Reporting can be a solitary undertaking. For most stories, we contact and interview sources one by one, by phone or face-to-face.
Unfortunately, this means that if a reporter starts off with a narrow and shallow concept, it will likely remain that way. And even worse, we’ll never even know what we missed. That’s because the quality of our questions often shapes the breadth and depth of the answers we receive. Unless the rare source challenges the way we’ve framed our questions, the boundaries we bring to our stories stay put.
For some time at KQED public radio, we have sought to widen the range of our questions and the breadth of our conversations when launching important long-term reporting initiatives. When time and circumstances allow, we bring together highly diverse advisory panels of “citizen experts” to help us explore specific topics such as health care or education.
I have found these one- or two-hour gatherings to be productive tools to boost creativity and bust unwarranted assumptions in the crucial idea stage. They sidestep the solitary, two-way reporting trap in which reporters talk to one source, then another, then another, all along filtering and framing the story through the reporter’s limited understanding.
When you bring a diverse group of people together (say, an academic researcher, a teacher, a student teacher, a PTA volunteer and a principal) and pose general questions to them, you get a conversation going that reaches levels you might not encounter otherwise. We use these sessions to kick off major projects and they work extremely well. We bring listeners into our building and they provide us with a rich source of viewpoints and fresh ideas. While we have not turned to advisers’ groups to assess past coverage, their views often come out during the conversations.
We are careful not to turn to these individuals as sources – since the goal in our subsequent reporting is in part to test the ideas that come out of the brainstorming session and to expand on them. But we do find ourselves returning to some from time to time to bounce story angle ideas off our “consultants,” often with good results.
This process has helped us chart a course of coverage that defies conventional wisdom and builds on subtleties. When we set out to cover popular educational reforms such as the drive for smaller class size, for instance, our advisers cautioned us to look for unintended consequences, such as a growing shortage of teachers and classroom space for the smaller, more numerous classes. Our resulting coverage has been more complete and more nuanced. We have also become more fair and accurate in covering angles often overlooked. For the cost of a box lunch or morning pastries for a small group of carefully selected visitors, we have widened our horizons and enlivened our reporting.
Raul Ramirez is executive producer of news and public affairs at KQED-FM in San Francisco.