Editor’s note: I got my hands on the following email from Lane DeGregory to a journalism student in response to a couple questions: “Is there anything you wish you could tell yourself when you were as inexperienced as us? What mistakes should we be making?” Enjoy.
I wish I hadn’t thought I had to be so smart.
When I was starting out, I was afraid the politician I was profiling would realize I didn’t understand property taxes; that the hockey coach I had to interview would out me for not knowing a hat trick from a helmet; that the commercial fisherman would think me unworthy of sharing his story because I had never been on a trawler. So I tried to study as much as I could beforehand and fake my way through difficult interviews, nodding and taking notes. Then I’d sit down to write and realize I really had no idea how to explain what was going on to my readers. That wasn’t fair to them — or the subjects.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized, it’s okay to not know — it can even be endearing. When you ask people to explain, tell them you’re far from an expert, offer that you have to be able to break this down so all the audience can understand, subjects appreciate that. They want to help you get what they’re doing, see what’s important to them. They don’t want you to BS them, or get it wrong. So they won’t see you as dumb but rather as smart for asking so many questions, for admitting your fallibility, for wanting to get it right.
Instead of trying to stay out of the story, I wish I had shared myself more.
I thought it was important for a reporter to remain on the sidelines, sort of sheltered from her subjects, and in the early years I think I used my notebook as a shield. I was asking people all these questions, sometimes really personal questions, but I never let them know that I was only 25, or was scared of sharks, or that my car had broken down on the way to the interview and that’s why I was so flustered and late. I thought I should be sort of teflon-like, untouchable. But that only shut me down, and kept people at a distance.