As a former television journalist-turned-brand journalist, I can appreciate good storytelling with the element of human drama, and the Sochi Olympics has had plenty. Through up-close-and-personal profiles, we have come to know these competitors as people, not just athletes, and share in their personal triumphs and tragedies.
When the stories are done right, they provide a deeper connection with the athletes and make the Olympics about much more than a medal count.
Telling these stories is much harder than it looks. It takes journalism experience and training to understand the nuances of these Olympians’ personal stories and the limits to which a reporter should tell them.
Christin Cooper’s NBC interview with American skier Bode Miller shows why journalism training matters.
As a former Olympic medalist, Cooper understands the sport like few others and knows Miller personally. Knowledge isn’t the same thing as skill, as the cringe-worthy interview revealed.
For two minutes and 25 seconds Cooper repeatedly asked Miller to talk about his late brother. Even when Miller began to cry, she continued with follow-up questions. Though Miller later defended Cooper’s line of questioning, the damage was done. Miller might have forgiven her, but millions who watched the interview could not.
Journalists know that asking probing, personal questions creates a compelling story. Their training also helps them understand when those questions go too far and it’s time to change the focus of an interview. It was evident Cooper understood neither.
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In the age of instant news with 24-hour news cycles, it’s not uncommon for media outlets to enlist various experts for their perspectives on certain subjects. Tune in to any network or cable show these days and you’ll likely see far more athletes, lawyers and celebrities than actual journalists providing commentary.
While their knowledge and insight may add to the story, they should not be relied upon to shape the story itself.
Unlike a typical reporter’s rise to the network level, most “experts” don’t work for years in small media markets honing their reporting and interviewing skills. This lack of experience leaves the door open for mistakes to be made on-air and in front of a worldwide audience.
As a rookie reporter who covered the crime beat in a small Texas city, I conducted my share of interviews, some raw with emotion. Today, as a brand journalist on the health care beat I still interview people who, understandably, get emotional when discussing their health conditions.
What I’ve learned is that, while there are tactics for handling sensitive interviews, there is no textbook or checklist that can teach you what to do in every situation. You have to learn by doing a lot of interviews and making beginner’s mistakes early in your journalism career.
Today’s brand journalists can learn from the Bode Miller interview. While knowing your company’s product is a must, industry knowledge without journalism skills rarely results in solid storytelling.
Journalism experience matters whether the story originates from a media outlet or a brand.