A reporter’s best friend is the telephone

Part 1 of 2

The conversation always goes something like this:

Me: How’s the story coming?

Him: I emailed her but I haven’t heard back yet.

Me: Call her.

Him: At her office?

Me: Home or office. No, wait. You’re right. Don’t call her. Go over there and knock on the door.

Him: Right now? Just show up?


Of all the things I’ve had to learn about teaching students to become journalists, the one that surprises me most is the reluctance — resistance even — that they have to using the telephone to call someone. Put the emphasis on call, as opposed to email, text, tweet Snap or Insta.

It’s inefficient, they tell me; no one answers the phone. It’s intrusive; the person may be in the middle of something. It’s uncomfortable; you don’t know exactly what the person is going to say, and what if they say they won’t talk with you? (Inc. has a whole list of reasons.)

I take the position of every editor in the world: I don’t care what they are doing. I don’t care if you’re uncomfortable or if the source is in the middle of planning an invasion. Get the story.

I should have anticipated this because when I was an editor, students would email me for interviews. They always preferred to conduct the interview via email. And when I responded to their questions, they never asked any followups.

Now I tell the student that this is what a source does when he or she gets your email.

(It’s actually an extension of what students do to my emails. They don’t delete them, they simply ignore them until they can’t. They don’t seem to understand that their interview subjects treat email the same way they do.)

Years ago, I deleted an email from someone requesting an interview. I was in the midst of something important — though it wasn’t planning an invasion — and I didn’t want to take the time. I felt guilty about it and, finally, two days later I fished the email out of the deleted file and responded, saying I’d be happy to answer questions. I never heard back.

So, I tell students to call them. It’s much more difficult for your source to say “no” to you when you’re already on the line. Make your pitch, and if the source hesitates, have a compelling question waiting for them that they will want to answer. Then you have them; you just reel him or her in with the next question. Or the next statement that will make him or her want to explain to you or correct you.

Half the time, I think I can see the gears inside the student’s head turning. Sometimes this is what I see:

But not all. Not all.

Coming next Thursday: Part II: Bottom up.

2 thoughts on “A reporter’s best friend is the telephone

  1. In fairness, I’m an old and even I now let calls go to voicemail unless it’s someone I know. (And that’s justified in that most of the unknown callers who call me don’t leave messages, and most of the ones who do are trying to sell me something.) But, yeah, best is face-to-face and second best is to call. Email or social media would be a distant third, to be used only with or after multiple attempts at calling.

  2. Let’s talk accountability, credibility, believe-ability…

    Pretty much everything you have ever reported that was gathered via telephone is no more than he said, she said. Your advice goes to the very root of the credibility problem that media– especially print media– faces today.

    But nothing says accountability, credibility, believe-ability… better than a screen grab of an e-mail.

    Can screen grabs be faked? Sure they can but to do so would undermine a journalist’s credibility to the point that his or her entire organization would ultimately suffer the bigger loss.

    If they make it a habit of ignoring your e-mails then make an example out of them instead of kowtowing to them.

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