I’ve been freelance writing for the Lancaster newspaper since October. I started out covering the school board in a small town called Columbia and more recently added its borough council to my beats.
Though I’ve been working on Pennsylvania from Below for several years, this freelance work is the first time I’ve been doing consistent news reporting since the summer of 2010 in the West Bank. The difference in settings is easier to illustrate with images than words:
That’s most of the time. I did recently cover a local protest, but my primary duty as a freelance correspondent is to attend and report on school board meetings and borough council meetings. For most people, this would be a terribly boring task. In fact, right around the time I started this gig, my sister was in a college journalism class and had to write about a school board meeting. She complained for days. I, on the other hand, find the meetings surprisingly interesting. It’s difficult to be bored when you’re an anthropologist, so long as you’re around humans…Moreover, being a journalist requires me to understand what’s going on at the meetings well enough to write about it for the public.
I especially like writing about the school district because I’ve been both a student and a teacher and now I am seeing the administrative/financial sides of education at work. It also motivates me to research national education policies and trends, even though such context is rarely more than one line in local news coverage.
In addition to the setting contrast between reporting in Palestine and reporting in Columbia, a big difference is the fact that the people in my articles speak English. In the West Bank, where people mostly speak Arabic, I wrote for an English-language publication aimed at an international audience. (Side note: Anthropologists also often write in English while working among non-English-speaking people. In the post-colonial version of anthropology, that is an ethical dilemma.) I can’t say how many of the people whose stories I collected in Palestine actually read what I wrote. In Columbia, I hear feedback directly or public references to news I reported. Those moments bring to mind classical (romantic) newspaper phrases like “the eyes and ears of the public,” and “the fourth estate.”
Numbers are a prominent feature of many of my news articles these days. I have been told that “following the money” is a central part of my role as a journalist. I’ve picked up the habit quickly, but this, too, is a contrast with my previous writing that centered on people’s stories. This approach makes sense because I’m reporting on the activity of public officials but I can’t help thinking of the narrator in The Little Prince and his criticism of adults:
Grown-ups like numbers. When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters. They never ask: “What does his voice sound like?” “What games does he like best?” “Does he collect butterflies?” They ask: “How old is he?” “How many brothers does he have?” “How much does he weigh?” “How much money does his father make?” Only then do they think they know him. If you tell grown-ups, “I saw a beautiful red brick house, with geraniums at the windows and doves on the roof…,” they won’t be able to imagine such a house. You have to tell them, “I saw a house worth a hundred francs.” Then they exclaim, “What a pretty house!”