NPR West

This is a story about me telling stories…

I pulled my car up and parked in front of the three letters that I’d been waiting to see all year. “N-P-R.”

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My first day!

I had been producing radio stories for about a year. Doing journalism for almost 3. So this past summer I took a job at National Public Radio West, NPR’s Los Angeles hub.

I expected to work hard, but what I didn’t expect was to get to work hard alongside the most talented storytellers I’ve ever worked with…honestly.

Like, damn. These people knew how to tell a story.

Sam Sanders was the first ask for help. We ended up working together on several short day-turn pieces. He was the master of turning something around in a few hours. Something really great and informative. Like this piece we did after retailers stopped selling the confederate flag…

Then Wade Goodwyn called from Dallas. He wanted to write stuff together. With me? Okay Wade…

I spent a day with Patti Neighmond on a mountain. Well, in the Hollywood Hills reporting on health and exercise.

I wish you could’ve seen how Kelly McEvers writes. Nerd’s paradise that production room, I’m telling you. Embedded should be out soon, and I’ll post a link when it airs.

It all led up to me flyin’ solo. Reporting on something I thought didn’t get enough coverage. Southern California has the highest rate of deadly or serious hit and runs accidents in the country. I met a family at the front of the action. They’re trying to get this new AMBER-alert like system out there to broadcast hit and run drivers’ car information. It could help police catch more of these drivers…

These are just a few of my favorite projects. In all, I got to help produce almost 30 stories this summer. I’m an overall better writer, storyteller and person because of this place. I miss them. Take me back?

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The other NPR West interns, Quinn and Carla, and me. They’re pretty cool people.

Thoughts from ‘Caught in the Gray Zone’

This entry is in response to the 4 months or so I spent reporting on ‘Caught in the Gray Zone’ with my good friend Samantha Schmidt with our partner Julie Kennedy.

Read the whole story here.

In early August, I got dinner with my friend, Heather, at the Laughing Planet. Besides obsessing over our quesadillas, we spent a lot of time talking about our goals for the fall. I definitely remember saying to her at one point, “I want to help tell the best story I ever have.” She asked me how I planned to do this and I mentioned our class, Words and Pictures: The class where three people partner together on one story for the entire semester. Cue Heather’s complaints about group project work. “Group projects are the worst,” she said. And at the time, I agreed with her. Just last spring I had worked my way through a group presentation that ended up being a lot of me wrangling together my partners. By the time of Heather and I’s dinner, I knew I was paired with Sam and Julie; two people I respected; but, at the time, was worried about working with for the duration of the project. Never before had I embarked on a collaborative effort such as this. I was used to going solo. I liked going solo.

The last thing IU senior Emily Smith, 22, remembers from the night of Sept. 28, 2013 is leaning over the second floor railing of Kilroy's Dunnkirk, a local bar. Then, nothing but black. She woke up later that night in her bed with a man on top of her, already inside of her.  In the months after she reported her rape to the police, she began looking for ways to control her life again.   "I spoke up, and I wasn't heard," she said.
The last thing IU senior Emily Smith, 22, remembers from the night of Sept. 28, 2013 is leaning over the second floor railing of Kilroy’s Dunnkirk, a local bar. Then, nothing but black. She woke up later that night in her bed with a man on top of her, already inside of her.
In the months after she reported her rape to the police, she began looking for ways to control her life again.
“I spoke up, and I wasn’t heard,” she said.

“What’s the story going to be about?,” Heather asked. I told her that Sam wanted to do a story about sexual assault. Definitely not normal dinner conversation and definitely not an issue I felt like I understood well enough to be pursuing—or photographing—at that point. How was I going to find a source? What the hell do I even take pictures of? “I know I girl,” Heather said. They weren’t friends, but Heather had worked with Emily the previous summer and thought she might want to talk. I thought; well, I had to start somewhere.

What followed was the most in-depth, important project I’ve ever worked on. For the next several months, I tried to get as close to the issue of sexual assault as I could. The combination of photojournalism (an area I had only dabbled in) and team collaboration on such a complicated issue was a brand new challenge for me. I faced ethical questions I never anticipated. I connected with my sources in an entirely new way. But I felt focused. I knew where the story was headed (most of the time). And now that the story is out for the public to see, I’m looking back at the mistakes, successes and trials I had throughout the past three months while working on this project.

Successes

I’m proud of my team. I’m proud of the story we produced. I’m impressed with the maturity Sam and Julie demonstrated throughout our entire reporting process. I’m also surprised with how well we communicated throughout the semester. Sam and I were already good friends before we began, but I had never worked with her on a project like this. Every step of the way, we shared our setbacks, successes and asked each other questions. We made sure the other was on top of his/her game and never once did we fall off course. I felt comfortable sharing my insecurities and, in turn, Julie and Sam shared theirs’ as well. If I wasn’t sure about a portrait shot, I’d get their opinions. I got to observe first-hand the poise and skill it takes to interview vulnerable subjects.  Interviewing our sources with Sam was priceless. We’d de-brief after intense interviews with Emily (similar to our daily meetings in Uganda this summer). It was the perfect environment to learn because I got to work with other reporters in action. I hope to work on teams as open as this one in the future.

From the beginning, we knew what we were looking for: a victim who would talk on the record. This agreement between our team members was critical because it formed a foundation for us to work off of. I felt confident pursuing sources and that our project was legitimate and important. This confidence kept us on track and ultimately allowed us to publish a story by the end of the semester.

Another success was finding Emily. Not only was finding her a success, but after a while it became clear that she would become the main focus of our narrative. We could see how draining the process of remembering the night was for her. She cried a lot during our interviews, which was hard to see. But because we felt so prepared and were so open with her about our ideas, the incorporation of her story into our final presentation felt seamless. We were up front about what we wanted from her from the beginning, which made it easier to ask her for details and photos later in the project. This story was the first time I really felt like I established a rapport with my source. She would text us when events were going on that might be good to photograph. We’d ride in the car together. I feel like we got to the “hidden place” I hear so much about.  This helped us a lot with the ethical questions that we faced near the end of our reporting. She was the brave woman we needed. Her story and willingness to work with us was an incredible asset.

In addition to my wonderful team experience and source relationship, I feel I developed an entire new skill set as a photojournalist. Looking at this story through the lens helped me visualize the story arc much better. This was the first time I really dug deep with a photo project and I’m stunned by the impact the images made on our narrative. By the end of the reporting, I felt like I had captured every part of Emily’s life that I was able to. I learned how fun and happy she was. I learned how badly she wants to help other college students find their place on campus. Ultimately, I think I got across a point that Sam couldn’t have in her story: that Emily really is just another college student. She has the same stressful homework and grad school applications many of us have. But she also pushes herself to be involved on campus. There wasn’t room for that side of Emily in Sam’s writing, but I felt I was able to portray her that way through my pictures.

Technically, I feel much better about using a camera in the field. I know there were points that I failed (I’ll touch on those in a minute), but I feel much more confident about my photography now. I have a better understanding of the types of lenses I need to use in certain situations. It took me a while before I realized the longest lens isn’t always the best for every situation. I’m still learning and evolving my skills as a photographer and to do that, I just need to keep shooting. And I want to. My appreciation for photography and photojournalism grew throughout the semester. After seeing the powerful images of Mary Ellen Mark and of my classmates, I now think of photographers in a much different light (pardon the pun/cliché). We are also reporters. We are just as much storytellers as writers are. I no longer think of my colleagues as simply “writers” or “photographers.” I think of all of us as reporters.

The Novice

Our final product was a success, but there were times when I wasn’t sure it would work out. There were times when I couldn’t sleep because I thought we messed up our relationship with Emily. I was afraid of pushing her too far or making her uncomfortable. I was afraid of publishing something misleading about her or her case. We asked for so much from her and she gave us everything. I was honored by this, but also scared of it. I’ll never forget her telling us her story about the night she woke up in her own bed with a man on top of her while she was literally sitting in the same bed. I kept replaying the night in my head. Having been in her room, I could picture how everything happened. Why should I be allowed to know this? It was early in the process so it was hard to me to understand what the final project was going to look like. I felt bad for her for a while, for everything she had to go through. But then I felt bad about feeling bad because if I were her I wouldn’t want someone pitying me. That’s not what she deserves. I definitely let the story get to me a little bit because of how much I cared about Emily. To get the story right we had to spent a huge amount of time with her. I knew in the back of my mind that other reporters who wrote or photographed subjects for a story about sexual assault probably didn’t go to their source’s horseback riding lesson with them.

The ethical questions we asked ourselves came as a surprise. When we finally got to talk to Phil, the man who had sex with Emily, I assumed his entire story would make it in our story. After we interviewed him my mind was blown. He filled in (with his perspective) the night that Emily didn’t remember. I thought for sure we’d have to publish it in the story, along with his picture. But we didn’t. Our professors wisely suggested to us that we not include his full account and picture. Ultimately, I think this was a good decision. How was it fair to give his side when he wasn’t willing to share his name or face? Was it fair to Emily? Whose perspective do we share in the story? Questions like this helped shape our story into a very well-rounded account of Emily’s case. When it came to my photo story, however, I decided to include the silhouetted image of Phil. Since the only way I could represent him was through the anonymous image, it made sense to me to include it in my story. His perspective showed us a different perspective on rape. It came across to him as a simple misunderstanding, which is definitely not the way I viewed it before meeting Phil.

I struggled a lot with my technical skills. Many of my photos were out of focus or overexposed. It was very frustrating to me because I recognized my mistakes but still had trouble fixing them. There were entire takes that I couldn’t use because of how bad the images were. I would try switching lenses and working with Jim to get better, but I came to realize that photography is something that simply takes time and practice. I knew coming in that I didn’t have the same level of experience as the other photojournalists in the class. I wasn’t used to thinking like a photographer. I hadn’t held a camera as long as they had. But I kept trying and I can see how my images improved throughout the semester. I now look for the light when I enter a room. I’m seeing scenes from different angles. I’m carrying my camera with me more. I discovered while I was looking through my pictures that photography is such an important thing. And it’s even more important to know how to do it right. Before, I undervalued the amount of patience and work it takes to get great photographs. Now I know what I need to do to take my skills to another level. I need to practice my focusing technique. I want to make sure my main subject is in focus. It sounds simple, right? It is, but I noticed my consistent mistake was that someone other than Emily would be in focus in my pictures. This was most likely a result of my lack of experience with following a particular subject in busy environments. This realization is both frustrating to me (because of the pictures I couldn’t use) but also exciting because I know I have something to work on in the coming months.

Our Monday class sessions helped so much. I loved sitting around and talking about our projects. It gave me an opportunity to share my concerns or questions. I can’t imagine another scenario where I’d be able to learn from as many talented photographers at one time. When Glory talked about getting her portraits of the parents for her story, it gave me the confidence to ask Emily for a portrait. Even though we had spent a lot of time with Emily already, I was worried about how she’d react to a portrait in her bedroom. I asked her and she was fine with taking one, just not in her room. It occurred to me how important just asking is. If I want something I need to open my mouth and ask for it. Whether that’s help from my classmates or a portrait from my source, asking will always get me somewhere.

The Fall 2014 IDS investigations team...we published a total of three pieces looking at the issue of sexual assault on IU's campus. Sam is center.
The Fall 2014 IDS investigations team…we published a total of three pieces looking at the issue of sexual assault on IU’s campus. Sam is center.

Coming together

The most educational part of this experience was putting together the project at the end. Sam and I were together most of the weekend before it published in the IDS. I’ll always remember it as a time where I was completely engrossed with something I knew mattered. I was totally aware of where my project partners were at all times. I barely slept. We had a back and forth text message feed between us and Emily fact checking final detail changes. It made me really appreciate the talent and effort that my peers were putting in to completing the project. I realized how powerful teamwork can be, especially when pursuing a story so relevant to our culture as college students. When everyone covers their responsibilities on the team, the story emerges more powerful and complete. None of us had to worry about the other getting his or her job finished. This is the kind of work I want to be doing with my life. The work where the people involved are undoubtedly dedicated to what they are doing. It was so perfectly challenging and fulfilling at the same time. I’m so grateful to have been paired with Julie and Sam. Not only did this project teach me the skills I needed to become a better journalist, it taught me the work and dedication required to complete any project in my life. It requires consistency, communication and initiative. It also requires the ability to recognize when you find even the smallest bit of luck, which is something I’ve learned over and over again here in Ernie Pyle Hall.

Birthright: to Israel and back in 10 days

A week ago, as I stood on a promenade overlooking the majestic city of Jerusalem, I, Aaron Matthew Bloom, received a Hebrew name.

I expressed my thoughts and feelings on my Jewish identity to a circle of 40 other IU students. As I looked out over the city and at my peers that morning, I felt in my mind and heart that I was in the right place. I was at home. I belonged.

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My trip to Israel over winter break changed my life.

For 10 days, I joined a group of 40 students to travel throughout the country of Israel. Our group was assembled by IU’s Helene G. Simon Hillel Center and funded by the Taglit-Birthright Israel organization.

Taglit-Birthright provides an all-expenses-paid 10-day adventure to Israel for young Jewish people. Founded on the principle that a trip to Israel is a building block of Jewish identity, Taglit-Birthright Israel has sent more than 350,000 Jewish young adults to Israel since 1999.

After a 10-hour flight from New York, more than 1,000 young Jews from across the United States arrived in Tel Aviv on Dec. 29. For some of the group, it was our first time leaving the United States, for others, it was their third or fourth time visiting Israel. Israeli flags waved as we walked through customs. In the airport, a tribe of drummers and tables lined with delicious bread, fruit and pastries greeted us. Our trip had officially begun.

It was my first time leaving the U.S., and it changed the way I view the world and foreign cultures.

I rode a jeep across the rugged hills of the northern Golan Heights, ate my way through the Shuk markets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and piggy-backed on a camel through the desert — all while strengthening my relationship with IU’s Jewish community, and gaining a few pounds.

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Before this trip, I felt disconnected with my Jewish heritage. Few of my friends at IU were Jews, and I hadn’t gone to temple in more than a year. I lacked a sense of identity.

After connecting with dozens of other Jewish students on this trip, I feel accepted in the thriving community here in Bloomington.

The morning I received my Hebrew name, on the promenade, I chose the Hebrew name Shalom Yaron: Shalom meaning “peace,” and Yaron meaning “he will sing.”

One’s Hebrew name represents the keystone of their Jewish identity. It embodies a person’s individual character and personality.

We all face struggles whether through school, family or love. I feel as though I’ve reached a point in my life where my mind is at peace. I’m at peace with the challenges and hardships I’ve faced in the past few years, and now I want to help others through their struggles.

Ten days was not enough for me. I didn’t want to leave Israel, even though spring semester classes were starting.

The 40 strangers I traveled with became my family. The conversations, adventures and experiences we shared exceeded my expectations and changed me. I found myself smiling more and no longer taking my culture and faith for granted.

Taglit-Birthright is a special opportunity. If you are eligible for the trip to Israel, take it. It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one that I will never forget.

Feel free to email me any questions about my trip or Taglit-Birthright at aambloom@imail.iu.edu — I haven’t been able to stop talking about it since I got home.

I hope to see you next time I’m in Israel, because I’m definitely going back.

“Matt, How was Uganda?”

There’s a dry erase board that hangs above my desk in my room. It’s got some old magnets and bumper stickers around the edge, and my list of the things I dream about doing with my life. There are some long-term goals: “have a family,” and “avoid a beer belly.” But there are others I’m already checking off the list, like “perform,” and “write stories that matter.” Sometimes when I’m getting ready for bed, I’ll read through it again. Just to be sure I’m on track.

The most beautiful place in the world.
The most beautiful place in the world.

I wrote it after my grandmother passed away a few months ago.

I remember Grandma Dodie (pronounced Dough-dee) as kind of a grumpy lady. Every time I visited her, she’d make me sing and play her ancient, out-of-tune piano while she sipped her Coors Light, eyeing me from across the room. She had a see-through shower curtain that had “XXX Peep Show” plastered across the top and she always sat in the same chair to watch the 11 o’clock news.

I found out, just a few months before she died, that she sang in a women’s barbershop quartet during the 50s and 60s, called the Sweet Adelines. They toured and won some national competitions. She went on to be one of the first members of the Pride of Kentucky Chorus, and she sang with them for more than three decades. She was hot stuff.

She followed her passion of singing and performing, all while raising five children and working as a teacher full time. I respect her for everything she did, because she had determination and gusto. She had a voice in her community—both literally and figuratively.

Holy crap, I thought. I want to do cool stuff like that.

So I applied to go on a trip to Africa. To visit a place where no one in my family had been, or ever really showed much interest in. To report about HIV, a topic never discussed before in my household. It was something I was afraid of, yet knew little about. I wanted to see how my reporting and writing skills would hold up in a developing country. I wanted a test. I wanted to figure out if storytelling was really what I want to be doing with my life. I needed to know if I could be the reporter I daydreamed about being during my classes in Ernie Pyle Hall.

Matt, reporting on the HIV prevalence rate in Uganda.
Matt, reporting on the HIV prevalence rate in Uganda.

Well, I did it. I flew, climbed, tumbled, hiked, ate, shopped, befriended, laughed, cried (just once), wrote, questioned and learned my way through Uganda. Stepping outside of my perspective and my ego, I’m now able to analyze how I’ve changed during the past month of my life. I can see all of my mistakes, but also where I succeeded. Where I fought against myself and pushed the limits of my abilities as a journalist and a human being. Critically thinking about this experience has changed me forever.

Is that what I said?

Looking back at my goals for the course, I’m almost embarrassed by myself.

On a word document, I listed the many things I hoped to take away from my trip to Uganda. It seemed like all I wanted was better audio editing skills, better interviewing skills and professional connections. They were the only “important” lessons to learn. By devoting a month of my life to this project, I had in my head that I was single-handedly going to advance my journalistic prowess and emerge a better, more experienced storyteller. This will look amazing on my resume, I thought. The possibilities of reporting and writing seemed endless, and I was so sure of myself. I skipped to the end result and how much “better of a person” I would become before I had even set foot in Uganda.

An excerpt from my “goals.”

As far as software, this may seem unrelated but I would love to download Spotify onto a Mac. I have an online radio subscription, and it helps me relax and work. It’s available for a quick download for free at Spotify.com. If not, I have an iPad and I can just bring that for my music.

Me, me, me! That’s all my goals were about! Nowhere did I mention the people of Uganda. My goals lacked any substance, care or interest in the lives of others. I was especially surprised at the lack of concern about the people I would be reporting on. I feel like my expectations were way out of line.

What I got was a wake-up call. I learned that if I approached every story with a rigid plan of exactly what it will be at the end, I would totally screw myself over. As Jim, my professor, said, “content drives design.” Now, I think I’m beginning to understand that content doesn’t just drive design– it drives everything. At my jobs, I used to get story ideas from editors, and we’d talk about exactly what we wanted it to look and read like. After already deciding the details of what we wanted to publish, I would just go out and report it. I wouldn’t even keep an eye out for any potential leads in other directions.

Matt's class, looking over Kampala. Photo by Bonnie Mailey
Matt’s class, looking over Kampala. Photo by Bonnie Mailey

I don’t think that’s what quality journalism should be. It feels boring, unnatural and usually ends up missing the point. I struggled with this a lot during my time in Uganda, because I felt like a story I was working on had already been written in some parallel, perfect story universe where reporting was unnecessary. My entire job was just to talk to as many people as possible and cram their quotes and information into an inflexible outline. There was no sense of adventure, or discovery that I love about journalism. It was frustrating.

It started eating away at me. Is this really what I want to do? Is this normal for a journalist to go through? Maybe it was just a tough story. Or maybe it was me.

I talked to my friends about how they were feeling. They were stressed, just like me. We were all under deadline, and we each had our own personal issues to get through. I began to understand that not everything was going to go so smoothly, like I foolishly thought it would. Christine, my sometimes-around mentor, talked through my idea with me one afternoon. It enforced the idea that humility is my best friend as a student, and really flushed out my tangled mess of a story idea. I know I’m not dumb, but I am naïve and I realized how valuable it is to recognize that I’m still in the process of learning. At IU, and definitely while working at the IDS, I always felt like I had to figure stories out on my own. The only good time to talk to my editor was when I had a final draft to show him or her. It took me until the third week of our trip to realize it should be the opposite of that.

Working with good editors, like Carol, can be one of the most valuable tools for storytellers like me.

So I went to Uganda during Pride Month…

I think I'm hot stuff.
“I think I’m hot stuff.”

The dots weren’t connecting on the leads I followed for my Monitor story. You should have done the LGBT story, my inner advocate repeated in my head almost every single day. It was like an alarm clock, going off whenever I would reach a tough point in my writing. No! I told myself, again and again. I was given this assignment, and I was going to do the best I could, even if it meant falling on my face.

I stumbled across my first hurdle with this course when I read about Uganda’s Anti-homosexuality act. I saw the images of LGBT Ugandans my age, forced to hide or flee from their homes. This is it, I thought. This is what I would report on while in Uganda.

Then the questions started coming up. How would I find them? If I did find them, how could I get them to speak with me? Does this idea relate to HIV/AIDS? Am I putting myself in danger?

I never expected to feel so personally invested in a story idea. I didn’t want to put an LGBT person’s safety in jeopardy by publishing a story about them, and I definitely didn’t want to get into trouble of my own. But I wanted to investigate this. After a while, the nagging thought of my sexual orientation being illegal really pissed me off. I wanted to ask every Ugandan I shook hands with what they thought about gay people. I wanted to feel comfortable bringing the anti-homosexuality bill up in conversation, but I never was. Even if people said they opposed the bill, I felt uneasy talking about it with them.

So I didn’t talk about it. I tried not to think about it, and I shelved even the remotest idea of publishing a story about LGBT Ugandans. I messaged well-known activist Frank Mugisha on Twitter, notable ally and EIC of The Independent, Andrew Mwenda and I even reached out online to Sexual Minorities Uganda, an organization for young Ugandans looking for a place to feel safe. I wanted at least some Ugandan I could talk to and trust, just to get some perspective.

I never heard anything back.

Taking a break from reporting. Photo by Hannah Crane
Taking a break from reporting. Photo by Hannah Crane

It took me four weeks of emotional ups and downs, deadline pressures and reporting on other projects to realize one thing: I don’t think another story about the misfortune of LGBT Ugandans would help at all. Most news outlets have already painted a picture of what life is like for gays over there, and the picture is grim. Stories of police raids, underground meetings and silence are what I’ve seen from the likes of MSNBC, Buzzfeed and even CNN. The picture of African sexuality is painted as dark and gloomy. When, as I learned during my time in Uganda, its actually the opposite. After watching “God Loves Uganda” and hearing calls for equality from the likes of the Uganda AIDS Commissioner, Prof. Nantulya, my perspective changed. It opened my eyes to the hope that someday, perhaps in the near future, a repeal of the anti-homosexuality act will happen.

For the meantime, I’m content.

I realize now that I’ve always been telling stories. Whether through theatre, art or writing, and I’ve found my passion. I realize there are infinite ways and mediums through which to tell stories about humanity across the globe, and I’m excited. I’m a little overwhelmed. But in some weird way, it makes me appreciate the life that I’ve been given. I get to soak up the love and influence of the people that came before me and do my part to make the world a better place. Because if the work I do inspires an audience to take action, or change their way of thinking, I’ll be happy.

On Stage