Yesterday I had the pleasure of sitting in a Jersey City municipal court room for the better part of two hours. I wasn’t there covering a case, nor was I there for my own case. I was there because the kid who hit my car last January had contested his ticket, and I was told I was needed to tell the judge what happened.
It wasn’t the first time I had to sit for quite a bit of time for this case either. And I had to contest my own ticket from the car accident (which was dismissed back in February). It was my third time sitting in a court room in less than two months.
Being a reporter at heart, I sat and waited and observed. It was interesting to watch people’s attitudes in how they dealt with the prosecutor and even the judge. Some kept trying to harass the prosecutor, trying to get their case moved up. Others tried to scam the prosecutor, who I overheard say at one point, “Sir, this isn’t some street hustle. It’s court.” Everyone was trying to get what they want, and some weren’t as successful as others. I found the prosecutors and the two judges to be pleasant and easy to deal with, but perhaps it was because I wasn’t trying to force anything or pick a fight. I smiled, asked my questions simply and was agreeable when I needed to be.
That’s my long introduction into how to deal with sources when you’re reporting or people you encounter on social media, whether it’s your personal accounts or your work ones. I believe in one old saying: It’s easier to catch flies with honey than it is with vinegar.
When I took my first job at a daily newspaper, I worked with a few people who acted like the world was out to get them. Another newspaper got a story, it’s because the police or the source fed them the story. They always were ready to pounce and pick a fight in trying to get the information they needed. I got set up into a situation by one of these editors where I had an argument with the police chief. No real good came of it.
I decided it was much better to have that smile on my face and to be nice to everyone. I may call the mayor’s office three times in the matter of three hours, but I’m always going to be nice to the other person on the other end of the phone. I ask how their day is, and I always remember important tidbits about their lives, like something with their kids that they may share. And I remember similar things with my actual sources too. The Millburn township administrator and I used to have plenty of conversations about baseball, and he’d ask me to explain social media to him. The former second selectman in Westport and I used to talk about vacations and hockey.
If you treat someone like a human being rather than a fountain of information, they’re going to be more likely to talk to you and share the information you want. I once was told by a source, “I feel like I’m just having a conversation with you. I forget I’m talking to a reporter.” That’s what you should aim for in an interview because your source will then tell you more than you or he expect.
In today’s world of social media, so many more people have access to us too. They say nasty things or they harass us for information. There’s lots of ways to handle it, but an Internet yelling match is never the right way to handle it. I ignore a lot of the people who yell unless they have a point worth responding to, and then I keep my cool. I attempt to do the same with the people who continually harass me. And I always do it with a smile and try to be nice about it.
Sometimes, though, people are surprised to get a response when they complain about something and tag you. So think about what sort of impression you want to give when you respond on social media. Do you want them to walk away thinking “bitch,” or do you want them to think, “wow, that was really helpful”?
It seems pretty basic to talk about the etiquette of speaking to people for interviews or on social media, but working on the Web every day has made me think otherwise. We all are not perfect out there. We all (both journalists and those we interact with) should think about what we say before we say it to each other. What sort of impression do you want to convey?
I’m still going to put out the honey. I’ll leave the vinegar to the trolls.