Reporters want to get information correct. Their sources want them to get it right too. But, for a variety of reasons, there sometimes are breakdowns in the information gathering and reporting process that results in error. Here are 10 simple steps you can take to make your reporting stronger immediately.
When you call sources for interviews, introduce yourself (regardless of whether all parties know that your job as a journalist is the only reason you would call), then put the interview request in story context.
For example, “Hi, this is Kenna Griffin from Student Publications. I am calling to schedule an interview with you to discuss the 8.5 percent tuition increase.”
Identifying yourself and putting the story in context helps sources know if they’re the correct person to perform the interview and what information they may need to prepare.
2. Visit them
Reporters should get used to going to sources for interviews. Interviewing sources in their natural environment helps you to gather the types of sensory details that you cannot get otherwise. As I frequently tell my students, it doesn’t make sense to interview the a cattle rancher about his farm while sitting at the local coffee shop. Go to the farm. See how it works.
The importance of visiting sources is even greater on college campuses. Meeting sources for interviews is a great way for students to network. It’s also pretty lazy to do phone interviews with people whose offices are within walking distance of your location.
Always do interviews in person unless the source’s schedule or your deadline absolutely prohibits it.
3. Arrive early
It’s better for you to be early to an interview than to have a source waiting for you. The worst thing that can happen if you’re early is that you have to wait on a source. This gives you time to chat with others in the office and potentially get other story ideas. The best things that can happen if you’re early is that you get extra time with the source or you wrap up your interview early and have more time for writing.
4. Carry multiple writing utensils
Reporters should always have a pen and paper handy. My rule is to have at least two pens with you at all times. If you only have one, Murphy’s Law says it will run out of ink. If you don’t have a pen at all, that’s just embarrassing. A reporter arriving at an interview without means of documentation screams “I’m incompetent” to the source. It’s a terrible way to start an interview.
5. Prepare questions in advance
Avoid going to interviews without jotting down some questions in advance. Of course, you aren’t married to your list of questions, but it helps you feel more confident and prepared, and it keeps you from forgetting to ask key things.
There is no perfect number of questions you should have before an interview. I try to have at least 10 questions for a news interview and at least 15 for a feature interview, but I always ask plenty of follow-up questions that aren’t on my list.
By the way, it’s ok to ignore your question list once you arrive at the interview. If you know what’s on there, just go with the flow of the interview, then look at your questions before you leave to make sure you didn’t forget to ask anything. Many times the process of writing the list results in you remembering what you want to ask.
6. Verify name spelling and title
The first question on your list always should be “Could you please spell your name for me and give me your official title?” Even the simplest names can have multiple spellings (Ex: Jon Dough, John Dough, Jon Doh, etc.). There is no faster way to erode your credibility (or get an automatic F on an assignment in my classes) than to spell a source’s name incorrectly. If you can’t get the name right, how can you be trusted with other information?
I also should warn you here against trusting business cards. If the source hands you a business card for reference, verify that the information on it is correct. Business cards often contain title errors. I’ve had three different sets of business cards with three different titles. My job title has changed only once.
7. Document quotes properly
You want to make sure and document direct quotes during your interview. However, not all information is worthy of directly quoting and sometimes you just don’t write fast enough to get it word-for-word. I have a method for indicating in my notes what is a direct quote verses what I should paraphrase. If I’ve written information down exactly, I put quotes marks at the beginning and end of the information. If I need to paraphrase, I just leave off the ending quote marks. That’s my signal to myself that I didn’t get exactly what the source said.
8. Seek clarification
Be sure to ask follow-up questions during interviews. This is especially important if you don’t understand something a source says. You should never assume that everyone else knows what something means. As soon as you do, your editor will ask you for clarification and you won’t have the answer. Talk about embarrassing! Remember that your job is to spread truth, not ignorance.
9. Ask for more information
The last formal question in every interview should be “Is there anything else you would like to add?”
This gives the source the chance to provide further details, to clarify information or to bring forward information you may not previously have known to ask about. This also is a great time to get story ideas.
You should follow this question by asking the source if it’s ok to call if you need more information. Then, ask the best number to use.
10. Write quickly
Write the story as soon as possible after your interviews are complete. Many times it helps with story flow when the interview still is fresh in your mind.
This is not a comprehensive list of things you can do to improve your reporting, but it’s a great place to start. Implementing these basic strategies will improve your information gathering and accuracy immediately. They also will help you have more professional relationships with your sources.