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
- Kari Seymour-Howell, University Health Services
- 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.