|WORLD Magazine / Telling the Truth / Chapter Four|
|Field Reporting and Interviewing|
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|The sacrifices of John Twyn and others started the process of making the world safe for biblically directed reporting. You should partake of that liberty by being out in the field, not sitting in the office. Many writers like to be thumb suckers, sitting in air-conditioned comfort, worshipping their own muse, and then writing brainy thoughts. The desperate need of Christian publications is for pavement pounders, those who will walk down mean streets to get the specific detail that distinguishes reporting from essay writing.
Hanging around news sites is vital: "You can learn a lot just by watching," Yogi Berra is reported to have said. For example, to write a story about homelessness, you should eat with homeless folks at a shelter; you might do so both as a reporter and dressed as a homeless person. To write about the impact of federal environmental laws on workers in the timber industry, visit the home of a logger who lost his job: "Mrs. Lynch home-schools her children in a modest sky-blue house with a For Sale sign in the small front yard." Wherever you go, sit and listen.
Remember as you do so the importance of biblical direction. The theme of the Bible is, as noted in chapter one, God saves sinners. The overall theme of your reporting should be that there is a God, there is salvation, there are sinners. Bible-based bits of reporting have a theme derived from those great themes. Since we as reporters are fallen sinners, we will often find in the course of reporting that the specific themes we came up with at first are wrong. Nevertheless, every reporting excursion should start with a theme, or thesis, because, as you spend time looking around, you need a sense of what to look at most closely.
You may find that your original theme was wrong, but you should always have onebe prepared to revise itor else the tendency is to dither. With a theme in mind, keep looking for ways to tell a lot with a little. Train yourself to observe and record the details that help to characterize a person, a meeting, and so forth. For example, to give an impression of a conservative congressman who will not give in to liberal, government-expanding political pressure, note that:
Henry Hydes office also has room for the two bulldog bookends of twentieth-century British politics, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, and a portrait of Thomas More, the sixteenth-century English lord chancellor. . . . Hyde has a bust of More as well: "He gave his life for a principle."
When you are thinking of skipping that last interview, keep in mind the sacrifices of those like More and the Puritan journalists; they had different theologies but a similar opposition to totalitarian government, and they got to work early and stayed late. You should get to the site of an interviewee ten minutes ahead of time, and then redeem the minutes by observing; if possible, you should stick around after the main event also. When covering a meeting, you should stay afterward and elicit reactions. (The most important hours for a baseball reporter are not those during a game but those before and after when he talks with players in the clubhouse.)
Some stories can be written well from afar, but being there makes the difference in specificity of detail. For example, a World article about a Virginia Republican convention began by giving a sense of convention, i.e., lots of people crowded together.
Just four elevators were available to hoist Virginia Republican convention delegates 18 floors to the Christian Coalition hospitality suite atop the Richmond Marriott. The night before the 14,000-plus delegates selected Oliver North as their candidate for the U.S. Senate, a mighty throng made the pilgrimage to suite 1809 to drink a glass of punch or a bottle of Miller Sharps nonalcoholic brew and schmooze with like-minded Christian conservatives. Merely to board one of the elevators could take up to 15 minutes; then there was the slow, shoulder-to-shoulder, belly-to-back ride that seemed to stop at every floor. Once the elevator reached the top, delegates and journalists moved like huddled masses to get near one of the doors. In more ways than one, the Christian Coalitions two-room suite was a bulging, big tent.
That opening played on the Coalitions desires for expansion; another bit of specific detail showed the tendency of Virginias Republican Party generally.
Thousands [of Virginians] first became active in the party last year, on the coattails of home-school activist and lieutenant-governor candidate Mike Farris. Evidence that the states GOP understands the needs of the big-family Christian delegates was posted on several of the doors leading to seats at the Richmond Coliseum: Notices read, "Nursing mothers station, 20-U."
Then came interviews with delegates, with visual as well as aural details provided.
Delegate Tom Ruzic of Newport News was one of those who asked hard, issue-related questions. Wearing a home-made sticker that read, "I am the Religious Right," Ruzic explained that North left him unsatisfied. "Nobody gave me a good reason to vote for Oliver North. He was just a great American, a blood-and-guts, kick-butt hero," the Deerpark Baptist Church member said. "But what were the specifics that he was going to do? Nobody ever told me."
Collect, collect, collect. You will want more in your notebook than you can use. Make notes to remind you of sights and sounds. You will find that "writing blocks" almost always occur because you do not have good material. Some people try to write around holes in their research, and some get away with it for a while, but the common denominator of good stories is tenacious research. Writers who do not have adequate material often try to make up for that lack by adding rhetoric; they end up with heat but no light. It is far better for writers to use a computer screen that occasionally flashes this motto: "Sensational Facts, Understated Prose."
You also need to know enough about a story to find a face with which to personify it. Reader interest is highly correlated with the human interest of stories: More people like to read about people than issues. Strong articles allow readers to identify themselves with characters in a story and project themselves into the situations described. For example, it is easy to write a theoretical story about school vouchers, but the question becomes real to otherwise-uninvolved readers when you find a face.
Thelma Hunter watched her granddaughter JKeishas behavior and school work decline. JKeisha, who lives with her grandmother, hadnt had any behavior problems at her suburban kindergarten north of Austin. But when Mrs. Hunter and JKeisha moved to the poor east side of Austin, they found her first grade to be a different story. "It was really bad," Mrs. Hunter says. "Kids were fighting. She saw a kid beat unconscious there, and no one stopped it. And JKeishas behavior was not real good there." She knew she had to get her granddaughter out.
You need to search for material with strong narrative and descriptive opportunities. Good narrative demands characters plus action: words and sentences have to show movement, and readers need to see action. Talking heads are deadly, and lack of characterization also cramps stories. As William Randolph Hearst accurately pointed out, "People are interested in the fundamentalslove, romance, adventure, tragedy, mystery." You will need to practice journalistic fundamentalism, and that means describing briefly the characters introduced into a story: Physical and occupational characteristics are easy, mannerisms and ways of thinking are better.
Figure 8 suggests a good positioning.
Introducing character and action at the right pace is an art. Like the good storyteller who does not list the plot details at the beginning of his story, you should not recite facts without drama. You should introduce characters who are forced to confront problems in realistic ways, and do so at a pace that places readers on a slope with a gradual ascent. For example, this first paragraph introduced one side in a culture war.
There is a Petri dish down in the warm, close-to-the-earth culture of south Mississippi. It is called Ovett, population 300. For more than one hundred years, Ovett citizens have lived in a largely Christ-influenced culture. It has had its problems, but none the prevailing ethic hasnt appropriately spoken to. Many residents are from the "free state of Jones," a name given the county after many of its citizens refused to fight for either side in the Civil War.
The second paragraph introduced the other set of characters, and the story was off and running.
About seven months ago, however, a new challenge entered the community. A social activist lesbian coupleBrenda and Wanda Henson (who consider themselves married)have come to town intent on creating a lesbian-feminist retreat center from which, in part, to educate the area according to their convictions. Christian residents say the Hensons represent a cultural threat that must be contained, if not completely expelled.
Good stories often show conflict between individuals, between individuals and physical obstacles, between our natural tendencies and the slow sanctification brought about by the Holy Spirit. You need to show the conflict, and not merely string together heated quotations. Here is how a draft of one article began:
"The Clinton presidency is the most antifamily administration in history," commented Bob Morrison, education policy analyst of the Family Research Council. "In all earnestness, it is breathtaking." Kay Cole James, the executive vice president of FRC, agreed. James A. Smith, the director of government relations for the Southern Baptist Conventions Christian Life Commission, told World that the President has been pursuing a "truly radical, anti-biblical, immoral agenda."
Those all are good statements, but a story that goes on in that vein, slinging quotes like hash, gets old quickly. A revised version, however, provided specific instances of antifamily policies. For example, Clinton administration proabortionists appeared to be using the IRS.
"Tactics of delay," sighed Patricia Bainbridge, executive director of Life Decisions International, a nonprofit organization devoted to researching and revealing corporate sponsors of Planned Parenthood and other pro-abortion organizations. Though LDI applied for "501(c)(3)" tax-exempt status in December 1992, "We still do not have a ruling. Its been a matter of one minute our application is in Brooklyn, the next minute its in Washington . . . one story after another."
Details make a story real. Football players making a goal-line stand hear the crowd chanting, "Defense. Defense." Calls for "detail, detail," should ring in your ears. Describe. Be specific. Dump vagueness. Show, do not tell. Do not summarize scenes; recreate them. Do not say, "It was a Christian environment"show the readers what made it so. In Mark Twains words, "Dont say the old lady screamedbring her on and let her scream."
You are the eyes, ears, and nose of each reader. You are providing vicarious experience, going places the readers have not or could not, ranging from major-league locker rooms to radio studios. For example, one article about a popular talk-show host began:
Marlin Maddoux has spent his morning sifting through dozens of articles and editorials. Theyll be fodder for his 90-minute talk show, Point of View, broadcast from a Dallas studio bordering on elegant.
Every generalization should be followed by specific detail to indicate the truth of the generalization. If you say a person is witty, give an example. If you say a campaign is being run debt-free, show us how.
Farris is running a debt-free campaign so he can with credibility attack the Democratic incumbent, Don Beyer, as "big-debt Don."
Good descriptive material should be spread throughout the story. Sometimes it is necessary to trim itand if the descriptive detail gets tedious, to use a machete. There is no need to show readers insignificant or irrelevant objects; those clutter up the room. But good descriptive writing can make a biblical point better than formal editorializing. The most effective editorial page of a typical newspaper today is its front page.
Use all your senses, not just your ears. Some articles are not show but show-off: The reporter is proud that he has interviewed someone important and that he has compiled many quotations. What is missing in the torrent of words is a word picture: mannerisms, gestures, habits, chin strokings, and leaning back in chairs. Describe, describe, as in this continuation of the Mississippi lesbians story.
The hamlet of Ovett appears peaceful. The center for local activity these days is the Ovett Little General Store, a one-stop grocery and general merchandise store from a pre-Wal-Mart age that is attached to the local post office. Inside, a flock of visitors finds bags of corn and dog food on one wall; screws, rakes, hoes, and other hardware on anotherand groceries in between. In the stores front, townsmensome in overalls and almost all wearing capsregularly sit, drinking coffee and Cokes, and eating hot hamburgers fresh off the stores own grill.
Then connect location, residents, and values:
But it is the nine churches sandwiched within the east and west sides of town that do give a lot more than fifteen cents about what is happening just three miles or so outside town. In fact, church folk from Ovett and other communities have set up the Ovett Defense Fund to gather donations for potential litigation or a buyout of the lesbians who have moved next door.
At this point remember the motto"Sensational Facts, Understated Prose"and do not do a rhetorical strike on homosexuality. Instead, writer Joe Maxwell doggedly dug out detail about the two particular lesbians in this story.
Wanda Hensons antipathy for Christianity seems to have begun as a child. Now shes 39 years old and a committed, politically active lesbian; when she was still a young teenager, Wanda considered running away from home. Instead, she ended up staying for a month or two in the home of a Southern Baptist ministerWilliam Wyserwhose family had once lived across the street from hers.
Marriage records at the Jackson County Courthouse in Pascagoula, Miss., on the Gulf Coast, show that Wanda at age 16 married Arthur Francis Elliot on March 8, 1971. Wyser performed the ceremony. The rocky marriage produced two children. Wanda says that her husband "kept calling me queer" until she took note of it.
About four years later, the two divorced.
After more background information, its time to return to the lesbians present pursuit:
So when 120 acres of worn, cut-over land and pig farm outside Ovett became available for $60,000, they jumped at the chance. They pooled their resources and got help from groups including the Lesbian Natural Resources organization in Minnesota, which donated $13,950. It wasnt long before the land was paid for in full and the Hensons had set up camp.
Next came a description of the camp, which the reporter reached:
over a white sand and clay road, back through gnarled, cut-over, hilly land and some grown-over old vineyards.
Then came interviews:
Brenda Henson stepped from behind a clear plastic barrier hanging from one building. "Hello," the short, round woman with stubby, thin blond hair said, extending her hand, her face seeming gentle and kind.
When reporter Maxwell asked about the pentagrams present in the camp, Brenda:
acknowledged that she "worships the goddess. I practice womens spirituality." Wanda abruptly hung up the phone and jumped in: "We dont want that to be printed, because what you are doing is setting us up to be attacked again."
After more description, a summary was in orderand by this point the writer was not preaching at the reader but confirming what the reader now had seen: "The story of the lesbians and Christians of Ovett is about a clash, not only of cultures, but of fundamental religious beliefs: pagan nature and goddess worship against Christianity. . . ."
Planning for an interview starts with thinking about what an article should include, and what you need from the interview to make a story and fill in the gaps. Write down the information needed; structure questions accordingly. Think to yourself, The story is X, so I need Y. Remember that your goal in interviewing is not to be a megaphone for the interviewee but to get what you need to write your story. Know what you will ask: You are in charge of the interview.
While pushing hard for specific material, retain flexibility. Be prepared to change your theme if your initial assumptions appear incorrect. Be careful not to guide the interview overly much, and do not put words into the interviewees mouth. At the same time, guide the interview enough so that the interviewee will not neglect your theme.
With a reluctant interviewee, you may have to follow the information-eliciting techniques learned by parents: avoid questions that can be answered yes or no; encourage the recalcitrants to go further by asking, "And then? What happened next?" When stuck, ask five-W questions: "Who taught you that? What did you read that was influential? When? Where? Why?"
Whether you are interviewing a friend or a foe, follow the standard that is used for arms-control agreements: Trust, but verify. Remember that the interviewee is not God; nor is he a cockroach. If you have reason to suspect the interviewees honesty, ask some questions to which you already know the answers, and see if he is telling the truth. If he tells you something different from what you have heard, challenge. In any event, with anyone, do not believe everything you are told.
When concluding an interview, it is useful to lay down a marker by saying that a follow-up question may be needed; ask if you can call if something else is needed. The subject will agree, and will be prepared for another contact. You also should come away from the interview with printed material, when possible. Be a pack rat: Collect copies of speeches, articles, and books.
Although the following should go without saying, remember basic manners. Reporters have such a reputation for rudeness that you can win respect by not staying overly long, by saying thank you, and by not using a persons first name unless invited to do so.
After the interview, you will want to record additional impressions immediately and then go to work trying to write a strong article by combining interview material with narrative, as in the following example.
Michael Farris says his wife gave him the best piece of advice 10 years ago. "Its not just getting the words correct thats important," Vickie Farris said. "Its like singing a song. You have to have good words, but you also have to have a pleasing melody."
This does not mean that Farriswho became known for his work in representing Tennessee parents opposed to a public school reading series that included not only obnoxious material but also Cinderella and The Wizard of Ozis a compromiser.
Mike Farris melody is uncompromisingly in harmony with his worldview. "All these politicians are saying I am personally opposed to abortion but. I say, I am personally opposed to abortion and. There is no dichotomy between what I personally believe and what I am going to take into action. I think a lot of people who are not necessarily coming from the same vantage point that I am like the fact that I am a straight shooter. What you see is what you get."
Having a pleasing melody does mean that Farris makes light of the oppositions scare tactics, instead of angrily attacking them.
Farrisand court records back him upsays the case had to do with parental rights and religious freedom, not banning classics. . . . Farris zealously defended his position, but he did it with good humor and wit. One of his campaign stickers said, "I like Mike and Toto too." Videocassettes of Cinderella and The Wizard of Oz played during his hospitality party Friday night before the delegates were to vote at the partys nominating convention in Richmond. All the speeches on Saturday ended with rousing music, but Farris speech was followed by a rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
Reporter Roy Maynard skillfully organized the comments so that they provided perspective on Barrs four purposes.
Kenneth addresses retribution.
Some interviewees are not particularly personable, but you should avoid getting too friendly with those who are, or being influenced by the interviewees apparent friendliness. Some interviewees will push you to talk about yourself, but do not spend valuable time in that way: Turn the questions back on the interviewee. Some journalists advise interviewers to pretend to be on the interviewees sidebut that, if you are not, is lying. Be a professional.* Do avoid off-the-record conversations. Never volunteer to go off the record; fight to stay on it, and, if necessary, explain your editors dislike for the practice. Off-the-record conversations may be necessary when a sources health or job are in jeopardy, but remember that you are working for the readers, not carrying mail for the interviewee. Remember that you will have to tell readers the reason for going off-the-record with particular sources; a statement such as, "The source preferred to be off the record," does not wash. If necessary, indicate to the source how his comments may be used, without making a commitment.
When a source asks to go off the record, find out what he means by that: information to be used for your background only, information that can be used but not attributed at all, information that can be attributed not by name but to "a source in the xyz department," or what? Unattributed quotations that disparage a person are worthless, unless you have lots of on-the-record quotations saying similar things.
Attribution should be kept simple. For a short quotation, place the attribution at the end, on the grounds that what the speaker said is usually more important than the fact that he said it; if the opposite is true, put the attribution at the beginning. A long quotation should include an attribution in the middle, both to break it up and to let the reader know who is talking.
The problem with writing a story via telephone is that you are not in the field to observeand yet, descriptive material and narrative telling what you have seen is vital for a story that is to have moving feet and not just talking heads. There is only one way out of the trap: You need to interview trustworthy people who can become your proxy eyesand you need to elicit from them the type of specific detail that you could have seen had you been there. Here is how World used an interview with David Hooten, a missionary in Rwanda, who described how he and his wife had made it through a couple of roadblocks but saw trouble ahead:
"I slowed down, but there was no blockade. No logs or tree stumps or rocks like they normally use to stop youexcept just the people, the mob was there. I forced my way with the vehicle through them. I did not want to stop in the middle of them because I had a pretty good idea what was happening. I tried and was able to get through them. I slowed down on the other side to see if I could get a sense as to what they were doing."
Such stories can also be told in narrative based on interviewing rather than through quotation.
A foreshadowing of what might be in store was recently played out on the streets in Johannesburg when thousands of Inkatha supporters marching with tribal shields and spears clashed with machine-gun-armed supporters of the African National Congress. . . . Brutal tribal fighting raged in the midst of Johannesburgs gleaming skyscrapers. When the fighting ended, 53 lay dead and nearly 200 were wounded. The aftermath of this day of carnage brought new pleas for negotiation and compromise.
Some missionaries can be very helpful as foreign correspondents, but my point is: emphasize the importance of pushing for specific detail, which goes for everyday domestic reporting as well as international coverage. For example, when interviewing a young mother who has made the transition from salaried professional to full-time mom, do not settle for a vague statement from interviewee "Jennifer" that money is tight; probe for the concrete.
Jennifer says, "I buy store brands, I compare prices. When we buy a car, were not going to buy the Ford Explorer, which would be our vehicle of choice if we were both still working. Instead, well go with a less expensive four-door domestic."
Your goal, in short, is to guide the interviewee to help you write your article. You need to come away from the interview with stories, anecdotes, and specific incidents: "I dont go for Del Monte, Ill get Pathmark on some things. I buy generic dishwasher detergent, generic baby-washIve found that generic corn-chips are okay, too." If the interviewee makes a generalization"the church growth movement is counter- productive"push him to talk about what he has seen or studied. If he says someone is generous, push for an anecdote that shows generosity. Remember: Specificity is felicity. Write truck, not vehicle; write Ford truck, not truck; write Ford Ranger, not Ford truck.
Always push the interviewee for descriptive information: What exactly did you see? What did he look like? Names, dates, times, colors, locations, ages, numbers. You want specific detail that allows the reader to see. If you do not have time to visit or are not allowed into a maximum-security prison, get a description from a trustworthy guard. If you are writing about an earthquake, get graphic description from someone who was there.
You also are looking for quotations within the narrative. If a person says, "I was worried, and I was praying," ask for specifics: "What were you praying? Were you praying out loud? What did you say?" Press for lively quotations. Push the interviewee to use metaphors or similes by asking, "What was it like"? If the subject has said something substantively interesting but in a bland way, rephrase the question and see if you can get a livelier response.
The etiquette of telephone interviewing often involves calling the interviewee to set up a time for questioning. When making such a request, do not say, "Id like an interview." Instead, say, "Id like to ask you about x, y, and z"; specify how much time you will need. If you are able to proceed directly to the interview, the best way to start is to explain quickly what your story is about and how the subject can help.
If you are interviewing by phone, write out your important questions in advance and refer to your list. (If you are doing an in-person interview, at least have a list of questions in your head; you should also have some written in your notebook so you can refer to them toward the end of the interview and be sure you have covered the essentials.) Either way, do not recite to your interviewee a list of questions; start with one, preferably an easy one. Then, avoid questions that can be answered yes or no; do not waste time; do not promise to publish the interview or any particular answers. Listen much, speak little; you do not want your interview to contain much of your own voice.
Nevertheless, recording allows you to concentrate on the subject instead of your notes; to make regular eye contact; to carry on a conversation rather than an inquisition; and to watch for body language and other nonverbal signs. Furthermore, people speak in distinctive ways that may get lost when in note taking the tendency is to translate them into your own idiom: Taping provides an accurate record of just how a person speaks.
Another practical side to taping is that not only can you check quotations, but people are also less likely to accuse you of misquotation. Tapes are also an important protection in a litigious age. Overall, you should tell your interviewees that you regularly tape, and then you should proceed to do so unless they object.* If you are not taping, you will have to develop some kind of reporters shorthand, such as jotting down the first letter or two of each word; then, if the comment is important and you need to fill in the words while you still remember, ask a filler question so you will have time to go back. Most reporters at the least turn words such as with into w.
Whether you are taping or not, do not worry about conversational pauses, unless you are interviewing someone for radio. When the in-person interviewee is not answering your question, just stare at him; eye contact helps to elicit response. Expectant silence is also helpful.
One of the striking aspects of the work of early Reformation-era reporters is that in adverse circumstances they took down speeches, with an accuracy praised by their contemporarieswithout tape recorders. With the technology and the freedom God has given us, we are without excuse if we do not do at least as well.
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