Photo courtesy of Jimmy Thompson
By Julie McCann, Field Notes Editor
A reporter confessed to me a few weeks back that despite being three years into his reporting career, he still struggles with a key component of the job: interviewing regular people. He has no problem approaching official sources or experts. But doing streeters, knocking on doors or even cold calling referred sources to ask them questions about their lives is an uncomfortable activity for him.
Not that it should ever be an easy thing to do. But it’s arguably one of the greatest privileges in journalism. The act of meeting a wide range of people we may never naturally encounter, talking with them and asking them questions is an incredible professional—and personal—gift.
Practically speaking, stories would be a drag without them. Scenes and anecdotes featuring real-life people are what keep readers moving through a story. They give context and meaning to news events and they give writers the material needed to craft pieces that sing. And yet, when a reporter is harried and juggling deadlines, an extra human beyond the mandatory official source can seem like an unnecessary luxury. Or when a reporter is new to the field, their talking-to-regular-humans muscles may still be developing. Or, for a new journalism student, the “talking” thing in general—on the phone or in-person—may simply be a less-practised skill.
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There’s no question that wrangling regular people can be tough. You’ve got to find the right one, persuade her to talk with you and be comfortable enough in your own skin to ask questions polite, non-journalists don’t ask. It’s all the harder for an introvert or a newbie. And yet it’s essential work. When I’m delivering a pep talk to a rattled campus reporter, a student on field placement or recently hired grad, here are the six really obvious reasons I share for why you need to keep reaching out to real people.
1. You have permission.
Long has the new journalism student felt the “who am I to approach someone with my questions?” angst. And long have we professors replied, “You’re a reporter. Off you go.” You may have to approach several people before someone agrees to share their story with you. And there’s a reason why so many reporters dread the streeter: rejection is high. But whether you’re approaching would-be sources at the community centre, through acquaintances or using social media, here’s the thing: you’re allowed to do it. You need to be pesky and tenacious, but you’re expected to be this way: it’s your job.
2. You are not a calculating, narrative-feeding anecdote shark. You are an authentically open and curious person.
Make this decision now: you are curious about the person you’re talking with about what they saw, heard or feel. You are open and engaged with the gift they’re giving you: their story. Yes, it will make your piece better. But as your reader is open and curious, too, you’re doing everyone a huge favour.
3. Fear is good.
Talking with someone—initially—may be scary. But consider your inherent assets when it comes to what the person will see in you: your youth or newness at the job may help them see you as non-threatening. Or your age and experience may help them trust you. You might be nervous, but they may be immersed in the feelings of whatever has just happened to them or they may be nervous too. You’re both just people, after all. Remind yourself to be brave, take a deep breath and start talking.
4. Listen deeply: you’ll be a better reporter and a better human.
Reporters are gluttons for learning. When you sit down with a musician on the cusp of fame, a chip truck owner fighting a municipal bylaw or a parent who has donated her dead child’s organs, you are able see, hear and feel an experience you may never know personally. Even more, talking with them grows your empathy and your awareness.
5. But don’t stop talking.
As William Zinsser reminds us in On Writing Well, “interviewing is one of those skills you can only get better at.” So learning and applying tried and true interview techniques are essential. But you don’t need to wait for official interviews to increase your ease, awareness and confidence. Every new person you talk with helps improves your confidence. Chat with people in the grocery store line, on the bus, at the gym. Talk, listen, talk, listen. And repeat.
6. It’s not all about you.
Ideally, your questions can be a gift to your interview subject too. Having a reporter ask thoughtful questions can push a person to unpack an upsetting, frightening or exciting experience. This might, in turn, be useful for them. Sharing their experiences with a stranger who is respectful and engaged with their words can be nice. And, often, like you, they want the public to know their story too.
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