It’s Called Shoe Leather Journalism

It turned out that they were dealing with a community that was hard to reach and dubious of journalists, but instead of throwing up their hands in despair, their team rolled up their sleeves, went to work, and listened to potential sources.

This is an anathema to journalists who dream of meeting “Deep Throat” in a parking garage, or who want make stories out of trial balloons from politicians, but they got their story, and the abuse stopped:

In August, we spent an evening hand-addressing more than 200 letters, mostly to residents of Memphis, Tennessee. The city is the second-poorest large metropolitan area in the country, with nearly 1 in 4 residents living below the poverty line. About half of the letter recipients had been sued by a private-equity backed doctors group because of unpaid medical bills. The other half had been sued by a separate company.

Our team, led by reporter Wendi C. Thomas of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, was investigating the way large institutions profit off people who are poor in Memphis. She had already reported that Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, the area’s largest hospital system, had aggressively sued poor people — and the hospital quickly suspended the practice.

Several other companies also were filing lawsuits against people unable to pay their bills. Court records showed us who these people were, but we didn’t know what these debts meant for their lives. We knew letter-writing alone wouldn’t be enough to connect with people, but it was a start.

After we put our letters in the mail, we continued to try to reach people who had been sued by posting flyers in neighborhoods, making dozens of calls (and getting hung up on plenty of times) and speaking to community leaders.

We understood, through research, that many journalists have historically covered these communities in extractive and self-serving ways, partly because of resource constraints and partly because many aren’t from the communities they cover. Our partners launched MLK50 to break patterns like these. We hoped deliberate engagement would result in real change for the people we reached.

It worked. Even before our story on the doctors group was published with MLK50, the company said it, too, would stop suing its patients.



  1. You can still do engagement reporting on a topic people don’t like to talk about. But don’t underestimate the amount of work it takes to do it right.
  2. Be specific about who you’re trying to reach. Don’t expect to reach everyone. They don’t owe you anything.
  3. Be specific about who you’re trying to reach. Don’t expect to reach everyone. They don’t owe you anything.

Read the whole thing.

It’s not just a demonstration of good journalism, it’s an indictment of how much of journalism is practiced today.

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