Prensa Europea by Javier Micora

Student journalism 101: how not to ask questions

It was the second semester of my first year of journalism studies, and my cohort were finally being let loose on the unsuspecting public, having been herded in to the  studio to record phone interviews for broadcast on the university news program.

I had taken very little interest in local new events up until that point, having dreamed myself into a future career as a feature writer somewhere on Fleet Street. This unfortunately was not at all relevant to the task at hand, which was to find a news story in my regional Queensland town.

Half heartedly and at the last minute, I’d come up with a not-very-novel set of questions on a major shopping complex under construction in the CBD, and armed with these I phoned a local retailer for his opinion on the development.

I am not sure he gave me any of his thoughts on whether the new centre would affect his business, but he gave me several thoughts on my repetitive and somewhat irrelevant questions. I had thought myself a hard hitting journo in the making up until this point, but there was nothing hard hitting about my wavering voice and stumbling apologies as I hung up the phone, story-less.

Email has made time wasting much more efficient from a student’s perspective, and it’s fairly common for me to receive long lists of inane questions in my work inbox. Sometimes, they even come with a due date for response. Handy!

While I’m a little heartened to see that university is still a place where the great traditions of last minute assignment panic and minimal effort passes are being upheld, I find myself wanting to offer these baby journos some helpful advice.

Hi Student,

Thanks for your email – it’s great to see students engaging with community issues. I really like the way you took the time to copy and paste a list of 16 generic questions, then shot them through ‘to whom it may concern’ via the feedback form on our website.

One of the first things I learned as a journalism student is that relationship building and research are key to good journalism.

You’re right that I am ‘extremely busy’, so it’s important to keep your questions to the point by doing your research. Questions 4, 7, 8, 11 and 12 are answered on our website – it’s a little bit unprofessional to ask an interviewee questions you could easily have answered by spending just a few more minutes online. I imagine you too are ‘extremely busy’, which might go some way to explaining why you were hoping I would write your assignment for you.

In terms of relationship building, a long list of generic questions aimed rather vaguely at a person whose name you haven’t used (hint: also on the website) doesn’t get things off to a good start.

As a journalist, no one owes you anything – nobody is obliged to answer your questions unless they want to, so developing and maintaining good relationships with people is critical to getting a story. And let’s be clear: you are not a journalist. You are a student, with no experience, no connections, and no friends. No one has any reason to give you anything, so you need to be charming. Very charming.

Sending an initial email via a contact page is fine, but rather than copy-pasting your boring question bucket list you might find you have better luck by introducing yourself and asking if anyone might be available for interview.

Alternately, and more effectively, you could have rung the office, introduced yourself, and asked for media contact details. As it turned out, the message form on our contact page sends through to our media officer, but you could just have easily sent your list of demands questions to the IT department, the work experience student, or an automated system.

Best of luck with your assignment. Given that it’s week 9, I imagine it’s due rather soon?



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