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.