I never know how to respond when readers suggest how journalists should do their jobs. Few have any real idea of what’s involved with good reporting. They want answers to their questions and expect you to get them, and print them, now. If everyone is talking about it they expect a story about it. If there are hard questions to be asked, they expect you to ask them — and get answers. Ask too hard, though, and you come off as cold and callous.
My inclination is to err on the side of compassion when interviewing victims of crimes, fires or other tragedies and go for the jugular when chasing corruption or cover-ups.
Information is both friend and enemy to the reporter. Nothing is worse than knowing something but being unable to prove it. Which is the reason that there are times when “everyone is talking” about something but you won’t read a word in the paper. That’s because before we state in print that someone is a scoundrel, we must be able to prove it in the event that person should sue us — and more importantly, because it’s important to print facts rather than rumors or innuendo. If you were about to be on the receiving end of a story that has the potential to make you look bad, you’d appreciate that.
Sometimes you know something big is going on but just can’t find out anything about it. I’ve been at many the scene of a fire, explosion, murder or worse, and police and firefighters rarely have the time or desire to chat with a reporter. That’s where a reporter’s contacts, built up over time, come into play — people who can at least fill you in on the basics. It’s always easier to get something you already know confirmed than to get someone to freely give out information. They also help you make sense of confusing or seemingly conflicting developments so you can ask knowledgable, authoratitve questions later.
A reporter’s biggest nightmare is to be at the scene of a big story but unable to find anyone willing to share information. That’s where the reporter’s inguenuity comes into play.
One night there was a series of explosions on Campbell Street. It was nearing deadline so I went to the scene in hopes of gathering enough info to at least run a short story . But the explosions were still occurring, so police and fire wouldn’t let me near the scene and wouldn’t say a word about what was going on.
So I drove two blocks away and cut through backyards to come upon the site of the blasts, a garage behind a home where drums of flammable liquid had been stored. I found the fire chief who admonished me for disregarding the danger, then rewarded me for my effort by filling me in with everything he knew.
If I had waited for official reports, I wouldn’t have had a story until the next day.
Another time a young man was killed while making a bank deposit at the Sandusky Mall, in what turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. The shooting happened right before press time and police had no time to discuss details — they themselves were still trying to find out what had happened.
It looked like I was out of luck until I learned police were interviewing witnesses in the banquet room of a nearby hotel. I scampered inside the building and plastered myself against the wall outside the room where the interrogations were taking place.
Although police would tell me nothing, I got a complete account of what had occurred as I heard every word the witnesses related. My story stated that “witnesses told police..” all that I’d learned.
How do you become a good reporter? You can only teach so much. And what is taught in many journalism schools works well until you run into real life and you find out that not everyone is happy to see you coming.
When you’re sent on story assignments in college journalism class, it’s usually to interview someone who is happy to talk to you. In real life, most of the people you talk to wish you’d fall over dead, or the very least, vanish and never reappear.
There is no textbook on prying information from people. Some have to be approached forcefully, head on. Some have to be sweet-talked. Others have to be gotten drunk. A reporter’s real skill comes in knowing which approach to take with each person.Sometimes only public records requests get a response, and often those are met with resistance as well. Too many reporters are willing to let a “no comment” or “that information isn’t available” suffice for answer. Be grateful there are still some willing to go the extra mile to get the answers they deserve, who view a rebuff as an invitation to dig harder. For if those who serve as the public’s watchdog back down at the first sign of a fight, the public has already lost.