable coverage.

However, we saw the tide start to turn when the Access Hollywood tapes emerged. By this time, even those who had been favorable to Trump changed their coverage approach.

What we saw in the few short weeks between the release of that tape and Election Day was definitely an all-out assault on Trump. Every news outlet, with the exception of Fox News, threw everything they had AGAINST him.

Regarding print media, the only outlets I saw that consistently were negative in their coverage were The New York Times, The Washington Post and Newsweek.

I have to approach this topic with two personas: my journalist persona, and my "private American citizen" persona.

As a private American citizen, I was thrilled with the aggressiveness demonstrated by The New York Times, Washington Post and Newsweek. I follow their reporters on Twitter and heavily retweeted their stories, in the hopes that it would be enough to defeat Trump.

As a journalist, however, I have to admit to you that Trump is correct -- currently. In the beginning, he was treated as the golden boy, and now he is definitely being held up for as much public ridicule as the media can throw at him.

Now why should this matter to those of you in the profession? Just this thought: The overwhelming bias for Trump in the beginning of 2016 ... and the overwhelming bias AGAINST Trump at the end of 2016 has severely curtailed the trust the public now has in what you are reporting.

The problem now is ... even when Trump is engaging in terrible conflicts of interests, rocking the boat with China, appointing questionable mentally-balanced individuals to his Cabinet ... you as journalists have lost public trust to believe your stories, based on your performance in 2016.

And you may wonder, "Well where were YOU, Heidi Lynn Russell, in 2016, if you're such a great journalist?"

I was staying away from writing about politics. I knew I had zero objectivity to be able to cover anything fairly. So I stayed with my military stories and my business stories. As an American citizen, I was vocal against Trump. As a journalist, I didn't write one piece about anything he was doing on the campaign circuit. I didn't feel that with the training and experience I'd had, it was morally or ethically right for me to throw my hat into the ring on that front.

Going forward, I really don't know what the future of our profession will be. It seems that Trump is laying the groundwork to go after the First Amendment, and we already see disturbing actions and words concerning the press. However, to re-win the public's trust in your coverage, you're going to have to fairly cover ALL of Trump's actions -- both negative and positive. For example, I did see a couple of Cabinet appointments that aren't all bad. And despite that phone call with Taiwan, as a private citizen, I wondered if it wouldn't be so bad if China knew they couldn't push us around. But I didn't see any news coverage that looked at this angle -- rather, everything I saw bashed Trump. In every story we cover, there is always a nugget of the other side of the story, and in all of the coverage, I didn't see that "other side" reflected.

The bottom line here is that if you got into this profession to tell the truth, then tell the truth. Cover every single story as if you're an insect on the wall, observing it impassively. That's what we're paid to do. Let the public draw their own conclusions.

Your job is to solely present the facts.

And if you do that, then Trump will not ever be able to tweet again that you're not playing by the rules.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Why I Won't Write Political Stories Anytime Soon

Dial back in time to 1996.

Bill Clinton was running for his second term, and I ... I was second-guessing a decision I'd made as a cub reporter back in 1988.

So let's amend our little time capsule and dial back further ... to 1988.

I was one year out of college, still green and hungry to make a name for myself in the world of journalism. At age 23, I was working at a tiny little hole-in-the-wall paper called "The Coatesville Record" (now defunct) in south-central Pennsylvania. One day, Dave Lanute, one of my two editors called me over to his terminal.

"Are you registered to vote?"


"What party?"


"Change it."

I blanched. "Change it to what, Dave???"

"Change it to Independent. You don't ever want anyone knowing which way you lean politically. Ever. They will use it against you and claim that your news coverage is biased. You don't have to do it. It's not a prerequisite for working here. It's just some friendly advice. It will save you headaches down the road. OK, that's all I wanted to tell you," Dave said, and then turned back to his computer screen like we hadn't even been having a discussion.

I changed to Independent that same week.

But when 1996 rolled around, I was hankering to register Democrat so that I could vote for Bill in the primary.

By this time, I was a "newswoman" (yes, that was my actual job title) for The Associated Press, covering Pennsylvania politics in the state Capitol, Harrisburg. If you visited the Capitol, you'd go straight up the sweeping marble stairs in a blindingly beautiful Rotunda, then hang a left through the door at the top -- and you'd be in the AP Bureau. And you'd see me sitting at a desk in the left-hand corner, busily calling people for quotes and pounding at my keyboard.

It was mid-winter, so about three months before the primary election. Three Republican staffers, all young guys, came into our bureau. Simultaneously, all five of us looked up. One of the GOP staffers started laughing.

"What do you want?" my bureau chief asked.

"We don't want anything. We're here to tell you that all of you are going to love what's coming out soon," replied one.

"And that is?"

"That is ... We have gone through voting records of every reporter who works in the statehouse and are listing their political affiliations so that lawmakers will know how biased they are when they report on their bills."

The room was silent.

"Good luck with that, jackass."

(Yes, that comment came from me ... sitting over in the left-hand corner.)

They all looked at me, and one raised his eyebrow, smirking. "Oh we don't need luck, we already did it."

"Then if that's the case, you'll find that those of us with two brain cells ARE REGISTERED AS INDEPENDENTS. Now go away, I have a story to write, and my deadline was five minutes ago."

They stood in the doorway with their jaws agape. I looked up from my keyboard. "Go bother someone else, I said! We're busy! Get out of here!"

I had a lot of fun that day, throwing that in their faces. I thanked my old editor at the Coatesville Record with every breath as I smiled to myself while they slunk away.

But now let's speed up in time ... to 2016.

I have been a full-time freelance journalist since I left the newspaper industry 15 years ago.This morning, I was on Twitter, bouncing private messages with a friend who had known me during the time I worked for the AP. He brought up an important question:

"You are so biased! Reporters need to be neutral, right?"

See, he was referring to my penchant for tweeting heavily about my views against Donald Trump. Today, not only am I registered Democrat, but I hold nothing back in my political viewpoints on social media.

So this needs to be addressed, both for anyone who wonders about it and for those of you who are just starting out in your professional careers as journalists:

Yes, I'm a reporter. Yes, I have covered politics in the past.

But you will not see me writing political stories anytime soon. In fact, if you dig through my social media posts, you will not see me posting any opinions about any of the topics on which I write.

I refuse to take political assignments. I am at a point in life where I can pick and choose the types of clients for whom to work. My clients are either military magazines or business magazines. I stay away from reporting on daily news -- and I definitely stay away from politics. I'm a political junkie at heart, and I loved (loved!) covering politics 20 years ago for the AP. But that was a different lifetime. And I've decided that it's more important to me personally to be able to present my views and objections to political happenings that I feel are putting the country at peril.

In my former life, I was required by my employers -- news organizations -- to shelve my views in order to try to give each story as much objectivity as I humanly could. Does it mean that reporters are objective? Of course not. Notice I said, "humanly." We're all humans, and if someone tries to tell you that they're an "objective journalist," never read anything they write again, because they're a big liar.

However, we are to maintain the appearance of propriety as journalists, and as much as it depends on us, report stories with as much fairness as we can muster.

It wasn't always easy for me. I can remember one specific story in Elkton, Maryland, when I sat across the table from the Grand Dragon of that state's Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was passing around leaflets near public schools, to recruit teenagers. I can tell you that I honestly wanted to lunge myself across the table and choke the smile off of that monster's face. But I wrote a story from the interview -- an objective story -- that laid out the facts about what the Klan was doing and how school district officials were combating it.

No, the Grand Dragon did not like that story at all -- and it's because he thought it would be a puff piece. That's how well I masked my feelings.

But back to politics. I think that in this era of social media, it's very important for young journalists to realize this:

If you're going to be on social media, keep your political views to yourselves. Register as Independent. Go after every story as if you were covering a nebulous PTA meeting. And you already know this, but it bears repeating: Do not allow your views to taint your coverage.

When I know that my views on an issue or a subject are so strong that it prevents me from doing my job, I back off. I refuse the assignment.

Now there is an exception here. There are times when your past experiences or who you are as a person will contribute to the story. For example, I am a former Army wife, and my ex-husband went through three deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving me home with a newborn infant, three weeks after this child was born.

Obviously, I am going to have strong views about the war.

However, I do have the perspective about how military life affects military families. So my stories will focus on how to help your child cope with deployments. How to reconnect after you're reunited. How to deal with PTSD.

What you will NOT see me write about, however, are stories about the political decisions shaping our troops. I do believe that the war was an illegal war. As a result, I would not write stories about pending legislation on war efforts, for example. You would not see me doing a profile story on a Congressman with a Hawkish view.

Here's another example: I'm a single mom, and as a self-employed writer, I pay for my own health care insurance policy. You would not see me write stories about Obamacare, however. You would not see me write stories about the insurance industry.

But you might see me write stories about how to shop for insurance plans ... or how to cut your home budget to make room for health care expenses.

Do you see the difference?


Back to my friend's original question about my political tweets and my anti-Donald-Trump stance:

I would never take an assignment that would involve Donald Trump or his shenanigans. I would never accept a story about a political rally, an anti-immigrant campaign or even on the plights of immigrants.

However, you will definitely see me tweeting about it. You will definitely see me exercising my free speech right as an American to vociferously shout down hatred and bigotry.

And as for the rest of the stories out there ... oh, there are so many stories! ... You will see my silence on issues where there is a chance that my byline may be linked to them.

There are plenty of stories from which to choose. So choose wisely ... and wisely conduct yourself so that no one can say you acted with impropriety.

And when in doubt ... register Independent. And keep your big mouth shut about it.