Jim Burress could've been satisfied with working his daily assignments in the newsroom at WABE in Atlanta. But his growing itch to go beyond business-as-usual coverage of local politics and state government pushed him out of his comfortable cocoon. An under-reported story about an inner city no man's land was the catalyst.
Who knew there was a thriving open air heroin market a few blocks from downtown, Georgia Tech and the city's sports and convention center? Who cared that cops appeared to turn their backs on the rampant crime, or at best, tried to confine it to several square blocks? And was a needle exchange program helping or hurting any chance of turning around the neighborhood?
With questions like that abuzz, Burress strapped on a recorder and -- not unlike Kelly McEvers touching down in a war zone -- began strolling those mean streets in what's called The Bluff. He spoke to the stereotype hollow-eyed addicts, as well as the do-gooders handing out clean needles. But he wasn't prepared for people like the grandmotherly user with a twenty-year habit whose visits to The Bluff were as routine as a shopping trip to Wal-Mart.
Four months from first interview to first air date, Jim had more than a few hurdles to clear along the way. We believe the results are award-worthy—not bad for his first-ever doc. Here's a link to Stuck In The Bluff, and Jim's account of the story behind the story. It could serve as a case study for reporters and producers willing to expose a dirty little secret in their own backyards.
How did you discover this story that was apparently off the radar but in full view in downtown Atlanta?
JIM: I learned of “The Bluff” a few years ago when I was doing a story for Marketplace. The English Ave. area had blocks of homes for sale for less than $10,000. I first tried to get a real estate agent to show me around one of his listings. He agreed, but only if I would arrange a police escort. I did. He still backed out.
When I drove down to the area myself, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. A half-dozen men chased my car. I didn't know at the time it was because they thought I was there to buy heroin.
But for the documentary and its focus on the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition, credit goes to Thomas Wheatley of Creative Loafing (Atlanta’s alt-weekly newspaper). Last fall we teamed up to do a series on Atlanta-area non-profits, and the idea was completely his. Having done the $10,000 home story, I knew what I might be getting into.
What was it like to walk the meanest streets of Atlanta with a mic in hand? How much of a fear factor was there?
JIM: I wasn’t scared. At all, really. Now had I been on my own, sure. I wouldn’t have done it. But walking with the Atlanta Harm Reduction folks—people who have proven to the neighborhood they’re there to help in a non-judgmental, non-threatening way—afforded me a high level of comfort. I got some strange looks. A few people made mention of my skin color (I’m caucasian. The Bluff is strongly African-American). But I had no trouble.
Did you try to go "stealth" with your mic and recorder so you wouldn't draw attention?
JIM: Not at all. I never wanted to be perceived as hiding anything—being covert or a threat. I was transparent. I used a large “shotgun” microphone that is impossible to hide. That afforded me the ability to get good sound without having to be in the middle of folks’ daily grind, but I could never claim I was trying to go incognito. I never pressed anyone who didn’t want to talk. I didn’t try to play up any bravado. I asked simple questions. More than any story I can remember, I just talked to folks. I wanted to be as “real” as possible because that’s how I hoped they’d be. And I was surprised at the general warm response I got.
Was there pressure from governments or organizations to not broadcast the story because of whom it might embarrass?