How going back to basics made me think harder about what I think is basic.
By: Sarah Ladik, IRP Community Journalism Trainer
DEER LAKE FIRST NATION, ON – There are many good habits you develop as a journalist.
Bring an extra pen. Bring a pencil in case it’s cold out and your pen freezes. Bring more batteries and SD cards than any one person could reasonably need. Assume no one will ever call you back when they say they will. Leave the really tough question for last in case your interviewee storms out or hangs up on you or something. That kind of thing.
Habits, though, should not go unexamined.
Last week, our Deer Lake student press club met to talk about interviewing. What makes a good interview question? What do you start with? What is fair game and what is out of bounds?
I very quickly realized that “just feel it out” is not as useful an answer as one might like, and that I do not in fact “feel out” every interview situation from the ground up. There is a structure there that I fall back on.
First, get the basics: How do you spell your name? What’s your title? What pronouns would you like me to use for this piece? What is your involvement in this event/issue?
Then, we get into the meatier stuff. Not in so many words, but basically I’m always asking why do you care? Why should we care? What does this mean for this community?
Often, the questions we ask reveal more about our own concerns and the track the story will take than we might like. As someone who is now engaged primarily in encouraging other people to ask questions as opposed to doing the asking myself, I am learning a lot.
At this particular press club, we were lucky enough to host two medical students from the Northern Ontario School of Medicine in Thunder Bay, who are in the community for a month as part of their coursework. The press club students asked the kinds of questions we had talked about, like what inspired the women to be doctors and go through this program, what the program was all about, and how they were liking Deer Lake so far.
We were running short on time, so I called it a day and thanked everyone for coming. One student left her paper where she had written out questions for the soon-to-be doctors, including the last one that she didn’t get a chance to ask.
“Are you coming back?”
I would never have thought to ask this question, but after seeing it, I realized how deeply pertinent it is to those meaty queries I had talked about earlier. Why should we care? What does this mean for this community?
This is a perfect example of why this Indigenous Reporters Program is so essential.
The questions we ask are inescapably reflective of what we think is important, and just as deeply rooted in our lived experiences. Having people in First Nations communities in northern Ontario asking their own questions is and always will be infinitely better than people like me assuming we know what’s important on their behalf.
Anybody reading this is probably already sold on the need for more Indigenous (and every other kind of) representation in newsrooms, but this little moment with a question I would not have thought to ask is an excellent instance of exactly why that is.
As for myself, it has made me re-examine my own habits around interview questions. Do my questions reflect the concerns of whatever community I’m working for as best they can? Does my format work equally well with everyone, or should I be more flexible?
More than that, should I even be the one doing the asking? How do I better hold space for the people who should be asking the questions? What can we do in the meantime, while we wait for the press club students to grow up?
Since I started as a reporter I have been beating down a path for myself in terms of how I approach this work, and though I like to think I’ve learned a few things along the way, it’s nothing to the vast enormity of things I do not and cannot know.
When you’re in the thick of things, reporting and producing and publishing, it can be hard to examine habits built up over time and see if they are really serving your readership, your subject, and yourself. Just thinking about what may feel like the small things – in this case, the habits I have around interviews – can and should result in changes that I hope will make the world a better and safer place for everyone in it.