Perspectives: Talking investigative journalism and tech with Samantha Sunne

Editor’s Note: For our “Perspectives” series, which talks with New Orleans-based journalists, pod-casters, documentarians, and photojournalists about their place and role in the journalistic world, Bettye Anding was interviewed by Mia Royce. Bettye Anding was an editor at the Times Picayune for over 30 years. She is a vanguard as far as women in journalism, and she and Mia talk about what it was like to make a spot for herself (and some waves) in the journalism world. 

Samantha Sunne. (Photo courtesy of: Samantha Sunne)

Who: Samantha Sunne

What: New Orleans Journalist / Investigative Journalist

In her own words: “There’s only so much I can do as a journalist and as one person, but trying to bring attention to certain trends makes me feel like I’m helping in some way.

How do you define alternative journalism?

Traditional journalism would be like a print publication, broadcast news, outlet… I would say alternative is anything that presents a different viewpoint, like sometimes alt. weekly’s take a certain political standpoint or something as opposed to trying to be neutral, which is basically what all the legacy outlets do. Taking a certain stand or viewing news through a certain lens can be one way to define it, and then there is also the medium. I work mainly for a group called The Lens here in New Orleans, which is online only — just because they didn’t really see the need for a print publication — and so they’re online only, but they’re also non-profit, and they only do investigative journalism. In many ways, they’re alternative just because they’re not a traditional medium.

Do you consider your work to be alternative? How do you see your work fitting into your definition of alternative journalism?

In mission it’s not alternative. I actually mainly do investigative reporting as a freelancer, so I definitely try to find the news and report it for people to make their own decisions. I definitely don’t try to report it from a certain political standpoint or anything like that. I am involved in a lot of newer models. Print newspaper, for example, is not the most stable business right now, and it’s not as popular as it once was.

Almost since I graduated college, I’ve been working for online-only publications, like The Lens.  I definitely do a lot more experimental stuff, like news apps and news games. We get to experiment with the new mediums we have, which is a lot of technology and the internet.

When following subjects, how do you take notes? Are there ways that journalists can be too invasive when they’re gathering their information?

It’s interesting that you ask that now because I just finished a deadline, a big project on deadline where I’m driving out to different towns in Louisiana and talking to people who have been to jail or have had a court case. At the most basic level, I’m talking to them about their experiences with the court system. It definitely was a little tough sometimes. For instance, one of the women had been in prison for 22 years, so we got dinner and talked about it, and it’s a tough line to walk because I do want to be able to quote the person in the story or use what they’re saying in the story, but you have to be really sensitive to the fact that they might not want to be in the story or they might want to control what information you put out about them.

It can definitely be awkward. I

thought about recording interviews, but I didn’t end up doing it, and then I basically would just try to find a happy medium between interviewing and talking to people while having my notebook out and writing down what they say. I also gave you a bit of an extreme example; obviously, a lot of interviews are a lot more rogue, like when I’m talking to press representatives at the government office. I wouldn’t think twice about taking notes in my notebook or on my computer in those situations. But I think it definitely depends on the source. 

What do you feel is the best way to get a subject to let their guard down enough during an investigation/interview to get the most authentic version of the truth?

You definitely have to lead up to it. For instance, when I met the woman I just mentioned for dinner, I didn’t just sit down and immediately ask ‘what was prison like?’  It sounds cliché to say you should make small talk and make jokes, but I honestly think that’s a little underrated. A lot of times interviews are really serious, so back when I was in college and studying journalism, I would be super serious because I wanted them to take me seriously. But as I’ve practiced it, I’ve actually really put a lot of effort into being conversational and  being a lot more natural.

I’ll definitely even make lame jokes or  small talk about the weather, and it does make a big difference. It lets people get more comfortable with you, so even though it’s super cliché and we both know it’s small talk, when we get to  the serious topics, like talking about prison, I’ll do my best to naturally guide the conversation in that directly and treat them like they’re really special. Let them know you’re not just sitting there filling out a form and asking them generic questions.

You really want to learn about them as a person and really care about their story, and that can be tough because it’s not a natural conversation. It takes a lot of practice.

Also, some people respond if I’m really serious and to-the-point without  talking about anything else. I used to not give subjects any personal details. I thought it would be unprofessional to say, ‘Oh, sorry, I’m getting over a cold’ or ‘I slept through my alarm this morning.’  I used to never say that to someone because I thought it was unprofessional, but I’ve definitely learned that it’s helpful. It’s part of small talk, and the more you tell people about yourself and they replicate it, they’ll be more comfortable talking about themselves. 

So it sounds like strategy is really important in journalism. Do you feel that sometimes strategizing is almost a form of manipulation? Do you feel that manipulation is a tool or a weapon when it comes to journalism?

I would stop short of calling it manipulation, mainly because manipulation has a bad connotation. Manipulation implies you’re trying to get someone to do something they don’t want to do or they wouldn’t otherwise do, and in this case — even though it’s an uncomfortable topic — the woman I referenced, for example, knew we were meeting to talk about her experience in prison and the crime that got her put there. It’s definitely not a lie or misrepresentation, but you are trying to guide the conversation and trying to keep a certain tone. You could maybe use the word manipulation, but I don’t think it has a negative context like something sneaky or unethical. You don’t want to be exploitative, too, which goes back to what I was saying about treating subjects like a real person. You really want to hear their story; they’re not just a fodder for the journalism machine.

What are the themes that tend to draw you into a story and what do you make of these topics’ relations to your own experiences?

I naturally gravitate toward criminal justice stories, and I think the theme that draw me in is ‘injustice.’ Often, people will only think of injustice as a murder where no one ever got caught, or the person got caught but didn’t serve time. There are other kinds of injustice, such as somebody getting life in prison for a really small offence, or a prosecutor prosecuting someone without any real evidence, or cops doing illegal activity and then not being prosecuted for it. There’s lots of kinds of injustice out there, and that is probably what draws me to it.

There’s only so much I can do as a journalist and as one person, but trying to bring attention to certain trends makes me feel like I’m helping in some way, like bringing data or trends to the forefront so people can make their own decisions.

I don’t know if that really connects to my personal life… I did write what I’d guess you could call a personal essay for the Washington Post because I got arrested in New York City for putting my feet up on a subway seat. It was this really crazy arrest where apparently in New York, even though everyone does this, it’s technically against the law to put your feet up or take up multiple seats, and I actually got arrested for it and spent the night in the holding cell and the whole shebang.

It was bazar, so immediately — as a journalist — it got me thinking: Why is NYPD doing this? Who are they doing it to? How often does it happen? So I did all the research and interviews for data, but then since it happened to me personally, we basically had to publish it as a personal essay. I couldn’t really call it an investigative story because I was personally involved.  I guess that’s a case where it truly did happen to me and interacted with my personal life because I had to go through court. 

Do you feel that your location has influenced the type of leads you follow, and is being a journalist in Louisiana and New Orleans unique to being a journalist elsewhere?

Not really. There are certain things that make it different, but that’s true for everywhere. There are things about New York that make it different from reporting anywhere else. I definitely strive to do reporting outside of New Orleans, actually; I do more of Louisiana.

I just spent a while in Lafayette and filed a story based there. And I mainly do that because New Orleans has a lot of journalism already. They get pretty well represented in the national media. They could be represented more, of course, but compared to other cities, New Orleans is talked about way more.

One thing that’s really scary about Louisiana outside New Orleans is that there is extremely little press — there’s almost no reporters or newspapers. The newspapers that do exist usually just have a couple of reporters total. And that’s resulted in very little accountability journalism or investigative journalism —  the kind of journalism that’s pretty necessary to society.

So that can have really bad effects on those communities. With Louisiana, one thing that makes it a little different is that it’s got very embedded corruption. Corruption and nepotism. It’s kind of interesting in some communities in Louisiana it’s not even super controversial. The actual people who live there accept it as much as the politicians do and it’s just sort of a given that the Sheriff’s brother-in-law is going to be the next Sheriff when he retires, for example. In reality, in a lot of small towns they’re actually probably more in favor of it than against it. Of course some people are against it but it’s not necessarily a majority worldview. So, that affects what I do a little bit.

I want to produce stories that are actually interesting to the people in those communities. And there are certainly a lot of states with reputations of being corrupt, like New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Florida, so I don’t know if Louisiana really is that different in that way. It might be. It almost seems like a regular thing that leaders and politicians will get indicted for various corruption charges… Probably 100% of the time when I’m out in Lafayette or somewhere doing interviews someone will mention that they know of a politician being on trial or a government official being fired for civil rights violations… Everyone knows someone personally who has gotten indicted. It’s just that common.

You publish a newsletter that introduces journalists to a  new tool every other week. What would you consider, if you could choose a ‘top 3,’ to be the most essential tools that a journalist needs?

That’s a tough question because the true answer is more of a concept of journalism… certainly a digital tool is not going to be the make or break between a good journalist and a bad one. It’s going to come to that journalist’s own sense of news and recording and interviewing skills. Those really are the most important things.

If I had to pick something that you would define as a ‘tool’ I would say public records law, at least for the kind of reporting that I do. Public records requests are extremely powerful and can reveal a lot and really helps keep the government accountable. I hate to say it but social media, especially in some communities, is by far the most common way that people get news in this day in age. Social media and television are the most common depending on the community. But as much as we hate Facebook and Twitter and stuff for good reason, a lot of times they are the only conduit for getting news to people, which is unfortunate and hopefully that will maybe change over the next decade.

Thirdly, just staying organized. I use a program called EverNote, which is a computer program that can do all kinds of things like scan the notes, clip articles from the web, and basically I use it to keep organized so I have my interviews and my data and my news coverage stored inside EverNote. People don’t have to use Evernote but you really do have to have something to keep track of everything.

Samantha Sunne will be hosting Hacks/Hackers on Friday, September 13. They’ll  have some local leaders from tech and journalism outfits talking about their successes and challenges in diversity efforts, and there will also be plenty of time to drink, talk, and network. The event will be held atop One Canal Place after work on Friday. For more information, check out their event page. 

This interview was completed for the class Alternative Journalism, a class at Tulane University taught by Kelley Crawford. The interview has been edited and configured for publication.



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