Jim Tankersley is the lead economics reporter forNational Journal, a news organization based in Washington, D.C. and focused on politics and policy. Tankersley joined NJ in Sept. 2010, and has previously worked for the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Toledo Blade, the Rocky Mountain News and The Oregonian.
According to his NJ personal bio: “Tankersley and a colleague at The Blade won the 2007 Livingston Award for Young Journalists for their “Business as Usual” series of stories revealing the true roots of Ohio’s economic decline. He was also part of the “Coingate” team at the Toledo Blade that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.”
Tankersley said he’s learned a lot over the years about how best to cover big-issue stories (such as poverty-related stories) through the use of the narrative. He said he believes that stories of real people can help readers more effectively understand and relate to bigger issues because “we as people kind of think in stories.”
Tankersley spoke with onPoverty about his experiences learning to write narratives, how those reporting on poverty-related issues can use the narrative tool to its maximum potential and more. Excerpts:
National Journal focuses on politics and policy coverage. How does poverty come into play when covering the inside-Washington beat?
I write about macroeconomics and things as big-picture as how adequate is our economic theory, and things as small-ball as what the president’s speech today [would] mean for the economy if he actually got what he wanted through. And I think in all of that poverty is a really important story because it’s so wrapped up with the story of our economy right now.
In particular, the poverty story that I really feel compelled by right now is the inequality story, the idea that there has been such a divergence in this country of wealth from the very, very top to everybody else. And then on the bottom things are getting worse.
I think we have to tell that story and we have to tell it not just because it’s an important social story. I believe part of the role of reporters is to be a voice for the voiceless, but I also think it’s an important story to [National Journal’s] subscribers. We have a core audience that includes members of Congress, it includes trade groups, it includes all sorts of folks who work in and outside of the government and there’s nothing more important in their jobs than to help improve the quality of life for Americans.
You have to tell that story of poverty in a way that they can relate to and that does not immediately push them back into some sort of an ideological box on any side of the spectrum. The best way to do that is by engaging them with stories about real people and the real struggles they face.
How can you tell when a story that you’re trying to tell would benefit from the use of a narrative?
Frankly, I don’t think we do it enough. Every story isn’t a narrative, but I think the best stories are more often than not narratives. I started my career at The Oregonian, which is a newspaper in Portland that has a really rich history of narrative writing. And so this was sort of drilled into me and it happens to match with the reasons I got into journalism.
We as people kind of think in stories—we think in arcs and narratives with plot lines and beginnings, middles, ends and characters. We don’t think in the inverted pyramid or nut grafs, the way that most reporters write. It would be kind of like presenting music to you in a way that doesn’t sound melodic. We do that a lot and sometimes that works. But I think that narrative is melody and especially when you are trying to put a lot of really complicated things [into a story], it helps your reader by telling [the story] in a way that their brain naturally thinks in anyway.
So whenever I can do that I try to. Obviously, it takes a lot more time; it takes a lot more effort. That story that you mentioned [“Diverging Dreams”], that was a collaboration between me and two other reporters and between the three of us I can guarantee that each of us spent more time on that story than we’ve spent on any other story in the little more than a year that I’ve been at National Journal. It was really hard to find the people. It was a lot of time to spend with them and really get to know them and get those great details that make for good stories. And then it was a lot of time to go back and try to connect it to the research and the data and say, “Okay, what are these people telling us?”
But I think all of those parts are really important and if we’d only done one of them, if we’d only just told a nice little story about one family that didn’t necessarily tell you a big macro-story, or if we had just written you a big story with a lot of numbers but didn’t show you the people, I don’t think that has the same power. So whenever you can put those two things together I think you can and you should.
Do you have any advice for other reporters trying to cover poverty-related issues?
The first [tip] is to get the elephant out of the room, which is that most editors will tell you, and they’re sort of right, that people are tired of reading about the poor. You need to figure out what’s new and different: what’s a way that I can make this not sound like a hundred thousand other stories that people have read that tug at their heartstrings about someone who’s struggling to make it? It’s too easy to remind people of something they’ve read somewhere else, and then for them to just sort of avert their eyes. You’ll lose readers that way, and you’ll lose editor’s attention that way too.
So I’m constantly asking, when I approach whether it’s poverty or the middle class, or even broad issues of inequality: Well what’s different here? What’s changed? What are the drivers? What’s behind this? Figuring out what you have to add to this ongoing story of people struggling to get by, I think that’s the first and most important thing you can do.
When you’re trying to connect [an issue] to people I think the important thing there is just to really trust your instincts about what makes a really compelling story. Ambar [Gonzalez] and her family (from “Diverging Dreams”), I mean, I called home every like four hours to tell my wife about what I getting and what I was learning from them and how they were, and each time she was really engaged by what I was telling her, to the point where I knew almost immediately that they were going to be a great story because they were real and they had real drama and real conflict in their lives. They illustrated some pretty powerful things. Their optimism and hope in the face of all that just bowled me over from the beginning. I think that that’s an important thing to look for.
You want to look for stories you can tell about people who are so compelling that when you call home to your parents or your significant other or your kids, they’ll want to listen to it and they’ll hang onto it because if you don’t have something that’s so interesting you can call home about it, it’s going to be hard to fashion that into an interesting read that people are actually going to spend time with in print.
Are they resources that you regularly turn to for potential story ideas?
I do it a weird way. I start with economists and research. I start with what’s new in the field and then I go out and look for where we are finding this. But I think that it’s frankly easier to do it the other way for most folks who aren’t sitting in Washington writing a story. Especially if you’re out in the real world, which is what I like to call everywhere that’s not Washington, especially when you’re out there it’s just better to go spend time with those people. Whether it’s volunteering at soup kitchens or spending time with advocates, or even just checking in on people who deal with it day-to-day and asking them questions they don’t normally get asked.
Part of what is so fun about journalism and is so valuable about it is you get to ask the really big-picture questions that a lot of times people haven’t had a chance to think about. But when they do, they realize how much they know and how important it is and how much they have to share.
I did this piece where I just called and talked to a guy in Indianapolis who had been laid off for almost two years and just asked him: “Tell me what your life is like now and what’s different about it now.” The thing that I remember so much from that story, which I ended up just sort of telling in his own words, was that he was frustrated that his daughter was having a birthday and he couldn’t take her to Chuck E. Cheese’s. That’s a part of his life that he had just totally taken for granted that suddenly had been taken away from him.
I worked for this absolutely amazing woman at the Chicago Tribune and the L.A. Timesbureau here in D.C. who still covers the White House for them, Christi Parsons. We did a big series of stories together in 2008. We went out on most of the interviews together and I’d never really gotten to watch another reporter work in the way that she does. Her entire interview technique is just making people feel super comfortable and then just letting them talk. She doesn’t ask the perfect question at the perfect time, she just gets people to open up by being friendly and engaging. You can’t fake this. She gets it because she cares, like she genuinely cares about the people not in the moment but in general. She enters the interview caring about them, she leaves caring about them, and not just caring about them as the subject of the story but caring about them as people.
I think the more empathy you can bring to your own reporting on these kinds of issues, the better stories people are going to tell you because your empathy gives them permission, they trust you to really share in the real stuff. Superficial stuff makes for okay stories, but reality, people really struggling and being honest about it, I mean, those are the stories everyone can relate to because we all have real non-superficial struggles going on.
Do you think that this empathy can be taken to far and jeopardize the story?
Yeah, I do. I always think that’s a danger. There have been classic and well-documented instances in journalism of that happening. I think it is actually less frequent than most people think. I don’t have a problem with people getting really sympathetic with a character in a story from the real world so long as they do their diligence on them. I am much more worried about reporters getting too close to politicians or lobbyists than I am about them getting too close to people who are struggling and who deserve empathy from readers and everyone else.
How would you characterize the performance of the media in covering poverty-related issues?
I just don’t think we do enough of it. I mean, I don’t do enough of it, I don’t think that most economic reporters do enough of it, I certainly don’t think enough political reporters do it.
Somebody said to me yesterday, “The poor don’t vote very much.” Well, that’s true [but] it doesn’t mean that their concerns aren’t worth bringing up in the context of major national elections. It doesn’t mean that we don’t care about, in particular, when the recession is hitting them hardest.
Sort of the reason I wrote that story about the guy from Indianapolis is I got frustrated. We spent the summer in Washington—the Washington press corps—writing about the debt-ceiling drama and the budget deficit and stopped writing about unemployment. 14 million people in America didn’t have jobs. That’s a lot, and those people didn’t go away because Washington decided it wanted to have a fight. So, I think it’s important that we are constantly reminding ourselves that the stuff that’s out there, you know, if we stop reminding ourselves about that then we’re failing our readers and we’re failing the public interest that we’re all wanting to serve.
Is there anything else that you wanted to mention?
I would just say to [others] who are thinking about this kind of writing: it’s hard, but it’s so important. Other kinds of writing are sexier. Political reporting is sexy and fun and exciting but these stories are the reasons we have newspapers [and] magazines. These are the reasons that I think it’s so important for us to have a free press in this country, is to give voice to the voiceless, tell stories about these people who don’t get listened to by the system themselves, without agenda, certainly without political agenda, but absolutely with empathy.