Saturday, December 19, 2009

Why we do what we do

I thought I'd share my latest Common Sense Journalism column, the other part of the CSJ megaplex. Happy holidays !

Why we do what we do

by Doug Fisher

I opened the paper the other day and suddenly felt like singing the line from “American Pie”: “Bad news on the doorstep. I couldn’t take one more step.”

There was a pumpkin shortage for Thanksgiving. Fearful of child molesters in its volunteer ranks, the post office had stopped answering children’s letters to Santa from North Pole, Alaska.

And of course there was the constant drumbeat of stories about how the news business is struggling.

What next? No Santa Claus?

Then came the student, arm outstretched, cell phone in hand, screen pointed at me.

“Look,” he commanded.

Only there was a big grin on his face. And on the screen was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a while – a picture of a 3-inch hump of asphalt painted yellow and stretching across a street. A speed hump.

Before you question my aesthetics, or my sanity, let me explain.

Each semester, students in my public affairs reporting class must generate some of their stories from a town or neighborhood. The student was one of three assigned to Washington Park, a subdivision about a mile from the University of South Carolina stadium. It’s mostly minority owned, largely surrounded by light industry and hemmed in by busy roads on either side. Lately it is being squeezed by new apartment developments catering to students.

In short, it’s the sort of place – and people ­– easily overlooked. You know them; you almost surely have them in your town or city.

The students were a bit apprehensive, and the residents a bit suspicious, so it was slow going at first. Even so, it didn’t take long before the young journalists got the scent.

The railroad that owned the property on which the community’s eponymous park sat had sold the land to another student housing developer. Efforts to find land for a new park were not going well. Little to nothing had been written about it.

Some residents were concerned about what they suspected were numerous sex offenders living nearby. State officials were touting their online sex offender database, but most of those in the neighborhood didn’t have computers or, if they did, online access.

And then there was the traffic. Residents said the once-quiet main street through the neighborhood had become a drag strip as drivers from those new apartment complexes cut through from one main road to another. They were concerned for the safety of their children and grandchildren, knowing that before long the park would be gone.

Neighborhood leaders said they had asked the county without success for two years to install speed humps.

So one of the students began asking questions.

And suddenly here was a speed hump.

It’s on a side street, not the main street, which still leaves some of the neighbors wondering what the county was thinking. Our young journalist is asking more questions.

So far, the county says it was a change in the way it pays for such projects, not the questions, that led to hump’s installation. The residents now think, a bit mistakenly, the student journalists can work wonders.

They might not say it this way, but what they really understand is the power of journalism. And our young journalists now understand that simply by asking questions and seeking answers, they can produce real change in the lives of people who otherwise might be overlooked.

And most of all, in this season of doubt about journalism, they understand a little better why we do what we do.

A hump of asphalt wrapped in bright yellow paint. Not what I expected to get for Christmas, but it turns out it’s going to be a good holiday season after all.

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At 12/19/09, 9:54 PM, Blogger Howard Owens said...

Nice story.

At 12/20/09, 9:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the worst kind of self-important claptrap.

At 12/21/09, 8:25 AM, Blogger Doug said...

Well, than you, Anonymous. That you are such pretty much says it all for me.


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