Tag Archives: reporting

Journos: Stop the flaky questions

The same week I gave the “Art of Intverviewing” lecture to the first quarter graduate students here at The Medill School at Northwestern University, a few working journalists conducted some bad interviews.

The attempt by the Australian journalist to tell the Dalai Lama a Dalai Lama joke fell flatter than the pizza with everything. Which brings me back to my lecture on interviewing: Be professional. Be respectful. It’s your reputation and your byline.

I don’t imagine interviewing the Pope with “The pope, a rabbi and a monk walk into a bar…”

Which brings me to Chris Wallace on Fox News asking Michele Bachman if she is a flake.

Let me be clear, I am not a Fox fan or a Michele Bachman fan. But as a journalist doing the interview, your bias should not be so transparent. It was arrogant of Wallace to put her down and make her defensive. My instinct is there is gender bias at play here; I do not recall anyone asking Jesse Ventura during a running for office interview if he was a flake. Or the same for H.Ross Perot. Ventura could have body slammed the interviewer. Perot could have bought him to death.

Which brings me back to the interviewing lecture. Sources beget sources. Show a sincere wish to get it right.

Under the heading, “Don’t fall in love with your subject,” I also advise students to remain objective. The flip side is also true. “Don’t be a hater.”

I have interviewed people who make me uncomfortable, I have interviewed people I disagree with personally, but I still hold to the adage: “It matters how you ask and what you ask.”

I tell students to consider how you phrase the question. Consider the order of the question. Consider the sensivity. Consider the tone and the way you speak. Consider your body language.

Toward the end of the lecture, I ask them to above all respect the source and the information. You need the information. You need the story. You need to be accurate. The reader needs to trust you will get it right every time.

I remind students there is no such thing as a dumb question. I say that because it is worse to have a correction in a publication or broadcast than to risk the subject thinking you are a little dense. Be sure you understand before you walk away. Make sure you understand your notes. Underline difficult concepts for follow-up questions. Believe that a good question yields a good answer.

After seeing these two professional interviewing failures, I will revise the prespcription that there is no such as a dumb question. Yes, there is. You can tell the Dalai Lama a Dalai Lama joke. And you can call a candidate for president a flake.

I am cutting this post short. I have an interview in a half-hour, a profile for a new book I am writing. And I need to follow my own first rule of interviewing: Be prepared.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Features, Media, News, Newspapers, Uncategorized

Everything Matters as A Journalist and Why

I gave my last lecture of the quarter to nearly 70 freshmen at the Medill School of Journalism this week, in the basic fundamentals class, Reporting & Writing. I have been teaching this course in some iteration since 2001. It is never dull.

 “Everything Matters,” is a bookend to the first lecture, “Assume Nothing.” I like symmetry. The  Five W’s and one H apply to a journalist’s career. And here is the gist of the lecture. Minus the tuition.

  • Who. The strongest piece of this puzzle is who you are as a journalist. As you choose your platforms for success, consider that an agile journalist is a marketable journalist. The future is about diversification of skills. Also, remember to carefully select who you choose to be your mentor, whether it is an instructor, author, columnist, reporter or peer. This is one of a few professions I know where your success is about not based on who you know, but how you do. And who you are. Stop thinking you will inherit the opportunity to win the Pulitzer. My family is in the starter drive business. Not a lot of journalism cross-over.

            “You don’t write because you want to say something,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote.    “You write because you have something to say.” That is a reminder to remember the audience, an important “who” in your work. What they want and what they need from you will help you decide how you will reach them, what is best for your content and what is best for the reaction you intend.

       Your sources are another key “who.” Remember to be inclusive and expansive. Consider diversity of voice in every story you write, regardless of whether that diversity is transparent. Strive for a chorus of different voices. And fact-check to save the integrity of the people you quote and to preserve the dignity of your own byline. 

  • What.   The value of your content is determined by the text, visuals, sounds. Is your content fair, balanced and accurate? Is it orginal and creative? Is it ethical? Is this your best work. This is a tough question. You strive for every article, post, book or project to be a reflection of your best effort. Sometimes we fall short. But the goal is to aim for excellence every time.

          That means moving your content beyond formula to excellence, by showing enterprise in your reporting. Consider the writing as music with cadence, beats and melody. Even storytelling across platforms must be based on a solid idea. Consider what author Ansen Dibell does: “What you need to ask yourself about any story idea is whether it’s something too personal, something that’s very important to you, but would justifiably bore a stranger sitting next to you on a cross-country bus.”

    But here is where your precision as a writer, your mastery of eloquent prose comes in to play. Know that the craft matters. Author and narrative journalist Tracy Kidder said, “You can write about anything and if you write well enough, even the reader with no intrinsic interest in the subject will become involved. ” 

  •  Where. Do you get your information passively?  Wait for the press release, sit in the back at the press conference, answer the phone? No, you report with your feet. You gather sources and background from a multitude of online sources and social media, but you go out and observe. You talk to people face to face. You learn by being there. Remember that as a journalist, you are a witness. Roman Milisic wrote: “We are not all celebrities, we are not all supertalented, but in one way or another, we are all witnesses. Reality defines our vision of the world. And what we have seen, we must tell others. “

       Remember that where your content arrives matters. The where — ink on paper, sound, video, text on mobile or screen– influences how the user takes your story and ingests the information, interacts with it and passes it on. When creating the journalism, remember where it arrives affects the impact.

  • When. Perhaps the most difficult first lesson in this course is meeting the deadline. Timing matters. When you meet the deadline. When your story arrives. The newsworthiness is determined by the timeliness. Is your story fresh? Is your story first? And does your audience need it now? But first is not best if it is not the whole story. If it is wrong. Or if it could be better if you spent more time, did more digging, polishing, or all of the above.

     Your worth as a journalist hinges upon your understanding of timing. Are you able to stay ahead of trends? React quickly? Assess the news value of any event or interview? True, every kind of story has been written before. But not by you. “Be yourself. The world worships the original,” Jean Cocteau wrote.

  • How.  Yes, it matters how you behave to sources, editors, peers and the audience. Be humble. Ask for clarification. How you report, how you write and how you deliver the content determine your value as a journalist. All great journalists internalize a solid code of ethics. Understand that the how is as critial as the who, what, where, when and why. Because your reputation outlives your content.

     How you improve your content is by asking for clarification when you don’t understand. Re-report. Add more layers. Rewrite. Work in layers. Write in layers. Revise. Let the content breathe, take stuff out. Put more stuff in. Janet Bukovinsky wrote: “Ask anyone who makes a living with words: Writing is hard work. To be a writer is not nearly as significant an achievement as is the act of having written something fine and eloquently.”

     How you are received matters. How well you do your job and how you are noticed are significant factors. How much passion you have for your work  matters. Is this more than a profession for you? It is for me. Try to find the magic in the work. Toni Morrison wrote,  “If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic.”

  •      Why.  Ask yourself why you are doing this story. Understand why your sources want to be included–or not. Know why your audience wants the story. Find the answer if you don’t have one immediately. But never forget to ask yourself, “Why are you here?” Dare to be good at what you do. Believe that your work matters and that everything you do as a journalist matters. There are no secrets you can keep as a journalist. Your professional life is transparent and avaliable for anyone to discover.

       Resist compacenecy. Erica Jong wrote, “The trouble is if you don’t risk anything you risk even more.” Take a risk writing a new kind of story. Take a risk by finding new sources and trying new avenues of storytelling. Experiment with audio, video, photo and graphics. Improve who you are and how you work as a journalist. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wrote,” Once you express yourself, you can tell the world what you want from it. Then you can change the world.” Your journalism matters. Your journalism can change the world. A small piece of it, or the whole darn thing.

     I will say it again, everything matters.  

   But most importantly, remember that journalism and this course are each like a long road trip. You can spend your time looking at the lint in the car seat and worrying about how much gas will cost at the next station 100 miles away. You can also spend your energy complaining about AP Style and grammar quizzes, current events or the speech story assignment. You can keep yourself panicked about points and grades.

      Or you can look out the window. Realize how far you have come. And enjoy the view.  

    

Leave a comment

Filed under Features, Media, News, Newspapers, Uncategorized

Women Journalists Making Sense Not Noise Across the Border

     

    In an amazing panel moderated by Teresa Puente of Columbia College, Chicago, four young women journalists covering the U.S./Mexico border revealed the dangers, tragedies and critical importance of telling the stories of the chaos at the border. They spoke at the Journalism & Women Symposium in Boerne, Texas last weekend. 

      “How many people need to die so some people at a party can have a gram of cocaine?” asked Judith Torrea, a Spanish-born journalist and blogger. Torrea documents stories out of Juarez, Mexico  about the drug deaths, cartels and daily violence in the violence-torn city for television, magazines and newspapers in the U.S., Mexico and Europe. 

     “We are journalists and we are women and if you have the power, you need to start reporting,” Torrea said.  “Get people to think that if they consume marijuana, how many people have to die for that?”

        Angela Kocherga, Mexico City bureau cheif for Belo Corp., talked about the  urgency of covering “the most violent time in Mexico history.” Access to information in Mexico, where the press is censored, is difficult. “People have to look at Facebook and Twitter to see the crimes. ” She added, “There are not a lot of U.S. journalists doing this coverage.” 

     Monica Ortiz Uribe, a freelance radio reporter said she has a passion to report the underreported stories, particularly the new round of disappearances of young girls from the streets of Juarez. Last week a young woman was taken from a bus and has disappeared, some say as a victim of sex trafficking, and others fear she has been murdered. The stark, desolated city is dangerous because of the safety threats to everyone who lives there, she said.

     “There are daily deaths,” she said.  

      A native of Mexico, Adriana Gomez Lion is a staff reporter at the El Paso Times, where she says her coverage sparks comments from readers that range from congratulatory to incendiary, racist and shocking.  

    All of these women are committing journalism that is crucial to know not just near the border, but around the globe. Whenever anyone harangues about the death of invetsigative, important journalism and the preponderance of dumbed-down, celebrity muck, I will speak of these women journalists who make sense, not noise.

     It was an eye-opener to remind me, and all of us, just what the point is as journalists. Tell the astounding stories the world needs to know. And be courageous enough to do so.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Fired Up Over Firing

     Early Saturday morning, in the wake of the Juan Williams/ NPR scandal, at the annual Journalism & Women Symposium camp, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard stepped up to the plate and the podium for an unrehearsed discussion of the case.

         “I don’t believe in off the record,” Shepard said. “The mike is never off.” Shepard went on to explain that she is independent of NPR as the ombudsman. “I am not speaking for NPR.”

     Putting the controversy into context, Shepard said, “No one is let go on just one action.” She added, “This is about a relationship between a news analyst and a network. You cannot say something on another venue that you would not say on NPR.”

    Williams was fired from NPR for comments he made on Fox to Bill O’Reilly. Blogs and media are percolating with opinion both measured and absurd about what was done, what should have been done, what was said and what should not have been said.

     I’m with Shepard here, who for the record and to give context,  is a friend.

    “Context is an important element in journalism,” she said Saturday at the impromptu JAWS discussion.

    I agree. And it’s what I try to teach my students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. And what I do in all my stories. So let’s not violate that missive oursleves.

   Oh, and for the record? The only people who made me nervous on my flight from San Antonio to Dallas, with a brief lapse before connection to Chicago, were the ones who took too much time retrieving their overhead luggage. I had a few minutes to get from Concourse D to Concourse A, a long way to run and a lot on my mind.

1 Comment

Filed under Features, Media, News, Newspapers

Can Anyone Hear Us? Women Media Sources and Experts Need to Speak Louder

Full disclosure here, Alicia Shepard is a friend of mine. That is not critical to the story. But I need to say it.

She is the ombudsman (not ombudswoman) at National Public Radio and she wrote a brilliant, however unsettling piece last week on the dearth of female sources on NPR on her NPR blog.  

http://www.npr.org/ombudsman/

This is what she and her staff found:  

My office researched the number of female commentators who appear on air regularly, along with the number of females who are interviewed or quoted in stories on ME, ATC and the weekend counterparts.

The news is not encouraging, though NPR is trying to do something about it.

Admittedly, the relative lack of female voices reflects the broader world. The fact remains that even in the fifth decade after the feminist revolution; men are still largely in charge in government at all levels, in corporations and nearly all other aspects of society. That means, by default, there are going to be more male than female news sources.

To cut to the chase? The green bars are the female sources. The gold are the men.  

But this much? You would think from this graphic that women don’t have a lot to say as sources or commentators.  That they don’t answer the phone or emails when reporters cast the net or that they are not listed somewhere as an expert, they don’t have a Web presence or they are just not well-known.

But that inequity reflects the reporter or producer’s choice, not the lack of female expertise in the world. It reflects a comfort zone, a status quo, a settling for what is easy to do, not what is more fair, more ethical or just plain right. It is something all journalists in all platforms can do better.

As you can see, Weekend Edition comes close to parity. Are women more available to talk then?

I tell my students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University that inclusiveness is required in good journalism. When we think of diversity of sources, the notion is not limited to race, ethnicity or gender. It is also about age, socioeconomic status, ability, geography, ideology, education, religion, sexual orientation, everything. 

Why bother trying to find sources that reflect the diversity of society? Because it makes the journalism better. Because, as I wrote in my last book, “Everyman News,” diversity of thought changes content. Just by asking the same question of a different type of source, you will yield different responses and ultimately deeper content.  

In her new book, “Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work is Done” (Times Books), Susan Douglas, a communications professor at the University of Michigan , writes that the myth of the all-powerful woman may be more of a hinderance than an inspiration. It may massage us into complacency thinking just because Oprah rules the airwaves, and Cyndi Lauper is having fun in Donald Trump’s boardroom, all is fair in gender terms.

But no. I agree with Douglas. It’s not time to pronounce victory and say we achieved the goal. It’s time to keep trying to make room for other voices. We can start with female voices and work from there.

Driving to work this morning I smiled when I heard the voice of Christine Brennan, USA Today sports columnist and author on NPR. She was commenting on the University of Connecticut Huskies women’s basketball team winning the NCAA title over Stanford University. And full disclosure here, Christine is also a friend of mine, a fellow NU alum. She is an expert, great journalist and the right source on that story.  She should be heard.

According to Lisa on her NPR blog:

When listeners don’t hear women as sources and commentators on the air, they can get the impression that women aren’t smart, aren’t experts and aren’t authoritative.

That’s just not true.

I agree. As the other half of the commenting world, we need to speak louder. As journalists and authors we need to report more fully and be more inclusive in the sourcing of our work.  It’s only fair. It’s time we all were heard. And seen. And read.    

2 Comments

Filed under Features, Media, News, Uncategorized

Wake up! It’s Transformation Time!!!

Students in Caryn Brooks’ and my Journalism Methods class

Driving to work last week, where I teach graduate and undergraduate students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, a news story perked me up a bit.

ABC News President David Westin announced Tuesday what he is calling a ‘fundamental transformation’ of his network’s news division that will slash the payroll and re-engineer the way ABC produces news in the digital age. The network is seeking to shed several hundred jobs in the news division, or up to a quarter of the 1,400-person workforce.”

No, I do not have a ghoulish view of someone else’s unemployment. I am sorry 25 percent of ABC journalists are getting fired. But, it has long been the time for all of old media from newspapers to  broadast companies to change tactics. David Folkenflick of NPR goes on to write:

“But Westin says he finds hope in the same nimble approach that helped to ensure the survival of Nightline by keeping costs in check and enabling ABC journalists to get to stories more quickly.

“Much of the work that we do on Nightline today is shot by reporters and producers and edited by them and transmitted by the Internet by the field by them,” Westin said. “Anyone watching Nightline would never think, ‘Oh, they’re gathering their news differently or producing it differently.'”

This should not be news to a news organization. At least not in this century. Since 2003 in some classes and since 2006 in all classes, we have been teaching cross-platform multimedia vigorously across the curriculum, from freshmen clear up to the grad students. Anyone who follows the listserv or local blogs knows just how much grief we as a faculty and school  have endured because of that key move. We were damned for abandoning solid, investigative journalism, becoming button pushers. Criticism was fast and fierce and relentless: It’s nothing  but technology and software you teach. Stick to the old way. The old way was best. Who needs to know Soundslides? Why care about Premiere Elements as an investigative reporter? Where is the journalism? The journalism is in it all.

The reality is to stay alive, a journalism organization has to be nimble. And journalists moreso. That translates to the necessity for reporters to be equipped with a toolkit of marketable skills, all upheld by strong journalism traditions steeped in ethics, accuracy and transparency.

In the first year at Medill, students learn the fundamentals of news judgment, interviewing, sourcing, writing, fact-checking, database reporting, design, photography, audio and video storytelling and a splash of Flash. They end up producing audio and video stories that stand alone,  audio slideshows, as well as strong short and longer form text stories complemented by a barrage of relevant alternative story styles. What that means is they are employable.

To have considered journalism as a sacrosanct estate immune from the consequences of the economy was myopic, archaic and arrogant. And to resist the possibility that any journalist should be able to perform on at least two or more platforms with proficiency– if not mastery– is professional suicide.

I have the pleasure of teaching 15 marvelous grad students this quarter. Those are their smiling faces above.  They are smart, they are engaged and three days a week they are reporting and producing stories on specific beats in the community–from text to audio and video, slideshows and graphics. They will find jobs, they will produce journalism and they will hopefully not complain. 

On a recent American flight, I flipped through American Way magazine and read Carlton Stower’s February 2010 column, “Read All About It” concerning his take on the death of newspapers.  He wrote:

“That printed paper you folded into your briefcase and carried on the plane with you is a tried old dinosaur sadly limping away to its  dying place. All to which I say, “Balderdash!'”

OK, so I have not ever used balderdash in a a sentence, written or spoken, but I agree. It is the content that is important and an audience will arrive if the content is valuable. That means solid reporting and vetted, authentic good journalism  readers cannot get somewhere else faster. Good writing, insightful reporting, fresh ideas played out in a variety of formats. What we teach.    

The ABC story reminded me of a Christian Science Monitor column last May, “Why Journalists Deserve Low Pay,” by Robert C. Picard that initially made me angry at the headline, but then made me agree.  Picard wrote:  

“Journalists like to think of their work in moral or even sacred terms. With each new layoff or paper closing, they tell themselves that no business model could adequately compensate the holy work of enriching democratic society, speaking truth to power, and comforting the afflicted.”

Picard continues: “If value is to be created, journalists cannot continue to report merely in the traditional ways or merely re-report the news that has appeared elsewhere. They must add something novel that creates value. They will have to start providing information and knowledge that is not readily available elsewhere, in forms that are not available elsewhere, or in forms that are more useable and relevant to the audiences.”

They will have to transform. Before it is too late. Our students have until graduation. They will be fine.

1 Comment

Filed under Features, Media, News, Newspapers