Rudy Mancke – holder of five honorary doctorates, a noted South Carolina naturalist, host of a program about nature on educational radio and longtime director of nature programming for S.C. ETV, a nationally syndicated TV show – spoke to an audience predominantly made up of young scientists.
Hearing his remarks were botanists, biologists, naturalists, horticulturists, herpetologists – all sorts of folk deeply interested in what he had to say about plants and animals in South Carolina.
But Mancke, now a distinguished lecturer at the University of South Carolina School of the Environment and the keynote speaker in mid-March at the South Caroline Academy of Science, might just as well have have targeted his message to journalists.
Because what he said about curiosity sometimes gets overlooked or neglected by those charged with bringing our world to readers, listeners or viewers.
If you’re not the least bit curious – if you’re not driven by an insatiable curiosity about “the nature of nature,” you’ll never cut it as a scientist, Mancke said.
Mancke revels in walking through the woods and picking up all kinds of things – living or dead – and probing, examining, exploring – all in an attempt to understand how they originated, what’s become of them or why they ended up in their present state.
Ever curious about the natural world – whether it’s wondering about dry pods from a honey locust, butterflies, birds, snakes, turtles, trees or flowers – Mancke categorizes himself as a person obsessed with figuring out how things are interconnected.
“I’m a 4-year-old in an older man’s body. I’m curious. I want to understand,” Mancke said.
Scientists, he said, should be about seeing connections and putting pieces of the puzzle together if they really want to understand how things in the natural environment work.
The same should and can be said of any journalist who wants to make his or her mark on a community newspaper.
Develop an insatiable curiosity.
Keep all your mind and sensory antennae open and alert to new ideas, new facts, new directions.
Never, as a reporter, rest on your laurels or think that you’ve discovered the truth just because you’ve strung a few facts together and gotten a quote or two.
And don’t let your curiosity take a back seat to your internal bias.
“Sometimes we see what’s behind our eyes instead of what’s in front of our eyes,” Mancke said, noting that scientists sometimes harbor preformed biases of where facts or information should take them.
If only journalists, too, didn’t let their preformed biases shape their work.
If you’ve been in the newspaper business long enough, or maybe even if you’ve just started, you know the danger – but somehow you fall into a trap or rut.
You have an idea or theory going into a story, and you seek out facts or information that bolster that idea or theory; sometimes that’s just too easy, and it’s to the detriment, sometimes, of nailing the truth.
That’s where innate curiosity can help save you.
Don’t settle for what you thought the conclusion or outcome of a story would be. Keep searching, asking wondering.
Key to a journalist’s getting a compelling truthful story is to “dig for answers” and “unleash your curiosity,” writes journalism educator/author Carole Rich in her textbook “Writing and Reporting News.”
Rich employs the metaphor of the detective to help explain what she means.
“Imagine that you are a detective at the scene of a crime, a protest rally or any other event that involves a mystery or conflict. What questions would you ask to solve the crime or the problem?” she wrote.
Reminds me of Detective Lt. Columbo, played by Peter Falk.
The insatiably curious, persistent, pesky, observant Columbo, with his rumpled coat, ugly car and always-ready pen and notebook, knows how to solve a mystery.
It’s not exactly easy, and it’s frequently a clumsy, awkward, back-and-forth process of asking and re-asking or reframing questions. And then asking more questions.
That’s what Lt. Columbo does.
That’s what Rudy Mancke does.
That’s what journalists should do.
If the facts don’t fit a conclusion, according to Mancke, you throw the old conclusion away and pursue a new one.
And you always look for connections.
“People see facts and bits of information, but they don’t see connections well,” said Mancke, convinced that everyone is born with a broad-based curiosity that just awaits igniting. “Look for and see connections and relationships.”
On-target advice for journalists.
Larry Timbs is an associate professor of mass communication at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., where he’s also faculty adviser to the student newspaper and faculty adviser to the Winthrop chapter of SPJ.