Ask A Pro
The Kansas City (Mo.) Star
Why did you become a journalist?
I became a journalist because ever since I was a child, I've been extremely inquisitive, I've loved talking to people and I've loved to read and write. And though I know it's unrealistic to think I can change the world, I love to be able to write stories that move people and help right wrongs against people. For those reasons, journalism seemed to be a perfect fit. And I get paid for doing what I love to do!
How did you work your way up to become a projects reporter?
I started working as a general assignment reporter for The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle after graduating from college in 1988. I covered everything from meetings to murders for a while, then covered several sessions of the Kansas legislature in addition to working on short-term projects. In 1991, I was the lead reporter for the massive Operation Rescue abortion protests that brought national attention to the city, and after that, made abortion one of my areas of expertise. Later, I began covering the militia movement and right-wing extremists groups, and then the Oklahoma City bombing. I came to The Kansas City (Mo.) Star in 1995 as a general assignment reporter on the metro desk. I continued to write about abortion and the militia movement and also covered breaking news and wrote enterprise pieces. In January 2000, my "AIDS in the Priesthood" series was published, and several months later, I was promoted to the projects desk.
How long does it take you to develop a story, especially in terms of gaining expertise in a particular subject and cultivating sources?
On the projects desk, I have the luxury of being able to spend more time on stories. For that reason, I might spend several weeks or several months developing a story, depending on the subject. What I try to do -- whether I have five hours or five weeks -- is immerse myself in whatever I'm writing about, using the Internet to search for everything that's ever been written about the issue and talking to as many people as possible to find out more about it.
How closely do you work with editors, photographers and graphics people as a story develops?
I work extremely closely with all of those involved in my project, from the projects editor to the copy desk. On my desk, I first have to write a proposal that lays out the project I want to work on. Then I work with the projects editor to refine the proposal. After that, it goes to the managing editor and editor for approval. Once that happens, I get to start working on it. When we have an idea of what kind of pictures we're going to need, we start talking to the photo desk, and a photographer is assigned to the project. We also try to get graphics involved as early as possible.
Congratulations on your Society of Professional Journalists award for the "AIDS in the Priesthood" series. How did you come up with this story idea?
The story came about in 1993 when I was in Wichita. A source on another issue I was covering mentioned that her priest had mysteriously died at age 51. I began checking into the death, and soon learned that not only had he died of AIDS, but that two other priests in the relatively small diocese had also died of the disease. When I moved to the Star, I found that numerous priests in the Kansas City area had died of AIDS, as well. Further checking found that this was a national problem.
What kinds of public documents did you use to back up your reporting?
To get a good grasp of the issue, I read dozens of books, documents and articles about the church's position on celibacy, homosexuality and AIDS. I also read books by former priests, gay priests and married priests and tracked down a journal written by a priest who died of AIDS. But the main source of information came from the examination of death certificates, which was a tedious and expensive process.
How difficult was it getting priests to go on the record about their private lives and the lives of their colleagues?
Because of the sensitivity of this issue, getting people to talk was one of the most difficult aspects of the reporting process. In some cases, I spent months talking to sources before they would open up about a loved one who had died of AIDS. I also spent hour after hour speaking with members of gay Catholic organizations and leaders in the gay community and tracked down a former San Diego drugstore executive who had befriended more than two dozen priests who later died of AIDS. Once the sources realized that we were not trying to sensationalize the issue and that the aim was to tell the story in a caring and compassionate way, they were willing to help.
What was the reaction from the public at large and Catholic Church leaders to the series?
The story was picked up in virtually every major market in the United States and in various outlets around the world. The first week, the Star received dozens of interview requests, and a film crew came from as far as Amsterdam to do a story. The series also sparked more than 3,000 phone calls and e-mails, running about half positive and half negative. Critics called the series an attack on the Catholic faith and publicly denounced the newspaper's findings. One of the harshest critics, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a memorandum that, "the series extrapolated from a handful of tragic but isolated cases to manufacture a crisis that does not exist." But hundreds of respondents, including priests and AIDS experts, praised the newspaper for delving into a sensitive issue that needed to be addressed. The story also prompted discussion at religious conferences and in the religious press. And on Jan. 5, 2001, the series was highlighted on ABC's "20/20" program.
What kind of follow-up have you done since the series ran?
The Star published a follow-up on Nov. 5, 2000. The story included reaction to the original series and the results of an extensive state-by-state search of death records. In the article, The Star reported that it had documented more than 300 AIDS-related priest deaths nationwide through death certificates and interviews with family members and religious colleagues. The Star also found that in the states in which death certificates were available, the AIDS death rate among priests was more than double that of all adult males in those states and more than six times that of the general population in those states. In light of the new evidence, more people within the church began urging the hierarchy to open a dialogue on how to prevent priests from dying of AIDS.
What advice do you have for aspiring journalists?
- Know your subject inside and out
- Always be prepared
- Be compassionate and sensitive in your approach on sensitive issues
- Build a network of sources
- Don't give up easily
- Pay attention to detail
- Get all your questions answered
- Go the extra mile
Above all, LISTEN. Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut. Let people talk.