The Art of the Interview

Yesterday I got to listen to a colleague make a call that would have intimidated anyone. My colleague received a bunch of emails from a local political figure where the person was using racial slurs to describe the president of the United States (look for the story, it should be out soon), and he was trying to talk to the guy who wrote them.

That, in my opinion, is when reporters have to earn their dinner. And he was doing a fantastic job.

I don’t often have a list of questions when I call for an interview, but then again I have no problem calling back a second or third time to ask what I forgot to ask the first time. If I call back again that’s when I’ll have a list — it’ll be those things that I missed. Usually if I missed something with one person and I’ve got a few more people to talk to I’ll get it from someone else, but then there are those times only that one person can answer. That’s when you call back again and again.

I had to call a State Police officer four times before he would speak to me for a recent story. I left messages and may have even sent a couple emails, but people have a much harder time ignoring you when you have them on the phone (even more true when you have them in person).

When you have to ask someone something hard you have to explain to them you want to get their side out there. Sometimes that doesn’t work. The other day I was trying to convince a police officer who had recently resigned that his resignation was too close to when money was stolen from the police department for me to leave him out of the story. It would be a glaring hole in the story, I said, and I have to include it (I was told he resigned the Friday of the week the money was found missing). He did talk to me, although he said he would have preferred I had left his name out of the story entirely.

That’s what it is — convincing people you aren’t their enemy, that you just want to give them a chance to speak. I try my best to represent what they say accurately, but sometimes they don’t think you do. A selectman I cover is constantly complaining he is taken out of context, but then he repeats exactly what I say he said. He doesn’t like to be controversial, but some of his views are, and people react strongly to them. Those complaints are going to come in. Not much you can do but keep trying to be true to your subject’s intent as best you understand it.

I love interviewing. I’m not a talkative person by nature, but people want to tell reporters things. I’m happy to be on the other side of the table from them when they speak.

Another Gold Star

I have three episodes of reporting I’m particularly proud of since I’ve been at the Conway Daily Sun, and all of them center on the police.

The first was a story I did right before town meeting on the department’s end of year spending habits. Several years ago the department blew through tens of thousands of dollars in the final days of the year. The next year it was a similar story, although less pronounced, to the point they had less than $50 to give back to the town. Finding and pointing out that pattern was exhilarating. When I was staring at their expenses and realized what had happened I almost started bouncing.

The second one was durring Krista Dittmeyer’s disappearance. Through random connections and some luck I found the name of her baby’s father. Then with a bit more digging I found out he was in prison in Maine. That afternoon I was at a press conference with national media where reporters in calf-length jackets and hipster glasses grilled the local lieutenant about the case. They kept asking about the father, but the lieutenant wouldn’t budge. The Sun photographer there with me had to remind me to wipe away the smirk. I knew I knew something no one else did. We wound up beating every other news outlet with that story, including the Portland Press Herald, a much bigger paper based in the town Dittmeyer lived in.

And yesterday the third story came out.

This story was about a theft within the police department, a theft that happened months ago that no one has been talking about. I was able to get the police chief, the police commissioners and the State Police to talk about the incident, and I was able to get a number of the key details out.

When you feel a story like these start to come together it feels really good. It feels like you’ve just discovered a lost civilization, one people meant for you never to find. It’s a treasure hunt, and with these ones I found the prize. There are surely more prizes out there, however. I’m happy to keep digging.

Tough Decisions

I finished a big story about a theft within the Conway Police Department today, a theft officials said had to have been committed by an employee.

Within days of the theft, a longtime officer resigned. I was writing the story several days ago, going around and around trying to avoid mentioning his resignation and its awkward timing. I didn’t want to implicate the officer by bringing up his name. After discussing it in the office, however, the rest of the staff and I decided we couldn’t leave him out. It’s not fair to connect him to the story, but at the same time it’s not possible to ignore the difficult questions.

Today I called the former officer and asked if there was a connection between his resignation and the theft. He said no. He also said he would prefer if I didn’t mention him in the story. I told him I couldn’t do leave him out, simply because of the close proximity of the timing. This is a small enough town that people would point out the less than thorough reporting if I left him out. I have to address it, I told the former officer, and I will do my best to not turn the question into an implication.

It’s not fun to have to balance someone’s reputation with the public’s right to know. Hopefully I was able to balance that well. We’ll see what people say tomorrow.

What are the Rules?

I was reading this the other night, about a well-regarded Medill School of Journalism professor who’s well-known Innocence Project may have hit some speed-bumps.

It makes me think about two things: what the rules of reporting are, and how much one misstep undoes a successful career.

I try to always be honest with interview subjects, but sometimes you know something and you need to get someone else to say it to put it in the paper. When the whole town was talking about a drug connection with Krista Dittmeyer, for example, it took finding the father of her child to get that in the paper, and then it took the court documents saying she was robbed of drugs and money before she was killed to really get it out there. You can’t just say something unless you have a credible source, and credible sources are often reluctant to admit what they know. Sometimes you have to pump them for information and get it out of them.

That’s different than pretending you are a census worker, as one person in this story did. I always identify myself as a reporter right away. I think people should know what is at stake before they say anything. But that doesn’t exactly square with what I just wrote, where I’m working to get a source to go on the record with something I know, so obviously it’s a tough line to walk.

But let’s say someone crossed it at Medill, just for the sake of discussion. If the process frees innocent people from death row, isn’t it worth it? (Now you’re thinking you should go back and read the article, eh? It’s good.) I’m not sure — it’s a bit Machiavellian. I do not agree with Barry Goldwater’s assertion that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” I don’t think people should be carted off because they are communists, Muslims or anything else in a pluralist society. Jumping out of bounds to free people may seem inarguable, but what happens if you aren’t looking hard enough at the possibility they are guilty.

I don’t know though. Justice isn’t blind, though we’d like it to be, and the Innocence Project has always seemed spectacular to me. I hope it keeps going, prospers and spreads. Every guilty verdict is worth a second look — if they are guilty it will have been a good exercise; if they are innocent they deserve to be freed. Just don’t step outside the rules to find out either way.

In the WAR Zone

I stumbled on this piece the other night, about what it’s like to think you are going to die while reporting. I had a similar (albiet infinitely less) situation when I was in Iraq, where I felt like I was a sitting duck just waiting to get killed.

I know when I was finished with that ride I wanted nothing more than to be home. I didn’t have the choice to leave at that time, but you have to wonder why after a real brush with death (not just perceived, as mine was) people keep going back.

I can’t thank them enough, though, for being willing to, because it is those stories that tell us about what is going on in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. It feels like you are alone, but you are there for everyone else, so they can no what is happening and lend some kind of support.

In Syria, for instance, where reports are soldiers are turning on soldiers but there is no independent verification, it feels like there is a war in a vacuum. Who will win? Who will lose? When will it be over? How will the world know? That’s the scariest thing to me. It may even be worse than feeling like a sitting duck.

Facebook Friends

A colleague asked me the other day how I was able to get in touch with a man who until the day before was in jail pending assault charges for a hatchet attack.

Funny story…

Not really, but it is interesting to note how much information is available out there on social networking sites, and how much it of a help it can be for reporting.

Like this: people were defending a man accused of murder on the Conway Daily Sun Facebook page, so I shot several of them a message with my work phone number. One of them got back to me, and I interviewed her about the man’s character.

Then a couple weeks later there was this hatchet attack. The same woman was listed in court documents as living with the accused. So I called her up. She talked to me briefly, but when the man got out of jail on bail she had him call me.

He then said he was threatened and called racial slurs prior to the attack (the man is black). I looked at the MySpace page of one of the men involved, and his last name on that page was “Reich.” He was also fans of skinhead neo-Nazi bands. It lent some credence to the man’s story, and it sparked an interesting conversation with the police about whether they would charges coming out for anyone else in the incident.

I have also used Facebook to link people, such as relatives of the man who fathered Krista Dittmeyer’s daughter. It’s amazing what is available online. Reporters don’t have a lot of rules, and they have to use everything at their disposal to get the story. Facebook and other social media have proven to be one hell of a tool.

Unhappy Father’s Day

I got to break bad news to two dads today: their sons names were going in the paper, and they aren’t going to look too good afterward.

One got hit in the head with a hatchet trying to retrieve a $5 hat. The other is accused of assaulting and robbing his girlfriend and assaulting two other people.

One son is 18, the other is 17. Both dads called today to see what they could do to smooth over what showed up in the paper. Neither man was pushy — they both were following their parental instincts, trying to protect their boys. And I had to tell them I understand the position they are in, but there isn’t much I can do.

In the hatchet incident, there were threats and racial slurs reportedly flying around, and the son and another man pulled into this guys driveway and pulled a knife. The man who’s house it was pulled out a hatchet, and someone got hurt. I asked the dad what he would do if someone was threatening him and then two men showed up at his house? Would he maybe grab a weapon? Yes, he conceded, he might have grabbed a hatchet.

From that point on things were destined to go downhill.

The other man wanted to make a point that his son wasn’t a bad guy. He offered to talk to me, but I told him since he wasn’t there he’d just be a character witness, and not a particularly convincing one since he is obviously biased. I told him I’d be happy to interview his son to get his side of things, but I couldn’t imagine his attorney would recommend it.

It was interesting to field both those calls today. Happy Father’s Day, I guess. Please don’t get arrested; you’re father will appreciate it.