Aspiring journalists, stop with the “email interviews”

Whenever I give journalism students assignments that require interviews, it’s inevitable that someone will ask whether email interviews are acceptable. And invariably, my responses are:

  1. In-person, Skype, Google Hangout or telephone interviews are preferable.
  2. A text chat is better than an email exchange.
  3. If email is the only option, call it an exchange, not an interview. An interview requires a conversation.

Aspiring journalists need to practice doing the real thing.

That last point is critical. Interviews are conversations between humans. Read Ken Metzlers’ classic, Creative Interviewing, and you will understand that proficient interviewing requires the development of research, affective and narrative skills that you develop over time and learn to apply under all kinds of constraints.  You don’t develop those skills by sending off canned questions and getting back canned answers.  While interviewing by email feels easier and safer, you need to practice taking the risk of asking people you don’t know to open up and share their knowledge and experiences. It’s uncomfortable, yes. It can be stressful, especially when you are on deadline, yes. But the only way to get good at it is to take the risk.

If you rely on email “interviews” usually won’t yield good content.

The email “interview” is also unlikely to the highest quality content, either. The best moments in interviews often emerge from digressions that don’t occur in an email exchange. Email interviews don’t allow follow-ups in real time. You don’t have the visual or aural that might tell you that your source might have more to say, or that you should proceed gently because you are treading on painful ground.

Besides, depending on who the interview subject is, you can’t be sure that your questions are being answered by a source. How do you know that the politician or executive you queried didn’t just fob your questions off on a PR staffer?

Some email “interviews” are really requests to co-author the piece with you.

If you send a series of questions that require a subject to write paragraphs in response that you then reproduce at length, who’s article is it?

 

 

 

Tip sheet: Writing stories based on data

By Mirkolorenz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Mirkolorenz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
In getting ready for a new semester, I came across this tip sheet from a computer-assisted reporting class I taught a decade ago. Hivemind, what would you add or change to make it relevant to today’s media landscape? One thing I would add would be some tips on automating data collection.

Writing stories based on data: things to remember

1. It’s about the story, not the numbers. The data are just a means of illustrating a point. Make it clear why your data matters.
2. Corollary #1: find your focus and stick to it. It’s likely that during your reporting, you will come across a lot of interesting information that doesn’t fit your story. Lose it. As Faulkner is reported to have said, in writing, “you must kill all of your darlings.”
3. When comparing statistics, make sure the comparisons are valid. This is a problem that often occurs when looking at data over time. For example, some years, the government changed the way it counted unemployment statistics. A longitudinal comparison of unemployment rates would need to take that into account. Another example that we discussed in class concerned the way various states defined “sex crimes” for reporting purposes under Megan’s Law. SAT scores are another well-known example.
4. Corollary to #3: if you are comparing two sets of similar data, make note of differences in sampling methods, error margins or other differences that might reduce the validity of the comparison.
5. Place examples in context – but make sure it’s the right context. For example, let’s say I report that Osama bin Laden’s family has given millions of dollars to Harvard University. (This is true.) I would convey the wrong impression if I didn’t also point out that Osama bin Laden was estranged from his family, which denounced his terrorist activities. In addition, Osama’s brother is a Harvard graduate, which explains part of the relationship between the family and the university.
6. Make sure your data and analyses come from authoritative sources. If an individual who works for an organization makes an assertion about an organization’s history or policies, get written documentation or verification where possible. The employee might be repeating something he or she has heard, and it may or may not be accurate.
7. Corollary: The same thing is true for people who work in highly-specialized fields such as health care or law. When I worked in oncology, one of my jobs was to edit a publication that would provide allied health professionals with accurate, research-based information about cancer, because we were constantly getting calls from people who called us about information they had been given by a nurse or other medical professional that turned out to be inaccurate.

Live blog, NABJ blogging panel

I took these notes at the NABJ convention in Philadelphia in early August. Although I never got a chance to refine them, the notes will be useful for the Social Media class I will be teaching next semester.

Topic: What makes a multimedia blog successful?
Dan Farber -Great content. – the same things that make for great journalism

Neal Scarborough -Before you worry about multimedia as a blogger, decide who you are as a blogger, where your audience is or what they want.

Clay Cane – Find your style, your tone, and what you are passionate writing about. He started with a personal blog and was discovered by BET because he built a strong following. “It really is being your own brand, and selling yourself.”

Sarah Bernard, Deputy Director of Digital Strategy, the White House: Use your blog to cover undeserved stories. Be consistent.

Question: How do you drive traffic?

Clay Cane collects email subscriptions, sends out blasts when he has big news. Example: he posted an interview with Janet Jackson to his site and sent out masse emails. Some major news sites picked it up and linked to him.

Farber: learn about SEO

Moderator Markette Smith: Shows Alexa.com. She is collecting questions via twitter at #nabjbloggingandbeyond. Question: can we attract advertising?

Cane: He got started with Blogads.com. Notes that advertising market has changed.

Scarborough: “Blogging has really opened up.” Bites that Richard Branson has a blog.

Question: Publisher of a niche blog for lawyers wants to know how to make more money.

Moderator Smith tries to go back to how to make money.

More later: running out of power and this room is short on outlets.

The New Wave in Journalism Education

Georgia Tech’s work in computational journalism has yielded a textbook on designing games for news, along with a blog. As Martha Stewart would say, “This is a good thing.”

Update, April 30: I’ve since read the book and I recommend it. It’s not a design manual, rather, it’s a book that seeks to define news games as an expressive form. It situates news games in relation to journalism history and gaming history. In so doing, it offers valuable insights and provocative observations about the esthetics, ethics and social impact of games of this type.

How should journalism educators teach and study social media?

recent blog post by Vadim Lavrusik called upon journalism educators to make social media and online community engagement a stronger part of their curricula:

“[T]here are three components I think that are still largely missing from most journalism curricula today that could help in user engagement: learning the social media tools available for journalists to engage the audience, an understanding of what it means to cultivate community, and lastly a negative stigma to the use of data and analytics.”

The post elicited several favorable comments from journalism students, instructors and practitioners associated with institutions around the country, including a link to this thoughtful advice about how journalism education needs to change. Amen to all of it, I say. Journalists need to know how, when and whether to blog, twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, tag, make and use widgets, link strategically, build and use wikis, craft SEO-friendly content and understand analytics. (Just to be clear, references to Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook have more to do with the need for facility with sites that function in this way, not with fealty to those particular brands.)

However, we need to be more systematic in thinking about how we approach this subject as a matter of teaching, research and practice.  One can learn the basics of using particular blogging and social media tools in a workshop. A college-level exploration of the design, disseminating and evaluation of social media content should not only be about practices, but also about principles. Journalism curricula need to reflect upon and synthesize emerging insights from a range of disciplines that can inform social media practices and standards for communications professionals.

[Read more…]