For the most part, readers can’t tell what reporters go through in the course of gathering information for stories. A lot of times, there’s very little difficulty — just make a few phone calls, do some checking of previous stories and, bam, it falls into place.
Not so on others, however. And such a one was a long, investigative-type story by environmental reporter Karen Dillon that ran on the front page of The Star last Sunday, April 25.
The story, titled “Stagnant government stalls quest to save pond,” recounted the sorry experience of 69-year-old Sharon Berten of Gallatin, Mo., whose farm pond has been polluted by a nearby livestock sale barn. Everything was fine on Berten’s property until 2006, when a fellow named Danny Froman began operating a cattle sale barn across the highway from Berten.
Then, storm water began carrying chunks of manure into her pond, and the pond slowly went to pot. Adding insult to injury, one federal and two state agencies have dragged their feet, and a frustrated Berten says that local, state and federal governments have “thumbed their noses at me.”
The story stands on three legs: Berten, the government agencies and Danny Froman, the sale barn operator. Dillon carefully and fully documented Berten’s and the government agencies’ sides of the story. As I read through the story, I badly wanted to hear what Froman had to say. Early on, Dillon said, “Froman could not be reached for an interview over a period of several weeks.” That’s always frustrating to the reader — and usually the reporter, too.
Toward the end of the story, Dillon quoted some friends and employees of Froman as saying Froman wasn’t getting a fair shake. “Danny’s got a big, big heart,” Dillon quoted one employee as saying. “He did have a little manure get away from the barn. You know manure does that.”
From a pure reading of the story, without any input from Dillon, I wondered how hard Dillon had tried to get ahold of Froman. It seemed as if she might have just made a few phone calls before resorting to the “could not be reached” line, which is the standard whenever reporters can’t get through to someone on the phone.
So, I sent an e-mail to Dillon asking if she had gone beyond phone calls. She responded promptly, and here’s what she wrote…
“I called Froman numerous times, but he didn’t return calls. So I and a photographer went to the sale barn a couple Mondays ago during the auction. Froman came out into the arena, and I tried to get him to answer some questions. He asked me politely to call later. While I was trying to talk to him, I was standing in a narrow aisle next to the arena with the photographer.
“A couple of his buddies pushed the photographer down the aisle to the door in what I now call a ‘belly sweep.’ I managed to avoid it by jumping into a corner. When it became clear Froman wasn’t going to talk, I looked around and by then the guys had my photographer outside the door of the barn. They agreed to talk, and that’s where the quotes about the big, big heart came from. It was a bit intimidating at the time, but I’ve been through worse.”
So, the most dramatic part of Dillon’s effort to get the whole story didn’t get in the paper. I wish it would have. Appropriately enough, reporters usually try to keep themselves out of their stories, but sometimes it serves readers’ interests for the reporters to involve themselves more deeply.
I think Dillon could have presented that incident in such a way as to show the extra effort she made to get Froman’s side of the story, without calling too much attention to herself. It would have made the story more interesting, and it would have satisfied the reader that Dillon had done everything within reason to try to get to Froman.