By Amy Nippert @nippert_r
Edited by Christina M. Swords (Marvin)
As a freelancer in a pandemic, calling sources is a crucial part of my career. As a millennial who grew up in an age of instant messaging, calling sources is also a stressful part of my writing. I don’t hate talking on the phone, but the less well I know the person on the other end, the more intrusive and awkward it feels. Part of me wishes I could just text my sources. But I can’t, and phone calls provide an organic conversation in a way that texting or emails do not. Resigned in the knowledge that calling sources is going to be the normal process for a while, I’ve been thinking about why I find it so stressful and how to ameliorate some of those feelings.
One of my primary sources of anxiety is a sense of imposter syndrome. I’m not a professional reporter; instead, I’m a graduate student trying to break into more science writing. As such, I don’t have the authority and credibility of newspaper credentials. Still, the best way to learn is by doing, and it’s ok to tell your sources that you’re a freelance writer. If you’ve gotten a pitch accepted, say the publication. If you’re getting background to prepare a pitch, be transparent and mention possible publication options but still go for it. Sometimes there isn’t a story after talking to people; it’s important to know that prior to pitching.
Part of this ties in with an unfortunate tendency of mine to not ask for help and to avoid “bothering” people. In my mind, an email is not a big source of bother. A quick response or no response takes almost no effort. Sources never have to say yes, so if they do, they’re willing and often excited to talk to you. By publicizing their research or using them as an expert in your piece, you’re helping them as well. I personally feel that scientists have a duty to share their results and expertise with a broader audience than can be reached by scientific journal articles, something that can be accomplished by working with a journalist.
Another irrational worry I have is that I won’t end up using anything from the conversation and I’ll have wasted their time. Sometimes you don’t use someone’s quotes. And that’s ok. Asking someone about their science doesn’t have to lead to a published quote to be useful for both parties. Stories change and evolve. At the end of the day, it was a 30 minute conversation where they got to talk about something they care about and you got to learn. That’s not a loss for them or you.
Many of these concerns originate from a worry that the source will be upset or difficult somehow. Science does attract strong personalities with strong opinions. I’ve encountered them often enough as a graduate student, and held my own with them. But without the familiar power dynamic and setting, I psych myself out and worry about what will happen in the interview if there’s friction. But really, as a journalist, you have power too. You can end the interview, or find another source. If you can’t, you can find another article, and it will be their loss. Another source of trepidation is the idea of the reluctant scientist, who doesn’t want to reveal too much or waste the time to talk to you. First of all, they can always refuse an interview. It’s also helpful to know how embargos work to reassure researchers. At the end of the day though, I’ve not encountered anyone who was rude, unhelpful, or even reluctant.
Every single time I call, it’s been fine. Sometimes even great. I’ve learned, I’ve connected, and I’ve gotten useful quotes for my articles. And every time, it gets easier. I’ve found a transcription app I like so that I don’t have to listen and take notes (I use Otter). I’m better at redirecting conversations and asking difficult questions. I’ve perfected my interview request email template – heavily based on this excellent example. I miss in person interviews, but until it’s safe to get together again (and even then) interviewing via phone is a good call.
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