I love it when I’m leaving a profile subject after the last of many interviews and ask the profilee: “Is there anything you’re worried about with the story?” And the subject answers, “No, we’re good.”
Trust, people. It’s No. 1 in the toolbox, tied closely to picking the right person to begin with — someone who puts the truth ahead of their image, someone with whom you can develop a near-immediate rapport.
Yesterday, I learned that our 2008 series, Age of Uncertainty, won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. Many people worked on this newspaper and multimedia project, a 10-part series documenting the struggles of caregivers for the frail elderly — both paid and unpaid, medical and not. Their names will be all be listed on the award, and deservedly so.
But two of the many people featured in the series deserve to be singled out for honors, too. One is Linda Rhodes, the 60-year-old full-time worker and full-time caregiver of her husband, Tommy, who’s had dementia for going on seven years. The other is Cheryl Jones, a single mom and community college student who works as a home-care aide for Family Service of Roanoke Valley.
Linda let us into her life like no other subject I’ve encountered before or since. Between photographer Josh Meltzer and I, we probably took 80 hours of her time over the course of several months. She fed us. She invited us to holiday meals. She shared what keeps her awake at night, opened up old photo albums, invited us to her workplace and described in perfect detail who Tommy Rhodes was before the disease stole him away. As a journalist, you’re really not supposed to fall in love with your subjects, but in my 25 years of storytelling I have never been as blessed to garner such trust from a subject. And love her deeply, I do.
Cheryl was angel-sent; there’s no other way to put it. She took time to explain everything from the Medicaid spend-down to the real-life troubles her frail elderly clients have in accessing services. More importantly, she showed us by inviting us into the homes of her patients, friends and even some of the neighbors she keeps tabs on in her Rugby neighborhood. Her name wasn’t in every story in the series, but her presence surely was. If an agency official or medical expert taught me something in an interview, I appreciated it. But when Cheryl said it, too, I knew for a fact it was true.
Statistics and computer-assisted reporting are well and good, but I think the best journalism begins not with a number but with a story: A wife who has to stop herself from dialing 911 when she thinks her husband might be dying — and remembers the Do Not Resuscitate order. A home-care aide who makes $13,000 a year changing Depends and checking blood sugars and, when a client is too poor to afford cleaning products, balls up little bits of tinfoil to scrub the toilet with instead.
Those are the images that move me and, I hope, allow me to move others. At the heart of it is the thing we talk about least in this business and yet, when you really peel back the layers of any complicated, intimate story, it’s what we lean on the most: trust.
Thanks to editors Carole Tarrant, Dan Beatty and Brian Kelley for giving Josh and me the time to establish real trust. And thanks to Linda and Cheryl for pushing the media stereotypes aside and letting us into their lives.