In our hyper-connected world, journalists are bound to think their jobs can’t get any better, what with social media filling communication gaps once considered too broad to hurdle.
That’s because it’s possible now to reach out from 10 miles or 1,000 miles and see what others see, hear what others hear — in effect, be where they are while we’re where we are. All that’s required is a smartphone, a tablet computer, and insight or a sense of humor quick enough to capture the crucial moment.
But while we’re hearing and seeing these other people’s experiences, we’re at the same time not actually hearing or seeing these people. One can have thousands of “friends” via Facebook or tens of thousands of “followers” via Twitter without actually knowing who these people are, a dichotomy that over time is bound to redefine what friendships and followings mean to us.
This dichotomy has spawned a wealth of analyses about the value of social media and whether humans are losing a key quality about themselves by not often meeting face-to-face, because these in-person meetings provide a wealth of information that digitized discourse does not.
Journalists coming into the profession today need to realize this, as this realization may mean the difference between producing good stories or great ones. By meeting interview subjects and sources in person, and not relying so much on technology, a journalist can:
Watch body language — Fear, happiness, anxiety, anticipation, these are traits not even Apple’s FaceTime can accurately detect. The casual twisting of one’s wedding ring, or tugging on a suit coat, or the bouncing foot at the end of a crossed leg, all show that the interviewee probably has other thoughts vying for attention between answers to a journalist’s questions. Pay attention to these quirks; they could point the way to the truth of the matter.
See the other side — Experiencing what life is like from other people’s perspectives opens one’s mind to their reality far better than a text or tweet or phone call. The government official begging for more funds from behind a marble desk likely won’t generate the kind of sympathy from readers as would the official who shares desk space with one or more colleagues, or has no desk, due to budget cuts. The welfare mother living in suburbia is sure to have a different if no less poignant story from the one who lives over a heating grate in an urban sidewalk. Often, knowing the story means knowing where the story comes from and seeing it for yourself.
Find common ground — Face-to-face meetings give both sides in an interview the opportunity to size up one another. They also provide journalists a means to finding common interests — favorite films, football teams or food, for example — the discovery of which can introduce a degree of trust that distance and technology can’t. If, say, the interview subject is a Packers fan (as I am), that key personal detail may stay buried unless I see the person walk up wearing a team jersey or swinging a Packers keychain. Otherwise, the journalist misses a chance to connect at a deeper level and the interviewee misses out knowing that reporters can be Packers fans, too.
Make good impressions — Along this line, face-to-face meetings break down barriers that interviewees presume always exist between journalists and the public. My entire career, first-time interviews have started out stiff and hesitant because neither of us is sure how the other will act initially. Convening over coffee or lunch gives journalists the opportunity to make a good, friendly, professional first impression that could be the catalyst for regular exchanges of information.
Learn secrets — In-person interviews also can be where people feel more comfortable, and safer, revealing off-the-record details. We never know for sure who’s watching or reading our electronic correspondence; a face-to-face meeting far removed from sources of tension opens conversations to more detail and color than a hushed or vague exchange via phone or email.
Technology has made talking to one another easier than ever, but it hasn’t necessarily made us easier to understand. Take time to meet people face-to-face and reduce the doubt and uncertainty that have sprouted like weeds throughout our digital world.
David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and STLtoday.com, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.