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Tow Tea Takeaway: Engaging Expert Communities 10/30/2013

How do you report on a niche area if you’re not an expert in that area? How can you get experts to trust you? At the most recent Tow Tea, on Oct. 30, a variety of journalists who report in specific fields — from Syria to science to health care — spoke to students about successful strategies for engaging experts in the course of reporting.

Marguerite Holloway, Assistant Professor and Director, Science and Environmental Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School, offered three key tips on how approach an interview with a scientist about their recent work:

1. Do at least 30 minutes of background research on their field. You won’t understand everything, but at least be familiar with themes.

2. Read the study.

3. Start the interview with a very specific question about their methods or results. “Find something really picky and detailed, really inside their world, and then ask a question about that,” said Holloway.

She also suggested being aware of the collaborative nature of scientific research. If you can acknowledge that you’re aware — and can convey in your reporting — that science is a team effort, then you will engender a lot of trust from science experts, says Holloway.

Jeanne Pinder, founder and CEO of Clear Health Costs, a publication that compares the cost of medical procedures and medicine around the country, says the two most important things to remember are: how to ask and who to ask.

She also recommends being very specific when requesting information. For example, she says rather than calling a clinic and saying “I’d like to know your price for an MRI”, she says that she’s calling from a new independent consumer health organization and then quotes the exact catalogue name and number for the MRI and says she’d like to know its cash or shelf price.

Pinder also encourages finding sources who are deeply interested in their work and subject matter and offer them anonymity. “The Deep Throats and the whistleblowers are out there,” said Pinder. In order to connect with them, though, it helps for them to know who you are. “Be present, public and available,” says Pinder.

Lara Setrakian, the founder and CEO of News Deeply (with Syria Deeply being the most well-known of its projects) says she looks for “experts at insight and experts in information.” But even more importantly, she warns against looking for the most well-known scholars in a field, rather than those who are less known, but know a particular subject better (such as someone who might be a Middle East expert, but not an expert on Syria).

“You have to be extremely conscious and selective in differentiating expertise versus eminence,” said Setrakian. While some experts will decline an interview if they don’t know the subject matter well, she warns that others will put forward their opinions regardless. “Some experts have humility and some experts will talk to you anyway, but it’s up to you to choose what will be a worthwhile insight”.

Setrakian noted the importance of good social graces, and warned against going behaving “like a bull in a china shop” in a foreign environment.

Duy Linh Tu, Assistant Professor at Columbia Journalism School and the director of Digital Media spoke about his work deepsouth, a film about HIV sufferers in the southern states of the U.S.

Linh Tu said that building trust with sources is key. In the case of deepsouth, it took 19 months of regularly visiting one potential subject before he agreed to be filmed.

“The camera is not the device that scares people,” he said. “It’s the person – the stranger – that scares them.”

About the Panelists: 

Marguerite Holloway, Assistant Professor and Director, Science and Environmental Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School

Kristin Nolan, Development and Educational Programs Director for Syria Deeply @krisnewsdeeply

Jeanne Pinder , Founder and CEO of Clear Health Costs- @chcosts

Lara Setrakian, Founder and CEO of News Deeply – @Lara

Duy Linh Tu, Assistant Professor of Professional Practice & Director, Digital Media Program, Columbia Journalism School – @duylinhtu