Where do journalists get their ideas from?

7 + 1 ideas for social distancing journalism

In times of social distancing, research has become difficult. How do you write gripping and personal about people when you are not allowed to meet them?

By Anja Reiter and Jakob Vicari

Journalists are considered to be systemically relevant. We have known that since Corona at the latest. But this concession does not give us freedom of fools. Nowadays we have to ask ourselves in every research: Is my story of such great social relevance that I can take a risk for myself and my fellow human beings? Or can I replace personal contact with a digital meeting?

In many cases we will opt for the second version in the coming weeks. When we interview athletes, politicians, artists or CEOs, write colorful stories about curious business ideas or unusual inventions - then we don't have to meet the protagonists of our stories face to face, but can switch to digital channels.

Fortunately, digitization provides us with many helpful tools for making contact, making video calls and communicating. We arrange to meet on Skype or Zoom, let us take a video camera through factory halls, doctor's offices, laboratories or home offices. We have collected helpful tips for you on how we can research exciting stories despite remote journalism - and what we have to pay attention to.

1. Put on the reporter's gaze - despite digital communication

Dare to step back on the monitor, look to the side. If we are normally “on research”, we are particularly vigilant, curious and suspicious. We scrutinize every gesture of our interview partners, perceive the smallest details in their office and surroundings, talk to secretaries and look into the back room. At the end we note all impressions in the notebook - even those that are not so pleasant to our counterpart.

If we meet on a digital channel, many of these impressions are lost. Our interview partners have more options for self-presentation. It is better for you to control our gaze: Unpleasant things are hidden behind the screen, in front of which our interlocutors present themselves as they want to be seen.

What way out do we have? Awareness is the first step. Explicitly ask to turn the camera. Be brave - and ask even more precisely, follow up and confront than usual. Ask the interviewees to take you through the apartment, the workshop or the deserted foyer.

As always: get more opinions, make additional calls. Through research, we know who is not so friendly to our interviewees, we have collected these voices and confront the other person with the criticism. A video camera also captures surprising reactions. The more voices, the more colorful and gripping our story becomes.

And one more thing: the trend to make research channels more transparent existed even before Corona - not least as a reaction to "lying press" attacks. In times of corona, such disclosures have become even more important. Our readers have a right to know how stories were created. You are curious to see how journalists work under the difficult conditions. Therefore, reveal how you communicated with your protagonists and where your information comes from.

2. Let the protagonists tell for themselves

Many media sites these days are full of first-person minutes and Corona Diaries. In it, journalists give a voice to those with whom personal encounters are currently not possible. Sometimes these formats may get out of hand. For some topics, however, their use is quite consistent.

When the “New York Times Magazine” lets the first responders talk about the Corona crisis, that's an impressive and powerful feature. The fact that the protagonists are not photographed by professional photographers is due to the crisis. The shaky selfies do not harm the personal reading impression. In another piece, the “New York Times” shows how musicians and dancers practice in the home office - with short video sequences and personal reports. This can also be a possibility: asking protagonists to get creative and provide material. Another positive example: In the series “What you can experience at home” in the Elbvertiefung newsletter, “DIE ZEIT” asks various people for active tips for quarantine.

When it comes to controversial and critical questions, first-person minutes must of course not be left without critical contradictions. The same manual rules apply here as in non-pandemic times. Even supposed over-experts and “explainers of the nation” like Christian Drosten and his NDR-Info-Podcast need a questioning counterpart from the journalistic counter-world.

3. Report from the personal environment

If journalists cannot meet strangers, they reflect on their personal environment. They write about how their own children experience homeschooling, their spouses cope with everyday hospital life, or the old relatives deal with loneliness. You make self-experiments and do essayistic navel gazing. Sometimes these stories are embarrassing and unmasking, sometimes just boring or redundant.

Sometimes these insights are also enriching. When a pop critic of the “Los Angeles Times” uses the quarantine time to approach a hated band (The Doors) in a self-experiment, this is an original approach. If our freelancer colleague Katharina Jakob faces her old creative advisor from acting times and completes a ten-week program, we can all learn something from it. And when the reef reporter Gerhard Richter sits down in the forest with his typewriter to do “field writing”, his natural revelations distract us a little from the crisis.

And: If already the hundredth home office self-experiment, then at least informed and with different sources - like here in “The Atlantic”.

4. Data instead of action

Many editorial offices are currently hoping for original and out-of-the-way topic suggestions that can also be implemented well in the Corona period. Why not experiment with a data journalism project? Data (not just about Corona) are patient and can be edited in the home office without any human contact. The joint data research carried out by the media magazine “Zapp” and the data journalists from NDR Data showed how this is done: The editors are taking a critical look at the much-cited statistics from Johns Hopkins University. The Riffreporter Christian Schwägerl and Joachim Budde reconstruct in a long text based on tweets, televised speeches and press releases, why the processes around the Heinsberg protocol should give us stomach ache.

Instead of classic data journalism, however, these days you can also begin with an experiment on the “journalism of things”. In Jakob Vicari's blog there are countless instructions on how networked objects can enrich journalism. Or you can orient yourself to Moritz Metz, who gives DIY recommendations for the small and big challenges of everyday life in his Deutschlandfunk Nova series “Netzbasteln”.

5. Reports and portraits from the virtual world

Reports from the virtual space can be just as gripping, close and personal as reports from the world of contact. The topic and format just have to be right. How about a report about an online hackathon? The coverage of the #wirvsvirus hackathon shows how it can work.

The freelance science journalist Eva Wolfangel already showed in pre-pandemic times how one can report on life in the virtual world. For “Mein Leben als Avatar” she was even nominated for the German Reporter Award in the category “Best Reportage” (published in “Reportagen” magazine No. 30). Since then she has been reporting regularly on life in digital space, which draws the reporter into a vortex of events:

"Where am I? I am in the future. And at the same time I am in the here and now. I am in reality. And at the same time in something completely different, something of the quality of a dream. I am in virtual reality. "

Eva Wolfangel in “My Life as an Avatar”

6. Collaborative Research

If the reporter can't be everywhere, then she can at least catch people's gaze. We shouldn't leave citizen journalism to the “BILD reader reporter”. The approach deserves to produce more formats. Formats like “Who owns the city?” from Correctiv show how successful this can be.

That is good for journalism. He descends from the hill on which he made himself so comfortable - to the readers. This also and especially works in times of Corona. An impressive example: How are we? from the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”. For this focus, the editorial team collects moods, reports and quotes from readers - and thus generates a collective corona diary. A nurse notes the impressive sentence in it: "People only get it when death begins."

Another positive example: In “How is the North doing?” Asks the NDR for cell phone videos from citizens. The app was set up in no time at all, where you can send in short videos with impressions from everyday life in the coronavirus. The first submissions show people making music, the online grandma and a man playing garden golf. We think: Researching collectively, freelancers can do that too! Make calls in your podcasts - and suggest collective projects to editorial offices.

7. Drone journalism

The pictures are oppressive: The Washington Post shows a freshly prepared mass grave on Hart Island. A grave for those who will die of Covid-19 without loved ones. Typically around 25 bodies are buried here every week, they say. According to the New York Times, there are currently 25 bodies a day. These are pictures of great horror - taken by a drone.

With the help of drone journalism, we can look where it would otherwise be difficult to get. Another example are the pictures of abandoned places. The “Süddeutsche Zeitung” has summarized them in the story “Postcards we never wanted to get”. She calls the approach “a virtual world tour through the new solitude”.

So use the free time and the deserted fields - and get yourself a drone. Flying the device has never been easier than it is today. On YouTube there are numerous instructions on how to fly a drone in the field of vision. Good luck - and lots of valuable journalistic insights!

7 + 1 Arrange to meet the protagonist for a walk

And if all that doesn't help: put on your mask and make an appointment! After all, discussions and interviews at a distance are still allowed - the “Tagesthemen” or Moritz Uslar in his new ZEIT series “At a distance of one and a half meters” show how it is done. After all, lively portrait reports in particular need personal encounters. How do you feel when the protagonist is present? How does the interviewee move? All of this can only be found out face to face.

Our suggestion: make an appointment with the person you want to portray - preferably for a walk in the open, preferably wearing a mask. The only requirement: no long journey. The interview walk can be an elegant solution, especially for local journalists - and a welcome change from the routine of home office work. So put on your mask - and make the recording device weatherproof.

Image: shutterstock.com | New Africa

Anja Reiter

Classic journalist and storyteller, whether scrolling or paging. Studied in Graz and Munich, got stuck in Bonn. From here I supply editorial offices all over Germany with reports, portraits, interviews and comments - on business, social issues, digital issues and education.

Jacob Vicari

Jakob Vicari is Creative Technologist at tactile.news. He coordinates the free Bible and is on the board of directors of Freischreiber.

Anja Reiter