Some are slow and steady; like that of a sleepy caterpillar, leisurely morphing into its glorious butterfly alter ego. Some are swift and unstable; like an unsuspecting packet of slicked seeds suddenly bursting into a bag of buttery popcorn. Some are simply unpredictable; like adjusting to life in a wheelchair after a paralyzing car accident, or finding out that dollar lottery ticket just made you a millionaire overnight.
There are all types of transformations. The first story I ever produced in my fledgling journalism career went through its own, with – as I look back upon it – a little bit of each of those transformational qualities. And through its painstaking (and oftentimes frustrating) process, it made me realize that the desire to do good reporting and the compromise required to see that reporting go to air demanded a universal acceptance of one thing: its transformation.
Washington Week with Gwen Ifill, a highly respected PBS publication, announced its “Voice of the Voters” feature, and I excitedly submitted a pitch. I figured, why not take a stab at producing a high-quality piece of journalism and jump-start my resume with a renowned entity like PBS? I thought the “Voice of the Voters” project was a perfect way for me to do both, while investigating a subject that was near and dear to my heart: specific issues that are important to women.
As a first-year graduate student, I didn’t really expect to be chosen to move on to final production; I was, after all, competing with students across the country, most in their final semester of their graduate programs. But upon my selection by PBS (and my initial, personalized version of “shock and awe”), I went right to work on the logistics and mapped out the entire production process for my piece. I had a vision: lend a virtual megaphone to those young women (on my USFSP campus) who had stories to share about where they stood on women’s issues in the 2012 presidential election. This group, as far as I could tell, had not been adequately covered in the local media, and for that matter [it appeared to me] the entire subject of “women’s issues” was generally glossed over on the national stage as well. My aim was to do something different; something that would elevate a set of voices and allow those voices to uninhibitedly express their concerns as they cast their ballot for the next president. The feature, after all, was called, “Voice of the Voters.”
My original pitch to PBS, I felt, accurately reflected this vision. It outlined the history of Florida’s swing-state status in determining presidents, as well as its divided and varied voting demographics. I placed an emphasis upon candidly asking how local USFSP female voters felt toward issues they believed would have a direct effect on them. PBS producers explained that while that strategy was acceptable, I should also be sure to include some statistical information in order to set up a context in which to frame the piece. I agreed, since data establishing female voting trends and figures would only strengthen my story’s authority. Still, I didn’t want the piece to be about the numbers; viewers can go to a plethora of other media sources for that. I wanted my piece to be about the people.
I wanted to explore what young, college female voters thought of the older, male candidates who were vying for their presidential vote. What mattered to them? What didn’t? Did they relate to what the nominees (Barack Obama and Mitt Romney) were saying, and more importantly, did they believe them? Did they agree with them? Did they feel adequately represented or did they feel the system had let them down? To boot, I wondered what influence the media had in shaping the political ideologies of these young women. Essentially, I just wanted to produce a piece of investigative journalism that asked those questions and relayed the blunt, genuine answers I got in return. Nothing more, nothing less.
I found the interviewees all around campus. I made sure to seek out a varied assortment of ethnicity, ages (the best I could, given the college-student environment) and political party alignments. I managed to pluck five incredibly fascinating women – all with very different opinions and positions – and have these women open up to me about a variety of political and social issues that sincerely mattered to them. Some were more vocal than others, but all were passionate about one particular issue or another (and a few were more than passionate about more than one issue). Some felt strongly about a specific candidate, others were frustrated with both. All had something important to say.
With the raw footage from all the interviews, I began compiling the first draft script and rough cut of the piece. I found that some of the women used phrases like, “We are not walking vaginas,” and “The government needs to stay the hell out of women’s bodies.” I delighted in knowing that I was giving these women a platform to vocalize what mattered to them most in the election process. I had no reservations about turning in the first rough cut to PBS, since I figured they would appreciate that kind of refreshing frankness as much as I did.
I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
I was told immediately by PBS producers that the word “vagina” was not appropriate for national television. Additionally, the tone of some of the interviewees was deemed “combative” or that they didn’t seem well-versed enough on particular political issues to be discussing them. One critique after another was hurled by the network, though most were curt evaluations of an interviewee. I was also told by producers that more numbers were needed in order to visually support my talking points. I was baffled. Does the audience really need to see the figure “52%” on their screen in order for them to understand that 52 percent of Florida’s voting population were women? I was already saying it (in a voice-over), what more was necessary?
Apparently, a lot more. The producers emphasized the need for graphics – whether charts, graphs, even the simple numerical figures themselves just popping on screen in as large of a font as possible – was paramount in making sure the audience understood what I was saying. I felt that the information was delivered with great transparency and simplicity; there was really no need for additional facts and figures. I wanted the voters (i.e. the women) to tell the story, not the boring data.
Still, there was push-back from the network. Draft after draft, edited cut after edited cut, the piece began to take a new shape; one that was losing my fingerprint and showing signs of a new owner. One by one, the interviews got cut, with producers reducing the explanations to simply, “She didn’t translate well on screen.” Whether or not my translation was accurate, it sounded to me more like “she wasn’t attractive enough to air.”
What is worth noting is that, with every transformation, the original becomes more and more a distant memory as each iteration is born. As a frequent and frustrating tug-of-war ensued, I found myself wrestling with the gutsy position of sticking to my original vision, or compromising that vision in order to have the piece garner PBS’s stamp of approval to air. All the incredibly hard work I had already put into it sprung into my head, and I quickly realized that the project now had taken on a life of its own; one that I could either chase down the street or one I could let wander and ultimately become lost. I was getting my first lesson in professional journalism: transformation is – for the most part – inevitable.
It occurred to me that the voices that amplified a blatant or unflinching or even remotely unconventional stance were the voices that became the most [seemingly] stifled by PBS. To me – and perhaps only me – the piece shifted from being about the voice of the voter to the voice of the network. It was whittled down to only two interviewees, along with an additional expert interview that PBS producers explained would be a way to assign yet another level of authority to the narrative. I found that out of the two female USFSP students left on the piece, both were attractive, Caucasian brunettes, and – with their edited and re-edited footage – neither was expressing the combative tone that was included in the original piece. Just an observation.
What I was ultimately satisfied with turned out not to be my original vision. It was, however, still clearly traceable back to what I had originally sought to explore: how women felt about what mattered to them. I wasn’t able to include all the voices I wanted, but the voices I was able to capture each emanated a distinct individual presence. One voice surprised me, and delved into the social implications of women’s equality in the workplace; a lesser discussed issue that most female voters her age never mention. Another voice began convinced of a particular stance on women’s health and abortion, then – right before my eyes and thankfully on camera – transformed [herself] from conviction to uncertainty.
I had presented a glimpse into a world that wasn’t being seen nearly enough: the young Florida female voter. The process was long. It was full of edits and re-edits, tossing in numbers, taking out footage, framing the interviews to reflect a certain middle-of-the-road, let’s-not-rock-the-boat-too much flavor. Each critique from PBS producers was accompanied by an explanation of how that particular item or quote or image had to be modified, moved or eliminated. The transformation was slow. It was sudden. It was painful. It was enlightening. And it was what the network wanted in order to fit within a certain branding that was in line with the publication’s other content. And it was what needed to happen to have my very first piece air on the national media stage.
Four days before Election Day, I received a congratulatory email from PBS producers in thanks for the successful submission and for the diligent reporting and production efforts that were put forth in such an abridged amount of time. The piece was publicized by PBS just in time to air for Election Day. The link to the published segment on the Washington Week site can be found on directly this blog or here.