Friday, August 04, 2006

Smoothing Troubled Waters

I start my first prospecting interview with new sources the same way:

"What do you think of our paper's coverage of you/your issue and what stories do you think we've missed?"

The answers have run the gamut from "I think the coverage is accurate and balanced," to "I think your paper has a not-so-hidden agenda to defeat me."

Usually, they fall somewhere in between.

As a reporter new to an area, I know that even a thorough search of the clips only reveals one aspect of the story. It's our job to get as complete a snapshot of a particular issue as we can for the next day's paper. Unfortunately, life doesn't happen in snapshots, so we miss what happened before and after we publish.

That's where these interviews come in. I know I can get facts from the clips, but what I want is the story behind the story, the motivation. I want to know the fall-out and how our coverage impacted the goal my subject was working to achieve. I want to know their side of the story. And the side the paper printed. Then, I'll form my own conclusion.

The tactic is multi-faceted. This is the first time they're meeting me, usually, and I want to get them talking as honestly and as openly as possible. I want them to know that I'm listening and can understand where they're coming from.

I also do my best to read in between the lines and mine their complaints for possible story ideas and fresh angles. I want to see what's the story they think we should have told. I want to hear about the things we missed. And I want to write them.

Then, finally, I've got to let them know that there's a new reporter in town who really couldn't care less about the hangups they had with prior reporters. And that's what I had to explain to the Chief this morning after listening to him crucify my employer for about a half hour.

My newspaper has had a prickly relationship with the local Indian tribe, which has been trying to build a casino in the state for years. To have the Chief tell it, everything we've written has been negative. The paper, he said, has the obvious agenda to get the casino question on the ballot so that it can help defeat it.

"People come up to me with some of the craziest accusations about what we'll do with the money," the Chief said. "When I ask them where they heard this foolishness, the answer's always the same: 'I read it in the paper'."

I smiled. I nodded. I let him vent.

Then it was my turn.

"Thank you for being so candid with me," I said. "But I want you to know that I have no agenda. I have a job. Whether you get your casino or whether you don't, it's news to me. But I have no stock in the outcome either way. I'm here to tell the most complete story that I can. You won't always like everything I write, but it'll be honest and accurate. That's all I'm here to do. Period."

He looked at me, his head slightly tilted as if he was evaluating my gumption. I didn't let my gaze waver from his.

Then, the nod.

"Alright," he said. "That's good to hear. Now what do you want to know."


I smiled and started to rattle off some questions about a new marketing initiative the Tribe recently began. After the interview, I pitched a story about a profile and he agreed to it.

This game of cat and mouse gets easier with each community I'm bounced into. I think it works because for the first time since the subject has begun recieving coverage, they can actually see that someone from the paper cares how they feel. Or at the very least, is willing to listen. Sometimes it doesn't work and no matter what you do, town officials and politicos will hate your guts. But more often than not, at least I think, it makes a difference.

As I rode down the elevator with the Chief, I told him that if I ever wrote something he didn't agree with, call me up and we'd talk about it. He said he would, then invited me to the tribal Pow Wow going on next week. I scribbled the note into my pad and promised to look into it.

Then, with a smile and a firm handshake, we parted ways.

Posted by T Dot at 5:19 PM | link

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Talia likes Chief. Chief likes Talia. They live in harmony.

(insert ancient tribal call here)

You have to be fair with these people. I think you get more stuff out of them if they understand what it is you're trying to do. But no matter how fair you are, you are gonna have a guy like I had one time, tried to follow up with an interview about a story I did. He didn't like the story although I treated him VERY fairly, and he ignored me. He kept walking away.

Posted by Blogger D. Sands @ 11:28 PM, August 04, 2006 #

That's really great advice. I'm going to have to pin that up on my cubicle.

Its good to keep in mind, although it sometimes has unintended consequences (like the time I gave my cellphne number to a guy whose point of view I was despearately trying to get before deadline, just to make sure he could get in touch with me. He used it the day the story ran to call me at 7 a.m. in the morning and scream at the top of his lungs about how biased I was against him because I'd only given him two grafs in the story and how he'd already vomitted into his breakfast because the coverage was "just disgusting.")

Posted by Anonymous The Roam @ 3:37 PM, August 09, 2006 #
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