By Alexandra Berzon
My track at my very first IRE conference inadvertently ended up something that could best be described as “How to talk to people.” I found myself drawn to the panels of legendary investigative journalists candidly describing how they get people to tell them things. My favorite part of reporting is the talking-to-people part, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how I do it.
The takeaway message from several panels on interview and source tactics was: Be relentless. Do anything short of lying to get information. “The trick is not going away,” said David Simon, a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun. “There’s no trick to it.” Beyond that, tactics differed. This is what I found myself discussing with folks late into the evening Saturday.
Eric Nalder of Hearst Newspapers said come super-prepared, and let your confidence impress the person you’re interviewing. (I was especially interested to learn that he will sometimes spend more than a day getting all of his notes in order for a single important interview. And he mediates before interviews, too). Walt Bogdanich of The New York Times said it also works to act dumb about a subject — especially when you are. “Say look, i don’t know anything about this, I’m sorry to waste your time. Help me out.” Also, act like you belong. I loved a story from Bogdanich about a stakeout. He and his "60 Minutes" crew were parked in a van, waiting to confront a doctor when a security guard came along and asked what they was doing. Bogdanich said, “Official business.” It took the security guard a good ten minutes before he realized this wasn’t a satisfactory answer. By then, the crew got its shot.
Simon, of course, went on to create "The Wire" about the same city the conference was held in. I enjoyed hearing about the best source he ever had—an FBI agent named John O’Neil who was the head of the public corruption squad in Baltimore. O’Neil went on to become the head of security at the Twin Towers, and died in the attack there. “He was the greatest reporter I have ever seen, except he had the power of subpoena,” Simon said. O’Neil never wanted to give away too much, so Simon would read him portions of stories and then joke that if they were inaccurate he’d be relegated to the cartoon bureau of the Sun. So they had a game: If something was accurate, O’Neil would say to him, “You’re not going to cartoon on this one.”
It was a cute story, and sitting there listening to it felt like a relief. For me, the last few months have brought the highs of winning the Pulitzer and, more recently, the lows of layoffs in my newsroom. It was a relief to sit through panel after panel and simply hear the people behind so many memorable stories that made an impact somewhere dissect how they do their jobs. That activity—to care about doing good reporting—did not feel quaint or out-of-date. The underlying and optimistic assumption here seemed to be that while the business model is unclear, investigations of powerful entities will continue in some form or another, if for no other reason than the public needs them to.
Alexandra Berzon began working for the Las Vegas Sun as a business reporter in 2007. Her reporting on the high death rate among Las Vegas construction workers on the Las Vegas Strip was recognized with the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.