You won’t know until you ask

Some of reporting is observing. Some is listening. Some is research. ButĀ  most of reporting is asking questions. Reporters must be able to ask anyone anything relevant to the story they’re chasing. They can be nervous. They can lead up to the question carefully. They can apologize for asking. But they must ask.

It’s a lesson that many student journalists take a while to learn.

Me, a few years ago

To their credit as human beings, students are polite and don’t want to cross any social boundaries. But that doesn’t always work in journalism. Timidity — I say this as a timid person in my core — is not a key quality characteristic for a reporter. I had to overcome it.

I had a student who wrote about a woman who battled bulimia but the writer didn’t want to list her weight out of fear it might be triggering.

I have had students who, when writing a profile of women, didn’t want to ask her age because, well, it’s impolite.

I had a student who was curious about a gap in a resume of one of his subjects, but was hesitant to ask about it. “What if it is something embarrassing?” he asked me.

Yes, what if it is? Perhaps it’s relevant to your story and worth telling your readers about.

The lessons are simple: Don’t be afraid to ask anything, and don’t think you know what the response might be.

I learned a version of this lesson years ago while reading a New Yorker piece on the Miami Herald cop reporter Edna Buchanan. She tells writer Calvin Trillin what happens if she gets hung up on.

“She waits sixty seconds and then phones back. ‘This is Edna Buchanan at the MiamiĀ Herald,’ she says, using her full name and identification for civilians. ‘I think we were cut off.’ In sixty seconds, she figures, whoever answered the phone might reconsider. Someone else in the room might say, ‘You should have talked to that reporter.’ Someone else in the room might decide to spare the upset party the pain of answering the phone the next time it rings, and might be a person who is more willing to talk.”

And she tells that story that sometimes the person on the other end wants to talk and explain things.

Here is the thing: You don’t have to use the information. Maybe your profile subject won’t tell you her age or her weight. OK, fine. But maybe they will. You won’t know til you ask.