Narrative journalist Ted Conover reads from his book "Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders with America’s Mexican Migrants" at the 2017 Richard W. and Laurie Johnston Lecture.

Narrative journalist Ted Conover reads from his book “Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders with America’s Mexican Migrants” at the 2017 Richard W. and Laurie Johnston Lecture.

Story by Natalie Waitt-Gibson

Within the past few weeks, President Trump has publicly moved forward with plans to build a wall between Mexico and the United States. While some remain apathetic to this situation, others have taken a stand and are using their words as a tool against oppression.

For me, this brings to mind what I learned from Ted Conover, who visited the UO in November for the UO School of Journalism and Communication’s second annual Words Worth program and annual Richard W. and Laurie Johnston Lecture.

In his talk and class visits, Conover challenged me and my fellow SOJC students to cross over comfortable lines and stretch into the new opportunities in investigative and immersive journalism in order to tell the stories of “those missing from the national conversation.”

The SOJC invited Conover, a narrative journalist, professor and Pulitzer Prize finalist, to speak about his 1987 book “Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders with America’s Mexican Migrants,” the common reading book for this year’s Words Worth program. He explained the benefits and disadvantages of going undercover as a journalist as well as the proper balance a journalist must master to complete such immersive work.

Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders with America’s Mexican MigrantsConover related society to people living in bubbles — a phenomenon that’s reportedly had some significant impact on increasing polarization in the U.S. and across the world in recent years. When we remain in our own bubbles, he explained, we become blind to what is happening in the bubble of someone unlike ourselves. He urged the audience to step out of their comfort zones, to use their ears instead of obtrusive technology, to ask questions and to tell the stories of those who do not have a voice.  

Conover regularly challenges the ethics of boundaries with his work, for which he has gone undercover as a guard in a New York prison, traveled on the railroads with the homeless and — the focus of his talk — voyaged across the border with several Mexican migrants. Through his unique journalistic process, Conover is able to share the small details of the lives of others that often slip through the cracks when journalists cover their plights.

“There are so many stories like this waiting to be told,” Conover said.

The use of undercover and investigative journalistic methods, especially in Conover’s case, often produces captivating stories. However, to me, a gray area forms with the use of such techniques. Good journalism is honest journalism. If your subject is completely honest with you, but you do not reciprocate, can it pass as ethical?

During his presentation, Conover said he occasionally feels guilty for reporting the way he often does. For example, he explained that in the past he pretended to be a much less fortunate person in order to get closer to a subject, when he had a comfortable life waiting for him at home.

“Journalism is hard to do without hurting some people’s feelings,” Conover said. “It’s possible to leave some people feeling betrayed.”As a student at the SOJC, I have a constant need to create better content and develop a stronger story. Before reading “Coyotes” and hearing Conover’s perspective, this type of journalism was foreign to me. Listening to Conover opened my eyes to journalistic possibilities that I previously thought were impossible or

As a student at the SOJC, I have a constant need to create better content and develop a stronger story. Before reading “Coyotes” and hearing Conover’s perspective, this type of journalism was foreign to me. Listening to Conover opened my eyes to journalistic possibilities that I previously thought were impossible or far-fetched, and I hope to incorporate such ideals and methods into my own future work. He sheds light on people who are often overlooked, which to me is the foundation of a powerful story.

“Deep understanding does not come in a hurry,” said Words Worth coordinator Lauren Kessler. “It is the result of a thoughtful, careful, ethically challenging process that depends both on intense curiosity and deep empathy.”

Kessler could not have worded my takeaway from the evening more perfectly. Journalism is as challenging as you make it, and sometimes — especially in the case of Ted Conover — the tougher the adventure, the better the story.

 

Natalie Waitt-Gibson is a native Midwesterner studying journalism at the SOJC.  She plans to graduate in the spring of 2018 with a focus on photojournalism and reporting. She can often be found behind the lens of a camera, squinting at her computer or petting a stranger’s dog. You can see her work at nataliewaittgibson.com, or follow her after hours on Twitter and Instagram @natw8gib.