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Lessons to live by when reporting on controversy
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승인 2011.07.31  17:54:51
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When covering controversy there are two things a reporter must do: get in early and make friends.

I first heard of the transfer of Mt. Halla’s managerial control to the central government two weeks ago, and the first thing I did was get on the phone. Getting in as soon as controversy breaks was my best chance at obtaining useable information. Once the media have published anything about controversy, sources and contacts tend to clam up from fear of saying something they shouldn’t, and in this case, something that could potentially cost them their jobs.

While on the phone I was often transferred from person to person in hopes of finding someone who could speak English. Once connected with that person, he or she tended not to be with the information I was looking for, but had access to the source. (In media jargon this person is called a gatekeeper). Now I have to make friends – by friends I mean build rapport. I knew I would be calling this person often, and if the gatekeeper didn’t like me, I wouldn't get through the pearly gates to the information I need.

During the first couple days after this story broke, people were willing to talk and send information. That was what it was like on Monday the 17. By Thursday all sources and contacts were given their talking points and sticking to them. Because of the rapport I was able to build, some sources would occasionally deviate from toeing the line, though often off the record. This is annoying, but not bad. Now I had information that could be corroborated by other sources.

By Friday the 22, after some inaccurate stories were published by major Korean newspapers, no one was willing to say anything. Making friends could only take me so far. I tried playing the confirm or deny game. (This is when you tell a reliable source a piece of information and they either confirm or deny its validity). No dice. Marching orders were sent and were being enforced. Because of the ongoing controversy, if I could get someone to at least talk “off the record” this information would help guide the follow up story.

At the last minute, my original story angle took a dramatic turn, with editors (to my disappointment and frustration) cutting back a lot of the blow-by-blow details concerning what actually transpired between the central government and Jeju. It was decided to replace this with remarks from key government officials. Much of the information gathered through these methods was ultimately cut.

Though this story may not be long, it took days on the phone and a plethora of emails, by not only myself but of the whole Weekly staff. This is not only true during controversy, but for every story. Behind every single byline printed there is a team of dedicated staff slugging away to get at the truth of a story. If there was only one lesson to take from the creation of this story, it is appreciate your staff; your career depends upon it. I know mine does.

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