‘Behind the Bylines’: RTD reporters discuss their craft

By Carolanne Wilson
VCU Capital News Service

With 61 homicides, 2016 marked Richmond’s deadliest year in a decade. The death toll was more than just a number to Ali Rockett, crime reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. She went beyond the statistics and commemorated the lives lost.
“There are some times where you have to be a human first and a reporter second,” says Rockett, who spotlighted each of the murder victims, from the youngest (age 3) to the oldest (57). “That person’s life story is worth telling.”
Rockett was one of six RTD journalists who shared behind-the-scenes looks at their reporting during a panel discussion May 23 at the Virginia Historical Society. The event, called “Behind the Bylines,” was part of the newspaper’s 2017 speaker series.
Michael Martz, a local and state agency reporter, also was on the panel. Unlike the national press, Martz said he covers policy over politics to create stories that matter to the community.
“I tend to focus on policy that affects people,” Martz said. “It’s about knowing who your readers are.”
John Boyer, the RTD’s first staff meteorologist, also thinks hard about what his audience needs and wants. Many people learn about the weather through social media and cellphone apps. So Boyer must brainstorm how to make his reports more than just the upcoming forecast.
“I try to come at my coverage to help you see what is important about this forecast, showing people what they can do about the situation, what is actionable,” Boyer said.
Because Boyer receives constant feedback from readers, answering their questions has become a priority. This often means researching questions ranging from what the upcoming weather means for plants to why pollen levels are so high.
Finding answers and ultimately justice was crucial in the RTD’s reporting on the 2015 death of Jamycheal Mitchell, a mentally ill man who wasted away for four months in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth. Mitchell, who had been arrested for stealing $5 of snacks, was supposed to be transferred to a state mental hospital.
Reporters Sarah Kleiner and Katy Burnell Evans received the Virginia Press Association’s 2017 Award for Journalistic Integrity and Community Service for their series investigating the death.
“Reporters are human beings,” Evans said. “Basically, if something outrages you a little bit and you just need to know why ... it really fuels you to just go after it.”
The reporting by Evans and Kleiner led the U.S. Department of Justice and the Virginia State Police to open investigations of the treatment of inmates at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail. In fact, the day after the panel discussion, Kleiner reported that a prosecutor in Portsmouth has requested a grand jury investigation, too.
Also on Tuesday’s panel was Tammie Smith, who recently switched to the retail beat after years of covering health care for the Times-Dispatch. She said her job can involve going to the mall or grocery store – or writing about defective products such as the recall of vehicle airbags.
“You go look for local people who have been affected,” Smith said. “One way that we always do that is on Facebook.”
The panel discussion drew about 50 people. Toward the end, several of them asked questions or offered feedback. For example, one man complained about the online comments that readers post under stories and urged the newspaper to end the practice.
RTD Executive Editor Paige Mudd, who moderated the panel discussion, agreed that comments sometimes are “not productive.” On the other hand, she said, accepting comments on the newspaper’s website and Facebook page allows readers to share their thoughts.
“We don’t edit comments,” Mudd said. “We aren’t disabling comments unless they’re libelous or threatening.”
In an interview before the discussion, Mudd said this was the second year for the Times-Dispatch to hold a speaker series. The events generate revenue and foster community involvement, she said.
The newspaper also hosts community forums called “Public Square” as well as events like “Taste of Richmond” and “One Day University.”