Sources for IS

The Individual Story assignments require you to work with a variety of live and documentary sources. You can make your information gathering more productive and lessen the impact on sources by thinking about things in advance. Here are some suggestions for working toward positive experiences.

1. Avoid well-worn topics

When you pitch a story, think about who can provide you information. If it’s a story that’s been done a number of times before, sources will have been around the block many times with the same questions and answers. This is dull for them, as well as for your audience. Picking an innovative idea will engage everyone involved.

2. Gauge how much time sources will have to devote to you

Consider how many people need something from your sources and thus how much time they’ll have to offer you. For instance, many students in J202 pick stories involving health. There’s only one head of University Health Services, so she can’t grant interviews to every student. Similarly, stem cells are an interesting issue, but the researchers are known all over the world and get media calls daily.

3. Know what you want before you call

Plan in advance, so you don’t waste your source’s time. This is where documentary research is critical, and it’s exactly why you’re required to do that research first in J202. For instance, if you call the governor’s press secretary to ask her how much state funding is coming to the UW System in the current budget, you haven’t done your prep work. That information is available in many places, including wisconsin.gov, wisconsin.edu and wisc.edu. Look for facts in other places before calling your sources. You need them to give you less “what” and more “why” and “how.”

4. Pick the right source

If you need to know about the campus facilities master plan, you do not need an interview with the chancellor. Do your background research to know who is involved in your issue and can provide you with meaningful answers. Past news stories are a great place to start to learn who has commented on issues previously. Many students seem to use the Dean of Students office as a default position when seeking information, but that office is responsible for only part of life on campus. Don’t inundate them with calls about issues outside their expertise.

5. Pick the right pathway to your sources

If you’re looking for an expert associated with UW-Madison, start with the experts database. It’s searchable by keyword and the experts listed not only have depth in their areas, but also a willingness to do interviews.

Beyond that, consider whether a media relations staffer can land you in the right place. If you tell that person your story angle, he or she can often send you in the right direction.

Some staffers who have proved helpful to past 202ers:

  • John Lucas, UW-Madison University Communications
  • Lisa Brunette, UW Health
  • Joel DeSpain, Madison Police

But again, if you are considering a subject area that’s well-worn, such as health, you’re going to run into roadblocks.

6. Respect constraints on your sources

The people we interview have many considerations beyond our stories. For instance, anyone working in health fields faces serious ramifications when it comes to patient privacy. Listen when your sources tell you what can and cannot be used and always abide by any agreements you make. Be aware that shooting video or pictures often brings greater concerns and is never acceptable in a campus medical facility without prior approval. If you and the source agree that information is only for this story and this class, you may not reuse it in other situations, such as student media or jobs.

7. Let your sources help you

Most of the people who consent to interviews for our stories do so because they believe in the value of education. They know that helping you through these assignments gives you important lessons to be better and more ethical communicators later. Let them know the assignment is for class. In a few cases, sources will turn you down on that basis, preferring to give their time only for stories that will be published. If this happens, do not ever falsely claim you are doing a story for another publication, such as a student newspaper.

8. Agree with your sources on publication

Some sources agree to interviews because these stories are for class and are published only on password-protected websites. If you hope to use your stories as work samples or include them on a public site, such as your portfolio site, you need to agree to that with your sources from the outset. If you forget, you may return to your source to ask permission, but never violate the trust inherent in agreements you make with your sources.

FAQ on sources and interviewing

As you’re reporting your individual story assignment, you’re going to need to find a range of sources to help you look at your topic from a variety of angles. But getting to the right kind of sources can be tricky, and sometimes it involves using one source to lead you to others — and you’ll probably even hit a few dead ends.

It also means investing the time to do high-quality interviews that help you dig into several layers of your topic. That’s part of the reporting process and the work you need to put in to make your IS project as strong as possible. (Read what it took one New York Times reporter to get a source to talk to her for a story about Bill O’Reilly and sexual harassment.) You’ll use these information-gathering skills whether you’re reporting or doing strategic communication, because all media work is based on finding the story in information you glean from others.

(And when it comes to J202, not using appropriate sources could leave you open to academic misconduct questions. At the end of the semester, we’ll check in with your sources, and one of the questions we’ll ask is how you know each other and how you conducted your interviews.)

1. You want to find a fellow student to talk about an issue on campus, so you make an announcement during a meeting of your student group asking if anyone would be willing to be a source for you.

This isn’t reporting. First of all, you should be trying to find sources outside of your circle, and people within your student group (club, organization, sorority/fraternity) — even those you don’t really know — are in your circle. But this also isn’t really in the spirit of good reporting, which means you should be casting a wider net to find people who really care about an issue, not just those who are willing to answer a few questions. Instead, ask your friends and acquaintances if they know of anyone who might be able to help you out.

2. You find someone who sits near you in your poli sci course who is involved in a club you’re writing about, so you arrange a time to ask him a few questions after class one day. You’re excited because you can knock off that interview in a couple of minutes and move on with your IS.

Yes, you’ve got a lot of deadlines and assignments, and it’s tough to balance all of them. But don’t skimp on your interviews. Asking someone a couple of questions after class isn’t an interview. If you do this, you’re only scratching the surface because you’re not giving yourself the time to really delve into your topic and get at some new insights. Set up a time when you can actually talk and do a real interview.

3. Over dinner one night, your roommate tells you about her student job on campus, and you decide this is the perfect topic for your IS. You really want to interview your roommate and use her as one of the sources for your IS pieces.

Roommates are off limits, as are family members, friends, fellow club members/fraternity members/sorority members and even close acquaintances. When it comes to sources, think about degrees of separation — anyone within that first ring is too close and you should keep looking. What’s a better solution? Ask your roommate if she can give you the names of some of the people she works with and you contact them.

4. You find out that one of the people you work with at your student job is involved in the organization you’re writing about for your IS. You know him from work, but don’t have much of a relationship with him beyond the time you work together. You set up an interview with him to talk about his involvement with the group.

It sounds like you don’t know him all that well outside of work, so he would be an appropriate source for your reporting. Better yet: when you end the interview, ask him if he can give you some names of other people in the group so you can contact them, too. (The IS directions call for a minimum of three sources, but there’s no rule against using more — in fact, you’ll find the more sources you have, the easier it is to put together assignments.)

5. You’re writing your IS about a common student experience, and your roommate’s friend has an interesting story to tell about how he manages it. You set up an interview with him to find out more about his strategy.

The question here is how well you know your roommate’s friend. Do you hang out together every weekend? Is he someone you’d consider a friend? Or do you know him only in passing? If it’s someone you spend time with regularly, then you should keep looking for a source to talk about this student experience. Ask your roommate’s friend for a few suggestions! But if you really don’t know him well or hang out with him, then go ahead and do the interview.

6. You find someone in a student organization you’re writing about for your IS, and you want to use her as the subject of your audio story. However, she isn’t comfortable speaking off the cuff in a recorded interview and worries about saying the wrong thing. You suggest she think ahead of time about what she wants to say, and you send her a list of questions you’d like to ask. When she shows up for the interview, she’s written out the answers to your questions and suggests that she read them to you as you record. You look at her answers and see she’d provide you with a few good soundbites, so you go ahead and record her reading them.

Everything was fine here right up until you recorded her reading the answers. As the syllabus and our ethics discussions make clear, having people read answers to questions is both not ethical and not authentic. What’s more, when you have sources read answers to questions, it just doesn’t sound as good — and your audience can tell. (We sure can!) So make your story better and steer clear of academic misconduct by asking her again to do an interview. How can you convince her? Try telling her that now that she has a better idea of what she wants to say, she should have an easier time talking freely about her experience. She can definitely use those answers as some talking points to make her feel more comfortable.

7. You sit down to edit your audio slideshow, and you remember one of your sources giving you the perfect soundbite. But your audio file is goofed up and the quality isn’t good enough for you to use. Good news, though — you have a transcript of the interview, and you can have another friend read the quote for you to use in the slideshow.

Nope. It would still be a problem even if you went back to the original source and had her read it. You’ll have to contact the source and explain what happened, and then ask if you can redo a part of the interview so you can get better audio. Your source will understand, and there’s no need to recreate the whole interview. You know what you need, so you can ask a couple of pointed questions to try to recapture the magic of the soundbites.

8. The professor you had for that awesome class last semester would be the perfect source for your IS. The class sparked your interest in the professor’s research, and now you’re doing your project on it. You want to interview your professor as one of your main sources.

Unless you have a more personal relationship with the professor — let’s say she’s a friend of your parents’ and you grew up knowing her or you’re doing a research project with her — this is one of those cases where it’s fine to ask your professor for an interview. In most cases, you’ll want that expert view to give your story a triangle of perspectives. (In fact, everyone should check UW-Madison’s experts guide to see who on campus knows about your IS topic.)

9. You hate Audacity and want to avoid editing the clips later, so you start and stop the recorder in between answers and pick and choose from the best soundbites. 

This is definitely not OK. Why? The first is that a lot of things can go wrong if you’re trying this as a shortcut. An interview should be easiest for the person you’re interviewing, and running a continuous recording is the best way to ensure that there are minimal issues. The second reason relates to verification. If we can’t hear what’s happening in between the answers, we can’t verify that the answers were unprompted. 

10. You really need an interview with the director of the program you’re reporting on, but she’s going away for a conference and says the only way you can conduct an interview is to send her questions over email, and she’ll respond and send them back.

This is only OK if the source requests it, and if it’s the only way you can get the interview done before your deadline. But you need to make absolutely clear in the story that the interview was done via email. For example, “…Professor Sarah Smartsource said in an email interview.” You will also work to find a third in-person interview to meet the number of required sources for your project. If you’re only getting an emailed statement, that would not count as a third interview.