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The legwork behind the bylines

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You know what makes The Post great, on its best days?

Reporters reporting. Reporters going out to listen to people. Reporters plunging into government offices, and into government documents, nosing around, asking questions, puzzling through the maze of hallways and verbiage to make connections that explain to readers a story or an issue.

It is reporters collaring members of Congress outside chambers or on Capitol Hill subways. It is reporters sitting through hours of a city or county council session or a congressional hearing, listening to officials and witnesses drone on until hearing the telling quote or interesting fact that sends them off to do a story nobody ever thought about before.

It is reporters who stay to the very end of a planning and zoning meeting, after midnight, because that’s when the officials will lower their guard and maybe cast the controversial votes that will anger half the city.

It is reporters with ringing ears from spending so many hours on the phone, trying to find sources and facts they didn’t know they would need until they were assigned stories that morning.

It is reporters going to bloody crime scenes where people are upset, stressed and crying. It is reporters being humane yet persistent in their questioning of police or family members of victims.

It is reporters and photographers abroad, risking their lives to cover violent demonstrations or wars, never knowing if the next tear gas canister, or bullet, has their name on it.

Each beat that reporters take on during their careers teaches them about journalism and about life.

In my first job, covering a small town in Connecticut, I learned that the people most affected by an issue were the true experts. I learned that an unassuming woman who wore only muumuus, who was treated by many in town as a gadfly, knew more about pollution in the Quinnipiac River than I could ever hope to, because she had lived her life on it and canoed in it since she was a girl. She knew which factories were clean and which ones were dumping toxic chemicals. All I did was nose around the state bureaucracy in Hartford and get documents that proved it.

In The Post every day, you can read stories where a reporter did the routine work of reporting but, in doing so, showed you something about the world around you.

Last weekend, for example, Sarah Kliff, who writes about health policy for Wonkblog, went to the March for Life, the annual antiabortion rally, and interviewed a group of women who had obtained abortions but later came to regret their decisions. They formed a group called Silent No More, which has come to the protest since 2003. Straightforwardly and with understanding and no judgment, Kliff related their stories and described what these women hoped to accomplish with their annual pilgrimage to the nation’s capital. Now, Wonkblog is normally associated with the left-leaning Ezra Klein, but Kliff’s story is as unbiased as you can find. This blog post didn’t appear in the paper, but it helped round out The Post’s coverage of a significant event, coverage that I criticized last year as inadequate.

On Thursday’s front page, Kevin Sieff, The Post’s Kabul correspondent, told a tragic tale of two generations of Afghans who fled their country because of the Taliban: a man who went to Sweden in 1997 to escape its rule, and his cousin, who tried his own escape just last month. The cousin didn’t make it; he died in a smuggler’s overloaded boat off the coast of Greece on his way to join his uncle. In that personal tale, Sieff made real the mass exodus of Afghans that has been the legacy of 30 years of almost nonstop war.

Closer to home, three local reporters — Dana Hedgpeth, Mark Berman and Clarence Williams — jumped on the story of another bad Metro commute, this time on the Green Line on Wednesday night. About 2,000 riders were stranded underground, in some cases for two hours, as a result of a small track fire and a subsequent power outage. Riders told the reporters of their frustration at the disorganization and bad communications Metro exhibited during the incident.

These are the kinds of stories that reporters at The Post have learned to do as they climbed the ladder of journalism. And this seasoning is what separates The Post from the great mass of ill-informed opining and thin reporting that passes for journalism in media land.

Sure, we can decorate, amplify and sell our reporting more with social media and new technologies, but at base, what makes us journalists is the reporting.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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