DEAR READER: Lessons learned from a visitor down the hall

Friday, July 9, 2010 | 1:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:33 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 9, 2010

Perhaps you’ve noticed Washington Gikunju’s name attached to a list of prominent stories published recently in the Columbia Missourian.

  • On April 19, he wrote about a government report that pointed to inadequate sterilization procedures at the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital.
  • On May 19, he shed light on the incentives the city had offered IBM to lure the company to town, despite a clause that could derail the project if the city didn’t meet its own obligations.
  • In late May, he traveled to Dubuque, Iowa, to produce a series of stories on the impact of a similar IBM deal on that community.
  • Then, last week, Gikunju secured an interview with Eric Staley, the departing CEO of the Missouri Theatre, who told him that only a substantial injection of cash and an organizational overhaul could keep the theater afloat.

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Before he wrote that first story,  Gikunju had been in Columbia little more than a month. Indeed, he had never set foot in the United States before he arrived in March from his native Kenya.

And yet, his grasp of corporate behavior and business nuance in American culture is impressive.  His understanding of human nature is even more remarkable.

Gikunju came to Missouri’s School of Journalism to learn from us. Instead, with all due respect, we are learning a great deal from him.

He came to us on an Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship, granted to reporters in developing countries who wish to be exposed to the way journalism is practiced in America.

In Nairobi, Gikunju writes for the Business Daily, a publication owned by the largest media company in East Africa.  He is to spend nearly six months in Columbia.

With his quiet, refined manner and elegant way of speaking, we — or perhaps I should speak only for myself — initially thought he would be daunted by the blunt reception he was likely to encounter as a reporter in America.

Not at all, as it turns out. His elegant speech and quiet manner are precisely why Gikunju is able to collect important information from even the most reluctant source.

He tells the story of a forklift driver in Dubuque, a motorcycle-riding, hard-hat-wearing guy guarding the way to a warehouse Gikunju wanted to inspect.

He talks about the man’s initial hostility to an African reporter asking questions about a big employer on his home turf.  When Gikunju said he was working for a newspaper in Columbia, Mo., the forklift driver sneered.

Yet, by the end of a long conversation, Gikunju told me, the two had reached more than a truce. They had become friends.

Thoughtfully, he answered the obvious question: How does he do it?

Grace, he said, and patience. Building trust. Showing sensitivity and respect.

“Treat everyone as a gentleman or a lady,” he said. “Believe there is goodness in each person, until you are persuaded otherwise.”

More often than not, Gikunju said, he is seeking information that might make sources uncomfortable, that could threaten their livelihood, even as it serves the public interest.

But he almost cannot bear the words, “The source declined to comment.” It may show effort, he said, and it may achieve fairness, but it adds no real value.

So he looks for a way to succeed, but he does not look to prevail at any cost.

He applies the basic rules of kindness and decency to his work. He conducts his interviews with dignity and compassion.

He makes a point to walk in someone else’s shoes.

Shouldn’t we all?

Jeanne Abbott is the Missourian's managing editor.

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