‘Dear sir, I am writing a disertation [sic] on the media. Would you be able to answer the question: What is the effect of the internet on journalism by Friday?”
This is an abridged version of an email that landed in my inbox last week, and similar ones land in my colleagues’ inboxes almost every week.
It was from an MA journalism student wanting me to help her with a ‘media case study’for her project. Aside from the vexed question of what a ‘media case study’actually is, the intrepid would-be hack was essentially asking me to write her vague, under-defined paper for her. The email wasn’t addressed directly to me and the student didn’t seem to have read the magazine or our website, which is full of information on the subject.
So in the run-up to Easter deadlines, what is the best way to enlist the help of a journalist?
Firstly, spell it out. If you want a phone interview for your dissertation on Monday, then say it. Send a short (200 words maximum) email saying what you are researching and what you want from the journalist. Be as specific as possible and say why the person you are targeting would have useful knowledge. Perhaps refer to a piece he or she has written recently.
You should be prepared to be proved wrong in your hypothesis – someone recently sent an unsolicited research email asking for evidence that investigative journalism was dead in Britain. What if we think it isn’t? A better question is more general: What are the biggest challenges facing investigative journalism?
And as with job applications, always get the name – and gender – right, and never write to an entire newsroom on a general office address – it will get deleted.
I once witnessed veteran Independent reporter Terri Judd receive an email from a student asking how to get into journalism that began ‘Dear Mr Judd”. She was understandably unimpressed, however funny the newsroom found it.
Second, be flexible and tenacious. Reporters are under immense pressure when deadlines are approaching. It could take days or even weeks for people to get back to you, so get in touch with plenty of time.
But don’t take no for an answer. You might think you’re being annoying, and perhaps you are, but reporters respect people who don’t give up and are far more likely to help you if you badger them, as long as it’s within reason.
Phone is better than email generally, although people differ. It’s better for you because it’s quicker and you’re not relying on someone who writes hundreds of words everyday to write you even more. Plus it’s a chance to practice your shorthand and could even win you some respect in newsrooms.
Dr Petra Boynton, an expert in sex and relationships, who has written for several magazines and newspapers, gets inundated with requests from students and has some advice for them on her blog, www.drpetra.co.uk. It’s worth noting that she says she has no time for people who send emails from silly addresses such as crazigrl999_x or fluffibunni6178. It looks like spam and will be deleted.
Finally, don’t forget to say thank you. If someone has taken time out of their day to help, it’s the least you can do.
And if you get on with someone very well, what’s stopping you asking about work experience placements or even any job vacancies that might be coming up in their office?