“Learn how to bullshit” (and other great tips to becoming better at journalism)

I often tell students that I don’t know everything (big surprise) but if I don’t know something, I’ll tell the students I don’t know it and then I’ll go ask people who do. This includes fact-based things such as what the GNP of Peru is in a given year and experience-based items such as how to get a difficult interview subject to loosen up.

This week, I asked a group of experienced journalists what they saw as the most important skills young journalists could pick up that go beyond what you read in a textbook (farther vs. further, how many words to put in a lead etc.). In reading through the answers, here are the themes that emerged:

  • Break out of your comfort zone: People often fail to differentiate among not liking something, not being able to do something and being uncomfortable doing something. I don’t like eating broccoli, but I am able to do it. It doesn’t make me uncomfortable, unless I’m eating it at a friend’s house and his wife or mother says, “So how do you like the broccoli?” and I am forced to lie: “It’s great!”
    I am unable to dunk a basketball. I would like to do it and it would not make me uncomfortable if I could do it. I just physically can’t propel my 5-foot-9, middle-age frame up to the edge of the rim and throw down.
    The point is that in most cases, we don’t like doing something because it makes us uncomfortable, so we say we can’t do it. The truth is, especially in journalism, the more you break out of your comfort zone, the more you will be able to do something because you will experience less discomfort in doing it. Or as one journalist recalled about a summer internship experience:

    I was asked if there was anything I didn’t like to do. I said man-on-the-street stuff. Guess what I did all summer long? It wasn’t punishment, it was a way to get over the bad habit of only talking to people who were paid to talk to me. So many young journos are afraid to cold-call or just go up to someone, and you just have to do it until it doesn’t suck as much or you stop caring about someone saying no or thinking you’re stupid.

  • Learn by doing: Even things you don’t mind doing aren’t always easy, but they become more natural if you practice them over and over again. This is a lot like playing a sport or a musical instrument: It’s easy for people to marvel at the end result when that’s all they see, but a ton of behind-the-scenes work went into making the performance incredible. Michael Jordan and LeBron James didn’t wake up at age 22 and become incredible basketball players just because they felt like it. Pavarotti didn’t nail every note in La boheme the first time he tried it.
    One of the biggest problems in media writing is that most people feel they’ve been writing their whole lives. They HAVE practiced repeatedly at this craft, so it becomes incredibly frustrating when this writing doesn’t come out as easily or flawlessly as the other writing they have done. The main problem with that is in the underlying assumption that all writing is the same. It’s not. This kind of writing requires different skills and alternative approaches, so it forces you to zig instead of zag. To draw from an earlier example, Michael Jordan was the best basketball player in the world in the early 1990s, but found that all those skills didn’t make him the best baseball player in the world.
    You need to practice on the field of your sport, so to speak. Or as a journalist with international experience put it:

    At the risk of making an overly obvious point, I’d recommend just writing as much as possible. Take the Ichiro-in-batting-practice approach and do as much work as you possibly can. I work with a fair number of young, recent grad writers, and I’m always amazed at the gulf between the ones who put in a lot of hours with their student paper and the ones who didn’t. The former are just so much sharper. With them, I’m working with a journalist, not someone who has written a bit and is trying to become a journalist.

  • Employ empathy: Either because we’ve all watched way too much TV or because we’re scared to death of doing interviews, the “helicopter” approach to interacting with sources can become our resting pulse. We want to fly over to a source, get in, get what we need and get out of there as fast as possible. A lot of this can be overcome with practice, as others mentioned earlier. However, it’s not just that practice makes perfect (or close to it), but perfect practice makes perfect. In other words, if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it right.
    This is where the issue of empathy comes in. If you see the person you are about to interview as basically a jar full of answers you need to open up and dig into, you’re going to have a lousy experience with the source. Instead, if you treat that person with dignity, respect and interest, you start to see the human being behind the story you need to tell. In turn, the source will start to see you as a human being as well, instead of a mosquito that is nothing more than a blood-sucking pest. As one sports journalist put it:

    When I first started, my trepidation in building sources is I didn’t know how to start the conversation. I can’t just walk up to an “off-limit source” I’ve never spoken to and expect them to answer a hard-hitting question. Start with what they did on summer vacation. Or if they have any plans for their upcoming down time… It breaks the ice and gets the source comfortable, because now they’re talking to a person, not a reporter. Wish I knew that when I first started.

    Or put more succinctly:

    Learn how to bullshit. Practice it.

Not every tip here will work in every situation and  you will likely find your own way through various experiences in the field. Some sources just want you to cut to the chase. Others will never like you no matter how much you effort you put into cultivating them and working with them. In some cases, no matter how much you practice, you will never come to like or enjoy certain aspects of the job. It’s all part of learning and developing skills.

Speaking of skill development, here’s something to consider from a journalist who has worked in print, web, blogs, PR and marketing. I didn’t know where to put, but I just couldn’t leave it out, so I guess I’ll end with it:

Learn to read upside down. Can’t tell you how many times that comes in handy.

It never hurts to ask (Or how a high school kid scored an interview with the Secretary of Defense)

One of my dad’s favorite sayings when I was a kid was, “Just ask. If you don’t ask, you’ll never get what you want. The worst anyone can do is say, ‘No.'” Some times an ask would get you a free refill at a restaurant or a couple bucks off of a price at a rummage sale.

For Teddy Fischer, a high school student at Seattle-area high school, the “ask” got him an interview with James Mattis, the United States secretary of defense:

In May, Fischer, who will be a junior at the Seattle-area high school in the fall, came across a Washington Post article about President’s Trump’s longtime bodyguard. The photo showed Trump’s bodyguard walking with a stack of papers, and on a yellow piece of paper was Mattis’s cell phone number.

Fischer called the number. No one responded, and Fischer didn’t leave a message.

So he texted Mattis instead, stating who he was, that he was from Mattis’s home state, Washington, and that he was writing an article on US foreign policy. (Fischer wasn’t — at the time.)

Fischer saved the number in his phone as “Jim M.” A week later, while in his journalism class, Fischer looked down at his phone to see “Jim M’ calling.

The 45-minute phone call led to a 6,000-word article with a man who generally shuns the media spotlight and avoids spending copious amounts of time with reporters. You can read the article here and a full transcript of the interview here.

Asking for an interview is one thing students repeatedly tell me they fear more than anything. I get it. As a reporter, I often would dial six digits of a phone number and then pause before hitting that final button. I tended to have to buck myself up before I approached a source in person or tried to nose into a conversation to pry away some one-on-one time with a potential interviewee. The thing students say to me most is what I have said in my own head as I gritted my teeth in advance of an interview: “That person is not going to want to talk to me.”

That might be true, but you shouldn’t take that opportunity off the table because you are afraid the person will reject you. Consider this:

Near the end of the interview, Fischer asked Mattis why he called him back, out of all the people who want to talk to him.

“You left a message there and I was going through listening to the messages and deleting them,” Mattis said. “But you’re from Washington state. I grew up in Washington state on the other side of the mountains there on the Columbia River. I just thought I’d give you a call.”

In other words, it never hurts to ask.

 

Sources: Sources say that sources say stuff

Sources

I grabbed the following screen caption from the top headlines of ESPN.com a few days back. The use of “Source” or “Report” was present in five of the six headlines. The stories to which these heads linked used similar attributions, such as “sources said” or “according to sources.”

The whole point of sources and attributing information to those sources is to help your readers understand who is telling the reporters this information. This allows the reporter to showcase the value of the source in the story and allows the readers to determine how much credence they want to lend to this source. When all you get is “according to a source…,” you lose both aspects of that. Consider this quote:

“ObamaCare is imploding. It is a disaster and 2017 will be the worst year yet, by far.”

If you don’t have an attribution on this, or if you have “a political source said,” you have no way of knowing how big of a deal this is. An attribution makes all the difference. If this were attributed to House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican who has often attacked the plan, people can think about this one way. However, if it turned out that these words were spoken last week by Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president and a Democrat, this quote takes on an entirely different meaning. (It’s actually a tweet from Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.)

In the case of sports journalism, reporters often have to trade in anonymity to get sources to provide them with inside information. However, the degree to which readers can trust the statements those sources make is limited by this Faustian bargain. It is also unclear from a reader’s perspective if the reporter made strides to get the information from a named source or if going unnamed was the easiest option.

Consider how much value information has and how it might be compromised without a named source before you allow “sources” to “say” things in your work.

The Four-Word Interview

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(The subject of a four-word interview.)

I stopped off to get gas this morning when a man in his 70s approached me.

“What year?” he asked, pointing to the Mustang.

“’68.” I told him.

He nodded. “Nice.” He then got in his truck and drove away.

In the simplest of terms, this was a perfect interview and the whole thing took four words.

In all the reporting and writing classes I have taught, the biggest problem students tell me they have is interviewing. They don’t know what to ask or how to ask it. They feel awkward talking to other people or they get the sense that they’re being pests. They would rather just email people and hope for answers instead of approaching people in public and talking to them. This is why interviewing features prominently in both the Dynamics of Media Writing and the Dynamics of News Reporting & Writing.

Interviewing is a skill and like any skill, you need to practice it to become better at it. That said, it is important to understand that every day, you conduct dozens of interviews, so you are probably better at it than you think you are. You ask your roommates how their day went, you ask the waitress what the special of the day is and you ask your professor, “Will this be on the test?” If you don’t think of these interactions as interviews, it’s because you are overthinking the concept of interviewing.

The purpose of an interview is to ask someone who knows something that you need to know for the information you seek. When you get that information, you do something with it. The guy at the gas station wanted to know one thing: What year Mustang was I driving? He figured the best source was me, the owner of the car. He asked a question that would elicit the answer he sought. He got his information and he moved on.

Interviewing as a journalist can seem much more complicated than that, mainly because you have to do a lot of preparation, you need to troll for quotes and you need to figure out how the answers fit in the broader context of your story. That’s all true, but if you start with the basic premise of “What do I need to know?” your interviews can feel more natural and less forced.