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OPINION | DEBRA HALE-SHELTON: Novelists aren't writing news stories

by Debra Hale-Shelton | November 1, 2020 at 8:34 a.m.

I never wanted to be a reporter. I wanted to be a writer.

Specifically, I wanted to write a novel. But even at age 17, as I was deciding on a college major, I knew I couldn't support myself by writing books. It's a good thing I realized that since, after all these years, I've not written a single book.

While reporters also write, the two jobs are far from the same thing. So it became my almost lifelong task to make the best of reporting assignments, even those I would have gladly handed over to someone else.

Many journalists have at least a mental list of most-hated stories. At the top of my list: weather stories forecasting the horrors of ice and snow, floods, droughts and deadly heat waves. I hated them one and all, but found the ones on heat more tolerable and more needed.

After all, Southerners tend to over-prepare for ice and snow storms, even those that barely leave the ground white. We stock up on groceries, refuel cars, get out heavy coats and boots, and buy snow scrapers for car windows. When I worked in Atlanta, we got maybe an inch of snow one winter. Area stores sold out of sleds.

But heat waves? We do little if anything, other than turn air conditioners higher and drink extra water or Gatorade when working or playing outside.

What galls me most about weather stories--reading and writing them--is the jargon, terms no one except meteorologists ever use in conversation.

I can't tell you what a "front" is, much less define terms like "barometric pressure," "inversion" and "jet stream," and never thought most readers care either. That said, I realize that some people do care and that some are as addicted to the Weather Channel as I was to soap operas in my younger days.

Still, I covered my share of tornadoes, snow storms and heat waves over the years. I ruined who knows how many shoes walking through muddy yards or fields to interview people after tornadoes. I sweated more than a little as I staked out the Cook County morgue where many of the more than 700 bodies were taken after a Chicago heat wave in 1995.

But the story that haunts me most is one I was fortunate enough not to cover one Sunday afternoon in April 1995 and had nothing to do with the weather.

I was working for The Associated Press in Chicago and was attending a suburban megachurch service for a religion feature.

Had I been in the office that day, I'd likely have been sent to the home of Jay and Kimberly Warburton, adoptive parents of a 4-year-old who had by then become known as Baby Richard. The boy had lived with the Warburtons since he was four days old. Four years later, after winning a years-long legal battle, the child's biological parents took him away from the only family he had ever known. He cried, wanting to stay with the Warburtons.

Reporters didn't have cell phones then, and there was no way for the AP to reach me that day. I was relieved later to learn that I had not been available to cover the story and to hear the child's wails.

Years later, in 2014, while reporting for this newspaper, I was covering the trial of Jack Gillean, a former University of Central Arkansas chief of staff who was convicted and sentenced to prison for commercial burglary.

I liked Gillean but had noticed a clear change in his demeanor over the years. Few executives at UCA in those troubled days enjoyed taking my questions. But Gillean stood out.

He had gone from a once polite and cooperative executive to one who was antagonistic, and I wasn't sure why.

As reporters waited for him to be led away in handcuffs from the courthouse, I sat down and debated whether to follow him to the sheriff's car and ask him yet again for a comment I knew he was not going to make. I took no joy in Gillean's pain.

Several UCA journalism students were also covering the trial. I looked at one or more of them and said I'd let them take care of this one. As I expected, he had nothing more to say.

There were, of course, the stories--or rather the memories--that never made print.

In one case, a prominent newsmaker also with ties to UCA called me at home after the news he'd made that week wasn't good. He asked to talk off the record, and I agreed. He started crying. I don't know if the tears were sincere. I think they were. What I do not believe is that he ever considered me a friend as he once said, and I calmly told him as much.

One thing I've learned as a reporter is that newsmakers and sources aren't your friends just because they give you tips, answer your questions, smile and say hi. Living in a city no bigger than Conway, it's easy, even tempting, to confuse sources and newsmakers with friends.

You go to dinner in Conway, and you run into a state legislator, a judge, a trustee you covered for a recent story. Maybe it was a good-news story, but you don't know about that next article, whether they'll come out being the good guy or not. Before you know it, you're all Facebook friends. You're flattered but also nervous about it. Then you realize you're just one of 2,000 or 3,000.

So, despite what some readers may think, I never rejoiced in reporting bad news about the locals. After all, I might run into them at Kroger later. That has happened, and I worked hard to avoid pushing my shopping cart down the same aisle as a former judge did. He later would go to prison.

Such experiences were never a problem in Chicago: I never once ran into Harold Washington, Richard M. Daley or Rod Blagojevich. I did once see Oprah Winfrey while she was shopping, and Prince Charles as he stepped into a Jaguar outside his hotel, but they'd have had no clue who I was, even if they had seen me.

It's a lot more fun reminiscing about my reporting days than it was living them. And it's easier to know who my friends really are.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at dhaleshelton@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

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