Doorstepping is the most important, difficult and exciting skill in reporting. It’s alarming how many reporters rely on threats and bribes, which are crap. Apart from ethical worries, those techniques frequently fail to get them across the doorstep at all and, even if they do succeed, they generally yield only a bare minimum of help from an unwilling target.
The art of doorstepping involves using the most powerful weapon in a reporter’s arsenal – imagination. That door will open. On the other side will be somebody under great stress, who does not want to speak to anybody at all – least of all to some twerp with a notebook who is going to get the story wrong. They have 99 good reasons for telling you to go away. The trick is to find the one reason why they might let you in.
Before I go anywhere near the doorstep, I force myself to see the world through the eyes of the person on the other side of the door. That involves two things. First, try to reconstruct the chronology of events from their point of view. Second, and most important, try to feel what they feel about those events. So I bombard myself with questions about their emotional state – ‘who do I want to see on my doorstep?”, ‘who do I fear?”, ‘who do I hate?’and ‘what do I most want?’Somewhere in there is the line that will get you in.
Sometimes the answer involves working on the conflicts between people (the sacked employee, the divorced wife); sometimes, it may see you generating a little conflict (playing police off against customs, for example). Or it may be about presenting yourself as a source of power for people, or an outlet for some kind of moral or even patriotic urge. It’s important to be highly flexible, to let your imagination run riot in search of the right line and never to close down your imagination by assuming that your target won’t talk. I’ve learned that every door can be opened if your approach is right.
Simple practical tips: wear clothes to match your target. If you’re doorstepping the disgraced MP, dress quite formal; if you’re door-stepping a squat, dress down. If it’s cold, don’t wear a coat; if it’s raining, don’t carry an umbrella: you might score a sympathy vote. One friend used to faint on doorsteps: ethically dodgy, but quite effective. And don’t be depressed if you fail: everybody fails sometimes. That makes it so exciting when you succeed.
Nick Davies is special correspondent for The Guardian and teaches masterclasses in investigative reporting