Future Reflections Winter/Spring 1991

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THE BLIND JOURNALIST

by Beth Hatch-Alleyne

Reprinted from the January, 1991, Slate and Style, the magazine of the National Federation of the Blind Writers Division.

In my study of journalism I have developed alternative techniques involving conducting interviews, doing research, and writing articles for publication. I hope some of the following ideas and insights will be helpful to anyone considering, or presently working in, journalism.

Having competent readers or "visual assistants", is a must when your job requires research, proofreading, or accessing a dictionary or any reference materials not available in a usable format, such as Braille, tape, or computer disk. Sighted journalists utilize computers, tape recorders, dictionaries, and other reference materials such as almanacs and newspaper style books. There is no reason why a blind journalist should not do the same. Tape recorders have been in use by blind people to access information for years. Although computer technology is by no means perfect it is possible to produce good work with the use of speech and Braille computer aids.

If reference materials are not available in Braille, on tape, or in other usable formats, take charge of the situation by writing a list of words or other information to be read or looked up and supervise your reader in doing these tasks.

If an editor assigns a story, it is your job to find sources. The editor may help you with a name or give you a meeting to cover, but you are responsible for writing interview questions and doing your homework on the topic. One of the best ways to find a source independently of a reader is the telephone. Journalists use it to conduct interviews, keep in touch with sources when working on a "beat," or when on a particular type of assignment, like city government or the police blotter. If you are strapped for time use the phone to obtain information available without direct interviewing.

Read community bulletin boards in libraries and churches and attend local club meetings and meetings of boards or legislative events. No one else will have the contacts you've worked to obtain, and this will help you sell your work.

You can pick up information without the use of a reader. Reporters are taught to "keep your eyes open". As blind people we know we can take control of any situation and, with or without the use of readers or drivers, we are capable of observing the world around us. Sight is the information sense for most reporters, so they tend to stress the visual ways of observation rather than techniques such as listening and the ability to ask questions. Reporters must be curious and approach people to ask what they and others nearby are doing. People like talking about themselves. If someone asks if you need help crossing a street, or asks if you are lost when you happen to be sitting on a bench observing people, whether or not you choose to accept the help you can use the opportunity to ask questions you need answered.

Radio and television are not the only sources of information! Co-workers or people in the street may prove to be excellent sources: You may find you know someone in common or learn about some public event or individual who would make a good story. Being in the right place at the right time enabled me to find many human interest and political stories for my college newspaper.

When covering a meeting or press conference, obtain an agenda from the city clerk who can also give you the name and phone number of the chairperson. The agenda will help you decide on your topic and enable you to budget your time, since some meetings last into the night.

In a large gathering ask the chair to recognize you by name if questions are taken from the floor. Seek out someone who will introduce you to people in top positions or to those who have made points worth quoting. You now have the opportunity to make contacts and to educate others about the capabilities of people who are blind in the process of doing your work.

I take notes in Braille with slate and stylus, which allows me to carry notebook and tape recorder just as my sighted colleagues do. Computers and word processors are great to write the story, but there is nothing like taking down quotes, impressions of your source, and phone numbers of prospective contacts.

I tape my interviews on a four-track recorder at the lowest speed so that I need only bring one or two tapes per interview. My recorder enables me to use tone indexing to mark my quotes or any other pertinent information. Using Brailled notes in conjunction with a tone indexed tape, I am able to get quotes word for word without worrying if I should happen to miss part of the speaker's address. Since my notes are in the same order as the taped speech, I can abbreviate the speaker's name, or his topic, and find my quote in two or three minutes rather than having to listen to the tape for hours.

I believe Braille is better for proofreading than speech synthesizers. Braille allows quick and efficient proofreading with a Braille display hooked up to a computer. One finds spelling errors quickly without dealing with synthesized pronunciation. I have on occasion corrected a word that sounded wrong, only to find I had originally spelled it correctly.

The most important thing to remember is to always have control in dealing with any situation. Your readers must accept your blindness on your terms, not in terms of the preconceived notions society tends to use when dealing with the blind.

You must be flexible and be willing to try many alternative techniques to accomplish what is expected of you in bringing news to your readers.

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