27 minutes and 57 seconds: How a half-hour conversation taught me to report

Student works in Fisk Hall, talking on the phone to her source and taking notes.

Eva Herscowitz works on an interview for a story. She believes in the power of intently listening to sources and asking follow-up questions. Photo by Abby Banks

It was Wednesday in East Fairchild room 215, and the operating-room-inspired lighting seemed especially dim. I had just hung up the phone with a particularly snarky source, a woman I had desperately needed, persistently cold-called and rejoiced at the faint sound of the pick-up tone.

But as I rushed through the standard farewell (thanking her for her time and asking her for relevant contacts), I couldn’t help but shake the the feeling of insatiable journalistic curiosity and also a razor-edged pang of guilt.

Because after 27 minutes and 57 seconds, I wanted to ask this woman — who scoffed at my request for her age and hometown — much, much more. But, sitting cross-legged on my desk chair, I was keenly aware that that she had just cashed in 27 minutes and 57 non-refundable seconds of her life to a high school journalist. Twenty seven minutes and 57 seconds. That’s, like, a “Friends” episode she will never get back. Or 330 deep breaths. Twenty seven minutes later, and she is literally closer to death. I’m killing my sources, I thought.

Simply put, I felt like I was wasting her time. And as a high school journalist, I was cloutless. She had priorities. She was probably sitting in a high-backed chair in a glass-enclosed office, swiveling her chair and wagging her finger. My call interrupted her business meeting to plan the year’s budget.

This wasn’t the first time I had dodged asking difficult questions, but it was the first time I had regretted it. At my school newspaper, I often sidestepped difficult reporting, opting instead to merely skim the surface. I reasoned that no source had the patience for a high-strung high school journalist — and why should they? My potential for impact was, admittedly, limited. I wasn’t from The New York Times. I wasn’t even from a town of more than 2,000 people.

My lightbulb moment came in the program’s fourth week. During an advanced interviewing technique lecture, guest instructor Bret Begun, an editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, reminded us that no one should ever refuse to talk to us because we’re student journalists. Sweat the details, he said, because our voices matter. Follow-up questions aren’t intrusive or annoying. Clarification questions elevate stories from puff pieces to real, hard journalism.

I knew that the role of a journalist is to identify, observe and report the truth. But I didn’t know that asking difficult questions, being, as instructor Karen Springen said, “patiently persistent,” and negotiating interviewing time was necessary to fulfill that role.

My source is 27 minutes closer to death, but for reporting the truth, it’s 27 minutes well-spent.