September and everything after


The September 11 and 12, 2001 editions of the Biddeford Journal Tribune, where I worked my first job as a reporter. The Journal Tribune was an afternoon paper, giving the editors time to remake the front page after the attacks began.

Every time I pass through Southern Maine, I’m startled by its openness. There are no roadblocks on the highways or police officers patrolling the bridges. Portland harbor is busy, traffic is often heavy, and airplanes pass overhead. To a casual visitor, there’s little to hint at the shock and fear that descended there 15 years ago.

My tenure as a resident of Southern Maine was brief, but those 11 months are inseparable from one brilliant, blue September day and the grim autumn that followed. To me, it’s a region frozen in time, and even the briefest visit evokes a dizzying disconnect, similar to what happens when I remember my college journalism students were preschoolers when Mohamed Atta boarded an early-morning commuter plane at the Portland Jetport.

When it happened, my college diploma was three months old, and I dreamed of a life as a writer. Late that August, I’d started my first job as a reporter at a little paper in Biddeford, a city about halfway between Portland and the New Hampshire border. I had a shitty apartment in a building that reeked of tobacco and sweat. On most nights, the guy down the hall came home drunk and screaming. I installed yellow contact paper on the backsplash in the galley kitchen, stuffed my bookcases with empty journals I planned to fill and began learning the intricacies of covering city government.

The editors at that paper were the best first bosses I could have hoped for, especially on that day. When we knew the second plane was not an accident, there was no coddling – just assignments and a promise that we would shovel information to our readers until we dropped from exhaustion. A photographer and I crisscrossed the city, stopping at a high school, a department store, a college. We paused downtown, where the streets were silent and drivers wept in pulled-over cars. Later that week, I sat across a kitchen table from a woman who’d escaped one of the towers and come to Maine to stay at her parents’ beach house. I stumbled through my questions, scribbled notes and wondered how long it had taken to wash the dust from her hair.

For a long time, I tried not to think about what that autumn was like for me. I wasn’t in Manhattan or Washington, D.C. or Shanksville. I didn’t know anyone who died. It felt wrong to make myself a protagonist in a story that harmed so many others in so many more devastating ways. My thinking is different now, mostly because of my journalism students. Last year, I walked into a crowded classroom and started a discussion about coverage of the Paris terrorist attacks. The cafes, the theater, the dead and the wounded were on another continent, but my students were frightened in a way that tugged at something deep in me. At some point, they began to ask me about the fall of 2001 the way I ask my parents about Kennedy and Kent State.

Over the years I’ve developed a September tradition of reading E.B. White’s 1949 essay “Here is New York.” It’s a sweeping meditation of the city’s speedy post-war evolution, beautiful, chaotic and, as he writes in this passage, terrifying:

“The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition. All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation.”

We no longer need to live in physical cities to feel this kind of geographic vulnerability. We spend our days inside a sprawling, digital metropolis of videos and photos. Every place can feel like our place. Paris. San Bernardino. Brussels. Ankara. Orlando. The shattering headlines aren’t one giant break but an evolving tangle of tiny, thread-like fractures.

Two weeks ago, I met a new batch of bright journalism students. I hope we make it through this year without another act of violence that spurs questions about where I was – about who I was – on that day 15 years ago.

That is, alas, unlikely.

When it happens, we’ll look at the news alerts, analyze the credibility of facts, critique the narratives that emerge. If they ask about that time I lived so briefly in Southern Maine, I’ll answer. I’ll also tell them this: We were not annihilated then. By embracing knowledge and compassion and grace, we will not be annihilated now.








A Pulitzer (almost) lost to history

I spent a weekend last fall in the basement of a public library in rural Maine, picking through century-old letters between two sisters, Laura Richards and Maude Howe Elliott.  They were both writers and both living the kind of creative existences that were rare for women in that era.

Together, they produced a sweeping biography of their mother, the abolitionist and suffragist Julia Ward Howe. (If that name takes you back to grade school history, it’s probably because she also wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic.)

In 1917, her daughters became the first women to win a Pulitzer Prize but, as I discovered in my research, neither was associated with the honor until recently. You can read the full story here.

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Three things Pokemon Go reminds us about journalism


  I had some help writing this post.

In case you missed my two posts celebrating feminism in the Star Wars universe, let me issue this disclaimer: I’m a geek, something that predated – by decades – the mainstream coolness of Comic-Con, Peggy Carter and Mr. Spock.

Pokemon, though, was never my scene. Too many rules. Too many obnoxious noises. Too many cartoon creatures teetering between adorable and terrifying.

Still, I joined millions of other people in downloading the app last weekend, motivated not by nostalgia but by curiosity about augmented reality and how it might change the way we tell stories. After several days as a Pokemon trainer, I have a lot to think about in terms of AR. I was also reminded of three truths about journalism:

1.) Look for layers. Augmented reality superimposes information over physical space. (Great explainer here about AR and the origins of Pokemon Go.)  Playing the game requires exploring its digital landscape, a process that can teach us about our surroundings. For instance: I discovered a couple of local historical markers while stocking up on Poke Balls last night. Finding and telling news stories also requires shifting the way you see the world, looking for different lenses through which to view our communities. Practicing journalism and experiencing AR both require embracing new ways of seeing.

2.) You’ll do much better if you leave your office and walk around. Sure, the occasional wild Eevee wanders across my desk, but I’ve caught more – and more diverse – Pokemon while walking my dog or chatting up people downtown. Reporters also find richer, more interesting stories by roving around and talking to people face to face. I know email is a journalistic necessity, but human contact is always better. Besides, my inbox has yet to yield a single Bellsprout, Jynx or Rattata.

3.) Verify everything. In the days after Pokemon Go’s launch, my Facebook feed was awash with headlines reporting the game’s dire consequences: murders, car accidents, exposure to Satanic rituals. Most of that stuff is bogus, something we know thanks to websites like It’s crucial for journalists to engage in this kind of debunking in a world where falsehoods evolve as quickly as a Jigglypuff hopped up on candy. (For the uninitiated: Sugar makes a wild Pokemon morph into a larger and slightly fiercer version of itself. Or something like that. I’m new here, remember? Here’s more from a far more credible source.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I hear a Pidgey in my attic.

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White journalists need to do better

Most American journalists are white. That’s something we should all remember as we follow the news during a week that just keeps getting worse.

Individual journalists – myself included – strive for transparency, fairness and accuracy, but when just 12.7 percent of editorial staffers in traditional U.S. newsrooms* are people of color, even responsible reporting on Baton Rouge, Minnesota and Dallas is likely to carry subtle, unintentional biases.

As I’ve written before, these biases are concerning in any organization that serves as a conduit for information, but they can become even more problematic when breaking news and systemic racism collide.

Plenty of good journalists of all backgrounds devote time and energy to covering racial issues in meaningful ways, but without diverse newsrooms, those stories may lack important context. Other stories may not get covered at all. As former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote last year, diverse newsrooms produce stronger journalism:

When the group is truly diverse, the nefarious groupthink that makes a publication predictable and, at times, unintentionally biased, is much more likely to be diminished. And that’s a good thing.

In other words, homogeneous teams often don’t know what they don’t know until it’s too late.

As a human being, I’m deeply troubled by everything that’s transpired in the past few days. But as a white person, I have no sense of the kind of fear, pain and exhaustion Fusion’s national political correspondent Terrell J. Starr describes in this video. Nor do I understand what it’s like to watch someone who looks like me die over and over and over again on the evening news. Or to tell the young people in my life that the way they dress or move could make them targets.

I’ve contemplated these kinds of differences every time stories break about race and policing, but contemplation isn’t enough. Not for me, not for any of us who purport to care about the future of journalism and the importance of a free, open and responsible press.

White journalists – especially the white, male journalists who hold the majority of newsroom leadership positions – need to do more. Much, much more.

Let’s start, as the American Press Institute suggests, by acknowledging that bias exists and “is embedded in the culture and language of the society on which the journalist reports.” API also reminds us that some forms of bias may actually be necessary to quality journalism:

 One can even argue that draining a story of all bias can drain it of its humanity, its lifeblood. In the biases of the community one can also find conflicting passions that bring stories to life. A bias, moreover, can be the foundation for investigative journalism. It may prompt the news organization to right a wrong and take up an unpopular cause. Thus, the job of journalists is not to stamp out bias. Rather, the journalist should learn how to manage it.

Beyond that, there are a handful of specific things we can do in our daily professional practices:

  • Anyone covering or editing stories like the ones out of Dallas or Louisiana or Minnesota should use even more care than usual when it comes to verification and consider questions like these when determining if, how and when to use graphic videos. Think about how you’re portraying victims and, whenever possible, seek to minimize harm to vulnerable parties.
  • Those of us teaching journalism should engage our students in conversations about race, gender, sexual identity, power and privilege. We should also encourage them to take non-journalism classes that explore those same themes.
  • When we’re hiring for our newsrooms we must, in the words of Robert Hernandez, understand that there is no pipeline problem when it comes to talented journalists who are not white, straight men. Click on that link to read his excellent tips on diversifying the application pool.

We should also constantly educate ourselves about the complex, challenging history of how the press has covered (and failed to cover) racial disparities in the U.S. and beyond. To that end, I’ve created a reading list at the bottom of this post. If you have other titles or authors to add, please do so in the comments.

*It’s unclear how the proliferation of digital-only publications will change journalism’s demographics. Recent research – including my own – hints that emerging news organizations may be replicating the racial and gender disparities in legacy news. But, as this Columbia Journalism Review piece points out, a growing list of digital publications have beats focused on race, culture and identity “baked into their organizational hierarchy.”

A Partial Reading List on Race and Journalism 

Chasing Newsroom Diversity: From Jim Crow to Affirmative Action, book by Gwyneth Mellinger

The Diversity Style Guide, online handbook

The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation, book by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff

Race and Reporting, the spring 2015 issue Nieman Reports

Why aren’t there more minority journalists?,  CJR piece by Alex T. Williams

Update (7/11): 

I received some great suggestions via Facebook and Twitter. Here they are:

Josh Stearns sent me a few links via Twitter. He suggests:

1.) News for All the  People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, book by Juan González and Joseph Torres.

2.) Moving the Race Conversation Forward, a report by Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation

3.) This NPR story featuring African American journalists reflecting on covering the public deaths of other African Americans. In addition to audio, the package includes an essay by Gene Demby, lead blogger for NPR’s Code Switch team. He writes:

As calls for newsroom diversity get louder and louder — and rightly so — we might do well to consider what it means that there’s an emerging, highly valued professional class of black reporters at boldface publications reporting on the shortchanging of black life in this country…What it means — for the reporting we do, for the brands we represent, and for our own mental health — that we don’t stop being black people when we’re working as black reporters. That we quite literally have skin in the game.

On Facebook, former Concord Monitor reporter Jeremy Blackman suggested this guide to better reporting on race, police and community.

Keep the suggestions coming, please. Add titles in the comments below or ping me on social media.

ICYMI: Worried about bias at Facebook? Then worry about this, too.

I wrote a column for USA Today last week exploring why Facebook’s political leanings should be one small part of a broader conversation about the demographics of the people building the social web.  Here’s an excerpt:

Anyone troubled by the notion of bias at Facebook …  should also be upset by its lack of diversity and the homogeneous workforces of many tech companies. These cornerstones of the social web play significant roles in determining what is and isn’t news. If the default worker is white, male, straight and liberal, that increases the risk that journalism’s future will repeat the mistakes of its past.

Read the whole thing here.

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#TBT: New Hampshire primary edition

Just when it seemed we’d have to start numbering super Tuesdays like super bowls, the Republican primary is all but over and, although Bernie Sanders will continue his campaign, the Democrats’ delegate math is against him.

I’m still mulling what the outcome of the GOP race says about the state of political journalism and wondering if the general election will go much beyond gender politics. But it seems like a good time to inventory my own coverage of the 2016 primary, which began last April when Jeb Bush brought a couple of key lime pies to Concord:

This was my fourth primary as a journalist and my first since leaving a full-time newsroom gig. That meant I experienced 2016 partly  as a freelancer and partly through the eyes of my journalism students. (About those students: I’m utterly biased, but didn’t they do some fantastic work when the Democratic debate came to UNH in February?)

The journalism landscape changed a lot between 2012 and 2016. I bumped into reporters from the New York Times and CNN, but there were just as many journalists working for BuzzFeed, Vox, Vice and other digital startups.

Meerkat and Periscope made live video a huge part of campaign coverage, allowing the Union Leader to pretty much break the internet with this and giving one of my classes a chance to watch – and question – Hillary Clinton during a Concord Monitor editorial board interview last fall. Wifi was more ubiquitous, even in rural areas, making this primary feel more intense, more scripted, more public.

Instagram has been around since 2010, but this was the first national campaign where it was standard fare. For me, Instagram became an experiment in short-form storytelling, a way to sketch the voices and scenes that give the campaign trail its texture. Here’s one example from that Bush event last April:

Another favorite taken in Bedford the weekend before the primary:

A Rand Paul supporter who says she's now "candidate shopping" protests outside a Rubio event in Bedford. #fitn

A photo posted by megheckman (@megheckman) on

And here’s one from my neighborhood polling station on voting day:

Donated treats for the ballot clerks at my (busy) local polls. #fitn

A photo posted by megheckman (@megheckman) on


I wrote mostly for the Boston Globe, filing stories about candidate draft movements, political artifacts and campaign technology in 2008 versus 2016. I also met some wonderful new Americans preparing to vote in their very first primary and delved into the mysterious origins of the GOP. I also had bylines in Women’s e-News and the Concord Monitor. And, on primary day, I talked about the state of the political news media on New Hampshire Public Radio.

My best 2016 memory, though, is playing political tourist with my cousin Drew, a government major at UT-Austin. He flew into Manchester the weekend before the primary, and we spent the next few days crisscrossing the state in search of would-be presidents. We saw Bush and Rubio at elementary schools in Concord and Bedford, met Kasich at the Puritan Backroom and watched Cruz address a packed town hall in Peterborough.

In downtown Manchester, we saw campaign finance reformers, wandering journalists and piles of Trump signs ready for a rally and this guy:



How serving as a Pulitzer juror made me a better journalism teacher

Being invited to serve on a Pulitzer jury is probably a little like getting accepted to Hogwarts: You receive a letter written on really nice stationary with instructions to show up at a certain place and time. And please, it goes on, don’t tell anyone what you’re up to.

My envelope from Hogwarts has, alas, never arrived, but for the second year in a row I was summoned to Columbia University in February to serve as a Pulitzer juror, picking finalists in one of 14 journalism categories.  Last winter, I sat on the local reporting jury. (Details on that experience here.) This time was breaking news.

Pulitzer deliberations are confidential, and jurors’ identities are secret until after the winners are revealed, but my experience has still been a powerful teaching tool, one that’s given me fresh vocabulary to describe what it means to master the craft of modern nonfiction storytelling.

My students have been poking around the new Pulitzer website for a couple of months, identifying strong leads and mulling over what topics make compelling stories. We also talked a bit about the Pulitzers and public service journalism ahead of our Spotlight event earlier this month.

Last week, my editing class watched the announcement of the 2016 winners live:


Then we examined the winner and finalists in the breaking news category and talked about the hallmarks of effective, responsible journalism in the first few hours of a big story. The students liked how the Los Angeles Times’s winning entry used rumor-busting bullet points to list known facts after the San Bernardino shootings. They found the Baltimore Sun’s interactive timeline useful in understanding the events that led to Freddie Gray’s death. We also talked about how the Post and Courier used a mix of screen grabs to illustrate a video showing the shooting of Walter Scott. (When it came to whether or not to publish the video itself, the students’ opinions were mixed.)

All three entries show a mix of urgency and comprehensive follow up. Here’s a little scribble that I used to illustrate this concept:

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In the hours, days and even months after a major breaking news event, readers want – need – coverage that provides context, answers questions and explores possible solutions. Accuracy matters more than speed. Or, as I told my students, it’s better to be dead last than dead wrong.

These Pulitzer-inspired lessons will continue in the fall, too. My colleague Tom Haines is teaching a course focused on environmental reporting, and his students will be able to learn from finalists like InsideClimate News, the Portland Press Herald and ProPublica. I’m teaching entrepreneurial journalism, and we’ll talk about how several of this year’s top entires came from news organizations that didn’t exist a decade ago.

So thanks, Pulitzers. And happy 100th birthday. Here’s hoping for another century of identifying and honoring excellence in journalism.

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Learning from “Spotlight”


The Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson and I prepare to chat about investigative journalism Tuesday night at UNH. Photo credit/Hadley Barndollar.

During one of the opening scenes in Spotlight, Walter Robinson (as portrayed by Michael Keaton) uses the term “player-coach” to describe his role as editor of the Globe’s famed investigative team. That characterization is accurate – something I know after working as Robinson’s teaching assistant at Northeastern University.

At the time, Robinson was running NU’s investigative journalism program, teaching students how to dig up stories about gun policies at community colleges, racial disparities in Boston firehouses and more. He’s a master at teaching by doing, and, by watching him, I learned as much about running a classroom as I did about mining documents and cultivating sources. (Robinson is back at the Globe now, and NU’s investigative work continues thanks to longtime TV journalist Mike Beaudet.)

It was an honor to interview Robinson in front of an (over) packed room at UNH earlier this week. We talked for an hour or so about the investigation that inspired the Spotlight movie, the importance of access to public information and why knocking on doors is a better reporting technique than sending emails.

Robinson’s visit was the culmination of a series of lessons built around the Spotlight film. And, judging by the conversations I’ve had with students over the last few days, lots of them are inspired to dig just a little deeper on their next stories.



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The one with spoilers. So, so many spoilers

My first byline of the year is on this column for USA Today about the many feminist plot points in the new Star Wars movie. It was a lot of fun to write, and my mom got to dig up a photo of kindergartner me wearing a fantastically DIY Princess Leia costume.

princess leia

Getting my girl power on circa 1983. 

The response to the column has been robust and interesting. Here are some of the highlights:

First, strong female role models matter for boys and men, too. For more, check out this great piece by Mike Adamick. And those kinds of characters need to be available on and off the screen. That’s not always the case as evidenced by the blight of female action figures in games and play sets.

Second, one mind-bogglingly successful movie with kick-ass female characters and feminine framing is great – but pop culture remains a boys’ club. This Forbes article provides a good primer, pointing out that “gender discrimination, both in front of and behind the camera and in terms of the kind of stories that get told in cinema, has become so pervasive that the ACLU and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stepped in to investigate.”

Finally, this conversation is about a lot more than space-nerd gossip. Stories matter because they’re one of the chief ways kids learn about social norms and the human condition. Here’s an easy-to-understand rundown of the latest research about the power of narrative in child development.



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ICYMI:The pedagogy of the PSL


I’m spending the final week of 2015 taking stock of the last year, a task that sounds rather lofty but actually involves wrestling with spreadsheets. I did, however, notice that I never shared around here one of the highlights of my fall: a short explainer on how my UNH journalism students mapped fall-flavored treats to learn about non-linear storytelling.

The piece I wrote appeared on Storybench, a must-read project of Northeastern University’s Media Innovation Program. The map my students made was published by The Sound, a fantastic weekly publication covering the New Hampshire Seacoast.