In my newspaper reporting days, when I started really digging into stories, I would run into two basic types of sources.
One type would decline comment or be defensive, even if the news story is directly about them. Sometimes it was carried to an extreme, such as an encounter I had way back in the 1980s reporting on a local controversy over some federal programs.
I got a spokesman from the federal agency on the phone, who insisted on anonymity against my and my paper’s standard practice. Then he declined comment, resulting in a quote something like “a spokesman who insisted on anonymity declined comment on the matter.”
It didn’t help their case.
The second type of source would help me make the story better, even if the story started out as a so-called negative look at what they were doing.
Honestly, digging into a story usually was good for whatever organization I was focusing on. News story tips or ideas inevitably start out black and white. A lot of digging usually turns up the shades of gray and the complexity that makes life (and news) much more interesting.
This blog is going to tell you how to be the second type of source. You’ll have a better relationship with reporters but what’s really important is that tomorrow’s paper or television stations will have a better news story, and one that will help you more than saying “no comment.”
I like to think of it as expanding a story. Let’s talk about it.
Let’s say you get a call from a television reporter on a bright, clear April morning about potholes on city streets. This is an annual story here in Duluth, by the way, given the city is built on clay bluffs and has (what outsiders call) brutal winters.
The direction of the story is clear: The city is failing to fix its roads, right? It doesn’t help that the reporter’s news director just got a $1,000 bill for suspension work on his SUV and he’s found some folks who face the same bills.
The standard, textbook response? Rustle up the mayor or public works director and work out some messages/talking points, and grant an interview.
You just put what news folks called a talking head into a news story about roads that drive all sorts of folks nuts and cost them money at the car shop to boot.
By understanding what makes stories compelling, you can help a reporter do a better story, and it’ll help you and the community.
One of the most important things a reporter does is follow the news story arc until she finds out who it impacts. Those folks with broken transmissions? They’re called victims. They aren’t the only ordinary folks impacted by such an issue.
As we know, government balances a lot of demands. One is how much money we can collect from citizens, otherwise known as taxes. We can talk about that, in abstract, but wouldn’t it be better to find a taxpayer to talk about it? Have any contacts in the community you can suggest to the reporter, or someone who showed up at a council meeting to complain about taxes?
And it’s quite possible that the reporter assumes (don’t most people?) that government employees don’t work hard and knock off early. We know street repair is demanding, physical, dangerous work. The mayor can say that. But it’s compelling video to have the reporter out on the street in the cold dawn, following the crew around while cars zip by just a few yards away.
There’s risk in these approaches, of course. But the benefits are twofold.
First, you’ve taken a story with an early angle that makes you look bad and added angles that show just how complex and tough the issue is.
Second, you’ve put what a lot of reporters call “real people” into the story. We, as communicators, can do a lot. But what really convinces people and gets reporters excited is to get someone who’s on the ground level, or in the trenches, to talk.
Craig Lincoln is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.