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Tow Tea: What’s Your Angle?

In journalism, as in academic research, the main goal is to tackle important issues and trends. But developing a unique angle on these topics depends on having a complete understanding of a subject, especially for widely covered stories. As a group of experts at the  Tow Tea on Thursday, October 1, concluded, an exhaustively analyzed aspect of a topic will always be better than trying to explain a whole phenomenon with no clear path.

The talk, “What’s Your Angle? Strategies for Researching & Reporting on Complex Topics,” led by the Assistant Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Susan E. McGregor, also featured the Center’s Research Director, Claire Wardle, the City University of New York’s Social Journalism Director, Carrie Brown, and The Marshall Project’s Simone Weichselbaum.

Weichselbaum explained the importance of doing original investigative work on subjects such as criminal justice, which receive plenty of news coverage that’s all too often superficial. “It’s fascinating for me to actually work on a topic area that there’s not a lot of writing and not a lot of data on,” Wechselbaum said.

But going beyond the glancing coverage can be an arduous task, said Weichselbaum, who reported for over six years at organizations including The New York Daily News before focusing on police reforms for The Marshall Project –a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering America’s criminal justice system.

Like Weichselbaum-who said that a lack of public information shouldn’t deter journalists-Brown and Wardle acknowledged that even the most obscure subjects typically have at least one expert in the field. Finding someone who has thoroughly studied a subject is essential, Brown said, noting of journalists: “All too often we come into something with our [own] preconception.”

Despite their different backgrounds and experiences in the journalism field, the three panelists all agreed on the importance of good research and reporting before formulating a question on a complex topic. Brown, whose research focuses on understanding how newsrooms have changed culturally and strategically as a result of digital innovation, said she believes journalism is more of a service than a product. To that end, Brown said, finding people directly affected by a topic and listening to what they have to say is a crucial element of reporting. Rather than approach sources with specific questions, journalists should first seek to establish a rapport with open-ended questions such as: “What bothers you?” This sort of approach, Brown said, builds lasting relationships with sources so “you can keeping coming back.”

Known amongst students of the Columbia Journalism School for her original approaches to teaching and witty interactions, Wardle-who has just recently returned to academia from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees-compared journalism to an hourglass. The top section of the glass, she said, represents the broadest area of research on a subject. As the glass narrows, the research needs to explain why it matters or how it changes the status quo before expanding again into the bottom broad section addressing the “so-what?” questions that audiences of different knowledge levels will ultimately ask.

Towards the conclusion of the panel, the experts recognized the significance of dedicating enough time and resources to the primary stages of the journalistic and research processes. As they know from their own and their peers’ experiences, the more in-depth the research, the better prepared a journalist will be to find both new and relevant angles to even the most complex and controversial of topics.