This is the fifth post in a series about what I think are the five most difficult parts of journalism. My opinions are based on one year at Mizzou in Columbia, Mo., and a summer internship at KCNC-TV in Denver.
Journalism decided to throw me in the fire last semester.
I had to write a story about teen pregnancy in my News (Journalism 2100) class. It’s a challenging and sensitive topic, especially for a 19-year-old male who had never reported before January.
Which takes me to challenge No. 1: sources.
Finding teen mothers who would talk took weeks and weeks of persistence. I called and emailed places all over Columbia — My Life, Planned Parenthood, Lutheran Family Services, Columbia Housing Authority, Rock Bridge High School and Douglass High School, to name a few — looking for someone who wasn’t intimidated by a notebook and voice recorder.
I had to make sure I was being sensitive throughout the search. The story was worth a large percentage of my grade, but that stress doesn’t compare to what many teen parents go through every day. Whenever I became frustrated, I reminded myself of that.
Privacy also made finding a source difficult. I couldn’t simply call Planned Parenthood and ask for the name of a teen mother. Instead, I had to leave my own contact information and ask the receptionists to give their teen-mother clients my name.
Age was yet another a factor. I called or emailed all three of the Columbia high schools, but I was unable to find sources partly because some of the enrolled teen mothers weren’t 18.
When Lutheran Family Services finally called me saying they’d found someone who would talk to me on the record, I felt a weight lift off of my shoulders. My hard work had paid off. The receptionist invited me to a social event where I could likely find teen mothers whom I could interview.
And I did. The source I found was both insightful and informative. She undoubtedly helped me get an A on the story.
I don’t have a lot of journalism experience, but I’ve learned that when it comes to sources, persistence pays off.
However, the challenge isn’t always finding sources. Sometimes it’s just knowing how to act around them.
Another source I used for the teen-mother story started a conversation after I had finished interviewing her. She asked where I was from, and I told her Denver. That led to a short exchange about the Broncos, my favorite NFL team.
This may not sound like anything out of the ordinary, but at the time, I didn’t know how to react. I wasn’t sure if journalists were allowed to tell sources anything about their personal likings. I thought doing so might infringe upon the distance reporters are supposed to maintain from their sources.
My News instructor later told me that small talk is good because it helps journalists build a rapport with their interviewees. So that’s solved. But I can guarantee there will be many more times in my future when I simply don’t know how to act around a source. Maybe someone will try to extract confidential information about the story from me. Perhaps someone will want to know too much about my personal life.
Journalists are human being, yes, but human beings who have to maintain a distance to do their job. Finding a polite way to inform sources of that will be one of my future challenges.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Please leave comments on any of these posts.
Cross posted from Andrew Gibson’s personal blog.
Photo at top taken from WarmSleepy’s Flickr account.