The other side of the phone

On Tuesday afternoon afternoon, I was interviewed over the phone by a student in France.

She called the newsroom for a story she was writing for a class, and I volunteered to take the call. She asked me a couple of questions about the journalism school and about traditions in the j-school and at Mizzou.

Tell me about a tradition you have at your school. (the exact words of the question, and my answers, escape me).

I mean, we have this archway with these two stone dragons in it, and if you talk when you’re walking under it, you’ll fail your next test. I adhere to that one pretty rigidly.

At one point, I’m pretty sure I sounded like an MU brochure when she asked me about j-school students working in the newsroom, and I fired off something about how the Missouri Method believes in learning by doing.

Toward the end of the conversation, I found myself asking the infamous question posed to j-schoolers everywhere:

So, is this going to be published, or is this for a class?

She told me it was for a class, and I felt more at ease — she’s a student, just like me, trying to figure out how to be a journalist. We’re both learning this profession together.

When I hung up the phone, though, I started to think about the conversation I’d just had.

When I wasn’t quite sure what she was asking, my answers muddled, confused and half-hearted. I wondered to myself what her story was actually about, and I wondered if I’d been able to give my answers well enough for her to know what I was explaining.

Then I started thinking about my own interviewing.

Sometimes, when an interview doesn’t go as well as planned, I confusedly wonder what went wrong. I mean, some sources are naturally chatty or precise or willing to share than others, but I think there’s more to it than that.

I forget that interviewing can be an unnatural act, especially since I find myself giving them so frequently. I secretly hope that my sources come with ready-made anecdotes and glorious explanations and beautiful quotes that will rain from their mouths as soon as I ask the first question.

But the truth is, interviewing involves a lot of give and take and practice and preparation and understanding on both sides. My sources have to fully understand my story and my questions before they can give good answers. I have to be extra willing to admit what I don’t know, and to do my homework beforehand if I can learn it myself. I have to ask the questions that clarify what I don’t understand. I have to phrase my thoughts in ways that open my sources up to conversation.

It’s not that I don’t do those things to an extent already — my interviewing is improving fairly substantially — but I’ve got a lot of improving to do. I’m still a young journalist, and I still make my share of mistakes in terms of not preparing as well as I should or not giving my questions the thought they deserve. I forget that my sources aren’t in my head and that I’m not in theirs and that part of my job is bridging that gap.

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