“We can’t write the beautiful narrative stories that we all dream of unless we can get some things from the mouths of our sources. They must be comfortable enough to tell us anything. In journalism school, no one called the interactions between journalists and sources relationships, but that’s what they are.”
– Isabel Wilkerson
The learning objectives for this chapter are as follows:
- To learn the difference between primary and secondary research, and the function of each as it relates to narrative journalism.
- To understand the various types of primary and secondary research, and the tools and skills that are available when conducting any form of research.
Research is EVERYTHING to a journalist, and though it sounds cliche, it is entirely true. Not only is research the foundation of any piece of narrative journalism and almost always drives the narrative, but it also informs the journalist and keeps the journalist honest. Regardless of the journalist’s hopes or expectations for a story, the research is the most important piece, and this means the journalist has to listen to the research and follow the research.
For the sake of ease, we’ll define research into two categories: 1.) , and 2.)
Primary research is the research that the journalist acquires first-hand, be it interviews, surveys, experiments, personal experience or observation, etc. This research gets us as close as possible to the source and the “moment” of a story. This is the sort of research that drives the story in a piece of narrative journalism.
The interview is the most crucial form of primary research for a narrative journalist. This is where we can get closest to the heart of any story, as nearly every story revolves around some aspect of the human experience, and well, people are, of course, the key to deepening our understanding the human experience. The interview is also the most challenging form of primary research, as it often takes a great deal of work to set-up and schedule interviews, as well as to document those interviews, be it with a recording device, note-taking, or some other method. In addition, meaningful interviews take time—like a long time—as the quote by Wilkerson attests to. Your subjects will only be invested in an interview if you are invested in them—who they are and what they have to say. “To complete an assignment” or “to ask a few questions” are not very compelling reasons for a story subject to open up to you.
Because of the complexity of the interview format and the many factors that determine what is a “good” or “bad” interview, there is really no right way to conduct an interview. My advice is to find your feet by doing. Some basics, however, are as follows:
1.) Yes/No questions are not helpful.
2.) Silences are okay, even good at times (they often lead to our subjects revealing more).
3.) While prep questions can be helpful, don’t be afraid to follow the conversation (adhering to a reformatted script will hinder the flow).
4.) The best “interviews” don’t feel like interviews at all, but rather like conversations with close friends.
Surveys can be incredibly valuable as a way to gauge public opinion on anything. This can be as simple as a shared experience on a college campus, or something as complex as public policy and the impact on a certain neighborhood. With the prevalence of social media, surveys can be conducted remotely with ease, and this is an excellent method to get a ‘sense’ of an issue’s impact on groups of people.
While experiments often bring to mind laboratories and research in the sciences, experiments can also be invaluable to narrative journalists. For a journalist, experiments can be anything that the journalist partakes in to understand something on a more immediate, personal level. For example, I spent my first semester of graduate school experimenting with garbage waste production. My roommates and I had a competition of who could go the longest without creating a single item of garbage (i.e. something that couldn’t be recycled or composted). This ’experiment’ taught me an incredible amount about the drawbacks of our consumer culture and how much time and effort it takes to actually lessen our impact on the systems of waste disposal. I don’t believe I could have learned any of that information, or at least not in the same way, without actually experimenting.
This might seem obvious having explored the various primary sources available to us, but your personal experience and observations can and should be drawn upon as you craft your stories. Not only does this apply to lived experience, but your own photographs, your video footage, and any other documentation of your first-hand experience helps to bring your readers into a story.
Secondary research is research that is acquired through previous publications, whether they be articles, books, databases, reviews, etc. This sort of research can be found in libraries, on the web, or any other place one might look for previously published work. This is the sort of research used to provide context surrounding the main storyline.
Though it should go without saying, libraries are some of the best resources any journalist or researcher have available to them. Not only is there an abundance of sources in libraries, free of charge, but there are experts in libraries whose sole job is to help you research more effectively. Seek out these resources!
As everything seems to move online, so do our library resources, and everything that was once available in libraries can now be accessed from your home, as long as you have a computer and internet connectivity. While the ‘great big web’ can be equally productive and counterproductive, it is often a good place to start your research, as a quick google search or database visit can provide a lot of direction.
This is, in my opinion, the unsung hero of secondary sources. Historical archives are available, and though they often take more time and effort to locate and gain access to, the documents cataloged in archives are some of the most treasured pieces of research you will ever find. You can seek out actual physical archives in museums, etc., or you can visit the places of interest that have physical records—for example, tax records at your local township. If you like a good treasure hunt, archives might just be itch you’ve been waiting to scratch.
Both forms of research are essential to any piece of narrative journalism. Without the primary, the narrative suffers; without the secondary, the narrative can seem flimsy or superficial. Context is crucial for the reader to fully understand the and of a piece (see Chapter 4 for more on this).
Primary research is any research that you, the journalist, collects through first-hand experience (i.e. interviews, surveys, experiments, personal observations, etc.)
Secondary research is any research that someone else has collected first-hand (or second-hand) and that you access through libraries, databases, archives, etc.
Angle refers to the author’s perspective on the story subject (i.e. what, specifically, the author is trying to communicate).
Scope refers to the ‘narrative’ scope of an article (i.e. how much narrative coverage (scene/dialogue/etc.) is included in an article).