By Audrey Kittrell
Texas Observer political and education reporter Abby Rapoport visited the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) Nov. 13-16. As a 2008 Grinnell grad with deep Texas roots, Rapoport regaled students with anecdotes on learning to transition from Iowa academics to the contrasting world of reporting in the South.
Unlike the Iowa Legislature, which meets annually for about three months, the Texas Legislature takes place around the clock for five months every two years; it was in this whirlwind time in 2009 while reporting for the Texas Monthly that Rapoport first experienced what she calls “the weird and complicated world of being female and doing political reporting.”
“There’s a weird power structure in political reporting where you rely on people for information and they rely on you for sharing information … so you have to do a lot of considering of what you’re asking and what information you’re trying to get,” Rapoport told Professor Pam Creedon’s Gender and Mass Media class. “For women there is an extra power dynamic, which makes things conflict even more.”
So how does she balance ethics and gaining information? Rapoport said she knows reporters who get aggressive to scare information out of people, but she prefers to be likeable so sources trust her and she can get her stories circulating.
“Part of reporting has a lot to do with acting—you have to find what works for you,” she said. “The worst mistake is to respect the politicians too much and not push them…but at the same time you want them to talk to you.”
But in the South, it can be a different ball game. The Iowa Dozen holds SJMC students, as academic journalists, to high standards of objectivity. But Rapoport said nearly every day a source questions her religiosity before giving her information.
“You always have to be prepared for what a culture is like,” said Rapoport. “No one told me I’d be asked about my religion, but that can sometimes happen when you’re in a community where religion is a big part of life. And similarly, gender can be a big deal if the norms are different than you’re used to. It’s not so much the South is crazy, but wherever you are you’ll have to adjust.”
Margaret Murphy, a junior journalism and political science major and former president of University Democrats, thinks Rapoport’s run-ins with prejudiced attitudes is unfortunate but also regionalized.
“I feel like unless I travel to the Deep South, these experiences will not be as numerous. It's not that I think sexism only exists in the South, I just think the culture there allows men to be more upfront about it,” said Murphy.
In the 2011 Texas Legislature session, the state faced its worst financial crisis in history when the biannual budget came up $27 billion short. Rapoport said legislatures were “cheering themselves on for only cutting five billion dollars for education.” The majority of fellow reporters wrote congratulatory stories to the legislators, but Rapoport wrote a story she headlined “Relative Heroism.”
“I think objectivity can become moral relativism really easily,” said Rapoport.
With Texas being the fiery political state that it is, both local and national reporters are often vying for the same stories. Rapoport said this unfortunately breeds lazy reporters who borrow information from previously written stories.
“I think reporters assume there’s a limit to the corruption in a state, but in Texas there isn’t,” said Rapoport.
Rapoport speaks from experience at three out of five of Texas’s major dailies and is currently transitioning to the national, non-profit, political magazine The American Prospect, based in Washington, D.C. Through her previous job experiences, Rapoport has found a recipe for success:
“One: get as many raw skills as you can…Two: Find mentors and be really pushy about it. Seek people out, write to them, ask for their advice and tell them your story. Two and a half: Build a base of reporter tweeters and tweet at them. Get in conversations. Twitter is really cool because it’s especially democratic. But most of all, be aggressive about getting mentors,” said Rapoport.