A Tough Assignment

The recent post about discrimination against unattractive people reminded me of one of my toughest journalism assignments.  It happened in the summer of 1978, when I was an intern for the Cleveland bureau of the Wall Street Journal.  The bureau chief was intrigued by an article he had read about a worker who claimed discrimination due to weight.  He thought it would make a good story, and I agreed.  At that time, at least, a good reporter looked for people to interview and quote.  But where to find people who may have been discriminated against because of their size?

I can’t remember if it was my idea or his, but one fine day I found myself at the unemployment office in Cleveland looking for interviewees.  The idea was to find overweight people who were applying for benefits, identify myself as a reporter, and then ask whether they thought their size contributed to their unemployment.  It sounded feasible in the abstract, but as I stood in the unemployment office looking at the poor folks applying for benefits, I suddenly thought it was a pretty stupid idea.  Wouldn’t they be insulted if some punk kid suggesting that they were fat?  Still, I knew reporters sometimes must ask questions in tough circumstances, so I steeled myself and walked up to a likely candidate.  To my surprise, the person was friendly, apparently not offended that I had concluded they were overweight, and quite willing to discuss whether their weight had affected their employment.  It became progressively easier with each new person I approached.  I don’t remember anyone who rebuffed my questions, and I ended up writing a story that was published in the back pages of the Journal.

I don’t think that every incident makes an anecdote or teaches some deep life lesson.  Still, that experience made me realize that speculation about what people may do or how they may react often is wrong and that it is worth at least trying something before concluding it won’t work.

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