In a Romenesko post titled Why can’t we embed reporters with teachers or bus drivers?, I ran across this column by Washington Post columnist John Kelly. Kelly complained that he had tried to get everyday access to workers at “a semi-governmental organization, an organization responsible for operating a public attraction that I dare say most of us have visited.” Kelly says he was stymied by the P.R. people, who refused to give him anything but prearranged interviews — not what he was looking for. Kelly asks:
We embed journalists with military units in Iraq. Why can’t we embed reporters with, say, Metro, or the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, or Fairfax County public schools or Freddie Mac?
The answer is: we can. I don’t know exactly why Kelly was denied access at the particular “semi-governmental organization” he wanted to write about, but it’s quite common for book authors, at least, to gain extraordinary access to all sorts of governmental institutions.
I have read several books by authors who managed who get themselves “embedded” in places like public schools, courtrooms, police stations, juvenile halls, and penitentiaries. These books are categorized as narrative nonfiction. They have made for some of my favorite reading over the years, and I’m pleased to recommend some of them to you. Just off the top of my head, you should check out:
- The Killing Season by Miles Corwin (homicide detectives)
- The Hot House by Pete Earley (Leavenworth prison)
- No Matter How Loud I Shout by Ed Humes (the juvenile justice system, including court, the D.A.’s office, and juvenile hall)
- Homicide Special by Miles Corwin (LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division)
- Homicide by David Simon (Baltimore Police Homicide Unit)
I find it a little odd that Kelly would think it unlikely that reporters could be “embedded” at a public school, since it has happened so many times before. Many of my favorite narrative nonfiction books are set in public schools, such as:
- Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder
- School of Dreams by Edward Humes
- And Still We Rise by Miles Corwin
Of course, most of the above authors had to talk themselves into being allowed access; they had to convince the relevant officials that it would be in their best interest to allow them access, while still demanding independence. It’s a tricky task, but all of these authors managed it. Maybe Kelly should check out some of the books above and learn some of the tricks of the trade.