When you’re 22 and you get that knock-’em-dead, blow-out quote, you tend to run with it, no matter what. But as you get older you start to realize that context really matters. And some quotes, just because you got them doesn’t mean you should run them. I don’t mean politicians—I never protect politicians. But some people say things that are just going to sound really awful. Sometimes they really do mean it and it’s what you’ve got to go with, but sometimes you’ve got to keep asking them. I’ll say, “Here’s what you said, is that what you meant?” and they’ll say “No!” It’s a lack of savvy. They’re working really hard. Whatever’s going in their lives, that’s struggle enough, and they don’t have any representatives or spokespeople or PR training. You’ve got to respect that.

Through Kent State, I did an internship on Capitol Hill with Mo Udall [the liberal congressman from Arizona]. Going to Washington changed me on a cellular level, because from then on I believed the world was conquerable. I felt entitled to have a place in the world. That never left me, for all the trials I had after that and all the insecurities. And look what happened: I got to do this for a living, where I focus a lot of my career on trying—I hate the term ‘giving voice,’ but I don’t know how else to say it—to working-class people, to people living in poverty, to people who may be on the margins, because those are the people I come from.

I really was so lucky—I did an internship at The Plain Dealer in ’79. It was a Guild shop, so I made entry-level Guild wages. And that makes a huge difference. In journalism, it’s become increasingly about where you went to school. At the bigger papers, it’s become more and more the privileged covering the privileged. You have to do an internship to get hired, so you have to be able to afford to work for free for a summer, which eliminates a lot of kids right there. And you have to have your own car. I didn’t, so I got a copy-editing internship, and I lived a few blocks away. Today, you’re hard-pressed to meet a young reporter who comes from the working class, or who’s a first-generation college kid.

Building trust

When I went back to The Plain Dealer in 1993, they sent me out to a predominantly rural county. I wasn’t even there two weeks when a Rottweiler attacked a boy, dragged him I forget how many yards, and injured him severely. It was my reporting roots: Go to the story that everyone thinks is just another kid in trouble and tell the story of the kid. The boy was intervening to rescue a friend, and the dog went after him. Kids can be heroic—even kids who live out in Geauga County. When I turned it in, I remember an editor saying, “How did she know what his stuffed animal’s name was?” I thought, “Sweet Jesus, how did I know? I asked!” Of course the stuffed animal had a name. I realized in that moment that you can stop being defensive about the fact that you’re a single mom entering your first reporting job at age 36, and take everything you’ve learned until that minute and bring it into the job and quit apologizing for yourself, even in your own head.

I was in Geauga County for a very short time before they made me a general assignment reporter. Because I was one of the newer reporters, if there was an early morning where a young black kid had been shot dead in the streets, they would send me out to talk to the families. And what I could never get over was, here I was, a white woman, showing up in the poorest communities in Cleveland, predominantly black if not completely, and not once was I turned away, ever. I could not imagine an African-American reporter showing up on the porch at 8:30 a.m. in a lot of the suburbs we covered and asking to talk.

Some reporters embrace this fantasy of how they’re just above it all and don’t have to reveal anything about themselves—they’re just out to get the story. Showing up on those porches, one of the first things I’d say is, “I’m really sorry for your loss. I’m a mother and can’t begin to imagine what you’re going through right now.” Part of why I was able to close the distance is that I was talking to mothers and I was the single mom of two kids myself. But that only takes you so far.

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic.