Developing persistence and tenacity as a journalist (7 habits of successful journalists part 3)

Apple alone on bare tree. Image by Rodger Evans
Tenacity image by Rodger Evans

In the third of a series of post on seven habits often associated with good journalism I look at how persistence and tenacity can be taught in journalism training — and why it should be.

One of the earliest skills that broadcast journalists learn is how to conduct a vox pop. The vox pop is an attempt to ‘take the pulse’ of the public on a topical issue: the journalist will stand in a busy public place and ask passers-by to share their thoughts on the issue of the day.

The results will typically be used as part of a news package (not, it should be pointed out, as a standalone story), particularly when the news story in question doesn’t have many other interviews or visuals to draw on. Most are quickly forgotten.

Try it yourself: stand on a street corner with a microphone and an audio recorder, and ask people if they are prepared to be interviewed about a topical issue.

Most will refuse.

And this is the point. Failure is part of journalism. When you try to speak to people, many will refuse to speak to you, or ignore you entirely, and it is helpful to accept this from the start, and to see it for what it is: it is not failure; it is part of the job.

Put another way, most of the time our job as a reporter is not to get a response from everyone, but to find the people who are willing to speak.

I start with vox pops because, like a lot of people, I do not like them as pieces of journalism.

However, as a pedagogical tool — a process rather than a product — the vox pop has its merits.

Specifically, we seem to find it easier to accept failure when trying to grab passers-by than we do when cold-calling or approaching potential interviewees — but the principle is the same.

And once you have developed a bit of a hard skin from doing vox pops, you may find it less disheartening to be rejected or ignored when chasing more specific sources.

What comes after failure

 

 

The difference, of course, is that when we’re chasing interviewees failure is harder to deal with: we can’t just pick anyone off the street: we need that organisation to respond to accusations being levelled at it; or someone who has experienced this issue to share their personal experience; or a real expert to help readers (and us) to understand the ‘why’ or ‘how’ something is happening.

Failure is also harder to recognise. Although we might be told “no” outright, our calls and emails might more often be simply ignored, or the person may promise to respond, but continually delay doing so.

Now your failure is complete

In these cases we also need the wisdom to recognise that we are failing, and to respond to that.

When it comes to finding a source willing to speak, journalists have two ways of dealing with failure:

  • Find an alternative source, or:
  • Find an alternative approach

At this point we are moving from persistence to tenacity. As one source puts it:

“Persistence is doing something again and again until it works … Tenacity is using new data to make new decisions to find new pathways to find new ways to achieve a goal when the old ways didn’t work.”

Finding alternative sources can include some creative lateral thinking (creativity being one of the other habits, explored in a future post): how can you find other experts? Case studies? Other people whose response is relevant? Do you need to change the story to focus on a different sort of source?

 

 

A Reuters guide to Covering Trump the Reuters Way makes this advice explicit, in the context of an uncooperative White House:

“If one door to information closes, open another one. Give up on hand-outs and worry less about official access. They were never all that valuable anyway. Our coverage of Iran has been outstanding, and we have virtually no official access.

“What we have are sources. Get out into the country and learn more about how people live, what they think, what helps and hurts them, and how the government and its actions appear to them, not to us.”

In some cases, however, we don’t have that choice, and we need to be more persistent with one source.

This means being prepared to be a little bit annoying — remember it’s not our job to be everyone’s friend, and most sources will understand (and even respect) that it is our job not to give up easily when a response is important.

James B. Stewart explains this in his book Follow The Story:

“Our natural tendency is not to be rude and, once rebuffed, to stop trying. But I myself have often found myself talking to reporters I had hoped to avoid, simply to get them to stop calling. Persistence is effective.”

It is, of course, not always appropriate or ethical to be persistent. This is where alternative approaches involving empathy (dealt with in another future post) can be useful.

Persistence in reporting

Beyond persistence with sources, persistence can also be a virtue in reporting on a particular story — or, more broadly, the issue that a series of stories touches on.

In 2016, for example, BuzzFeed reported on a cottage industry of over 100 pro-Trump fake news websites “being run from a single town in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.”

Craig Silverman and Lawrence Alexander wrote in the report:

“The young Macedonians who run these sites say they don’t care about Donald Trump. They are responding to straightforward economic incentives: As Facebook regularly reveals in earnings reports, a US Facebook user is worth about four times a user outside the US. The fraction-of-a-penny-per-click of US display advertising — a declining market for American publishers — goes a long way in Veles.

“Several teens and young men who run these sites told BuzzFeed News that they learned the best way to generate traffic is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook — and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters.”

And that, it seemed, was that. A great story — important, surprising, and revealing. A job well done. Now, what’s next?

…But the reporters weren’t done. Two years later, they returned to the story to reveal there was more to it than first appeared:

“[A]fter reviewing social media posts, government records, domain registry information, and archived versions of fake news sites, as well as interviewing key players, BuzzFeed News, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and the Investigative Reporting Lab Macedonia can now reveal that Veles’ political news industry was not started spontaneously by apolitical teens.

“Rather, it was launched by a well-known Macedonian media attorney, Trajche Arsov — who worked closely with two high-profile American partners for at least six months during a period that overlapped with Election Day.”

Another type of persistence is demonstrated by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Drone Warfare project, which has been tracking US drone strikes for over 5 years. Its core methodology, as I wrote previously, is persistence:

“Bureau reporters monitor news reports, press releases and documents and over time have turned those ‘free text’ reports into a structured dataset that can be analysed, searched, and queried. That data — complemented by interviews with sources — has been used by NGOs and the Bureau has submitted written evidence to the UK’s Defence Committee.”

It was persistence that came to mind for Private Eye’s Ian Hislop, when asked to define investigative journalism by a UK inquiry panel looking into the future of investigative journalism. He replied that it was, in part:

“Saying the same true thing again and again and again and again until the penny drops. It is not just that Private Eye runs a story, its influence comes from repeating it over and over again.”

And persistence is something that can be learned. In the Freakonomics podcast ‘How To Get More Grit In Your Life’ the psychologist Angela Duckworth (who has written a book on the subject) explains that not only is a person’s persistence — “grit” — directly related to their level of success but that it “isn’t something you’re born with — it can be learned.” Notably, she connects it strong with passion — one of the other 7 habits explored in this series:

“Part of grit is actually doing enough exploration early on, quitting enough things early on, that you can find something that you’re willing to stick with. So I don’t know that there’s an easy prescription then for telling people how exactly to do that.

“But I think one misunderstanding, which is very dangerous, is to suggest to people that passion just falls into your lap, and it’s love at first sight. It’s not like that.”

Practice and hope are other key factors she identifies — but perhaps especially interesting for trainee journalists is the idea of purpose, specifically “connecting your work to people who are not you”:

“It’s a beyond-the-self purpose that I’m particularly observing in grit paragons. Even these people who have ostensibly very personal, or you could argue, selfish interests, they really see how their work is connected to other people. Athletes will say they feel connected to their teammates, to the sport as a whole. So I think that this third stage doesn’t happen at the front for most people.”

This is certainly something that we can teach, in two ways: firstly by showing examples that demonstrate the purpose of journalism in the world, and the impact that it has; and secondly by creating opportunities for teamwork where members share a common purpose.

Hope is useful to consider, too: providing opportunities for trainee journalists to problem-solve different scenarios can play an important role in building a belief that problems can be overcome.

In the next post I look at the first of the traits which is less commonly discussed as “essential” in journalistic circles: empathy, its role in journalism and how it can be cultivated.

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