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Of Twitter, time, and talking: Reflections on interviewing political journalists

Journalists are busy people. It can be hard enough to get a hold of them and even more difficult to get them to meet for coffee as participants in a research project. I braced myself to weather the storm I was certain would come as I embarked upon my project’s field work. After all, I thought, I am about to enter the news industry as one of the many players to compete for a journalist’s attention. To my surprise, things took a slightly different turn.

I recently wrote an introductory blog post about my Tow Fellow project, “Beyond 140 characters.” The piece kicked off a mini-series of blog posts that will outline the project’s key findings on how, why, and under what circumstances political journalists engage with Twitter and which outcomes (both actual and sought after) journalists’ efforts on the platform yield. Here, “engagement” refers to all of journalists’ considerations and activities related to designing, managing, and monitoring a Twitter profile for journalistic and non-journalistic purposes, focusing primarily on active, but also on passive uses of the platform (e.g. tweeting and interactions with other platform users vs. merely following other Twitter profiles or discussions without publishing or sharing any content). This post is a reflection on my field work and provides transparency for how data was gathered. But it also discusses what it was like to interview political journalists, and this tells us something about the myriad intricacies of their occupational realities in a time of post-industrial journalism.

If you’ve ever done research, you know that the choice of method determines the kind of data you obtain, and, ultimately, how this allows you to shed light on your chosen topic. For the “Beyond 140 characters” project it quickly became clear that if I wanted to find out about journalists’ subjective experiences and perceptions of Twitter, I needed to speak with them directly. Expert interviews became the method of choice. This qualitative research technique allows for in-depth inquiries into subjects’ individual perspectives and points of view that can be difficult to gain access to via other methodologies. Because of the semi-structured, conversational style of the interview, interviewees may speak more readily and spontaneously about the meanings and factors that motivate some of their choices and behaviors.

Access, recruiting, and the art of pleasant persistence

The sampling rationale followed four pre-defined criteria. First, as this study focuses on legacy media organizations, each journalist had to work for one of the top 25 commercial broadsheet newspapers or top three cable news channels in the United States. Second, selected journalists had to specialize in the genre of political news, as ascertained by a combination of news organizations’ staff pages and recurring authorship of political news stories. Third, due to the study’s primary concern with active Twitter usage, journalists had to have a minimum amount of platform engagement (i.e. at least 10 tweets per week during a select period). Fourth, journalists were selected in a manner so as to reflect aspects of diversity within their occupational group (e.g. age, gender, professional socialization, and position within the employing organization’s hierarchy).

I reached out to more than 100 journalists and often followed up three more times. Some were unresponsive. Some declined (either because they didn’t want to contribute, were too busy, or because their news organization had explicitly told them not to participate). Some accepted. Some interviews fell through because of continuing scheduling conflicts, others required a few attempts as journalists were pulled into covering stories as they emerged. The news cycle doesn’t stop, as one journalist reminded me when we were trying to set up our conversation:

We can talk, assuming news doesn’t break.

The digital age has fundamentally changed the way journalists do their jobs and the online environment more often than not exacerbates existing pressures. While journalists have more visibility than ever before, this does not necessarily mean they are easily accessible or readily available. Even among journalists who spoke with me, time constraints remained a central reason why some were initially conflicted about contributing to my study. One journalist later outlined those pressures and what it is like to be a journalist today:

Intense. Intense demands to provide content. Intense demands to share information all the time. Intense demands to be correct and accurate. And intense demands to promote your material; to promote it across television, Twitter, radio, TV and print and the web. And that’s a lot. […] Now you have to share it in a compelling way, you have to tell the story on Twitter.  You have to tell it in other ways.  So the demands on your time are significant.

The final sample was comprised of 26 participants, of which 24 worked in editorial staff roles and two in editorial leadership. 23 journalists were employed by a broadsheet newspaper, but only three worked for a cable news channel, somewhat limiting the insights into the possible diversity of perspectives and experiences among broadcast journalists. I interviewed 20 male and six female journalists. The following graph shows the sample distribution by age group and gender:

 

Sample characteristics_age group and gender

 

The interview as a platform for journalistic reflection

For a researcher, participant-based data collection can be intense. You are always on and ready to (even spontaneously) fit into journalists’ schedules. You are trying to make it as easy as possible for them to meet with you (inadvertently becoming a quasi-connoisseur of a news organization’s local coffee shop scene) or talk on the phone (e.g. taking calls when they are in between meetings, while commuting or traveling). While consistency across interview modes and settings is desirable, there are practical challenges. Realistically, you are far from being on top of their list of priorities and you take the chances you get.

Once I got the chance to interview those 26 journalists, a curious thing happened. Many of them suddenly overrode their previous concerns centered on time constraints (along the lines of “your project sounds fascinating, but it’s just so busy right now” or “I would only have 10 to 15 minutes max”). The vast majority of journalists ended up speaking with me for much longer than they had initially said they were able to.

Take a look at the following graph that visualizes interview length based on interview mode for all 26 study participants:

 

Tableau_interview mode and interview length

 

As you can see, no interviews were shorter than 25 minutes. In fact, over half were longer than 45 minutes and almost a third even lasted up to one and a half hours. Unsurprisingly, face-to-face conversations tended to be longer than phone calls. As a matter of principle, this is not to say that longer interviews are always more insightful. But we may reasonably expect that a 90-minute conversation allows greater opportunity to ask questions, clarify statements and follow up, and thus yield richer, more in-depth data than a 15-minute chat.

Overall, the vast majority of journalists confirmed that Twitter has long become pertinent to their everyday-work. Yet, two distinct realities of engagement and discourses about it emerged, which perhaps relate to the substantial difference between journalists’ projected availability and actual time spent speaking with me.

1. Some journalists have a carefully curated presence on the platform. Their engagement stems from deliberate and conscious efforts and is often goal-oriented. These journalists make a substantial and strategic investment into the platform, and Twitter is something they feel they genuinely have a stake in. Naturally, they have a lot to say about it, but they rarely get a chance to discuss the distinct considerations, choices and evaluations that shape their engagement. One journalist explained:

I mean you’re trying to not only create a news source with your Twitter account, you’re trying to cultivate your own brand as a reporter; your reputation.  And Twitter is a useful tool for building your professional reputation because if you think about it, you have immediate access to some of the most influential people in the country and your followers to their phones.  They’re reading you in real-time.  So not only can you offer them smart analysis and reporting, you can also show about where you went to school or you can show about the kind of things you do once in a while with your life.  And it is the face you give to the public.

2. Other journalists are less strategic and preoccupied with their presence on Twitter. One journalist told me:

[I] thought about some things and others I just roll… just roll with.

Many admitted that the interview provided them with a rare opportunity for reflection and offered a platform for contemplating their relationship with and approach to Twitter, away from their workplace and digital lives. For example, at the end of the interview, one journalist said:

It’s hard to believe… we just talked for almost an hour and a half. I guess I had so much more to say than I realized. You know… You know in my job I don’t really get the chance to think about many of these things.

Learning from the content and context of interviews

To conclude, I would like to highlight two key take-aways from the field work stage of this project. First, prepare to be persistent, continue to follow up with potential interviewees, and accept that some journalists cannot or may not want to speak with you. You rely on journalists’ voluntary participation in your project, and many may be extraordinarily generous with their time, providing you with rich data for research. Second, consider the context of your interviews, e.g. the interviewee’s motivations to speak with you, as well as spatial, temporal and social aspects of the interview, etc. This will help you to be reflexive about the interview content, but also aide in better understanding journalists’ contemporary occupational environment and how they find themselves in a web of demands, risks and opportunities. This adds an important perspective to the subsequent stages of data analysis and interpretation.

Finally, I am utterly grateful to those 26 individuals who spent their valuable time telling me about their engagement and experiences with Twitter.

I will soon be blogging about the project’s key findings. So watch this space for the next post in the “Beyond 140 character” series.

[Image credit: E. Vargas, CC BY-SA 2.0]