It’s easy for journalists to take sources for granted — to ask them questions until uncovering desired information and concluding the conversation faster than you can say, “Thanks for your time.” I admit that I’ve been guilty of this transgression, especially when completing a story on a tight deadline. A valuable thing I’ve taken away so far from my experience at the Missourian, however, is how important it is to build these relationships.
Today, an MU spokesman came to speak to my beat. Sure, he shared a ton of super useful information with us — much of it the same information I had received the three times I had heard him speak at Maneater budget meetings. This meeting was different, though, in that there was a rapport between my editor and him, and he began to extend that rapport to us. He told us how he sat in that very conference room as a Missourian reporter the first year Lee Hills Hall was open. He recounted how he proposed to his wife during mass at the local Catholic church. He talked about his four children and what it was like to raise a daughter with Down syndrome. He shared part of his life with us and, as a result, became less of “the MU spokesman” and more of, well, a person.
I’ve experienced similar relationship-building in the past few weeks, the most recent example being with the Larry James controversy. I first talked with this man a few weeks ago on the morning of the Feb. 1 protest for 30 to 45 minutes. One of the key organizers of the protest, he shared information about the protest and opinions about the hiring process, but we also briefly talked about the journalism school (he graduated from the magazine sequence) and his ties to MU. When I introduced myself that afternoon at the protest, he greeted me with a smile and firm handshake, eager to share the latest information with me.
I didn’t anticipate calling him again, but sure enough, I called him a few days later regarding a news conference, and he was happy to share all the information he had with me. Fast-forward a week, and we played phone tag for a few days as I sought new developments about actions being taken. I finally reached him today, and after he insisted I call him by his first name because we’ve spoken so much, he was eager to supply information about organizers of a now-canceled protest and a statement regarding the College of Education’s decision to cease the search for a division executive director. I credit much of this accessibility of information to the rapport we’ve established in the last few weeks, and working on this story has made me realize just how important that rapport is.
Journalists are good listeners, and they should start by listening to their sources. Listen to sources when they get sidetracked on political beliefs, experiences at MU or memories of the J-School (because, unsurprisingly, Columbia, Mo., has more journalists per capita than any other city in America). Be kind. Be courteous. Be curious. It takes you places.