Story Behind The Story: Cultivating Curiosity with Mack Burke
Mack Burke was kind of a nerd. “I wrote a lot of fiction as a kid, science fiction. I thought I was Kurt Vonnegut or something.” He always knew he was a writer, certainly creative, but a journalist? He cites his time at the OU Daily as the point in which he knew it could be a career for him. So he graduated from OU with a degree in journalism…in 2008. At that time the great recession was hitting its stride, devastating the economy and layoffs effected industries across the board, including journalism. Burke is a musician and considered journalism a “back-up” for some time after he graduated. After a few years of grinding as a working musician he decided he may as well put his degree to use and began applying for jobs at The Norman Transcript. After initially applying for jobs that weren’t writing(and briefly doing layout), Burke was hired on as The Arts and Entertainment editor. A perfect fit for a man who has spent as much time playing shows in the area as he has. He operates now as a news editor and award-winning feature writer for the paper.
I interviewed Burke at La Baguette where he treated me to lunch**fist pumps**and answered my questions about his life, views on journalism, and his recent feature article “The 9/11 Generation: Growing Up in the Shadow of Terror.” In the article Burke quotes a variety of sources, 7 in all. These 7 sources include a high school history teacher, 2 current high school students, 3 current college students, and a Norman resident who was a high schooler in Newark, NJ the day the towers fell. “A good (local) journalist should know as many people in the city he’s living in as possible…” says Burke “From all walks of life too. For example I still play music, I play in an indoor soccer league, pick up basketball at Andrews Park, rotary meetings, local banquets, I even go to church sometimes.” This not only widens your net for sources, but also keeps you informed of new leads.
The Norman resident who happened to be a native of New Jersey Burke knew through the music scene. He bumped into him at a bar while working on the story. “He ask me what I was working on and so I told him and he just started spouting off about his experience and I was like ‘….could you repeat that?’” Burke admits a source for your story is not always going to walk up to you at the bar, but there is real value in getting out of the office and into the community you are covering.
He stressed the importance of phone calls rather than email in our industry. A few phone numbers is how he got all the college student quotes. He also precribed a mixture of ballsiness and persistence. After waiting for 3 days to hear back from a school administrator about interviewing students he just went to the parking lot and started asking his questions.
Burke recommends hoarding sources. “If you need 3 get 12” is my new journalistic motto. While working on the 9/11 piece he said “I talked to 5 other kids at the high school, but what they said, it just didn’t fit.” Burke is a firm believer in the idea that 90% of the research won’t be used, but is just as important.
When asked why he chose to write about how young people like myself feel the events on September 11th affected their lives and the world he said “I was thinking about how many times I had read the ‘where were you story’ and it made me ask myself who haven’t we heard from? Well we haven’t heard from people who were too young to remember.” Burke believes a story is a 3 dimensional object that can be approached from infinite angles.
At the end our lunch we got slightly sidetracked discussing where or not objectivity is a dying concept on journalism. I somewhat convinced him it is in trouble by pointing to the Trump phenomenon, and its culture that insist some of the most respected newspapers in the world like The New York Times and Washington Post are apart of the “liberal media.” This tactic immediately discredits the organization to anyone who identifies as conservative and shoves people who would typically be in the middle to one side or the other. As our politics divide so too has the media, leaving those in the middle behind. He explained to me he hoped I wasn’t right about the end of objectivity, but he commended my idea. As we stood up from the booth he told me to “stay curious, if by the time you get back home from a drive to grocery story and haven’t already come up with 20 story idea, you are probably in the wrong business. Cultivating a curiosity is the most important thing for a journalist.”