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Mother Jones wins Sidney Award for story about Gulf fishermen’s wives

Mac McClelland

A protester in New Orleans holds a sign, “We are worth more than BP’s bottom line,” in this May 2010 photo by Flickr user Infrogmation.

 Mac McClelland won the Sidney Award for June from the Sidney Hillman Foundation for her article looking at the impact of the oil spill in the Gulf on fishermen’s wives. The award is given monthly for an outstanding piece of socially conscious journalism.

The first-person piece, which also includes anecdotes about Mac’s life as a Hurricane Katrina survivor, says:

“The claims checks BP is supposed to be sending are eight days late, which means everyone’s out of cash for necessities. The day before, cars lined up and down the nearby highway for a 38,000-pound food giveaway. This morning, like every morning, there was a line outside a church center in New Orleans East, in a part of town where stray dogs scavenge trashy lots and industry makes the air smell like burning toast. There, and at four other locations around Southern Louisiana once a week, Catholic Charities is giving out $100 grocery vouchers. Though they don’t open until nine, sometimes it takes being at the doors by four in the morning, when it’s somehow already hot, to get one, because they always run out. But you can’t buy toilet paper with the vouchers—food only.”

Today’s Tip: Emotion in a story can be good, if it’s not contrived.

In an interview with the Foundation, Mac says she was emotionally overwhelmed with the story. “I had to sit on the notes for the story for two weeks, because every time I tried to write it, my own Katrina-trauma issues rushed in, and I got too upset,” she says.

As business reporters, we don’t see the carnage of disaster or crime scenes as often as some of our colleagues, so reporting in these situations can be challenging for some. As a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, I volunteered to go to Grand Forks, N.D., to cover the flooding in 1997. (This is a good NPR piece on the 10th anniversary).  I trekked through people’s muddied homes, saw rooftops lying on the road and wondered how water could wedge a refrigerator into a doorway. I had taken the on-the-ground route to  business news and wasn’t in my comfort zone. I learned to listen and report with my senses to avoid sanitizing what I saw.

As noted in this Canadian Journalism Project blog, emotion can successfully be a part of a story if it isn’t contrived. Writer Stephen J.A. Ward says: Covering disasters “is not a journalism fixated on stimulating the emotions of audiences. It is a humanistic journalism that combines reason and emotion. Humanistic journalists bring empathy to bear on the victims of tragedy – an empathy informed by facts and critical analysis.”

 

 

About the Author

Rosland Gammon is a former business journalist turned college instructor. Her newsroom experience includes reporting for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and reporting and editing at Bloomberg News. Gammon currently teaches communications at Alverno College in Milwaukee. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Rosland Gammon

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