When I was a student in Columbia University's journalism program, my professor, Melvin Mencher, was fond of dismissing phone interviews as "Nynex reporting." You can't get the real story, he told us, by sitting at a desk.
That was more than 20 years ago. A few weeks ago I came across an article for online journalists debating the merits of doing interviews over the phone vs. e-mail. There was little if any mention of actual in-person interviews. Such is the state of journalism now.
So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when a writer for BuzzFeed, lamenting the errors his site made in its initial coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, wrote that maybe they should have actually sent a reporter to the scene.
I'm not knocking online news sites or their penchant for using social media to gather information. (I'd be remiss if I didn't note that traditional news outlets also made mistakes early on in the Sandy Hook story.) But I worry that an entire generation of young online reporters have lost sight of the fact that the best way to cover any story is to actually be there.
Yes, a lot of information can be gathered through aggregation and social media. Yes, reporting digitally can be very fast and very efficient.
But as any seasoned reporter can tell you, there's simply no substitute for being at the scene of an event, especially one as complex and confusing as a big breaking story like the horrific massacre in Newtown, Conn.
Only by being there in person can you get a literal sense of the place - its geography, its sites and sounds and smells - and of the people. You can get basic information from a text or a phone interview, but you can't see the expression on the face of the person you're interviewing. You can't smell the smoke of the fire or feel its heat, or feel the sinking, sickening feeling of seeing a real body sprawled on pavement.
This lack of first-hand reporting experience is what makes so much online journalism curiously airless and insular. Physical description is replaced by statistics. Quotes that are texted or e-mailed lack the spontaneity and flavor of real speech. Genuine emotion is replaced by snark.
There's one other thing: Being at the scene of a breaking news event, a reporter is always to some extent vulnerable. You have to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible by really listening to people. To do that, you must understand that you don't know everything, that you're not as smart as you think you are, and that the job requires a healthy dose of humility.
Too much online reporting is infused with an adolescent, know-it-all attitude, the kind that comes from sitting in front of the artificial world of a computer screen all day and imagining that you are a master of that little universe. It's the kind of attitude you lose really quickly when you find yourself, as I once did, in a tough urban neighborhood, interviewing a teenage girl half your age about all the people she's known who have been killed in drug shootings, and realizing she knows more about sadness and despair than you ever will.
I've covered hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, riots, homicides and any number of press conferences and city council meetings. I've interviewed homeless people and governors, cops and criminals, corporate chieftains and average folks. None of it would have been nearly as rich had I not been there in person, to see and smell and hear and feel what was happening with my own senses.
To cite just one example: Covering the aftermath of hurricane Andrew in Florida in 1992 for the AP, I interviewed an elderly woman who had ridden out the terrible storm one night with her husband. Their house was battered but they survived, but the husband was never the same after experiencing that night of terror. A few weeks later he put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
I went to the woman's home to talk to her about what had happened, and within a few minutes she collapsed in tears and wept for much of the rest of interview. I remember jotting down in my notebook the sound of her crying, the way her shoulders shook as she held her head in her hands. I recorded details about the house, the damage from the storm and the family pictures on the wall.
It's not just that I couldn't have gotten those details from a phone interview. It's not just that my story was more nuanced for having spent real time with this grieving woman. That's obvious.
No, my point is that in some small way I was a better reporter for having sat with a weeping old woman who had lost the love of her life. I was a better reporter because I understood that the news business is about telling human stories. I was a better reporter because I was moved by that experience, and because after I filed my story that evening I had a beer and cried myself. I was a better reporter because, having been there, I actually cared.