“Journalists: what is the best reporting advice you’ve gotten during your career?”
Seeing a need for greater guidance to emerging journalists, Rolling Stone culture reporter EJ Dickson posed that question on Twitter and within 24 hours, the thread was shared more than 1,000 times. We asked her by email about the idea for the thread, the reaction, and the best advice she’s received.
What prompted you to start this Twitter thread?
Dickson: I was thinking about how so much of what I’ve learned as a journalist that I apply in my everyday life I learned on the job, not in J-school or any formal courses. I wondered why there weren’t more resources for aspiring or new journalists to learn more about the field and how to be good at their jobs. So I created the thread with the intention of creating something that I would’ve loved to have seen as a resource when I was just starting out in the industry.
There are 636 comments and retweets as of Wednesday morning, offering advice and sharing the wisdom. What reaction did you expect and why do you think this is resonating so powerfully right now?
Dickson: I definitely didn’t expect it to blow up as much as it has, but I sort of anticipated it may do well, just because journalists LOVE to talk about journalism. I also think the fact that there really are so few resources for journalists just starting out played a role in how successful it was.
What’s the best reporting advice you’ve received, and what prompted it?
Dickson: I think it was something that’s come up multiple times in the thread: “always record with a backup device.” Unfortunately I’ve learned the importance of doing that firsthand on a number of occasions. I also had a coworker whose editor once told her never to end a story on a quote, because that’s a cop-out and there should always be an organic takeaway that you can craft for any story if your angle is strong. I don’t necessarily always abide by that — I’m a fan of ending on a good quote — but it’s something that I think about with pretty much every story I do.
Here are the highlights from the Twitter thread.
On best practices. Journalist Shakari Briggs said: “1. Don’t just report on the communities you serve, but engage/give back to those areas as well (i.e. community service) 2. Always thank your contacts for the tips. An email/letter goes a long way. 3. Good writing will take you far! Active vs. passive voice is preferred. 4. Sometimes,it takes a few “no’s” before you get a “yes” for an interview for a story. Don’t give up. 5. If you get to a breaking news scene before police, wait until they arrive before canvassing it (especially depending on the nature of news). 6. Always get both sides of an issue.”
NBC4 Washington investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer said: “Stories are about people — not the data, not the event — People. Give just as much thought to the details you’re leaving out, as the ones you include in the story. Start most questions with how and why. And the single most important question: Is there anything you’d like to add?”
On interviewing. Bustle’s Jennifer Gerson said: “Leave lots of space for quiet in an interview — let the person you’re interviewing fill that space. Listen more than you talk. Come in curious and empathetic. Don’t have any story pre-written in your head before you’ve reported it.”
Writer Thor Benson said: “My best advice to younger journalists: Don’t assume you can’t get that interview you want. Go for it.”
Mary Emily O’Hara, diversity and inclusion reporter at Adweek, said: “Always ask, ‘Who else should I talk to?’” as the interview wraps up.”
On relationships. Broadcaster Soledad O’Brien said: “Ignore the naysayers. Work on your craft. Figure out who is giving you constructive advice and who’s just a jerk. Remember—the gig is to give other people the mic. Be nice to the receptionists and cleaning people. Keep good friends close. Ditch mean people.”
Ellen Chang, investing and financial writer for U.S. News & World Report, said: “Get a mentor. It can be a reporter at your newspaper, radio or tv station, someone you went to j-school with or another reporter you met online. You can bounce story ideas off of her/him and the mentor can teach you how to negotiate for more money.”
On assumptions. Chris Vanderveen, investigative reporter for KUSA-TV, said: “Never assume your initial thought was right. Always assume your theory could be wrong. Call smart people. Ask them to poke holes in your investigation. The truth is out there. But you’re sure as heck not gonna find it while staring at a press release.”
Journalist Sophie Goulopoulos said: “The ‘two sides to every story’ trope is a myth. Sometimes there are 5. Sometimes only 1. Climate change, coronavirus, and giving a voice to anti-vaxxers in the name of “balance” are good examples.”
Freelancer Lauren Holter said: “Asking “Can you clarify that last point?” or “Can you explain what you mean by that?” will often get you a better answer. If it sounds confusing to you, it will sound confusing to the reader.”
On mistakes. Wall Street Journal health care policy reporter Stephanie Armour said: “No crying in journalism. Never turn in something you don’t fully understand. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s failing to run the correction that matters. Neurotic types make the best reporters.”
The Institute has been collecting advice from prominent journalists as part of a series spotlighting the next generation of journalists. Be sure to check it out here. You can download a poster of The Atlantic staff writer Ed Yong’s invaluable advice here.