Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Stretching our comfort zone adds voices, enriches stories

April 2003

By Matt Baron

Telling stories is a never-ending series of judgment calls.

What do we put in? What do we leave out? When do we stop? Where on earth do we begin? Is my deadline really three minutes away?

From that long list of self-inquiry, let us focus on one of the most important—and imposing—questions of all: To whom do we give a voice in our story?

I recently had an assignment that challenged me to confront this issue head-on. The story was straightforward enough: Write a business feature on the reopening of a McDonald’s in Hinsdale, Ill. It is located in the backyard of the fast-food titan’s headquarters, about a half-hour outside Chicago, and reflects the corporation’s vision to create more “fresh, bright and inviting” restaurants.

A necessary step, then, was to check the place out. I noted the d├ęcor, chatted with the store manager, and gathered some comments from a few customers. But those patrons were all teen-age guys, and I wanted views from a cross-section of folks.

So I approached a woman who looked to be in her 40s. She was flipping through a magazine, a coffee cup on her table, when I identified myself and asked her what she thought of the new-look restaurant.

She looked up with wide eyes, seemingly in alarm. She gasped for breath and shook her head. Now I was alarmed.

Uh-oh, I thought. She’s about to go berserk on me. That’s just terrific—my editor’s going to get a call from the McMuckety-Mucks over at the corporation demanding that this Baron guy stop bothering their customers.

With that PR fiasco flashing before my eyes, I rushed to reassure the woman: “You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to. That’s OK—I’ll talk to someone else.”

Uncomfortable and slightly annoyed, I was on the verge of walking away when she finally broke her silence. “I’m deaf,” she said. “I think you are saying you are with a newspaper and working on a story?”

Fascinated, impressed, humbled—and relieved—I took a nearby seat and began speaking with the woman. She had the ability to hear for much of her life, but had gradually lost that sense and now is a proficient lip reader. Her speaking ability is about as good as the next person’s.

She was waiting for her husband. He is also deaf, and had a nearby appointment related to a device he hoped would restore his hearing some day. At my prodding, she told me more about this new technology that held the promise of giving this couple a gift that so many of us take for granted.

Though her drama had no place in this story, I was determined to give her an equal opportunity to make a comment related to my assignment. And despite her doubts that she had anything profound to share, I persisted.

“It’s beautiful,” she said of the new-look McDonald’s. “What a nice place to wait.” As it turned out, her quote concluded the story.

Why did I proceed amid the awkwardness? Because our stories gain depth and character to the extent that we stretch our comfort zone in reaching out to different, and unexpected, sources. Have you gone a long time without some form of discomfort? Beware—you may well be stagnating.

Not only that, but these discoveries often open doors to even more intriguing stories. I found this woman’s situation far more compelling than the assignment at hand, and I may dig into it further some time.

When we keep an open mind, and toss aside the confining influence of our preconceived notions, we are better equipped to capture the heart of a story as we find it—not as we think it should be found.

My restaurant encounter is along the “man on the street” vein, but the benefit of expanding our comfort zone extends to any kind of story. We tend to relate most to people who, at least on the surface, appear to be like us. They look like us, talk like us, dress like us. What a dull—and incomplete—world we depict when we pigeonhole our inquiry in this way.

I had no plans to interview a deaf person when I walked into that restaurant. But when the situation popped up, I would have been a fool to walk away.

A Post-Script: The Sensitivity/Relevance Zone

As previously noted, I decided against mentioning this remarkable woman’s deafness. I did not find it relevant, and I was concerned that it would distract from the story’s main thrust.

After all, this McDonald’s did not have a special feature that catered to deaf people. And if I mention her physical condition, do I also note when someone is obese or has long curly hair or two-day beard growth?

The roots of my descriptive restraint date back to college, when a sensitive and talented instructor properly chided me when I noted a woman’s race in a class assignment about riding on the train. Why, my instructor asked, had I had not remarked upon the race of everyone I described?

Once we break through our comfort zone in approaching people, then we need to enter a new zone—the sensitivity/relevance zone. We must be discerning in how we describe those people who, for whatever reason, stand out to us.

BARON BIT: To delve more into issues of inclusive and sensitive reporting, check out www.maynardije.org, the web site of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

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