Part of reporting is simply watching

Alanna Pyrtle filming

I spent the past 10 days in Israel, mostly in Huqoq, where a group of students and scholars is excavating a 5th century synagogue. I was a co-leader of a group of 14 UNC School of Media and Journalism students whose aim is to document that effort. We are writing about the dig itself, the leader of the project, Jodi Magness, and many of the diggers.

The course of the excavation has been a huge success — “mind blowing,” according to this story in the Times of Israel in 2018. (We’re publishing our stories about the dig next month; the story in the Times gives you a good idea of what has been found so far.)

Our reporting didn’t start off smoothly. The dig had been going on for two weeks by the time our group of journalists got there. New mosaics had been revealed, and the diggers had bonded with each other. We were a new factor in the equation, and it took a while for the equation to balance. Many of the diggers weren’t sure what to make of us. All of a sudden, students with notepads and video cameras and still cameras and radio microphones were wandering around the dig site. They shot video and photo and asked questions. In short, we were doing what journalists do. We call it reporting. Some others might call it intruding.

We tried to stay out of the way and let them do their work, but I could see how we got in the way. Especially as they were digging in the dirt, sweating, and we had a camera in their faces.

Midway through the first day, some of the journalists complained to me about the standoffishness of the diggers. A few even seemed to be hostile.

Look, I said, you need to learn how to do this. Not everything you do in journalism is going to be set up for you. Not everything is a pre-arranged interview or a planned meeting. You need to get used to being where people don’t want you. You need to get used to getting a cold shoulder. If you want to cover government or politics or international relations or cops or courts, you’ve got to learn how to get the story anyway.

I told them to close their mouths, put their cameras and notepads down, and to watch for a while. Listen to the students and scholars talk with each other. Understand what they’re doing and saying, what motivates them and discourages them. We weren’t in a rush. We were going to be with them for seven days. We needed to gain their trust. There’s a rhythm to construction projects, which is basically what this was. Learning to feel and understand the site’s vibe was critical. First, you understand it. Then you ask about it.

It’s an important lesson and I’m glad the students learned it now, rather than later.

Margaret High

Some of the journalism students got permission to join the dig for a bit, picking up pickaxes, trowels and dust pans. That earned  respect. Eventually, most of them warmed to us. By the end of the week, there were hugs and handshakes and warm goodbyes. And our folks got a bunch of good stories.

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