What’s the foundation of great reporting? Sure, smart questions and careful listening. But underpinning all but the rare, confrontational interview is one key ingredient: trust.
That’s one reason journalists gravitate toward familiar faces. We develop our reliable, go-to sources and on a breaking story, quickly identify who is likely to be responsive and credible in the crowd. These practices do speed up reporting. But without us noticing, they also narrow the variety of perspectives that shape stories. Our reporting rapidly becomes predictable, and worse, it can be wrong.
From a quality journalism standpoint, diverse sourcing is a no-brainer. But the truth is, it’s cognitively taxing. We have to work harder to find our sources and then win their confidence and candor. And for the source, the encounter can be a tiring mental workout, too.
Fortunately, scientists who study intergroup relations offer us some tools. Their work suggests ways to reach across barriers of difference, whether based on race, sexual orientation, citizen status or wealth, and bring back the accurate information and great quotes that set high-quality journalism apart.
EXPAND YOUR COMFORT ZONE
When you interview outside your comfort zone, you might worry about making a verbal blunder or encountering mistrust. But if you set up yourself to feel more comfortable, says Tufts University experimental social psychologist Sam Sommers, chances are your sources will be as well.
Experiment with easing the encounter through advance preparation and these tactics:
• Expect a positive interaction. Rather than worrying about what might go wrong, think about how you can put your source at ease and help the exchange go well.
• Keep your eyes open. Espousing “color-blindness” or other types of “identity-blindness” often shuts down intercultural interactions, according to multiple studies, in part by provoking mistrust and disengagement. Demonstrate that you see and value difference.
• Be clear about your intentions. If you convey ambiguous verbal or non-verbal messages, you’ll wear out your source. Explain what you want to know, how it fits in the story, and why you want your source’s perspective.
• Acknowledge the obvious. Instead of avoiding its mention, talk about race or other identity issues openly if they are relevant.
• Prepare to listen. Rather than claiming you understand another’s situation, consider taking a more naïve stance. Ask follow-up questions to clarify. Use silence — buttressed by personal warmth — to allow for elaboration.
• Play out the perspective. You can elicit other views and more accurately understand them if you take a minute to actively imagine the other person’s experiences and point of view. Ask yourself, what would it be like?
AVOID PERCEPTION TRAPS
Even when we hold egalitarian attitudes, we reflexively make assumptions about people’s roles and status based on whatever we normally see, according to Nilanjana Dasgupta, a social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. What’s your image of a doctor? A janitor? An engineer? What expertise do they have? Try expanding your expectations:
• Check the data. One in five environmental engineers is a woman, for instance, while one out of four software engineers and programmers is female. Last year, U.S. girls swept the Google Science Fair.
• Find the people whose personal stories and accomplishments you admire. Make regular visits to websites such as the National Society of Black Physicists, the Latina Lawyers Bar Association and the Asian-American Women’s Political Initiative, depending on your beat.
• Notice counter-stereotype examples and play out the details. Look into the achievements of one of the participants in the technology training program Black Girls Code, say, or check out the community service activities of a Muslim student association in your area. Many immigrants now working service jobs hold higher degrees or specialized training from their home countries. Ask about their expertise.
If you take such steps, your world of potential sources will widen. You’ll not only get story and source ideas, your mind will be less likely to categorize people. By clearing out the mental clutter, you’ll routinely find people more easily and, once you find them, get a better interview.
Sally Lehrman holds the Knight Ridder Chair in Journalism in the Public Interest at Santa Clara University and is a member of SPJ’s Diversity Committee. Reach her at email@example.com.
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