Earline Budd came out as transgender to her Baptist family when she was a 9-year-old boy.
Earline Budd came out as transgender to her Baptist family when she was a 9-year-old boy.
She didn't seem too bothered by the number, saying it was better than her days working as a congressional aide in one of the office annexes.
Drilling, banging, buzzing – the Capitol’s majestic presence has been hidden beneath towers of scaffolding pipes as part of the 150-year-old dome’s restoration.
 
 
 

Semester in Washington Intern Blog

Oct 7, 2014

Click on photo to enlarge or download: The embassy of the Republic of Kenya is set to welcome the country’s new ambassador to the U.S., Njeru Githae, in the next few weeks. Plans are underway to register Kenyans residing in the U.S. so they can vote in the 2017 presidential election. SHFWire photo by Rocky AsutsaClick on photo to enlarge or download: The embassy of the Republic of Kenya is set to welcome the country’s new ambassador to the U.S., Njeru Githae, in the next few weeks. Plans are underway to register Kenyans residing in the U.S. so they can vote in the 2017 presidential election. SHFWire photo by Rocky AsutsaBy Rocky Asutsa

There were one and half Kenyans at the White House last week. Both were working, though one of them lives there, too. I was the full Kenyan.

President Barack Obama, whose father was from Kenya, walked in, and the mood in the room changed. You could see the embodiment of power and the concentration shift from people fiddling with their phones to getting a shot of the most powerful man in world. No doubt to tweet their location.

Being at the White House at that moment and seeing a man with such a humble history command such attention brought a sense of pride. Not in his Kenyan lineage, but because I was looking at a man who worked hard to get where he is regardless of the obstacles.

To be a Kenyan in the U.S. for the very first time, not visiting but working, is a lot to take in. Between running to catch the Circulator bus (the cheapest form of transport other than walking) and calling sources to seek confirmation or RSVP for events, asking strangers for directions and not really understanding the menu when eating out, I’d say my four weeks in Washington have been interesting. Covering a story at the White House has so far caped it.

In carrying out my duties I have met economists, political analysts, politicians, activists, athletes and the average guy on the street. No doubt I could have met any of these in Kenya but the difference is in the story. The difference lies in the similarities in how each of us wants to solve a problem. Make a change.

I have learned that what we focus on becomes important. Even better is going out there and creating or making the change we want to see happen.     

Monday I went to visit the Kenyan embassy in D.C. Hearing Swahili spoken was calming and gave the reception area a home effect.

News that President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed Vice President William Ruto as acting president while Kenyatta appears before the International Criminal Court as a private citizen had just broken back home in Kenya. He’s accused of involvement in post-election violence in 2007 and 2008.

However, more than 7,400 miles away across the Atlantic, there are no visible ripples.

As many American men and women made and are currently making history, Kenyatta is writing his.

While I am yet to appear in history books, I will say that every day is an opportunity for people to tell their own stories.  Let it be a good one.

 

Sep 30, 2014

By Lorain Watters

Walls of brick and metal surround me, and the sunsets of D.C. feel foreign on my skin. If I close my eyes long enough, the steel structures of the city melt in to the sloping brown backs of my mountains, and I’m home again, if only for a second.

It happened Wednesday at a conference at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art to discuss better preservation of New Deal murals across the country after Tom Lea’sStampede” was damaged in the U.S. post office in Odessa, Texas.

Covering this event for a newspaper in my hometown, I was curious to hear what they had to say and their perspective on El Paso, Texas. El Paso residents take pride in being recognized, and that stems from having a mentality that people who grow up in this city don’t have a lot to offer. Fortunately, initiatives have sprung up to acknowledge the talent in our city.

Several art museum staff members and curators spoke, as was expected, along with a few international art scholars. It was a remarkable thing to witness. Here were all of these people –  who may have never visited El Paso or do not know our history or struggles – embracing the city because of one man’s artwork and how it spoke to them. I was in a city so far from my border town, but that day I had never felt so close.

Toward the end of the conference, a petite woman stood on stage and displayed Lea’s “Southwest” painting across the museum’s back wall. A huge wave of nostalgia came over me as I looked on at one of my own favorite paintings by Lea – the sloping mountains resting on the hot sand, clouds rolling over each other in the dimming sky and cacti sitting majestically on a hill, overlooking the vast landscape.    

Sabiha Al Khemir saw a reproduction of this painting in France, where she had been for an Islamic art show.

“The landscape had no reference in my geographical knowledge, but it struck a particular responsive chord and something in me recognized it instantly. It’s that feeling of recognition that happens when we fall in love at first sight,” she said.

As many people would call it today, I was struck with the feels. In that moment, I could relate to Al Khemir, a complete stranger. But once she expressed her love of this painting, the artist and the city, I could feel myself opening my arms to her like my own abuelita would do to me.

Al Khemir published a novel, “The Blue Manuscript,” in 2008 that takes place in a fictional city in Egypt. The main character is a soothsayer who had been blind since his childhood. One day his eyes turned inward, and he departed to an inner landscape. Al Khemir said her character’s journey to that inner landscape reminded her of the “Southwest” painting.

Quoting the character in her novel, she read, “A sense of nothingness with its wholeness filled me, taking the wholeness of silence further – silence like that imposed by an immense landscape that lifts our being into a state of grace, purifying it, and to each human beings of any race, creed or religion can relate to – a sacredness for all.”

Going in to cover a conference, I came out with knowledge about the human spirit and the interconnectedness we all have. Al Khemir showed me that no matter where we come from, we are all human and seek someone who can understand us. Even in death, Lea is still bringing together a community through his artwork, like Al Khemir and me, this network of connectivity holds strong and breaks barriers of the cultural norm. 

 

Sep 19, 2014

By Wesley Juhl

WASHINGTON - Two heroes from the Vietnam War were recognized this week for bravely saving lives more than 40 years ago.

Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins and Spc. 4 Donald P. Sloat were awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry in a White House ceremony, and the men’s names were placed on the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes on Tuesday.

But why did it take so long for these outstanding soldiers to be recognized with the U.S. military’s highest award for valor?

“Normally, this medal must be awarded within a few years of the action,” President Barack Obama said in the White House’s East Room on Monday. “But sometimes even the most extraordinary stories can get lost in the fog of war or the passage of time.”

For 35 years, Sloat’s family believed he stepped on a landmine, and when his mother, Evelyn, later learned on the Internet what happened, she made it her mission to have Sloat’s actions recognized.

She devoted herself to campaigning for her son to receive the medal. She bought a special dress to wear the occasion, but she died about three years ago.

Adkins found his advocate for the commendation at home in Opelika, Ala.

Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Don Turner, 80, noticed Adkins while he was hosting a veterans event. Turner said Adkins was wearing a host of Army medals and joked that someone had stopped at a costume store on their way to the event.

An Opelika city administrator introduced them and told Turner some of Adkins’ story – Adkins never talked about it – and the two became fast friends.

Turner tracked down Adkins’ battle file, and devoted the next six years to making sure he got the Medal of Honor.

Turner said the president told Adkins he didn’t know why he hadn’t received the award sooner. Both men showed a great deal of heroism in battle and saved the lives of numerous fellow soldiers.

Sloat, from Coweta, Okla., tried to join the Army several times before he was accepted. He kept failing his physical exam due to high blood pressure, Obama said Monday.

When Sloat finally made it in, he quickly distinguished himself with his swift response to two ambushes by enemy forces.

A month before his 21st birthday, on Jan. 17, 1970, Sloat and his company triggered a grenade trap while marching on a small hill in the Que Son valley. Sloat grabbed the grenade, as if to throw it away. But when he realized it was about to blow, he used his body to shield fellow squad members from the blast, saving at least three lives and sacrificing his own.

Sloat's awards and decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart, the Army Commendation Medal, the Army Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal with two Bronze Service Stars, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal and a handful of others.

But he never received the Medal of Honor, and neither did Adkins.

Adkins’ story reads like the plot of an unbelievable action movie.

Adkins, from Opelika, Ala., served three tours in Vietnam. During his second, at the age of 35, Adkins and his Special Forces unit defended their camp through 38 hours of close-combat fighting against enemy soldiers in the spring of 1966.

When the camp fell, Adkins led the surviving troops into the jungle, where they evaded enemy soldiers for 48 hours before they were rescued.

When the encounter was finally over, Adkins had fought with every type of weapon and saved numerous lives. Army officials said he killed an estimated 135 to 175 enemy troops by himself, despite sustaining 18 different wounds.

Like Sloat, Adkins earned a host of commendations from his time in Vietnam. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Army Commendation Medal and more than a dozen others.

 

Sep 18, 2014

 Click on photo to enlarge or download: Liberian missionary Albert Stewart distributes Ebola disinfection kits in August in Grand Bassa, Liberia. Family photoClick on photo to enlarge or download: Liberian missionary Albert Stewart distributes Ebola disinfection kits in August in Grand Bassa, Liberia. Family photoBy Ayana Stewart

When I was covering crime at The Miami Herald this summer, I learned to remain empathetic without becoming overemotional. It’s one of the cardinal rules of reporting.

But things become complicated when your life is intertwined with front-page headlines.

When I first read about the Ebola virus several months ago, I remember feeling a little bit concerned. My dad’s parents have been Pentecostal missionaries in Liberia since 1983. They’ve seen extreme poverty. They’ve lived through a civil war. In May, someone set fire to a church school they pioneered.

They’ve always been somewhat indestructible in my mind. But something shifted once Ebola hit West Africa.

American aid workers were becoming infected, and thousands were dying. Some Africans refused to seek help because of superstition, making the extremely contagious disease even deadlier.

My friends discussed Ebola in the way we often discuss bad things happening in far-off places: using words like “unfortunate” and “sad” and feeling some sort of distant compassion for everyone affected.

Click on photo to enlarge or download: Tegeste Stewart kisses her granddaughter, Ayana, in May 2011 after sharing a speech about Ayana at a high school graduation party. Family photoClick on photo to enlarge or download: Tegeste Stewart kisses her granddaughter, Ayana, in May 2011 after sharing a speech about Ayana at a high school graduation party. Family photoFor my family, it’s personal.

My grandma, Tegeste Stewart, sings in the kitchen as she cooks. She wakes up early every morning to read her Bible and is known for urging everyone in our family to thank God every day. My grandpa, Albert Stewart, is prone to booming exclamations and wearing U.S. Army veteran gear, a nod to his years in the military.

Thanks to email, Facebook and phone calls, I’m usually in touch with them three times a week.

When I see news packages about the disease becoming out of control, I want to cry. I turn away from pictures of Ebola victims.

My grandfather is traveling throughout Liberia, educating people about the dangers of the disease. He’s help set up disinfecting stations for people to wash their hands. He’s stoic and fierce in his belief that Liberia will be OK.

Still, it’s hard not to live in fear. It’s selfish of me, but I want my grandparents back in the U.S. I want to make sure they’ll be at my college graduation and wedding. The thought of losing two of my most important people is too much to bear.

But I’ve learned a lot in the process. It can be easy to approach assignments coldly. I’m not saying that gallows humor is a bad thing, but I have become more intentional in my reporting. I’m learning a lot about genuine compassion and identifying with the subjects of my stories: How does this affect them? How would I feel if this was my relative?

Click on photo to enlarge or download: Albert and Tegeste Stewart, missionaries in Liberia, are shown in an undated family photo.Click on photo to enlarge or download: Albert and Tegeste Stewart, missionaries in Liberia, are shown in an undated family photo.In the meantime, I’m learning to appreciate the quality reporting coming out of West Africa. I’m thankful for the journalists and photographers who are covering Ebola, and I am encouraged.

Wednesday morning, I stepped inside Starbucks before work and saw a page 1 story about President Barack Obama sending thousands of troops and health workers to help fight Ebola. I didn’t turn away as I have in the past – instead, I read the article with hope. Maybe things will be OK after all.

Sep 16, 2014

 Click on photo to enlarge or download: President Barack Obama meets with Spelling Bee co-champions Monday in the Oval Office. Meeting the President are Ansun Sujoe, right, from Fort Worth, Texas, and Sriram Hathwar, center, from Painted Post, N.Y. Official White House Photo by Pete SouzaClick on photo to enlarge or download: President Barack Obama meets with Spelling Bee co-champions Monday in the Oval Office. Meeting the President are Ansun Sujoe, right, from Fort Worth, Texas, and Sriram Hathwar, center, from Painted Post, N.Y. Official White House Photo by Pete SouzaBy Kara Mason

It was relatively quiet on the White House grounds. Outside, tourists snapped photos, U.S. Secret Service dogs sniffed for any potential threats that would disrupt what seemed like solitude on the other side of the fence and protesters made their presence known.

But inside, where the real action happens, it felt calm.

After getting through the gates, my attention was focused solely on getting where I needed to go, and maybe that’s why it seems like the rest of the world went mute when I passed that security check.

I need to get my camera gear set up, I need to meet the press contact, I need to not accidently find myself somewhere I shouldn’t be. I need to focus.

There’s a certain intensity that comes with being on the inside of that fence. Not only am I reporting at the White House, I’m doing something I’ve never done before – video work.

With my tripod and camera in tow, I followed the press contact.

“We can set up here, and I’ll be back with the Spelling Bee champs,” she said.

I attempt to set up near where every major network sets up its gear, but my knowledge of my tripod and how it will affect my shot is not nearly what I need it to be. I’ve prepared for this moment, but doubt is kicking in.

Somehow, it was still quiet.

Luckily, the Scripps National Spelling Bee champs and E.W. Scripps Co. President Richard Boehne’s meeting with President Barack Obama was running longer than expected, because after realizing that I’m brand new to this rodeo, the CBS cameraman down the way jumped over to help me unfold and set up my gear.

Click on photo to enlarge or download: E.W. Scripps Co. President Rich Boehne took a selfie of the two of us after we left the White House where he met President Barack Obama in the Oval Office with the spelling bee champions and I interviewed them outside. Photo by Rich BoehneClick on photo to enlarge or download: E.W. Scripps Co. President Rich Boehne took a selfie of the two of us after we left the White House where he met President Barack Obama in the Oval Office with the spelling bee champions and I interviewed them outside. Photo by Rich BoehneOnce the spellers arrive, it’s somehow still surprisingly quiet. Winners Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoe seem awestruck that they’ve just emerged from the Oval Office. I’m in awe that my video is actually recording and the sound is working.

We’ve all reached a major milestone.

As I finished the interview and the quiet continued, I took a deep breath, and Boehne and I returned our passes and wandered back into the crowd where the noise and the rather casual atmosphere, returned.

There’s no pressure, no prestige, no wonderfully helpful CBS cameramen. There’s a fence guarding the calmness.

I’m sure there’s a buzz that follows the president, but it’s impossible to think that it’s anything similar to the world outside the White House grounds. 

After all, the work and events happening inside that fence are important, even for interns shooting video for the first time, and important work requires a quiet, serious mood.

 

Aug 14, 2014

By Anna Giles

Through a cloud of suffocating dust I can see a herd of anxious cattle just ahead.

I give my horse two sharp kicks to the gut and lurch towards them. The sky is clear and there is nothing blocking my way except the blade-like leaves of a yucca plant.

It’s just me, the desert and the sound of hooves beating the hot, dry earth. I round up the cattle and push them towards a man-made watering hole – the only liquid for miles upon miles upon miles.

I am not describing a Wild West scene in a movie.

This is my home and my life of 20 years – the expansive desert of Las Cruces, N.M. – just miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

Throughout the summer, I have been reporting from Washington on the crisis taking place along the border – specifically in south Texas. Thousands of unaccompanied children have been arriving there –some fleeing violence in their home countries and others who received false information about lax U.S. immigration policies.

It has led me to involuntarily reflect on my life at the border. As members of Congress, administration officials and nonprofit organizations argue over the best way to solve the crisis and share frightening stories of violence or deprivation in the border region, in my head I page through memories of my childhood.

I see New Mexico ranch culture – with cattle round ups every of couple months. I see Chile roasters on the side of the road that somehow produce more heat that what is already beating down from the sun. I see border patrol search stations that I pass through every week where my car is X-rayed and I answer questions about my legal status.

The border region can be hostile place. The heat is unbearable, the desert never ending and no water until you make it to a nearby town.

But it’s not as empty as it sounds.

U.S. border patrol agents sweep the area in patrol cars often. The border with Mexico is usually marked by a 5 foot iron fence – just a few inches shorter than me. Many times, immigrants looking to cross the border will hide out in this remote area, looking for a safe way in.

Many times they will make a dangerous journey through the mountains just outside of Las Cruces in a place called the Corralitos Ranch.

When I go there during the day to help a friend herd cattle, I sometimes find the old clothing and food they leave behind.

About a year ago, I was exploring an abandoned shed at a wind mill located in the depths of the desert. I found empty tuna cans and cotton dangling out of a ripped teddy bear.

Because the environment is so hostile many immigrants die making the journey. Some are dehydrated and some are killed by wild animals.

The terrain is just as perilous for border patrol troops. They use technology like drones and X-ray machines to help them apprehend immigrants trying to cross or find drugs stashed in vehicles.

Sometimes they have to do things the old fashioned way - on foot.

On a blistering hot afternoon about a year ago, I found myself in the passenger seat of a truck driving along a dust-laden road between El Paso, Texas, and Columbus, N.M. – two places that have ports of entry.

My friend and I stopped the car to check out the border fence just off the side of the road. The maroon-colored iron fence goes on for miles. On the U.S. side, there are concrete pads lining the fence – some of which have sensors.

We walked around, took some pictures and left.

Within five minutes of driving on the main road again a man in a border patrol vehicle pulled us over. We weren’t speeding – he had simply detected us walking around near the fence and came to check out who we were.

The border area near New Mexico is not as active as other areas near major points of entry like El Paso. The U.S border with Mexico spans almost 2,000 miles, and the lifestyle in each border region is dramatically different. Some areas, like El Paso or Nogales, Ariz. are commerce hubs and see lots of activity.

The border fences there are 14 feet tall with barbed wire at the top.

Things in New Mexico are a bit more laid back. There is a clearly a reliance on the treacherous terrain to serve as a deterrent to hopeful crossers.

But that’s what I like most about it. When you breathe the air, it’s fresh – like it’s never been used. Life is calm and relaxed. But you wouldn’t think so in light of the recent crisis.

People call the border region no country for old men. So good thing I’m a young woman.

Reach reporter Anna Giles at anna.giles@scripps.com or 202-326-9861. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.

Aug 14, 2014

Click on photo to enlarge or download: Crystal Saunders helps tourists as part of her job as a Safety/Hospitality worker for the Downtown D.C. Business improvement District. SHFWire photo by Kate WinkleClick on photo to enlarge or download: Crystal Saunders helps tourists as part of her job as a Safety/Hospitality worker for the Downtown D.C. Business improvement District. SHFWire photo by Kate WinkleBy Kate Winkle

During this internship, I had freedom to develop skills and pursue my own projects. After getting used to covering Washington, I decided I wanted to develop a big project. I started at the beginning of July, and the four-part series landed on the website Wednesday.

The project I affectionately termed the “D.C. Jobs” series was my first solo, long-form, multimedia endeavor. To say I learned a lot would be an understatement, so these are a few tips I picked up about the process.

1. Develop an idea

I knew almost as soon as I arrived in Washington that I wanted to work on a summer project. One of my biggest struggles was figuring out what it should be, because it had to meet a few criteria: it must be reportable, it must be feasible, it must be interesting. The last point is the most important: selecting a topic of interest to an audience and to the reporter, who often must work months or years before a project is complete.

I discussed ideas with friends, family, my editor and co-workers to visualize my end goal and choose an idea: a series about jobs in Washington, complete with an article, photos and video.

2. Articulate the project

I needed to be able to explain my project in one or two sentences. Not only did this keep me on track, but it also allowed me to explain my goals to media representatives and sources. At first it was difficult to cold-call people at the places I wanted to include, and I may have rambled about my project a bit too much. With practice, though, I developed a succinct explanation that later served as the project’s online introduction: This story is part of a four-part series about unique jobs in Washington. Some jobs are necessary for the city to functionor require a special set of skills, but all are cogs in the wheel that makes Washington tick.

3. Create a timeline

I had about a month and a half to pull this project together, and adding multimedia elements would increase the time I’d need to work, so I decided to focus on three or four jobs. I set generous deadlines for scheduling interviews, gathering the raw materials and writing and editing the final piece. My last deadline, however, couldn’t move. I had to finish the project before the internship ended Aug. 15.

4. Have a Plan B

Ideally, I would have set up job shadowing and interviews by the second week in July. What I didn’t account for was the busyness that comes with the weekend of the Fourth of July in D.C. Media representatives were busy planning other things; my project, in their eyes, could wait. Other people were on vacation or out of the office, which led one media representative to politely decline to participate.

Click on photo to enlarge or download: Park Ranger Ted White gives tours of the Lincoln Memorial and other monuments on the National Mall. SHFWire photo by Kate WinkleClick on photo to enlarge or download: Park Ranger Ted White gives tours of the Lincoln Memorial and other monuments on the National Mall. SHFWire photo by Kate WinkleI felt defeated for a while, working on daily stories and checking in with media relations people on the side. I reached out to other jobs I could profile, feeling the pressure of my timeline.

Finally, responses trickled in as the frenzy of summer events slowed. I found six people representing four different jobs to shadow, video and photograph. I created a system of producing the product: half a day of gathering information, interviews, video and photo; a day and a half of writing; a day for editing video; half a day for creating a slideshow. It came together just as the last week of the internship was upon me.

5. Share the project

I can’t accurately describe the relief and elation of uploading everything to the website. I grinned while walking back to my office after a final proofread with my editor.

But, my work was not done. I tweeted stories out on the @SHFWireInterns Twitter account and my personal one, tagging the organizations with whom I’d worked in the tweets. I shared a barrage of links to Facebook. I texted friends and family. I also emailed links to and thanked all my sources and media representatives who helped me.

With my project finally finished, I took a deep breath, relaxed a bit and admired the product.

 

Aug 14, 2014

 Click on photo to enlarge or downloadClick on photo to enlarge or downloadBy Kate Winkle

I’m convinced that Hollywood thinks journalists are cool. Hollywood, and the makers of superhero comics. And, when the two get together, you get Amy Adams’ Lois Lane stomping around the world in high heels and Tobey Maguire’s Spider Man taking selfies while zipping through the air. Both, I have to admit, are pretty cool images.

Journalists in actuality are a lot less glamorous, and not every story is a world-traveling adventure or the uncovering of a scandal. Sometimes, journalists have to sit by a phone and wait for a source to call back. They have to be patient. But they need to get information in a timely manner, so they also have to be persistent.

The past few weeks have been a lesson in the virtues of patience and persistence. I worked on a longer-term project that required me to call media relations representatives and coordinate interviews. In fact, my project absolutely required that I rely on them for help, which can be very good or very difficult.

The good part is that media relations representatives can provide access. Through coordination with a Smithsonian National Zoo representative, I took video inside an enclosure of giant tortoises. By talking with a Library of Congress representative, I photographed the library’s extensive flute collection. The media relations people also introduced me to individuals willing to let me follow them around and do an interview. Those are some very rewarding benefits.

On the other hand, as a journalist I depend on these people. If they don’t call back or won’t work with me, sometimes there can’t be a story. If they don’t call back quickly, my project timeline gets shifted a smidge.

There’s a kind of frantic worry that develops when waiting for someone to call back. If it’s for a daily or breaking story, I’ve sometimes called every half hour until I’ve gotten a response. But working on a longer project requires more tact, there’s a delicate balance between being an annoyance and being at the forefront of that person’s mind. I wanted to develop a relationship so I could work with them and continue to work with them.

I wanted so badly for this project to work, and the worst part was that there was really nothing I could do about the holdup, except call back every day and politely request to be called back. And also tell them to “have a nice day,” for good measure.

Finally getting that call and talking schedules was a welcome relief. Even more of a relief was  going out and meeting my sources, starting productive work on the project.

The next relief was, of course, finishing and publishing the project.

 

Aug 1, 2014

Click on photo to enlarge or download: Warning: Sometimes you’ll end up on a senator’s web page if you sit in the front row of a press conference. That’s me, center, in the light suit taking notes. Photo from Sen. Claire McCaskill’s websiteClick on photo to enlarge or download: Warning: Sometimes you’ll end up on a senator’s web page if you sit in the front row of a press conference. That’s me, center, in the light suit taking notes. Photo from Sen. Claire McCaskill’s websiteBy Daniel Wheaton

There’s some sick enjoyment in the power a congressional press pass gives you.

And no, not in the Frank Underwood-ey “proximity to power” way, but being able to walk around the Capitol like you own the place, which, technically, we all do.

I got the chance to experience what our lawmakers did before they went on their summer vacations.

Some had hopes for grand legislation, and others lost political battles.

The House and Senate passed their short-term fix to the Highway Trust Fund, which ends my continuous string of what I’ve been internally calling “HTF” stories.

Sitting up in the press galleries taking notes of congressional debate is an experience I’m glad to have had, but I understand why people who do this as their career sometimes just sit back and listen to C-SPAN.

There’s only so much floor action you can listen to.

It’s a bit easier to understand why things take so long in Congress when you’re physically there.

Parliamentary procedure eats up minutes, and 15-minute voting periods are really more like 25.

When it comes down to it, you realize that they’re just people.

Just like you and I would probably (Read: definitely) do, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., checked email on her iPad when Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was giving a speech on the floor.

Who can blame her?

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is kind of a touchy-feely kinda guy; he often places a hand on the shoulder of someone he’s talking to.

That and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., looks extra sullen when you’re looking down at him from the House Press Gallery

At times Congress feels like a zoo, and reporters get the chance to toss a few bites over the wall.

I’m glad for that.

 

Jul 24, 2014

 Click on photo to enlarge or download: Matt Waite, University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor of practice, flies a small drone during a talk at the National Press Club on Wednesday. His drone is typical of those used to gather photos and videos for news stories. SHFWire photo by Daniel WheatonClick on photo to enlarge or download: Matt Waite, University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor of practice, flies a small drone during a talk at the National Press Club on Wednesday. His drone is typical of those used to gather photos and videos for news stories. SHFWire photo by Daniel WheatonBy Daniel Wheaton

I never planned to get in trouble with a federal agency.

About this time last year, my organization – the College of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln – was asked to stop flying drones by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Matt Waite, the lab’s founder, sent me a text briefly explaining the situation and how we’d go forward.

It’s bewildering getting a letter like that from a federal agency, but at the same time it was reassuring to know that the work that we were doing was cutting-edge enough to be, you know, possibly illegal.

Let me rewind.

In the fall of 2011, Waite was a guest lecturer in my journalism 101 class when he preached about investigative journalism and the intersection of technology and reporting.

As a still-impressionable freshman who was and is a bit of a technophile I thought: “I should get to know this guy.”

In November, Waite had officially created the lab, and I offered my help as a research assistant.

My role was to write for the lab’s blog and to study the ethics of using drones to report.

I flew some of our drones – the DJI phantom and our fixed-wing – but that wasn’t my focus.

Ben Kreimer, then a history and broadcasting student at UNL, was our engineer. He built several systems and worked out some of the kinks.

This side project put me in an interesting position as a reporter.

Let me be clear: I want journalists to be allowed to use drones. I think journalism needs to harness all kinds of communication technologies to tell stories.

I have biases, and I’m able to work around them.

At this point, I’m not sure how many stories I’ve written about drones.

In all of them, I still use the same reporting techniques as any other stories, and I still work to make sure my reporting is balanced.

In my latest drone story, I anecdotally refer to the common response: “I’ll shoot down your drone.”

It’s a common viewpoint – that’s why it’s in the story.

Beyond that, I avoid writing directly about UNL’s lab, or about Waite.

If you’re a student journalist, I encourage you to find topics that you care about and make that your beat. If you’re able to keep your own opinions out of the mix, having a personal connection might make you a better reporter.

Getting that letter from the FAA proved that the government and the public need good journalism to understand what’s going forward.

Policy, regulation and law is inherently complicated, so boiling that down into useful, coherent information is entirely what’s needed.

Find your passion and report it.

 

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