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South Dakota News Watch content update

Reporter’s Notebook

Connecting with “real people” a strength of South Dakota News Watch

— Bart Pfankuch, content director

In the news business, we sometimes refer to sources who are not politicians, public officials or leaders in business, education or government as “real people,” which is not meant in any way to deemphasize the humanity, knowledge or importance of officials or other leaders. Rather, it is a way to identify those people who are experiencing an issue at the ground level, living through problems as part of their daily lives.

Reporters who have the tenacity, and the time, to find and contact those people are often heralded in journalism.

Unquestionably, it takes more research and reporting to identify and then contact primary sources on important topics. Even then, a reporter must still gain the trust of the person and encourage them to be open and honest, knowing their words and image may appear in print or online and that the experiences and opinions they share may put them at odds with the governmental or socially accepted version of the world.

Throughout its existence, News Watch has made great efforts to find “real people” sources and publish their stories in our articles. Sometimes, depending on the story topic, it is impossible or nearly so to reach such sources or find people willing to talk.

After nearly five years of reporting for News Watch, many of the real people sources I’ve reached, either by foot or by phone, still stick in my memory.

I remain moved by the deep sadness of Chad Dennard, exhibited with few words and steely eyes that seemed miles away as he talked at his kitchen table in Sturgis about how he believes his missing adopted daughter Serenity is gone forever.

I easily recall standing on a platform above a cattle barn while learning about the financials of agriculture with Brian Alderson, a burly but kind and quick-to-smile cattle farmer from western Minnehaha County.

Still fresh in my mind is taking an ATV drive through pasture lands north of New Underwood with 77-year-old rancher Duane Reichert, who nearly teared up while discussing how coyotes he was trying to remove from his ranch had circled and then eviscerated a young lamb crying for its mother.

And I will never forget sitting in a living room chair and listening to deeply personal, devastatingly painful stories told by Brandi Snow-Fly, a Native American mother from Rapid City who was balancing a job, parenting and probation after being recently released from prison amid her battle back from methamphetamine addiction.

More recently, I was able to visit the classroom of Bill Egan, a Rapid City middle-school teacher who is using his own money to buy pre-packaged meals for students who are facing hunger at school now that a COVID-era federal free meals program has expired.

Rapid City teacher Bill Egan chats with students after a pizza party in Egan's classroom at East Middle School. Egan provides food to students who can't afford to buy a school meal or forget their lunches at home. Photo: Bart Pfankuch, South Dakota News Watch

It’s worth noting that a reporter can’t just pop into a school and ask to visit a teacher in a classroom. One must first gain the teacher’s OK, then obtain district approval, then be met by a principal and finally be allowed to enter the school and visit with the teacher. Also, for privacy reasons, any photos cannot show the faces of children, and no child can be interviewed without school and parental approval, which adds wrinkles to the reporting experience.

While it was extremely useful and informative to speak to knowledge people like Sioux Falls Superintendent Jane Stavem for that story, the visit to Egan’s class during a school lunch period brought a deeper understanding of the hunger problem and added a sharper focus to the reporting, not to mention that such visits create opportunities to capture photos that help tell a richer story.

As we move forward, myself and my colleague Stu Whitney will continue to seek out and take advantage of those opportunities to interview and photograph the “real people” of South Dakota. It is our hope, too, that readers of our published material will benefit from those efforts and as a result, gain a deeper, more thorough understanding of important topics facing this state and its people.

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