I am not a sissy: Or why journalists should use recorders and notebooks.
We journalists like to think of ourselves as scrappy purists. Give us a reporter’s tablet and a Bic pen, and we craft prose that makes readers smell the waffly-goodness of a corn dog at the state fair, hear the grating nasal tone of the politician’s condescension, and see the glistening sheath of ice the winter storm slipped on the birch tree’s limb.
All this from scribbled notes and a photographic memory.
For as long as I can remember, my print journalism teachers in high school and college, as well as some wonderful editors, looked down their noses at audio tape recorders. Relying on electronics was not considered real journalism. After all, Woodward and Bernstein didn’t need a tape recorder to break Watergate. It was, in fact, admitting some reporting deficiency to need an electronic device — like we were Hell’s Angels bikers with training wheels.
Ironically, however, journalism students in the United States —for the most part — are not required to take shorthand. (In the United Kingdom and Australia, most journalism students must perfect shorthand before graduating from college.) Most of us U.S. reporters rely on some self-taught skill of eliminating vowels or using stick-man symbols. It is, indeed, not perfect — especially when time has lapsed between note-taking and filing the story or when, say, your pen is low on on ink and you miss a few sentences reaching for your fresh one.
After 22 years of reporting, editing and mentoring interns, I have become very opinionated about this practice: Journalists should use all the technology afforded them to ensure accuracy. Young journalists should be taught shorthand in college and modern journalists should use both a notebook and a digital recorder when conducting interviews.
Holding firm to some silly tough-guy rule helps neither the writer nor the reader. To wit: When I was stringing for Bloomberg back in the mid-90s, I interviewed one of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, and she gave me an important quote about the possible rise in the fed funds rate. In my notes, I had written the quote with an up arrow — so my first read of the scribble implied that she said the rates were likely to climb. Listening to the tape, I realized I had missed the key words “not likely” — completely changing the quote. On the flip side, when I was crafting the profile of Under Secretary of Education Sara Martinez Tucker, my mini cassette tape (pre-digital recorders) got mangled at the end — and I had to rely on my notes for some crucial information.
In an age when telling apart a trained journalist from a community blogger is difficult, journalists should do everything in their power to use best practices… to deliver to our readers the *most* accurate quotes, warts and all. And, more importantly, as journalists, we must always put ourselves in our subjects’ shoes. Would I want a reporter taping my interview to ensure statement accuracy? You bet your press pass.
Me? I use a digital recorder and a notebook. And I record my telephone interviews, always with permission from the source at the other end.
Go ahead and call me a wimpy journalist. But remember, I’ve got it all on tape.