For depth, accuracy, and emotional impact, there's no substitute for intimate, open-minded, patient field reporting.
For my stories now, I'm digging for numbers and calling sources for maps and contacts. All done at my desk, eyes on a screen. Maybe I won't need to get out.
But, of course not.
Robert Caro, the renowned biographer and journalist, was writing about the changes that electricity brought to a town. He spoke with the local elderly women. One lady chaffed him for being a city boy-"you don't even know how heavy a water bucket is, do you?"
And she - old and bent over - took him to an abandoned well and gave him a bucket. Caro dropped the bucket, saw how deep it went, and heaved the heavy bucket up. He *felt* what it was like for housewives to carry 200 gallons daily before they had electric pumps.
That figure of 200 gallons, Caro got from rummaging thru documents. But he couldn't have written that part with power and the emotions the women deserve if he hadn't carried the bucket and felt the rough fibers of the rope between his palms.
Caro's recollection (in "Working") played in my mind.
Then today, I walked into a lift with a man who had just fogged my condo with mosquito pesticide. He rested his fogging 'cannon' on the floor. It was cool and drizzling outside, and raindrops glistened on his forehead.
When the doors closed, the lift warmed up like a sauna. Wisps of white smoke escaped his fogging cannon. Heat radiated from the machine and I felt it from 2m away. "It's so hot!" I said. He smiled and exited the next floor up. Those weren't raindrops on his head; it was sweat.
If I were to write about mosquito fogging, and if I didn't join the exercise in the field, I could only say how it smelled funny. I wouldn't have known the cannon was burning to the touch. Now I know it's hot even a few steps away.
But I don't know how heavy it is. Or why he put it on the floor.
All this to say: Journalism records life, and it takes a lot of time and effort to know the lives of strangers. Journalists must appreciate this, even if readers don't.