Week 13: Man-on-the-Street

June 18, 2020

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

I am facing a quandary, one that comes up from time to time in my work as a journalist: how to find average people to interview, who will embody the issues in the story I’m writing?

Years ago, when I worked at local papers, the solution was straightforward, if occasionally excruciating. You’d just leave the office, notebook in hand, and go in search of a place where people were walking around. Then you’d accost complete strangers, introduce yourself and your publication, and pray they would stop walking and talk to you. If they did, I had this long pad of paper, with a spiral at the top, that fit neatly in my palm. As they talked, I scribbled and flipped over pages, scribbled and flipped over pages.

Today, I work from home as a freelance writer. And I mean literally from home. Even before the pandemic grounded me, I rarely did interviews in person anymore. Partly this was because I was talking to people all over the country for national publications. But I also wrote for USC, which often meant just schlepping across town to sit down with one or the other of their professors. If that sounds like a pleasant break from the same four walls, it was. USC has a pretty campus, and the people I interviewed there were even more interesting in person than they were on the phone. But it also meant that a 30 minute discussion could suck up hours of my time, between getting dressed in suitable business attire, driving down the 10 freeway, finding parking, walking back and forth to the office, driving home, getting resettled at the computer, etc. etc. So even in my USC work, whenever I could possibly do an interview by phone, I did.

The internet has made it astoundingly easy to find experts from the comfort of your home office. Seems like I remember. back in the Stone Ages, randomly calling major universities and asking the communications staff to recommend professors to talk to on particular subjects. I couldn’t know if they had done cutting-edge research on the topic, but I would hope that at the very least they would be familiar with the issues, and perhaps recommend other people to interview as well.

Now, like everyone else, I have Google, and Google Scholar, and a host of other services and directories.

But I do miss the days of standing in front of supermarkets, notebook in hand, calling out, “Excuse me? Excuse me?”

I recently got assigned an article about parents sending their kids to summer camps run by teens, because they (the parents) are scared of virus exposure at bigger, regular day camps — or the camps in their area are all closed. I did the usual routine: posted a request on my Facebook feed, as well as to a group for women freelance writers with kids. I got plenty of responses, more really than I need — all of them from upper-middle-class white women.

I made a vow on this blog, a few entries ago, that I would make a conscious effort to interview people who weren’t white, no matter what the topic of the story. For this particular story, the editor has even requested it. But I can’t find the women. I have sent emails to more than half a dozen mothers’ group for black and Latina moms, but only one responded, and that was to tell me they couldn’t help me. I intend to send inquiries to more tonight, tomorrow, and possibly — though I hope I’ve solved this problem by then — into the weekend.

This is a tiny problem, a minuscule problem, really, when black people are getting regularly gunned down by police, and African-American pregnancies are severely impacted by climate change, and it took a Supreme Court decision to ensure that a generation of Dreamers would not be shipped back to their countries of origin because Donald Trump wanted to fire up his base.

But it’s frustrating. And it’s embarrassing, because it points out how racially segregated my life is. I have some friends who are, to throw them all in a broad category, people of color. Some of my best friends, actually, fall in this category. But the majority of my friends are white, and the majority of those are Jewish. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. But it’s not right.

And it’s not at all helpful to me today.