Hello, I’m a Journalist. Can We Talk?

From a New York Times Insider column by Callie Holtermann headlined “Hello, I’m a Journalist. Can We Talk?”:

Every day, reporters at The New York Times have to persuade people, often total strangers, to open up and share their stories with millions of readers. Including people’s real experiences in an article can lend credence to the reporting. Whether reporters are approaching people on the street or through cold calls, they often only have a few moments to make their pitch or build rapport — which makes a concise and compelling introduction all the more crucial.

“I start all conversations the same: name, this is what I do, this is who I report for,” said Sandra E. Garcia, a reporter for the Styles desk. It is important that all those she interviews understand that their words could end up in the paper, she said.

Times reporters interviewed for this article all described a similar opening line, with slight variations based on the source, timeline and subject matter.

Emma Goldberg, a reporter for the Business desk, likes to ask how a person’s day is going before she shares what she’s working on, especially when she’s approaching people on the street. It is not always easy.

“It’s a little nerve-racking because you’re approaching someone who’s in a rush and isn’t super excited to talk to you,” said Ms. Goldberg, who recently interviewed patrons at a BP station in Newark about rising gas prices. She assured sources that she had not singled them out; she was trying to talk to as many people as possible.

“What brought you here?” is the preferred opening for Reid J. Epstein, a national politics reporter, when he is searching for voices in the crowd at a political event. He said the “basic and safe” question can elicit surprising responses.

In February, Mr. Epstein spoke to guests at a prom-themed Republican fund-raiser in Rock Springs, Wyo., where some of the state’s most active conservatives posed for photos with a cardboard cutout of former President Donald J. Trump. Several shared criticisms of the press with Mr. Epstein, but were eager to talk about Wyoming’s congressional race.

“Even people who have the most hard-held grievances against the media and The Times will be polite and talk to you if you’re with them on their home turf somewhere,” Mr. Epstein said.

Of course, journalists are not always approaching strangers on the street or at an event. Oftentimes, a reporter is reaching out for a particular person’s voice. Neil Vigdor, who spent three years as a breaking news reporter on The Times’s Express desk, said that introducing himself to sources after tragedies is one of the most delicate parts of his job. When calling someone who has lost a family member or a friend, he starts by saying, “I’m deeply sorry to be reaching out under these circumstances.” Then he asks to hear more about the person who died.

“You want to get these people’s voices and perspective into your story, but you’re trying not to do anything that is going to add to their trauma,” said Mr. Vigdor, who recently started a new roles on the Politics and National desks. “It’s a real balancing act.”

Other sources may not be familiar with The Times. It is important, then, to communicate what it means to speak to an international news outlet.

Julie Turkewitz, The Times’s Andes bureau chief, often works in rural areas in South America. Last year, Ms. Turkewitz traveled to La Paz, a coca farming village in Colombia that had been neglected by the government for years. Though many of the village’s residents were not familiar with The Times, Ms. Turkewitz told them that if they chose to talk to her, their words might reach a large audience around the world.

The right opening line can set the tone for an interview — and start the process of building trust.

“There could be this power dynamic of a reporter coming in and shoving a recorder in people’s faces,” Ms. Turkewitz said. “It’s really important for people to understand that it’s their choice that they want to tell the story.”

Callie Holtermann joined The Learning Network as a senior news assistant in 2020.

Speak Your Mind