Finding real people to interview

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One of the most difficult things to do as a reporter, I’ve found, is to talk to actual people.  Especially when I’m writing a story about communities who are disempowered or disadvantaged in some ways—people going through foreclosure, immigrant communities, the homeless, people living in low income housing communities, youth, etc.—finding people who can provide a voice that tells a personal story is not easy. (If there’s a court case involved, just forget about it.) I can get facts and statistics from many sources, but individual voices are also crucial.

Recently, I wrote two stories, one about immigrant union janitors who faced job loss as a result of the Obama administration’s audit policy, and one about immigrant janitors facing low wages and working conditions in supermarkets and department stores. Through my interviews with union leaders and advocacy groups, I was able to get some facts and statistics about what the issues are for immigrant janitors, but I felt that, in order to make a compelling piece, I needed to have testimony about some of the working conditions faced, and, in the case of the fired union workers, what happened to them. 

For the supermarket janitors, CTUL held a press conference, so I was able to hear stories from a couple of people there.  However, I needed more factual detail about some issues raised at the press conference, including sexual harassment and workers handling dangerous chemicals. I wasn’t able to talk directly to the people involved about exactly what happened, so those issues could not be included in my story. I was never able to work out with SEIU Local 26 organizers a time when a worker, a translator and I could be together at the same time, so that story had to go without an interview.

Often, nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups have no outreach or press relations person, and you have to call and call just to get someone to get back to you. When you ask for them to coordinate an interview with one of the people that the group serves, they either don’t have time or  feel they need to protect the communities they serve from the media. 

One example: my father does pro bono legal work with immigrants. I have asked him to help me set up an interview with one of his clients, but he says no—not because I’m his daughter, not even because it would affect the case, but because he is worried about losing trust with his clients.

To me that’s the key issue—trust.  People who work with disadvantaged communities hold a special position.  In order for the organization or advocate to be of use, they must be trusted. I understand the reluctance to trust the media, which can at times do more harm than good. But I also know that when I am able to listen to and re-tell stories from people who speak honestly and from the heart, my articles provide a much more articulate story about their situation.

Sometimes I get lucky. Some advocates are able to balance the issues of trust, privacy and telling individual stories.  David  Snyder with Jewish Community Action and Jay Clark, with Center for Urban for Regional Affairs, are two examples of community advocates who have been invaluable in connecting me to people at the heart of the issues I have written about (foreclosures in the case of Jewish Community Action and various issues surrounding immigrant youth in the case of CURA.) 

Trying to get interviews without the help of an intermediary to make the introduction between reporter and source can be difficult. There’s a certain amount of being a stalker that comes with reporting that is a bit humiliating. Recently I was working on a story about Frogtown Square, a low-income housing development on Snelling and University. I wanted to talk to a resident, and thought that if I went over there and stood outside the building, I could catch someone going in to the building. It turns out a lot of people hang out around there who don’t actually live there. After numerous attempts at starting conversations, I gave up on that tactic. Fortunately, I eventually was able to get an interview, with the help of a building manager.

I’ve found that most people actually want to tell their stories. Last year, working on a story about Seward Towers, I spent weeks trying to line up an interview with a resident.  I spoke with numerous staff members before someone finally was willing to find a person willing to speak with me. The resident was very kind and told me all about life in the building.  And then, while I was still in the building, he told others who lived there that they should come and talk to me.  People were excited that someone was actually listening to them—someone actually cared to know about their lives, and what the issues were that they faced.  I think that’s a valuable thing. Sometimes, we as human beings just want to be heard.