ARTICLE IN PROGRESS – NOT YET COMPLETE BUT STILL A USEFUL RESOURCE
This article is here to help you to find, evaluate, approach and interview credible expert sources.
As discussed in class in Term 1, most stories will need a mixture of ‘human’ and ‘document’ sources. In the human category, there are two main types, let’s call them EXPERTS and REGULAR PEOPLE. Regular people include people directly involved with the story, such as witnesses or those impacted by the issue you are covering. Most (but not every) feature story will need regular people to share their direct experiences and insights as well as experts for bigger picture context and perspectives.
Experts include academics, historians, researchers, scientists, lawyers etc. The expert category also includes government officials, or people from official organizations like WTO or non-profit organizations, such as UNICEF.
In most instances, credible experts like researchers, scientists, government officials or charity workers are regarded as reliable sources of information. However, there are challenges;
- it’s not always easy to gain access to interview certain experts (especially government officials)
- all people and organizations are liable to be right or wrong
- all people and organizations have agendas that can lead to bias
As a student journalist, with no organization or even a byline, it’s not always easy to get an expert to take you seriously and grant you access. In most cases, government officials are extremely inaccessible – but it’s always worth a try. Sometimes local officials have superb insights and will grant an interview. Academics, researchers, scientists, and non-profits are easier – many times they care about the story and want people to know more about the issue or situation and so will happily grant an interview.
Reasons that people won’t give an interview and ways to persuade them
- They don’t want to be filmed: Some experts won’t want to be filmed on camera or even photographed, and many times you won’t really need visuals of your expert. In these cases simply do a spoken interview and use the information they give you for your reporting. It will help with your research and understanding of the story, it may provide facts and sound-bytes for the story or it might lead you to other sources.
- They are busy: Approach them in the right way, often by message or email – let them know you respect their time, ask for just 10 or 15 minutes. They’ll probably give you a little longer on the day. If they don’t ask your most burning question.
- You haven’t approached them in a way that they feel in control: It’s good practice to be very clear about the story you are doing, why you have chosen to reach out to them and the talking points you’d like to discuss send a well-crafted clear and concise email outlining these things. Tell them you can meet them anytime and anywhere at their convenience.
- They represent an organization and are worried about saying the wrong thing: In this case, you could send them a specific question
- They don’t take you seriously as a student: Prove you are serious! Do plenty of research and don’t ask any simple or obvious questions that you could find online. If an expert can tell you have done your homework, really care about the subject matter and are prepared to ask an intelligent question or two they might just find the time. Don’t flatter them too much by telling them how great you think they are actions are stronger than words – they will quickly be able to assess if you have bothered to research the topic and their work. If you haven’t you’ve got a fat chance of an interview.
Finding Expert Sources
Reading other news reports is a good way, see who has been interviewed previously and who might provide you with more story specific, further or more timely information. But don’t always rely on the same old sources and NEVER replicate someone else’s reorting using identical sources – that’s just copying and not ok! You should be doing your own original angle and reporting or advancing the story in some way. You can also scour google or Baidu scholar for experts in the field.
Here are some resources to help you. Take a good look through. Many are rather US-centric, but could still be very useful. You could also try to reach out to some leading international experts and politely ask them if they know more local or specialized researchers?
- 5 online databases for journalists to find new sources
- Possible sources via The Investigative Journalists Manual
The City University of New York has a great and very comprehensive Finding Experts Guide
Evaluating News Sources via The University of Texas gives some good tips for evaluating interviewees once you have found some potentials.
Interviewing Expert Sources:
Check out this article: Interviewing a source via Journalists Resource. It has some great advice for interviewing sources of all kinds and it has some specific advice for interviewing Academics and experts and Public officials and newsmakers. It makes the point that these interviews need ‘extra homework’. Many times journalists seek out Academics and experts simply to get an obligatory quote. That’s not good enough. Here are some of their best tips: (But you’ll need to read the whole article).
“Don’t waste someone’s time with factual questions that you should really know yourself. An example of a sub-par question would be asking a political scientist: “How many electoral votes does our state have?” An example of a good question might be: “What factors might influence the vote in our state?” That doesn’t mean you can’t ask simple, direct questions; just ensure they aren’t things you could learn on your own perfectly easily.”
“Remember that many experts can be skeptical of journalists because of the media’s general tendency to oversimplify. Show them you know the subject matter and care enough to read in depth. By doing so, you may earn a trusted source who can help you in the future. You will almost certainly get better answers and fresh angles for further stories.”
The article also has some good tips for interviewing Public officials:
“Come to the interview with a sense of his or her agenda. Is the person simply a good public servant? Running for higher office? Wants to clear the record on some specific point? Good interviews with public officials are directed but conversational.”
“Above all, educate yourself so that you do not walk into an interview unaware of some previous controversial public issue or high-profile accomplishment or failure that serves as important context.”
How journalists can become better interviewers via Poynter has some specific advice for interviewing experts.