By Christopher Maloney
As a graduate student in Georgetown University’s Journalism Program, I recently had the opportunity to spend a semester reporting on news developments inside the City of Falls Church. For a period of five months, I researched the community’s unique history at Mary Riley Styles Library, attended High School Campus Project meetings at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School and even observed city council meetings and numerous notable events. It was during this time that I came to appreciate the progressive vision and values of so many inside this thriving community.
Despite being a resident of Alexandria, I possessed little previous experience with the City of Falls Church. I immediately set to work on researching the history of the city along with pertinent issues that were frequent topics of discussion around town. The courteous and professional staff at Mary Riley Styles Library were welcoming and always eager to lend a helpful hand in acquiring news materials and research pertinent to my field of study or news topics of the day.
In February, I attended the enslaved persons plaque dedication at Falls Church, and the High School Campus Project community meeting at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School. I was struck by the degree of public engagement from the community as well as school administration leaders and elected officials who are as focused on honoring their past as they are dedicated toward ensuring future success for students in the community.
By mid-spring, I began dissecting the city’s budget, proposals for community gentrification and the role that race relations have played in influencing local culture. I spent time learning about the city’s embrace of their urban forestry management plan, the activity of the Tree Commission, and City Arborist Kate Reich’s lifelong dedication to canopy preservation from the northwestern United States to northern Virginia.
My semester concluded with a focus on the rich cultural history of the city along with its environs. I gathered unique perspectives from the community on the work being done by faith leaders to support refugees from war torn nations and efforts by local non-profit organizations to preserve African American heritage sites that date back to the 18th Century.
I appreciated the hours that so many local civic, religious and government leaders spent with me in-person and over the phone so I could gain a more nuanced perspective on current events. This included memorable time spent with Reverend John Ohmer of Falls Church Episcopal, Edwin Henderson of the Falls Church’s Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation, Falls Church Village Preservation & Improvement Society Director Seth Heminway, and Council Members Phil Duncan and Marybeth Connelly. I would also be remiss if I didn’t single out Council Member Karen Oliver, who was incredibly responsive and always willing to provide valuable story ideas and insight into notable community events, contacts and news topics.
My amateur reporting was also colored by the random musings and observations that were shared by ordinary citizens who took time out of their busy evenings and weekend mornings to learn about everything from school construction plans to commercial development zones. Inside every community there are competing interests. The environmental activist who wishes to preserve tree coverage, the business owner who wants more canopy space so customers to see his sign; the parent fighting for more school and event funding, the local elected official seeking to stretch every dollar and deliver more services with fewer resources. These storylines aren’t necessarily unique to Falls Church. However the degree of activism I witnessed among people of all ages was clearly indicative of the genuine sense of pride and community embodied by the city’s residents.
Today, the mere act of reporting news is often held up as evidence of bias, either due to political expedience, intellectual laziness or timidity in the face of truth. Journalists are slandered as “enemies of the people” by everyone from Twitterbots, to hacks on cable news, to the leader of the free world. A newfound reliance on partisan television and online websites over traditional news outlets has pushed both sides of the political spectrum to its fringes. It’s also fueled a more rapid decline of public trust in the media that has been decades in the making.
Many towns, cities and public officials wouldn’t be so welcoming or open in sharing their opinions with a lowly graduate student with so little to offer them in return. That is why my experience with Falls Church and the people who are working every day to make it a great place to live and raise a family was rewarding. It went a long way in helping me to make the most of my time at Georgetown University and allowed me to understand new demands inside today’s news industry. Most notably, I’m thankful for your support at a time in which standing up for journalism, transparency and accountability couldn’t be more important.