NEWSGATHERING AND INTERVIEWING VER. 2
Journalists do not write stories based on information they already know. Nor do they write articles based solely on library or Internet research. In fact, the bulk of the information contained in any news story is collected through interviews with people who have some knowledge of the subject. We call this “backgrounding the news.”
If the story is about a house fire, the journalist will interview the fire chief, the person who owns the house and neighbors who saw the fire. If the story is about tuition increases at the University of Maryland, the reporter will interview the campus president or bursar, a member of the state legislative committee that oversees the university, students who will be affected by the increase and maybe a parent who pays for a student to attend the college.
Nowhere in the article will the journalist offer an opinion or perspective, or write information that he or she believes to be “general knowledge.” Instead, the reporter does just what the name suggests: reports.
While reporters familiarize themselves with the topic of their articles by reading other stories on the same topic and books or company-generated press information that might give them a good grounding in the subject, none of that is what’s considered “original research.”
Original research is what the reporter learns that nobody else has written yet–inside information that only a source close to the subject can offer; the perspective of an expert source who has studied the topic for a long time; the educated predictions of an industry observer. This kind of information is available only “from the horse’s mouth,” so to speak. That is, the reporter must ask questions of people with knowledge of the subject and then interject the answers into the story.
It’s rare when a journalist quotes another article or book in a newspaper article. To do so is to admit to the reader that the reporter couldn’t dig up the information firsthand. That’s embarrassing. Always do your own research–and that means doing lots of interviews.
This is where some would-be journalists hop off the train. Lots of people are too timid to call strangers on the phone, walk up to them in the hallway outside of a courtroom or approach them on the street. But that’s what journalists have to do–all day long. They approach strangers and ask them to share lots of information. They ask the strangers to spend time explaining things. They elicit opinions–some of which might be very personal–that will later appear in print for the world to see. For some writers, that’s too invasive. Those writers do not become journalists.
Journalists need guts. They need to develop a thick skin because sometimes those strangers tell the reporters to get lost (or worse!). Some sources do not want to be interviewed. Some don’t want to talk to certain reporters but will grant interviews to others. Some have things to hide and don’t want a reporter on their tails. The journalist, however, cannot take no for an answer. If the source is the only person who can provide a definitive viewpoint or answer, then the journalist must persist in getting that source to talk.
Sounds like journalists are pests. Well … sometimes they have to be. That doesn’t make them very popular with some of their sources. But remember this: The journalist’s job is to inform the public about things that the public has a right to know. That’s a weighty responsibility, and not one that the reporter can shrug off just because a source is trying to dodge him.
BACKGROUNDING THE NEWS
News sources typically include:
Three factors will affect how many sources you need for a story:
To better understand how journalists gather facts, please review this five-minute video on basic reporting tactics from The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward:
The facts of a news story should not be based on information from one source. Every claim of fact should be verified several times and attributed. This helps ensure the information is accurate, one of the ABCs of news writing.
To help you get your facts straight, try this portal to some key fact-checking Web sites that professional journalists use: https://www.journaliststoolbox.org/2018/03/02/urban_legendsfact-checking/
Remember, credibility is our currency.
Interviews are the backbone to this newsgathering. The prerequisite to a good interview is good listening skills. You cannot be thinking about your next question when your source is speaking! To control the interview, you must concentrate on your source:
Listen on one level for facts, on another for good quotes, and on a third level for elaboration and substantiation. You need to be thinking, is the source making a point clearly and supporting it? Do I understand the point? If not, ask the source to repeat, elaborate or define the meaning. When you are listening for meaning, you can direct the interview instead of letting the source control it.
Therefore, always prepare a list of key questions in advance. You will feel and act more confidently when you are approaching strangers for the man-in-the-street interviews, for example, and be able listen more acutely at your meetings.
THE OPEN-ENDED QUESTION
To get responses that are quotable, ask questions that are open ended. Avoid asking anything that could draw a yes/no response.
If you ask someone a question that she can answer with a one-word answer, you’ll get a one-word answer. That won’t do you any good when you sit down to write.
Do you think the government should fund a jobs creation program?
Yes. And because that’s all you asked me, I won’t elaborate.
What should the government change to deal with U.S. joblessness?
Everything. And because that’s all you asked me, that’s all I’m going to say.
These are called “closed-ended questions.” Closed-ended questions can be answered with a yes, a no or a single answer. They don’t ask the source to elaborate or say “why.” And unless you need specific information, they’re not useful questions to ask because they don’t produce answers you can use in your story. They surely don’t produce colorful quotations.
A better question is an “open-ended” question. An open-ended question is one that allows the source to “think out loud.” It invites the source to wax poetic, ramble on, offer perspective, give opinions. Those kinds of responses are the ones that will reap you good material for your story.
What do you think about the debate over funding a new jobs creation program?
What do you think about the proposals from members of Congress to raise taxes and cut government spending in order to stimulate the economy instead of spending more money on a jobs creation program?
What do you think about proposals from members of Congress to cut corporate taxes to stimulate corporate re-investment in business development to stimulate the economy instead of spending more money on a jobs creation program?
These open-ended questions are the type that force sources to answer in paragraphs rather than in single words. From those paragraphs, you will get good quotes, perspective and the right angle for your story.
So as you work on your police story sidebars, your man-in-the-street interviews and your pre-meeting research, skip the yes-or-no questions and the ones that allow sources to get away with giving you one-word answers. Ask your sources open-ended questions, especially at the beginning of the interview.
OTHER TYPES OF QUESTIONS
Journalists use a variety of approaches to obtain as much information as possible before they begin writing. Here are some stock questions:
Basic/to get basic facts:
Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
Explanation/to get reasons behind previous answers:
How would you change the situation?
Explanation/to widen the scope of the interview:
What other options need to be considered?
Explanation/to get new information:
How would you do this?
Justification/to question established ideas:
Why do you believe this?
Justification/to understand the reasoning of the source:
How do you know that?
Can you prove that?
Suggestive/to introduce an idea by someone else:
Could you consider the idea suggested by …?
Suggestive/to bring up a new idea:
What would happen if…?
Choice/to get a definite answer from the source:
Which proposal do you favor?
What do you think of…?
Chronological/to ensure understanding of a process:
What is the next step?
You will need to take copious notes while you are interviewing your sources or sitting at your meeting. You need to write down everything relevant or colorful that was said, word for word. In fact, if you didn’t get it word for word, you can’t use it in your story! You can’t fill in the blanks afterward. You can’t try to remember what the person said. You have to know it and be able to prove it should the source challenge you. The only proof you have is what you’ve written in your notebook.
Make up the fastest shorthand you can develop and still read. Buy a reporter’s notebook at an office supply store–they’re smaller than steno pads and allow for quicker note-taking. Use a tape recorder if you want, but don’t rely on it. Take notes at the same time. I can tell you from painful experience that tape recorders will fail you at the most inconvenient of moments. If you don’t have notes to back up a blank tape, you’ll be in huge trouble come deadline day.
Once you’ve finished your interviews or left your meeting, you will need to whittle those pages and pages of notes into a short, matter-of-fact article:
A word of caution about email interviews
Sometimes, a source will agree to answer your questions only via email. Try to talk her out of that.
While email is a great tool for making initial contact with sources, setting up appointments to meet or call for an interview and even asking follow-up questions, emailing is not an effective way to conduct the interview itself.
WHEN TO USE QUOTES
You can use quotes in three ways:
A person’s words are not subject to a writer’s interpretation. Do not change words in direct quotations, even if the grammar is bad. If the quote is crucial to the story but is not clear, a reporter may alter it in one of the following three ways:
Original quote: “This vase is an older than, much older, version of the one in the museum,” he said.
Paraphrase: He said his vase is an older version of the one in the museum.
Ellipses: “This vase is an older … version of the one in the museum,” he said.
Brackets: “This vase is an older … version of the [Ming vase] in the museum,” he said.
In addition, you should rely on quotations sparingly. They are best used when the source says something so eloquently that it could not be better put by the writer (for example, the Gettysburg Address); when the speaker’s exact wording is what makes the news (for example, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky”); or when the wording reveals something important about the speaker (for example, “Winning is not everything,” Lombardi said. “It’s the only thing.”).
KEY QUOTATION AND ATTRIBUTION RULES
We use direct quotes when
Quotes should be useful, informative and move a story forward. But quotes have to be in context, so there needs to be narrative between them. This is how you avoid “stacking” quotes one after another, too.
What was said generally is more important than who said it. For this reason, we usually place attribution at the end of the sentence. We place attribution after the first sentence of a multi-sentence quote. But if your story contains lots of quotes, vary the attribution structures (within the rules, of course). And whenever you introduce a new speaker in your story, place the attribution before the quote. If you quote a new speaker and fail to put the attribution at the beginning, the reader will assume that the first speaker still is being quoted.
In general, it is better for reporters to paraphrase sources because journalists are professional communicators and the sources are not. A poorly framed statement should be paraphrased, not corrected.
For that matter, ellipses should be used sparingly, such as to indicate when an obscenity, profanity or vulgarity has been removed. Most news outlets consider such words offensive or gratuitous.
Finally, accurate note-taking must be followed by accurate transcription. A paraphrase is a quote summarized in the reporter’s own words. Therefore, it’s no longer an exact replica of what was spoken and can’t be turned back into a direct quote if your notes don’t indicate the words came directly from your source.
The following are some key rules for using quotes:
|Right:||“Read my lips,” President Bush said.|
|Wrong:||“Read my lips”, President Bush said.|
|Right:||Here in the United States, Zeishan Fatima, a Pakistan refugee, grapples with the issues that come with her new lifestyle. “I really feel the absence of an extended family,” she said.|
|Wrong:||Here in the United States, Zeishan Fatima, a Pakistani refugee, grapples with the issues that come with her new lifestyle. “I really feel the absence of an extended family.”|
|Right:||“I love the independence and freedom I find here,” said Delrine Alvis, a 42-year-old immigrant from Sri Lanka. “I love being my own boss. I love living on my own.”|
|Wrong:||“I love the independence and freedom I find here. I love being my own boss. I love living on my own,” said Delrine Alvis, a 42-year-old immigrant from Sri Lanka.|
|Right:||Lorraine Hamilton, 38, said she probably would have divorced her husband even in her native Bangladesh.|
|Wrong:||Lorraine Hamilton, 38, feels she would have divorced her husband even in her native Bangladesh.|
|Right:||University of Maryland officials canceled classes today because of the snow.|
|Wrong:||The University of Maryland canceled classes today because of the snow.|
|Right:||Vice President Al Gore said the Information Superhighway, the worldwide network of computers that includes the Internet, is already larger than he expected it ever would be.|
|Wrong:||Vice President Al Gore said the “Information Superhighway” is already larger than he expected it ever would be. Putting quotation marks around jargon does nothing to explain what it means.|
|Right:||Washington homeowner Ann Meyer said Mayor Marion Barry’s re-election would send her “to look for a house in the suburbs.”|
|Wrong:||When asked what she thought of Mayor Marion Barry’s re-election, Washington resident Ann Meyer told a reporter, “I’m going to look for a house in the suburbs.”|
|Right:||Mary Atwater, who works for a London lawyer, hired the professor to do a freelance job.|
|Wrong:||Mary Atwater hired the professor to do a freelance job.|
|Right:||“This is the hardest class I’ve taken so far,” said Roy Nelson, a sophomore.|
|Wrong:||“This is the hardest class I’ve taken so far,” grimaced Roy Nelson, a sophomore.|
|Right:||Socrates said: “The easiest and noblest way is not to stop the mouths of others, but to improve yourselves.”|
|Right:||“The easiest and noblest way is not to stop the mouths of others, but to improve yourselves,” Socrates said.|
For more guidance on these rules, see Chapter 8 on punctuating quotes and Chapter 9 on attribution in The News Manual. To cement your understanding, complete the Quotes & Attributions Self-test under the link for My Tools > Self Assessments in the classroom.
Information does not need to be attributed to a source if you are a witness or if the information:
When confronted with ethical dilemmas in your pursuing your story, such as when and what to quote, consider the consequences. The general criteria for pushing your way into a story are:
n What is the objective of my story?
n Who will be hurt, and how many?
n Who will be helped, and how many?
n Will my decision to pursue this story contribute to the reason for writing the story?
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