'Coyotes' author Ted Conover visits SOJC to talk narrative journalism

Story by Amanda Linares

Video by Amanda Linares and Emma Oravecz

Narrative journalist Ted Conover delivered the SOJC's 2016 Johnston Lecture, "Witness of One: Hello and a Pencil," on Nov. 10, 2016.
Narrative journalist Ted Conover delivered the SOJC's 2016 Johnston Lecture, "Witness of One: Hello and a Pencil," on Nov. 10, 2016.

In November, Pulitzer Prize finalist Ted Conover visited the UO School of Journalism and Communication to discuss what it takes to immerse yourself in someone else’s story to produce powerful pieces of narrative journalism.

The visit played two parts in the 2016-17 SOJC events schedule. In addition to delivering the SOJC’s annual Richard W. and Laurie Johnston Lecture, titled “Witness of One: Hello and a Pencil,” Conover was this year’s featured Wordsworth author. The common reads program provided Conover’s in-depth, eye-opening book “Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders with America’s Illegal Migrants” to about 300 students for free.

According to Wordsworth coordinator and SOJC Professor Emerita Lauren Kessler, the program’s purpose is to engage students in reading great pieces of journalism. Kessler said the criteria for choosing the Wordsworth author is excellent, ethical and sensitive reporting that produces great stories with substance.

“There are so many lessons to be learned from work like Ted Conover’s ‘Coyotes,’” said Kessler. “The main thing is that important work gets done in journalism and that story is the way to touch people both in their head and in their heart.”

During a time of uneasiness surrounding the state and standing of undocumented people in the United States, Conover’s “Coyotes” shined a bright light on the struggles and challenges immigrants face when trekking into the U.S. looking for opportunities for a better life. Conover, whose writing often covers social issues and how they affect people, says the best way to get around stereotypes is to show people as they are, in all their humanity.

Conover shares a laugh with Wordsworth coordinator Lauren Kessler after his lecture.
Conover shares a laugh with Wordsworth coordinator Lauren Kessler after his lecture.

“We’ve heard of a lot of [stereotypes] in the past election, saying that all these people are like this, and it’s the most ridiculous statement in the world,” said Conover. “The way to disprove these is to show examples of how different people are and that they’re like anybody else.”

While visiting the SOJC, Conover got the chance to meet with students in several classes for informal Q&As. He took advantage of the time to answer some thought-provoking questions about his experience and the strategies he used in his reporting.

“I know when you’re just out of college there’s a lot of pressures to make money, pay off your loans and get established,” said Conover. “But if you’re waiting on that job and waiting on that interview, you can also think of it as a time of your life where people aren’t depending on you, and you might want to take advantage of that.”

Third-year journalism student Natalie Waitt-Gibson said Conover’s visit challenged her own style of reporting and opened her mind to the many kinds of stories that are possible if you’re willing to push boundaries.

She also said Conover talked a lot about establishing connections and getting personal with sources while maintaining balance.

“He crosses the line that other reporters don’t necessarily cross,” said Waitt-Gibson. “By doing that he is able to tell their story correctly.”

Amanda Linares is a multimedia intern for the SOJC’s Communications Office and a graduate student in the Journalism Master’s program. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida’s School of Journalism and Communications and has written for the unofficial school paper, The Independent Florida Alligator, as well as a variety of other publications, including Alachua County Today newspaper and Florida Hospital’ s Best In Care magazine. She’s also worked as a guest anchor and producer for WUFT-TV’s Afternoon News In 90 in Gainesville, Florida. In her graduate program, she has shifted her focus from print to multimedia production and photojournalism. Linares hopes to grow her journalism skills across multiple platforms and plans on graduating this spring.

Emma Oravecz is an applied folklorist working as the SOJC’s events manager. She is also a documentary filmmaker and the owner of photography company Hixie & Co.