NEWS LITERACY
KNOWING WHERE THE NEWS IS:
THE 2019 IOWA CAUCUS PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN TRAIL

After making coverage plans over the summer of 2019 for the 2020 election, I realized that the first major primary event in the election — the Iowa Caucuses — were already bringing presidential candidates to the state in droves. So I sought out an opportunity to track down some of the candidates on their Iowa campaign trails, hoping a date would overlap, and found that nearly all candidates would be in Cedar Rapids for an event at the Democrats Hall of Fame building downtown. 

I quickly registered as a media member for campaign events in the hours before the candidates' convergence in downtown Cedar Rapids, such as an office opening for then-candidate and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX). Each candidate would rally their supporters and walk together to the building in hopes of showing the most visual support and securing credibility with Iowans.

But on the four-hour drive to Iowa, I realized I'd need a concrete angle to bring to students in KS. After a few calls, I settled on creating a multi-piece package that broke down several of the candidates, their ideologies and their Iowa campaign strategies so that readers in KS could follow along.

I followed Beto O'Rourke's Iowa campaign by attending the opening of his first office in Cedar Rapids, IA the night before the Democrats Hall of Fame event. To give readers the best content possible and stick with my intended news focus, I documented video of his opening remarks, shot a gallery of the opening and spoke briefly with O'Rourke afterward. 

The reporting mostly served the photographic aspect of the overall package, but I still gained plenty of information on O'Rourke's strategy and his plans for the event the next day.

Although I had to use my mobile phone for the recording of this video, I still felt it was important to publish with the package to bring readers a clear sense of what  O'Rourke's campaign was like in terms of his demeanor, supportive campaign team, size of crowd, etc.

To the right are photographs I took during the office opening. I focused on featuring both O'Rourke and his supporters, rather than just him.

A photo of O'Rourke and me taken by a colleague during our discussion, in which I asked general questions on his thought process going into Iowa campaigning and where he saw himself in the wide field of Democratic candidates.

REP. BETO O'ROURKE (D-TX)

The next morning after the O'Rourke office opening, I headed back to Cedar Rapids to catch Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend's downtown rally preceding the walk to the Democrats' Hall of Fame event. 

With the backdrop of a scorching sun, the rally was set in a park with a variety of lawn games and a stage for live music. After Buttigieg arrived and gave a speech, which I recorded and published, he joined the band onstage to showcase his musical talent on the keyboard. I recorded his performance and posted it as well — to date it has garnered over 10,000 views on YouTube.

After the rally, Buttigieg announced plans for all attendees to follow him to the Hall of Fame a few blocks away. I hurried around the back to catch the front of the line and speak to him. We talked for a few blocks about the formal and informal — how he felt his Iowa presence was going, how he would amplify it, whether he'd been to Kansas City and of course, his favorite barbecue joint (Oklahoma Joe's). 

Below are the documented photos for the gallery and videos attached to the package, as well as pictures of me walking next to Buttigieg in front of the long line of attendees after our discussion.

I took this video of Buttigieg's speech to hunrdeds of Iowan supporters from the back area where most reporters were stationed. It reached over 500 views on YouTube the day it was published.

This video of Buttigieg joining the band onstage for a jazz set was important to publish, as it emphasized Buttigieg's strategy to connect with the audience in a personable and unique way. It quickly reached over 10,000 views on YouTube.

Shortly after he finished and gave closing remarks, I hurried around the back to catch him for a chat on the walk to the Hall of Fame event.

To the right are photographs I took during Buttigieg's rally, where attendees played lawn games like bean bag toss and threw the football, watched Buttigieg arrive and partake in some games himself and then listened to Buttigieg's speech and jazz set.

 

Click the arrows to cycle through the photos.

This official photo from Buttigieg's Twitter page featured the crowd walking to the Hall of Fame event, just after our conversation ended. I'm the second one from the left.

(Photo from @PeteButtigieg on Twitter)

The photograph on the left shows Buttigieg walking behind me and in front of the crowd directly after our conversation (photo from @laurenrayej on Twitter). The photo on the right shows Buttigieg readying a bag toss; I'm pictured in the background with my camera (photo taken by a colleague).

SOUTH BEND MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D-IN)

After Buttigieg and his supporters reached the Hall of Fame event, the other candidates' groups were close behind — including Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar. I wasn't able to approach and speak with Klobuchar in time, but I made my way to Booker's group to document photos and videos, and eventually speak with Booker briefly.

Due to the lack of substance, I didn't include Klobuchar in my breakdown, as I didn't have an interview like I did with O'Rourke, Buttigieg and Booker. But I was still able to capture video of Booker firing up his base and photographs of Klobuchar's group as they entered the Hall of Fame event. 

This video shows Booker giving his base the standard fire-up stump speech he normally gave in Iowa, with a slight variation in the chants toward the end.

I took these photos of Booker and his base directly before and after his speech to get them ready for their entrance into the event. 

I was able to speak with Booker for a brief period during his walk into the building.

After Booker and his supporters headed inside, I rushed over to Klobuchar's group, which was for a moment beside Sen. Kamala Harris's supporters. 

Here are photos of the candidates and their supporters.

SEN. CORY BOOKER (D-NJ) & SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN)

The trip to Iowa as a whole taught me the importance of preparation — in regards to punctuality, registering as a media member early, respecting candidates time and more — and gave me essential insight on shaping my reporting on the best interest and content for the target audience. 

By diagnosing which parts of the event were not worth the reader's time, I exercised skills in both knowing which news would be of interest and which would be arbitrary for the story I was building.

KNOWING WHERE THE NEWS IS:
BROOKWOOD AND WESTBORO

After we were notified that the Westboro Baptist Church would be protesting a transgender student in front of Brookwood Elementary, we knew we'd cover it — two years ago, Westboro came to East and The Harbinger covered it in a special package. 

But Brookwood chose to handle the protests in an entirely different manner. The school's principal organized a gathering in the back lawn of the school for students, parents and community members to enjoy each other's company and eat donuts — with the Shawnee Mission South band as a musical backdrop. 

Suddenly it wasn't about Westboro at all. So I made sure our photographers shot the event in the back and left the Westboro protesters to themselves. I packaged our coverage in a news story that I wrote paired with a gallery shot by two colleagues and myself. 

After spotting SMSD Superintendent Mike Fulton and Chiefs Communications Officer David Smith, whom I'd spoken with for a number of stories, I sparked a dialogue and got background on the event's creation in an interview afterward.

Considering the human interest that took over this coverage's emphasis, I made my way around the back lawn to find some genuine moments between kids playing games and parents sharing love. 

The entire experience was encouraging as a student journalist that usually covers harrowing issues — I saw and documented quite a bit of love in the face of a serious, but ultimately futile amount of hate. Click the arrow to flip through some photos I took.

KNOWING WHERE THE NEWS IS:
"WORTH THE RISK?"

As a colleague and I began work on a story regarding the booming mobile video publishing app TikTok, we thought we were set on covering the ways in which students use the app. But as new concerns over the Chinese-owned app revealed themselves — and prompted national investigations and recommendations to investigate from U.S. senators — the story became about the threats the app could pose.

But as we interviewed students on how they viewed the potential risks behind the app, which included siphoned information to foreign parties and exposure to terrorist organization recruitment, the angle of the story (and where the true news was) finally revealed itself. 

Most students weren't familiar with the risks — but the ones that did know about them didn't care enough to stop using the app.

As many stories do, it took a full half of the reporting process for us to find the best angle. Here's a look into how that process went. 

The above documents — a letter from prominent U.S. senators calling for an investigation (left) and previous settlements due to misconduct (right) by ByteDance, parent comapny of TikTok (formerly Musical.ly) — set the course for our reporting. 

Given that the U.S. Committee on Foreign Affairs opened an investigation after the senatorial letter, there seemed to be a clear and plausible risk associated with the app, and the public was aware of that threat through trending social media hashtags regarding the app's threats and related online discourse. 

Click through the slides to see quotes that led us to our shifted angle.

As we progressed through the news gathering process with the intent of focusing on the risks, we began to see a pattern in the interviews we conducted with students who used the app — not many were aware of the potential risks outlined by the investigations, and once they were aware, they were willing to overlook it.

At this point, we knew that the news and most compelling angle for readers was this sense of harmlessness the app exuded, while potentially being dangerous silently. So we used that focus to drive the rest of the story's reporting.

FINAL/COMBINED POLL RESULTS

  • Have you ever used TikTok 

    • Yes: 73% 

    • No: 27% 

  • Do you think TikTok is safe?

    • Yes: 77% 

    • No: 23%

  • Are you aware of their current national security investigation?

    • Yes: 34% 

    • No: 66%

Original data collected for "Worth The Risk?"

Once we had the new angle, we knew we'd need data on East students pertaining to the angle — how many had the app and used it regularly, how many knew of the allegations, how many would change their practices if the threats were found to be true.

We polled students by randomly pulling them out of class and using online polls on The Harbinger's website and Instagram page. The results were telling. 

The resulting story had a much more honed-in angle than any previous iteration we'd planned on writing. I learned that many times, story angles wouldn't present themselves before the reporting process and that a continual awareness is required to keep the news angle tightest. 

Read the final story below (online package on left, packaged print version on right).

Read the version that ran in print below.

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©2019 by Benjamin A. Henschel.