It’s been a frenzy of a week with Napa Valley Film Festival this weekend and stockpiling stories for my upcoming trip to Cuba. When I plopped down at my desk Monday morning there was an interesting email waiting in my inbox. My editor had forwarded me a note from one of our sources at the harbor: someone sunk another person’s boat days before crab season opener. It’s a tumultuous time at the harbor and sabotage is somewhat common.
I knew this would be terrible news for a fisherman but I didn’t suspect within the hour I’d be sitting with him and his wife by their now empty berth and hearing their tearful story. The piece on vessel Tonita has made it into my quips this week because the encounter posed a reporting challenge. I had to show compassion while also being aware that this guy could be lying. He could have had it coming like some of the men at the harbor bar would later tell me.
Regardless, there I was at the docks. The Review’s photographer was shooting pictures of the boat, with the mast protruding from the water, as Coast Guard folks scurried about. I approached the couple totally unsure what to expect. In similar circumstances I’ve been told to basically go screw myself. Fishermen can be a bit temperamental. But this couple was different. To be honest, their openness surprised me. It was also a relief. It was one of those moments where I was writing so fast to capture this poor man’s words while trying to simultaneously look into his eyes to maintain the humanity of the conversation. He was sitting on some turned over box or plastic crate. At one point I realized that our eyes weren’t level so I sat cross-legged on the wood slabs of the dock. It felt like it would even the playing field and diffuse that weird reporter/source power dynamic that can get wonky.
I bring up the story because I wonder how much this sort of positioning/power dynamic actually changes the encounter. Did he say anything — or go to an emotional place — he wouldn’t have had I stayed towering above him?
Then when he started crying, I kind of put my hand on his knee. What am I doing touching this guy’s leg? I donno. It just felt like the thing to do. But now I question it.
Monday’s story at the harbor makes me think about how I interact with sources. Part of me thinks they are sources first, part of me thinks they are people first.