Saturday, May 19, 2007

Pick up your phone!

Getting a good story is all about access-- and it's extremely frustrating that as more people are skeptical of reporters, getting people to talk on camera becomes a power struggle.

Setting up Medill Reports interviews this week was probably the most stressful week, contrary to what I was expecting. I thought that with more time, this week would be comparatively more laid back in terms of scheduling interviews. I was dead wrong.

My stress level steadily increased from Monday to Thursday trying to get a hold of people. Four straight days of worrying whether or not your story is going to fall through is definately not a good feeling. I would sit in front of my computer looking for different numbers to call; I would have a friend (who doesn't even live in Chicago) to check my gmail for me every 10 minutes if I needed to leave my computer.

It was amazing-- and I probably would've found it a little humorous if I wasn't so strung out-- how no one was calling me back. The worst feeling was that this woman, who decided not to be in the office from Monday to Thursday afternoon, had the fate of my story in her hands. Maybe a reporter should never give someone that much power, but I didn't know who else to turn to since this person was the director of my program, the holder of all the statistics and connections to my "face."

To give some background, my MR is on a preschool program that's facing a decrease of federal funds. And my "face" had to be a family attending one of these centers. Of course the major obstacle was to somehow shoot broll of preschoolers. At first, Chicago Public Schools told me I had to go through their communication department, who then had to go through their legal department, etc. etc. Luckily-- after going down an extensive list of preschool centers-- I found a school that was approved for me to go visit without me having to go through CPS' numerous hoops.

As of now, I'm still having problems getting a simple comment from CPS on my preschool program. I understand that I have to go through communications, but when the comm director ignores my calls and emails, what do I do? When I try calling the board members directly, of course they transfer me back to the communication director's answering machine. When they finally do touch base with me, it's usually to say that they haven't found anyone yet to talk to me and that they won't be able to meet my deadline because of the short notice. Um, does the media relations office not understand the deadline pressures?

My point is-- maybe I don't really have one and just wanted to release some of frustration (and some anger and outrage). But doing this story, I felt like everyone else controlled my access to the classroom, to the individuals I spoke with, to the board members, etc. I really felt that people were suspicious of my story so I definately made a conscious effort to distance myself from anything that could make me look like a voyeuristic creep who wants to just take footage of young children.

I know it's all part of the system and there are rules to follow, especially when it comes to schools. But as a reporter who really believes there's a good story to tell, it's dissappointing and disheartening when it's like pulling teeth just to get someone to pick up the phone.


At Saturday, May 19, 2007, Blogger GN said...

Yeah, I know how frustrating that can be! I hope you stick with your story, because it sounds like a good one.
I've had the same experience during deadline reporting, which is why, for my last story, I did a much simpler, feel-good story. Although it turned out really nice, I have to admit that after reading your blog, I feel ashamed for not having tried harder for a hard-news story. I mean, if we fall into that trap, we would all just go for the stories that are easy to do and avoid the controversial or difficult ones. And that's one of our complaints about the networks, right? Everybody featuring the same "faces," same stories, undercovered issues remaining under cover, and so on.

At Sunday, May 20, 2007, Blogger MK said...

I was likewise glued to phone and email all week trying to set up interviews. I had the same experience as you, relying on someone else to help me find that face (in my case, it was someone with a developmental disability). That can be supremely frustrating, but it was a story I was dedicated to telling and we just have to keep trying. There are helpful people out there but they can be tough to find. Sometimes it's all about getting that first domino to fall. One thing we have to keep in mind, though, is that it's not up to our sources to drop everything for us. We need to be somewhat accomodating to their schedules, etc., and even though that can lead us to pull our hair out, its a reality of the business. The truth is we need other people to do our job, and that can be tough to take sometimes.

At Sunday, May 20, 2007, Blogger MW said...

I feel your pain. Most of my sources are people who are hoping to contact the media anyway, usually to promote some political or personal agenda, which lends itself to other problems (subject trying to control the interview, etc.)...I think one time I managed to pressure one source into giving an interview simply because I got one from an opposing viewpoint, and it would've worked except it was over the phone and I needed to shoot the interview. So, I had what he said on a notepad, but not on tape, and in the end it never came together.

At Sunday, May 20, 2007, Blogger EJW said...

Janet--you are preaching to the choir!!! I have had so much trouble getting through a certain pr lady to set up an interview. All week I wanted to set up an interview with an organization that is doing GREAT things to help women with postpartum depression. The doctor in charge of the organization and the lady who donated so much money to the organization that her NAME IS ON THE SIDE OF THE BUILDING wanted to let me do an interview--but the pr lady was "too busy" and was sorry but she "had to decline my request." It was ridiculous--but such a wake-up call. Now I know I need back-ups and can't rely on a single person for a story.

At Sunday, May 20, 2007, Blogger AJS said...

I know exactly what you mean. That's why it feels like the key thing for when deciding on a story is access; it seems like if it's something where I need to speak to someone from government, or basically any organization with a PR department, it's easier just to avoid it. For my final deadline reporting story, I tried to go through the Lincoln Park Zoo's PR dept. The Zoo! And after stringing me along for two days, the woman said I couldn't do my story.

And I hate that feeling. I feel like we should be trying to go after hard news stories, but if no one is going to get back to us, what can we do?


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