Less click bait, more facts. If a headline is an attention grabber but isn’t TRUE in the strictest sense, readers feel misled. Don’t write a headline that’s a presumptive stretch on the truth, regardless of how catchy it is.
As a part of our series about “the 5 steps we can take to win back trust in journalism” I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Haley Steinhardt.
Haley is a freelance journalist and founder of Soul Tree Publications (www.SoulTreePublications.com), a content management firm based in Cleveland, Ohio.
Thank you so much for joining us. Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you share with us the “backstory” about how you got started in your career?
I’ve always been a writer. I have journals dating back to age eight! After earning my B.A. in English from the College of Wooster in 2003, I moved to Asheville, North Carolina and got a job at a publishing house called Lark Books, in their newly formed photography books division. Over the course of 10 years, I earned my way from Assistant Editor to Editorial Manager, heading up the division — just in time for our New York parent company to fold up the NC offices and absorb the imprint. So, in 2013 I launched my own company, Soul Tree Publications, and began writing for various local newspapers, magazines, and online publications. Before long, I was also serving as a content support team member for a variety of professionals and businesses.
Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
“Be Here Now” by Ram Dass has definitely made a deep impact on my life. I’ve always been interested in world religions, even minoring in Religious Studies in college. Buddhism in particular stood out as a way of looking at the world that consistently piqued my curiosity. However, the various teachers and meditation leaders I’d encountered prior to Ram Dass always seemed very stiff, aloof, and emotionless. So, regardless of any perceived appeal, the practice itself seemed to fall flat for me. In fact, there was a period of time in my life where “and that’s why I’m not a Buddhist” was something of a punchline for me.
Then, a friend introduced me to the work of Ram Dass. He was funny, self-aware, self-deprecating, and just REAL. He humanized the practice and the teachings in such a way that I was finally able to tap into them. And the result, for me, has been an ongoing commitment to being here, now — being alive, awake, and aware right here, in the present moment.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
I was given an opportunity to interview and share the story of Sharon Roth Mitchell, a local Asheville-area woman who led women’s circles promoting healing and wellness in the community. In the tradition of the Native American elders who guided and mentored her, she created a safe space for women to explore themselves while learning about and participating in ancient ceremonies centered on the deep, unbreakable connection between nature and all beings. As a writer, there’s nothing more exciting to me than discovering and sharing people’s unique stories and experiences.
Can you share the most humorous mistake that you made when you first started? Can you share the lesson or take away you learned from it?
I discovered a story that would’ve rocked the foundation of a major government facility in Asheville. I was so excited and so nervous to have the opportunity to break this story, as I had never covered anything so big. I did several interviews of the people involved, and while no one working inside the facility itself would consent to an interview, I did get a formal written response expressing complete denial of the reported incidents. When I presented the story to the editor I was working with at the time, he refused to publish, saying we just didn’t have enough hard evidence.
It’s not exactly a humorous story, but it does make me chuckle to think back to my early days in journalism when I believed breaking a story was as easy as having a story to break. Just look at the journalists and reporters who were told to squash the Jeffrey Epstein story! Just because there’s a story doesn’t mean a given media outlet will deem it worthy of public viewing and the potential backlash.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
My father and I recently completed a book of 101 Reiki meditations. We’re still exploring our publishing options. I also just participated in a project called “Documenting Cleveland: May 12, 2020” — a collective writing experiment created by Literary Cleveland that offers a snapshot of one day during the pandemic. Currently, I’m supporting a mentor of mine at A Place of Light (www.PlaceOfLight.net) in creating content for a forthcoming online course, tentatively titled “Walking the Path: Your Guide to Understanding Love and Intuition.”
What advice would you give to your colleagues in the industry, to thrive and not “burnout”?
I think a lot of people would answer this question with a meditation, healthy eating, or sleep routine tip — and those are all essential, for sure — but I also really want to call out communication as something that can make or break our working experience. It’s easy to get burned out when you feel overwhelmed, misunderstood, stifled in asking for what you need, or upset/angry with someone or something. I took a course called the Landmark Forum (www.LandmarkWorldwide.com) a few years ago that completely changed my perspective on communication — both what I say and how I interpret what others say and do. So many personal and professional development courses focus on what they say you should know, but Landmark’s programs are about BEING, not just knowing.
The automatic ways we think, feel, and interpret are so heavily based on everything that’s happened to us in the past. Being able to step back and see my automatic ways of responding was huge. It’s one of those things that, once you see it, you can’t un-see it. It gave me a new path forward for choosing how I want to respond in challenging moments — for responding rather than merely reacting. Burnout is the result of feeling like you have no control over the barrage of overwhelming things you have to deal with, but there is another way to look at what life is presenting. There’s another way to respond.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the main parts of our interview. According to this Gallup poll 45% of Americans trust the mass media. As an insider, are there 5 things that editors and newsrooms can do to increase the levels of trust? Can you give some examples?
1. Less click bait, more facts. If a headline is an attention grabber but isn’t TRUE in the strictest sense, readers feel misled. Don’t write a headline that’s a presumptive stretch on the truth, regardless of how catchy it is.
2. More straight reporting and less interpreting in news (versus opinion) pieces. There’s no shortage of opinions out there, but there is absolutely a shortage of unbiased news reporting. Be clear on what type of piece you’re writing or reporting: opinion or fact. Opinion pieces can and do have facts throughout, but a true news story should report the facts without bias. If you’re unsure of your bias, ask a friend or colleague you know has differing views from yours to review your piece. You could even do this with older pieces for your own edification. Learn your hidden biases, and your reporting will be more powerful going forward.
3. Interview respected experts on both sides. This one might seem implicit, but it’s too often overlooked. Present the facts, then let the people decide. Distrust of the media is happening on such a large scale in part because people feel like the media isn’t telling the whole story, or the whole truth. And sometimes, they’re right.
4. Don’t digitally alter image content. Again, this should be implicit, but with some of the face-palm-worthy image altering we’ve seen in the media over the past year, this amazingly still needs to be said. Just because image-altering software is more powerful than it has ever been doesn’t mean you should use it to full capacity. Images tell a story. If you’re altering the image to change its story, you’re also altering its truth.
5. Be clear and open on the source of accompanying images. There was a photo of a crowded beach circulating around at the start of the pandemic, and the same photo was used to support stories from vastly different geographic regions. Don’t write a story about beaches in Los Angeles and use a beach photo from Miami — at least without a clear caption to that effect. It’s disingenuous, and it hurts media credibility.
As you know, since 2016, the term ‘fake news” has entered common usage. Do you think this new awareness has made a change in the day-to-day process of how journalists craft stories? Can you give some examples?
Honestly, I think “fake news” has become such a buzzword that it has started to lose its meaning. Both liberal and conservative news sources use it to label each other, and it leaves viewers, listeners, and readers at a total loss for what’s real. That, sadly, is the lasting effect: a general feeling of distrust for anything and everything the media reports.
Yes, I do think journalists are being more diligent than ever in many respects when vetting sources for stories and presenting them to the public eye. That said, there’s so much more that can be done — and should be done — to earn back trust (perhaps starting with the five ideas shared above!).
Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Save your old drafts. I learned this one the hard way very early on. Rewrites are great, but there’s a chance you may need or want to revisit your earlier thoughts, ideas, or ways of phrasing things. If you overwrite them, they’re gone forever.
2. You CAN make a living as a writer. When I was moving from the publishing world to the journalism world, I remember feeling excited that local publications wanted me as a staff writer, then deflated when I heard what the salary would be compared to what I had been making. I went the freelance route instead and built my company piece by piece, writing newspaper and magazine articles on one hand and providing content support to companies and individuals on the other. I’m not saying the way I did things is what will work for everyone; I’m saying that — seven years later — I get to wake up every day proud that I’m a writer who is making a living writing. To all the English majors out there: It is absolutely possible.
3. Don’t provide endless rewrites: Some venues and clients will love your work right off the bat, make a change or two, and call it a day. Others will want revision after revision after revision, ad nauseum. It is absolutely okay to say that your fee covers your writing plus X number of revisions — but say this UP FRONT, not in the middle of the process!
4. Be clear that you request final approval of your to-be-published pieces: After writing a very personal and heartfelt piece for a particular trade journal years ago, I was shocked to find that the editor had not only cut large sections from it, he also rewrote whole paragraphs in his own voice with his own assertions, not mine — and all without any communication to me. I expressed my disappointment, but it was a print magazine and the damage was done. Express your clear wish to review and approve final edits. If the venue doesn’t agree, you get to choose whether to roll the dice and hope for the best or opt not to write for them.
5. Don’t neglect your creative projects: This is one I still struggle with. I read and write for clients and media venues all day, every day. At the end of the day or on the weekends, often the very last thing I feel like doing is reading or writing. So, I say this to you AND to myself: Don’t forget to make space for your creative projects — writing or otherwise. Even if it’s one weekend afternoon or one evening a week, put it on your calendar along with all your other commitments, then DO IT! Write a poem. Write another page of your book. Scribble in your journal. Leave your mark.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I mentioned the Landmark Forum above, and I’m called to mention it again here because some of their work talks about how to stop making people wrong. If I could start a movement right here and now that would bring enormous good to the world, I believe that would be a great one.
Imagine how different the world would be, how different our interactions with others would be, how different the media would be if we could hear others’ thoughts and opinions without a defensive need to make them wrong. How would our day-to-day thoughts, words, and interactions change if we simply listened to each other, heard each other, and accepted each other where we’re at — regardless of whether or not we agree? Building this possibility into our lives could be transformative in ways we can’t even imagine.
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Thank you so much for your time you spent on this. We greatly appreciate it, and wish you continued success!