The leg­work be­hind a by­line

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - Pa­trick B. Pex­ton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at om­buds­man@wash­post.com.

You know what makes The Post great, on its best days? Re­porters re­port­ing. Re­porters go­ing out to lis­ten to peo­ple. Re­porters plung­ing into government of­fices, and into government doc­u­ments, nos­ing around, ask­ing ques­tions, puz­zling through the maze of hall­ways and ver­biage to make con­nec­tions that ex­plain to read­ers a story or an is­sue.

It is re­porters col­lar­ing mem­bers of Congress out­side cham­bers or on Capi­tol Hill sub­ways. It is re­porters sit­ting through hours of a city or county coun­cil ses­sion or a con­gres­sional hear­ing, lis­ten­ing to of­fi­cials and wit­nesses drone on un­til hear­ing the telling quote or in­ter­est­ing fact that sends them off to do a story no­body ever thought about be­fore.

It is re­porters who stay to the very end of a plan­ning and zon­ing meet­ing, af­ter mid­night, be­cause that’s when the of­fi­cials will lower their guard and maybe cast the con­tro­ver­sial votes that will anger half the city.

It is re­porters with ring­ing ears from spend­ing so many hours on the phone, try­ing to find sources and facts they didn’t know they would need un­til they were as­signed sto­ries that morn­ing.

It is re­porters go­ing to bloody crime scenes where peo­ple are up­set, stressed and cry­ing. It is re­porters be­ing hu­mane yet per­sis­tent in their ques­tion­ing of po­lice or fam­ily mem­bers of vic­tims.

It is re­porters and pho­tog­ra­phers abroad, risk­ing their lives to cover vi­o­lent demon­stra­tions or wars, never know­ing if the next tear gas can­is­ter, or bul­let, has their name on it.

Each beat that re­porters take on dur­ing their ca­reers teaches them about jour­nal­ism and about life.

In my first job, cov­er­ing a small town in Con­necti­cut, I learned that the peo­ple most af­fected by an is­sue were the true ex­perts. I learned that an unas­sum­ing woman who wore only muumuus, who was treated by many in town as a gad­fly, knew more about pol­lu­tion in the Quin­nip­iac River than I could ever hope to, be­cause she had lived her life on it and ca­noed in it since she was a girl. She knew which fac­to­ries were clean and which ones were dump­ing toxic chem­i­cals. All I did was nose around the state bu­reau­cracy in Hart­ford and get doc­u­ments that proved it.

In The Post ev­ery day, you can read sto­ries where a re­porter did the rou­tine work of re­port­ing but, in do­ing so, showed you some­thing about the world around you.

Last week­end, for ex­am­ple, Sarah Kliff, who writes about health pol­icy for Wonkblog, went to the March for Life, the an­nual an­tiabor­tion rally, and in­ter­viewed a group of women who had ob­tained abor­tions but later came to re­gret their de­ci­sions. They formed a group called Silent No More, which has come to the protest since 2003. Straight­for­wardly and with un­der­stand­ing and no judg­ment, Kliff re­lated their sto­ries and de­scribed what th­ese women hoped to ac­com­plish with their an­nual pil­grim­age to the na­tion’s cap­i­tal. Now, Wonkblog is nor­mally as­so­ci­ated with the left­lean­ing Ezra Klein, but Kliff ’s story is as un­bi­ased as you can find. This blog post didn’t ap­pear in the pa­per, but it helped round out The Post’s cov­er­age of a sig­nif­i­cant event, cov­er­age that I crit­i­cized last year as in­ad­e­quate.

On Thurs­day’s front page, Kevin Si­eff, The Post’s Kabul cor­re­spon­dent, told a tragic tale of two gen­er­a­tions of Afghans who fled their coun­try be­cause of the Tal­iban: a man who went to Swe­den in 1997 to es­cape its rule, and his cousin, who tried his own es­cape just last month. The cousin didn’t make it; he died in a smug­gler’s over­loaded boat off the coast of Greece on his way to join his un­cle. In that per­sonal tale, Si­eff made real the mass ex­o­dus of Afghans that has been the legacy of 30 years of al­most non­stop war.

Closer to home, three lo­cal re­porters — Dana Hedg­peth, Mark Ber­man and Clarence Wil­liams — jumped on the story of an­other bad Metro com­mute, this time on the Green Line on Wed­nes­day night. About 2,000 rid­ers were stranded un­der­ground, in some cases for two hours, as a re­sult of a small track fire and a sub­se­quent power out­age. Rid­ers told the re­porters of their frus­tra­tion at the dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion and bad com­mu­ni­ca­tions Metro ex­hib­ited dur­ing the in­ci­dent.

Th­ese are the kinds of sto­ries that re­porters at The Post have learned to do as they climbed the lad­der of jour­nal­ism. And this sea­son­ing is what sep­a­rates The Post from the great mass of illinformed opin­ing and thin re­port­ing that passes for jour­nal­ism in me­dia land.

Sure, we can dec­o­rate, am­plify and sell our re­port­ing more with so­cial me­dia and new tech­nolo­gies, but at base, what makes us jour­nal­ists is the re­port­ing.

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