Credit: Photo by Fezbot2000 on Unsplash

From Skype to Snapchat, there are loads of ways to find stories and sources remotely. Because of this though, it can be tempting to be over-reliant on emails and virtual questions, rather than picking up the phone or doing face-to-face interviews.

Course leaders, university staff and industry professionals gathered at the Broadcast Journalism Training Council (BJTC) event yesterday (9 May 2019) at London South Bank University, to examine why students are shying away from speaking in person and on the phone, and the ways they can best support them.

Craig Hooper, course leader, University of South Wales, challenges his students to take inspiration from his son, Morgan, who has worked continuously on his stammer, to go on to speak on national media.

On induction weeks, Hooper's students practice speaking to 100 local residents and it dramatically transforms their confidence as a result.

"If you can get them to a stage where they are comfortable to speak to strangers, the rest is just experience," he said.

The confidence boost is something much needed, said Paul Bradshaw, course leader, Birmingham City University, adding that students are often reluctant to report negative stories.

However, by pairing up students to brave their local community for their newsdays, they managed to produce original mobile and social stories.

Briefing students ahead of time with research helped too, so they felt more prepared. But despite the multimedia attraction, Bradshaw explained that students still tend to fall back to text written articles afterwards.

"The challenge is repeating habits and making sure it is not a one-off," he said.

To address this, he tasks the students to assess the values and objectives of their work, and re-apply them to different cultures within the city.

From the University of Lincoln, Deborah Wilson David, deputy head of school, and Matthew Gull, associate lecturer, spoke of similar traits in their journalism students. The creation of their mobile journalism focused ‘away days' helps students grow in confidence and basic journalistic, conversational skills.

The university took 50 of their students to Boston, UK, which Wilson David described as an under-reported area. As such, it promised to yield exciting and original stories, but it was also a challenge as this was the town with the highest Leave vote in the UK during the EU 2016 referendum.

"They are sick to their back teeth of speaking about Brexit because they have been defined by it," said Wilson David.

But it was the challenging nature of the patch that got residents to open up on anything from homelessness to loneliness. Vox pops and pre-arranged interviews were key for producing a successful, original story.

However, there were challenges and concerns around student confidence, said Gull, with students feeling as though they could not ask their interviewees for video shots, to one student being visibly shaken by fear at the prospect of speaking to strangers.

"It’s about confidence in their story and to do a story that is more complicated or controversial than they are used to," he explained. "They did not get to the bottom of the personal side of the story."

Course leaders also heard how mental health can be a factor for avoiding conversations. They were advised to be on the lookout for any red flags, including students consistently missing deadlines or acting out of character.

Building confidence is key, but Gull identified that an attitude exists where students are not yet perceived as real journalists. It means people are less inclined to speak to or trust students, or perhaps will simply redirect them to their inbox. While sometimes that is understandable, he called for a change in approach.

"There needs to be less emphasis on ‘student’. They are still working as a journalist and publishing on an outwardly facing outlet. Students should be introduced as journalists," he said.

But what else can be done? The hard and simple truth is that journalists need to pick up the phone and speak to people in real life to get good stories, insights and quotes.

This is the bare minimum requirement of a journalist, according to Georgina Prodromou, special correspondent, Bauer Media, who is well placed to show the value of getting out of the office.

Doing so has brought about a range of exclusives, from sensitive insights to scoops from MP's at protests. She says that they would never have come about without extensive conversations and rapport-building.

Ultimately, it goes back to the old adage of ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’, which she encouraged student journalists to show in their work experience.

"I’ve had some work experience students say they cannot get a vox pop in the middle of a protest. Why?" she wondered.

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