Doing It Local – by Sean Corcoran

Sean Corcoran photo

Sean Corcoran

Reporting at the local level involves few press conferences and lots of kitchen tables. Local journalists often find themselves relying on the same sources again and again, so here are a few tips to help you find stories and keep people talking.

Don’t be smug.

I know we have the right under the First Amendment to ask questions, but no one is obligated to talk to us. No one. Ask for interviews like you would ask someone for a favor. I humbly appeal to whatever seems appropriate — their good nature, pity, ego, professionalism, conscience, etc. Many people benefit from speaking with me but most have nothing to gain. Public officials and everyday folks are more likely to speak with journalists who are unassuming and humble. Challenge people’s words and actions, of course, but one of the best ways to press someone and keep them talking is with a quizzical look and a respectful tone. “Um, I don’t understand…”

Do Look at Bulletin Boards.

The best local reporters have as much trouble passing a bulletin board as my Uncle Mickey has passing a pub. Government agendas, church bulletins and business cards can tell you a lot about a community and help you develop story ideas and find sources. Documents are your friend — meeting minutes, school newspapers, and audits of all types.

Don’t Talk about Yourself.

You want to be personable and forthright, but offering an opinion or telling a story about your own experience during an interview almost always is a mistake. Interviews seem to come to a halt when the spotlight moves from the source to the journalist. People want to talk about themselves, so it’s best to let them.

Do Be Quiet.

It is tempting to restate a question or even suggest an answer when someone appears to be struggling for words. Resist the urge to fill the silence. The best quotes often come out of awkward moments. The source will let you know when they’re done speaking.

Don’t Wear Sunglasses.

The best way to make sure people are reluctant to speak with you when you approach with your big microphone and bulky headphones is to add a pair of sunglasses to the ensemble. Your eyes tell people whether you are sincere and trustworthy. Sunglasses make your job more difficult.

Do Get Their Number.

Try to get a phone number from every person you speak with. I tell people it’s in case I get lost or tied up on the way to the interview. Other times I say it’s in case I have a follow-up question. I assure police chiefs, public officials and the like that I only will use it during emergencies and that I will not share it with anyone. When people are reluctant to give a number I ask for an email address.

I can think of numerous occasions when my source list and associated phone numbers saved my ass, including the time a disgraced but beloved Congressman died on Christmas morning. I fortunately found his son-in-law’s phone number on my source list, though I had no idea it was there.

Don’t Weaken Your Questions.

It’s almost always a bad idea to begin a question with, “You may not like this next question…”  That’s like beginning a story pitch to an editor with, “You might not want this story…” Journalists do both of these things all the time. Just ask the question.

Do Wear a Tie.

You don’t have to take this literally. If you work in places like Key West, Fla., Breckinridge, Colo., or on Cape Cod, you don’t have to wear a tie every day if you don’t want to — but I don’t think it would hurt you too much if you did. When people decide to trust a reporter with their story they want someone who is professional and competent. Wearing dirty jeans, t-shirts and baseball hats will not make your job easier.

Don’t Get Angry.

Advocate for yourself and the listeners you represent, but do not lose your cool. When a public official is having a meltdown, when a law enforcement officer is unhappy to see you or wants you to move, it is your professional responsibility to remain calm and collected. Keep your reporter face on at all times. Keep taking notes and the recorder running. There’s little that will hurt you more than losing your temper; it diminishes your stature and prompts people to lose respect for you. Rather than yelling, write a Freedom of Information Act request.

Don’t Lie.

Pretend you read this first because it belongs at the top. The perfect way to get someone never to talk to you again is to lie to them. Lying will get you sued, it will get you fired and it will eat away at your soul. Don’t make up stuff or sources and don’t misrepresent yourself or your story. I believe the universe uses coincidence, happenstance and irony to expose the truth.

Do say, “No” if Someone Wants to “Hold” or “Take” Your Recorder.

I don’t give people my recorder, but I’ll play them what’s on it. I don’t let people look at my notebook, but I’ll read them back their quotes. Every situation I’ve seen when a reporter hands over a notebook or a recorder has ended badly. There is no upside. The only people you should hand over your recorder or notebook to are an arresting officer or your editor. Possible exceptions would be instances involving guns and knives, in which case you should disregard this tip and lie as you see fit.

In conclusion, the most successful local journalists are the ones who recognize that their reputation for honesty and accuracy is everything when it comes to getting sources to speak again and again. The way to maintain this trust and grow your source list is by being honest, respectful and grateful with all your sources, and to produce top-notch, national-quality journalism. Hotheads, liars and know-it-alls are going to have a hard time. Even factual errors will be forgiven by sources if a journalist previously has proven to be a fair-minded person of integrity.

Sean Corcoran’s began his reporting career deep in the trenches of American journalism — Berlin, N.H., not far from the Canadian border. Raised on the North Shore of Boston, Sean spent 10 years as a reporter at various newspapers throughout New England before moving to Cape Cod in 2005. He is the senior reporter at WGBH’s Cape and Islands NPR Station in Woods Hole, Mass., where he produces investigative series. Sean considers himself a public service journalist, and he has won several national print and radio journalism awards, including the Alfred I. dupont-Columbia University Award. Sean lives on Cape Cod with his wife Linda, an editor at The Cape Cod Times newspaper, and their 4-year-old son Seamus.

Note: WCAI was founded by  Atlantic Public Media, the non-profit organization that manages Transom.org.


4 Comments on “Doing It Local – by Sean Corcoran”

  • shanna says:

    Great tips…although I’d offer a modification to “wear a tie” If you are working in rural or “recreational” communities I find that people like it when you are dressed like them. You should always be clean, neat and professional. But nice jeans, functional shoes and a button shirt will make a rancher feel like he or she is talking to someone she or he can relate to and not a lawyer! If you show up in a tie to interview someone in a ski town, he or she won’t feel that comfortable with you (unless it’s an official who wears ties to work too).

  • Kate says:

    Great advice in this article, honestly. However, I might have one piece of my own to add: Don’t assume all reporters are men.

    It would have been just as easy to write “Do dress professionally” as “Do wear a tie.” I’m sure there’s no malice behind the remark, but it’s that kind of small, everyday jab that makes reporting still seem like an old boys’ club to women in the industry.

  • Sean Corcoran says:

    I hope the catchy “Wear a Tie” subhead doesn’t distract from the overall points here. As I wrote, I do not mean for people to take the remark literally; it was a metaphor. I have no interest in laying out a proposed dress code for men or women. The point is that people should dress professionally.

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