Pleasant surprises from street interviews

Medill cherub interviews a source.

Lyn Wu interviews a source for her story. Photo by Abby Banks

Before coming to the Medill cherubs program, I had never imagined myself walking 10 miles to get interviews on the Fourth of July, cold-calling professors and running up to ask random strangers about gun control.

In the course of five weeks, however, I filled my new Medill reporter notepad with shorthand and symbols and my recorder with five hours’ worth of interviews. These handy supplies became my treasure trove.

Pencil scribbles and recorded conversations are more than just proof that I completed various story assignments at the Medill cherubs program. They are tangible evidence of my growth as a journalist. Once a naïve, straightforward Shanghai girl who blushed over the ultimatum “no,” I am now eager to ask follow-up questions. “Why?” “How?” Listening to people’s answers help me understand this complicated world.

At first, asking questions — especially unexpected ones about gun control — to random passersby on the street troubled me. Surprised by the meticulous background information required for each interview source, I felt uneasy asking strangers their occupations, ages and phone numbers.

Naturally, my uneasiness led to my first embarrassing rejection.

“Why would you want to know where I’m from?” said an old lady when I asked for her hometown, as instructed in class.

She squinted her eyes and scrutinized me head to toe. Before I could explain, she clutched her purse and left. She must have thought I was an exotic young swindler who took copious notes while committing fraud.

My rough start did not stop me. While I was disappointed for losing the supposed perfect perspective to enrich my story, I kept going as instructor Karen Springen’s words repeated in my head.

“Take that extra step,” Karen said. “Have that fire in your belly.”

Little did I know that a blunt interview rejection would lead to one of my happiest afternoons.

That afternoon, I lost count of the number of turns I made at the same street corner in Evanston as I looked for more interviews than I needed. Turning awkward street interviews into in-depth conversations with a Vietnam veteran and a Chicago podcast journalist made my day, and I marveled at the opportunity to learn about a bigger world through listening with an open mind. On my way back, I could not stop smiling, and I started dancing as soon as I put down my backpack in my room.

As I reflected on this fortuitous plot twist that night, I came to truly understand how a candid conversation makes a fine interview. With first-hand experience, I could nod in full comprehension when Medill instructors repeatedly taught us that good journalism comes down to good reporting. When granted the privilege of people’s trust, don’t we owe it to them to produce a truthful, compelling story?

My uneasiness with asking strangers deep, personal questions vanished as I recognized my credentials: a high school journalist, or rather a messenger of truth and a keeper of trust. In fulfilling these two roles, age did not matter.

I also learned perfect interview targets don’t exist. Meaningful interviews originate even from seemingly nondescript details in life, and only by listening with empathy can we tell powerful, life-changing stories.

Looking around with eyes that capture beauty in the ordinary and unexpected, and listening with a heart open to life’s shuffling rhythms, I was ready with my purple notepad and my recorder.

“Hi, my name is Lyn Wu, and I am a journalist. Could I ask you a few questions for a story I’m writing?”

One conversation at a time, I hope to tell the stories of life.