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The Traits of a Good Reporter

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, November 23, 2008

Good reporters are the heart of news gathering. If it's news, they have to know it. Without them, the public wouldn't have the news and information essential to running a democracy -- or our lives. Whether the story is local, national or foreign, it has to be gathered on the ground by a reporter.

What makes a good reporter? Endless curiosity and a deep need to know what is happening. Then, the ability to hear a small clue and follow it. When Post reporter Dana Priest first heard "a tiny, tiny piece" of what turned out to be the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal, she couldn't ignore it.

She and colleague Anne Hull methodically followed the story until Army officials were shamed and did something about the poor care of many Iraq war veterans. Hull and Priest also have a quality essential to good reporting: empathy. They cared about those soldiers and had the ability to tell the story in a way that touched readers.

Retired Post executive editor Ben Bradlee thinks a reporter's most important quality is energy: "They've got to love what they're doing; they've got to be serious about turning over rocks, opening doors. The story drives you. It's part of your soul."

Reporters go where the story is -- even if it's over a mountain pass in Afghanistan on horseback in a blinding blizzard. That's what Post reporter Keith B. Richburg and photographer Lucian Perkins did in late 2001 to find the front lines of a war between the Taliban and its enemies.

When dark smoke was billowing out of the telephone company building in downtown Minneapolis -- 10 minutes before deadline -- Minneapolis Star reporter Randy Furst was on the story. He ran to the building and burst into a board of directors' meeting and asked the company president what was going on. The company flack called me the next day to complain about Furst's behavior; I thought it was great.

Good reporters are committed to telling the story. Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson ignored his boss's advice to leave war-torn Lebanon; he felt that he had to stay. He was kidnapped in 1985 and spent 6 1/2 years in brutal captivity.

Post foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid is a veteran of armed conflict in the Middle East; he was wounded by gunfire while working for the Boston Globe. What drives him? During wars, "work is all there is. I struggle with how you get beyond the pain of what you see to say something more. For me, every few months I try to figure how I could leave the profession, if for no other reason than to salvage soul and sanity."

But he hasn't, and he will go back to Iraq soon. "If you don't do it, the story might not be covered. Or it might not be covered the way you think it should be. Maybe it's equal parts responsibility, curiosity and ambition, hopefully more of the former than the latter. It's obligation, too. We're one of the few newspapers with the resources and ambition to still cover the story. And if we don't do it -- as the story recedes from the front page, as staffing dwindles, as money dries up -- no one else will."

Bob Woodward, The Post's most renowned reporter, believes that good reporters do not let speed and impatience hinder them. They have the discipline to go to multiple sources at all levels of a story and get meticulous documentation -- notes, calendars, memos. "You go down lots of holes that don't lead anywhere," but "in the end, what always matters is information that is authentic and can be analyzed and documented."

Most reporters don't go to Afghanistan or get shot at. But it often takes the same mental toughness to cover the police or hold local government officials accountable. District police reporter Theola Labbé-DeBose puts it this way: "I think what makes a good reporter is the dogged, unshaken belief that there is some way to obtain a seemingly impossible piece of information."

Good reporters are savvy enough to find sources they can trust -- think Deep Throat -- and, as Ernest Hemingway said, they have built-in b.s. detectors. Don't lie to a reporter; you'll be caught. Say you can't answer.

Woe to officials who want to make public decisions in private. Jim Shoop, a reporter on the old Minneapolis Star, found out about a secret meeting of Twin Cities mayors who were discussing setting up a metropolitan sales tax; he arrived early and curled up inside a portable bar in a corner of the room. He got the story.

Sometimes it's important just to hang out and build trust. Post Metro reporter Josh White was trying to find a stripper with drug problems befriended by the rogue FBI agent Robert Hanssen before he was caught spying. White visited most of the strip joints in town and got a lead that sent him to Columbus, Ohio, where he knocked, unannounced, and met her mother and toddler. After three days, the stripper came home to find White on her couch with her son in his lap watching TV. She gave him the story.

Good reporters know how to get access to people and documents; in the old days, a fifth of whiskey to the right janitor could get you a report lying on a city hall desk. Now a cadre of Post database and investigative reporters plows through mounds of hard-to-obtain government documents, looking for stories of fraud, patronage, waste and wrongdoing; they create spreadsheets and do the painstaking work of looking for patterns. The ability to sort out conflicting information is one of the hallmarks of good reporting.

Metro reporter Keith Alexander, reporting on the case of two girls who were found murdered and stuffed in a freezer in their home, spent days going over court files to find why their mother, accused of killing them, had been allowed to adopt them. The files told him the sad stories of their biological families; he was able to track them down and tell a deeper story of the tragedy.

A reporter's first commitment is getting the story for readers; it trumps almost everything. That's the reason they sometimes miss their wedding anniversaries or their children's birthday parties and keep on reporting until they are wheeled into surgery (see Shadid) or delivery rooms.

Reporting is a calling. If reporters didn't have it (along with good editors), how would you know what was going on in your communities, the nation and the world?

A longer version of this column appears online. Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or ombudsman@washpost.com.

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