By Ariana Stone
Last week, I finished my first purely political story about a bill proposed by a congressman in my home state. The bill concerns a topic that I am no expert on: labor law. Despite my university’s ambitious ad campaign, I don’t consider myself a “wonk” (I prefer “Renaissance woman”) in much of anything of interest to the “inside the Beltway” crowd. Maybe some day, but right now I have a lot of knowledge and experience to amass. However, I did learn (or re-learn) quite a bit while working on this piece.
1. Know your sources. Learn about what their experience and beliefs say about them and how this expertise can improve or balance your story. Double-check what they tell you against other sources.
2. Get to the important information. People will often give you much more than you need. This is better than the alternative – not having enough to go on – but it’s vital to compose a piece that is clear and on-topic, yet thorough. However, I have a bad habit. Often, I gather too much information. I am left with hours of interviews, feeling completely overwhelmed. I then write a 1,000-word story that will have to be cut anyway.
3. Be prepared. Don’t call anyone for an interview if you’re not ready to talk. I made this mistake. After cold-calling a handful of experts and being turned down by all, I thought I was ahead of the game when I called a professor to introduce myself and my story and set up a later interview. Of course, he was ready right then and there, and I didn’t really have any substantial questions for him. He hung up on me.
4. Don’t infer. When you’re writing, stick to the facts. That means not concluding what you think someone means.
5. ProfNet is your friend. This pointer was completely new to me but also completely helpful. I’ve always wondered how newspapers find their professors and experts on any given topic. This resource can bring certain experts that you would have never thought of to your footsteps. Of course, it is important to examine the credibility of these sources and think hard about what their interest is in talking to you, but in the case of my story, ProfNet was a huge help in finding a source who provided immense insight.
Do any of these sound familiar? I’ve probably formally learned and re-learned each of these lessons a dozen times in my short lived reporting “career.” However, unfortunately for me, I learn by doing and by making mistakes so that means sometimes getting it wrong before I can get it right.