Veteran journalist Dan Bice (sans horse) talks about death threats, learning to talk to people and being honest with interviewees

BiceMugWhen veteran journalist Dan Bice got his now-infamous “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on” reply from ex-Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, it wasn’t even close to the ugliest response he received over his career in journalism.

“I would say I get a lot of harsh emails and calls from the public, including three death threats,” Bice said in an email Thursday. “Someone posted on Facebook last night that they are hoping I get mugged.”

Bice is well-known in the Milwaukee area as an investigative journalist and columnist who covers all corners of public officials behaving badly as well as odd situations that deserve public scrutiny. He not only covered Clarke’s escapades, but he has looked into the high salary paid to an official running a town of 4,000, concerns regarding a non-profit organization of a possible Democrat challenger for governor and the financial troubles of a conservative website. Bice also wrote about the ethical journalistic issues associated with a journalist having an affair with the city’s police chief while writing a long feature on him.

In this case, Bice managed to raise the ire of Clarke with an email requesting a few basic answers to questions pertaining to his county-funded, around-the-clock security detail being halted after he resigned his post. Bice also asked Clarke for his thoughts on the $225,000 cost associated with it. When Clarke responded with the terse, two-sentence email, Bice did what all good journalists do: He looked before he leaped.

“I did think it was a little stronger than normal,” he said. “But then I wondered if someone else might have written it for him. So I wrote back to try to confirm that Clarke did, in fact, write the response. I didn’t get an immediate reply, so I didn’t include his response in my story. Later, I was told by one of his advisers that the ex-sheriff was expecting a stronger reaction from me to his email. Then I felt comfortable posting it.”

I asked Bice for some of his thoughts about interviewing, specifically how he does it and what tips he could offer students to help them get better at it. Bice, home recovering from pneumonia this week, was nice enough to provide some thoughts on the topic. Of all the things he said, two stuck out to me as crucial for student journalists:

  1. Practice makes you better at this and even a pro like Bice still occasionally gets interview jitters: “Your students need to learn how to talk to people, even about difficult subjects. You get better at this only by actually doing it. I still get nervous before some interviews, but many of the best stories come from learning to manage conflict when talking to sources.”
  2. Email should not be the first option for doing interviews: “Many students and young reporters love to do interviews exclusively by email. I make email my last resort. Far and away, the best quotes from face-to-face interactions followed by phone interviews and texts. Email responses are often lifeless or stilted. Which is how your story will sound.” (Side note: Yes, we both know that not only were we both doing email interviews to get this post rolling, but it was an email to Clarke that got this whole things started in the first place. I acknowledge the irony, but would defend this instance of email, given Bice wasn’t at work, he’s recovering from pneumonia and this interview wasn’t going to be like Jack Bauer interrogating Santa.)

 

Here are some other important thoughts Bice provided:
ON SOME UGLY EXCHANGES HE HAS HAD OVER THE YEARS:

“Public officials are a little more restrained on email. But I’ve had some real rows with prominent officials over the phone or in person over the years. For example, I was very upset with US Rep. Ron Kind for not telling me he was coming to my office to meet with my editors to complain about a column I had written about him. I caught him before he got in his staffer’s car in front of the Journal Sentinel and made sure he couldn’t get in. It allowed us to air our differences. Fortunately, I’m not a shouter, so that keeps things from escalating too much.”

ON HOW HE LEARNED TO DEAL WITH DIFFICULT INTERVIEWEES AND ASK TOUGH QUESTIONS:

 

“I enjoy doorstepping officials who are ducking me. Cary Spivak and I did this routinely when we were writing the column together, and I still do it on major stories in which I think someone is avoiding me. In 2014, I had to talk to a guy who was the focus of a story. I knew he had PTSD and drank heavily. I called two of my friends to let them know I was going to his house at 9 p.m. and that I would check back at 9:20 pm. The interview ended up being tense, but it all worked out. I also visited the run-down apartments run by a prominent local official a few years back. The official had used some vague language suggesting I might encounter some harm from one of his armed guards if I trespassed on his properties. But one of his tenants helped me out, so I was able to skulk around without any problems. Also, I frequently catch candidates while they are out campaigning. That way the responses are unrehearsed and/or not filtered through a bevy of staffers and consultants.

ON BEING HONEST WITH INTERVIEW SUBJECTS:

“I hate it when journalists, even veteran ones, do interviews and dupe individuals into thinking a story won’t be as harsh as it will actually be. We owe it to people to be honest with them. It actually prevents even bigger problems once the story is published. But it’s also the decent thing to do. If you’re doing a series of interviews, I don’t think you should show all your cards at the start. But before a story goes online or in print, the people you’re quoting should have a pretty good idea what’s coming.”

 

“F— you and the horse you rode in on” (Or how to deal with hostile interviews and your fear thereof)

Students often tell me their greatest fear in doing reporting is interviewing people. The idea of asking questions of strangers and approaching people who don’t want to talk to them feels downright terrifying. I often ask students, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Most of them fear a response like the one veteran investigative journalist Dan Bice posted today:

ClarkeFuckYou

Bice notes on Twitter that he had covered Sheriff David Clarke for about 15 years. Over that time, Bice has broken a number of stories that outlined some of the more inane things Clark has done, including instructing his deputies to harass an airline passenger Clarke didn’t like, threatening to “knock out” that passenger and others like himmocking Milwaukee’s mayor for being beaten while trying to break up a fight and bailing on his gig as sheriff to make money on the national conservative political lecture circuit. Bice is both a great journalist and a fair one: He calls his column/investigation work “No Quarter,” likely a reference to his work calling out misdeeds of all types, regardless of the political affiliation of the participants.

(I reached out to Bice to ask him some questions about his experiences with Clarke and interviewing as well as to have him offer some advice to the students who read this blog. My guess is that he’s a bit too busy to get to what must be one of 189,241 requests for comment now that this story is going viral.)

With that in mind, I’ll play the poorer substitute for Bice and use some hivemind answers and suggestions here. Consider these thoughts when it comes to getting over your interview fear:

  • It will rarely be this bad: Clarke has what can charitably be called a “certain way about him” when it comes to the media. Also, threats and bravado are a sizeable part of his vernacular, including the time he said he’d only “reach across the aisle” to Democrats to choke one of them  and the time he accused the county executive of hating him out of “penis envy.”  Worrying that you’re going to have a hostile source ready to suggest you perform some sort of three-way, inter-species carnal act on yourself for asking a few direct and yet fair questions is like worrying a meteor is going to hit you if you go outside. You should usually assume that if you can show an interview subject a modicum of respect and decency, that person will reciprocate.
  • Some interviews will suck: It’s a safe bet that it will be much nicer interviewing the person who won the $758 million powerball jackpot than interviewing a mother whose 8-year-old son just died in a car wreck. Still, journalism isn’t just about the happy stories and you have a job to do. Approach the tougher interviews with caution, honesty and respect whenever possible. Being a jerk doesn’t tend to get you anywhere good. Even when people are angry in situations like that, it’s not so much that they’re angry at you, but rather the situation. Apologize for intruding on their grief if they are bereaved, offer rationale for your questions and provide them with the ability to speak if they want. If they still tell you to go to hell and take a left, back off. If you are confronting someone who has done something illegal or reprehensible (especially if that person is a public figure), don’t feel bad pushing the issue, but also know when it’s time to fold up your tent and go home. Good journalists don’t like to be the story. (I’d imagine Dan Bice is not all that thrilled that people are focusing on this spat as opposed to the guts of the questions he was asking about the costs Clarke accrued for the taxpayers. If he gets back to me, I’ll ask him.)
  • Explain the WHY: Some people feel like if they duck you, they’re better off. That’s rarely the case. It’s a “fight or flight” response. Usually, explaining WHY you want the interview or WHY it’s in the best interest of the person to speak gets you a little wiggle room with the sources. Some people will still be in the “No. NO. NO!” mode, but others will be more open. Explain that you want to tell the story fairly or explain that you have heard XYZ about the issue and you don’t want to be wrong. I once interviewed a woman whose 17-year-old daughter had just died while driving drunk. The first thing she told me is that she didn’t want to talk to me. I made one pass at the WHY issue by explaining that I was writing a story about her daughter and all I knew was what the police report told me. I told the woman I knew that her daughter was probably a heck of a lot more than what was on that formal document, so if she wanted to share anything about the girl, I would listen. The woman talked for about an hour and a half. The WHY helped. In other cases, it might not, but at least you are demonstrating a desire to be fair and honest.
  • Always give thanks: Just because someone else is being difficult, it doesn’t follow that you need to be. It’s always better to be the better person in these situations because you never know when decency might bear fruit for you. Maybe the person calms down and decides to call back and apologize for behaving that way, which might lead to the interview you wanted. Maybe if  you don’t behave well, word gets around and more sources decide it’s not worth it to talk to you. Who knows? It doesn’t cost anything to be polite, so even as the person is yelling “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on,” feel free to say, “OK, thank you so much for your time.”

“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.