“You have to circulate to percolate.”
I thought the line was corny when I’d overhear a professor say it over and over again at Ohio State University, but it’s so true. The best journalists are all over their beats.
Sure, you know the history, you know how things work, you can sniff out a trend, and you often (or always) beat the competition. But do you really know all the issues and all the players? Look closely at your Rolodex. If you sorted your sources roughly by age, gender, race, geography and so on, where would you come up short?
When I was at The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution, an editor gave a pop quiz. She had all these trick questions, like who’s the president of the NAACP or Urban League. Although we were based in a hub of the Civil Rights Movement, many editors and reporters failed the quiz miserably. When I moved on to The New York Times, I was impressed by the talent both inside and outside of my newsroom. Yet I read and watched an amazing number of stories that did not reflect the diversity of this densely populated international city.
This is not at all about being politically correct; it’s about doing good journalism. Fair, accurate, balanced, solid and thorough journalism. If you’re really on top of your beat, you’re interviewing experts who look like you as well as those who don’t. It doesn’t matter whether your beat is housing, education, politics, courts, business or health. Good experts are everywhere, and they’re easy to find. Here’s how to find them:
• Be honest. Don’t be afraid to tell colleagues and sources that you want to cast a wider net to truly reflect the community and the country.
• Hit the streets. Visit neighborhood churches, restaurants, community centers and schools. Attend meetings, games and events. You never know who you’ll meet or what you’ll hear.
• Pick some brains. Ask existing and new sources for other contacts. Solicit their opinions on coverage as well as story ideas.
• Go to groups. There’s a professional organization for every field, and often an ethnic counterpart.
• Contact colleges and universities. Most institutions of higher learning have programs focusing on specific topics or various groups, whether by ethnicity or gender. Also contact historically black universities to obtain directories listing the specialty areas of their faculty and staff.
• Raid Rolodexes. Reporters have been doing it to me for years, and I don’t mind. They know that if I don’t have the perfect name, I know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who does.
• Move beyond so-called leaders. Ask everyday folks what they think. And don’t assume that “leaders” speak for everyone or that a group is monolithic.
• Check out the rest of the competition. Go beyond what you normally read and watch. Turn to community papers, radio stations and web sites.
• Look at your newsroom’s history. If coverage has been virtually nonexistent or imbalanced, your newsroom’s rocky record could affect a source’s inclination to confide in you. The good news is that your efforts to reach out will pay off over time.
Yanick Rice Lamb, who teaches journalism at Howard University, has worked at newspapers and magazines ranging from The New York Times to Child.