Since the first day of class, I had been telling my narrative writing students that to be good narrative journalists, to find the elements they need to build compelling stories, they had to get out and spend time with the people their stories revolved around. But then came the coronavirus pandemic, forcing us to move our classes online and keep students from doing any field reporting. I had to figure out ways to allow my students to continue reporting without being able to get out. In other words, I had to help them find ways to be there without being there.
We devoted our first online class to brainstorming new ways to connect. Together, we came up with a robust list of tips and strategies that make use of video chat apps, Google Earth, voice recorders and even a diary to help us add scenes, descriptions and details into our stories.
I worked with my narrative writing students at @Cronkite_ASU to create a list of remote reporting strategies. Sharing the list here; hope it helps journalists and # journalism students out there in these unusual times. 1/— Fernanda Santos (@ByFernandaS) March 18, 2020
Ask your character(s) to connect to you via a video chat app (Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp) and go beyond interviewing. Ask about the objects on the wall behind him/her. Personal items can be used as part of descriptive details that help paint a picture of person to audience
Use video chat apps to be a fly on the wall. Ask your character to connect with you so that you can "be there" during a family dinner, mother-daughter conversation, an event that's significant to your story. You'll be there as observer, not a participant in the conversation.
Ask your sources to record a video tour of, say, the home where they live. Have the source be your tour guide. Some people are protective of their homes, personal spaces, but if they can feel some control over it, they may be more open to letting you in.
You can also follow along on the tour and ask questions as the tour is going on. If you're not there, watch the video, listen to the source's observations, then connect with the source to ask specific questions, go deeper.
Ask your character to keep a diary, write down what he/she is thinking about, how he/she is coping with the issue that's at the heart of your story. The diary can also be used to keep a narrative of daily activities to be shared with and reconstructed by the reporter.
Use Google Earth to find images of landscapes, specific places that are pertinent to your story. You can look at these to describe places that you can't visit. (This is helpful in many, many other situations, not just coronavirus).
Consider substituting images for maps, graphics or illustrations. Ask your character to draw things for you, then ask the character to describe the drawing.
Utilize audio. Your source can record his/her thoughts, answers to questions, impressions, etc., and you can link these to your stories. (Ex. You can quote them and also allow the reader to hear your source saying those words.)
"Meet" with your sources daily using Zoom, FaceTime, or through phone calls, text messages, etc. Increase communication so as not to lose the connection.
Ask sensory questions: What did it smell like? When you touched that rock, what did it feel like (in sensory terms, but also emotionally, if there's an emotional reaction to it)?
Add an extra layer of fact-checking by reviewing with your sources your impressions of the scenes they captured through video, photos, diary entries. This is to make sure that you accurately "saw" what they saw.
Follow sources on social media. (Duh!)
Check in on them. Ask how they're doing. We're all in this together. Show them that you care. Because I know you do.
Double-down on research and reporting that can take place from the computer; use it as an opportunity to thoroughly background and add depth to the story, lose your fear of digging through numbers. (I'm guilty of that.)
And, finally, ...
Don’t be too hard on yourself. If things do not go as planned, try another approach. It's OK to recalibrate expectations. The most important part is to apply the tools of narrative writing in new, creative ways.
Please add your tips. Because we're all in this together.
Fernanda Santos is an immigrant, mother and writer who believes in the transformative power of a well-told story. She is a Southwest Borderlands Initiative professor of practice at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, which she joined in 2017 after a long career in newspapers, including 12 years at The New York Times. Her first book, “The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots,” received the Western Writers of America 2017 Spur Award for Best First Nonfiction Book. She is currently at work on a memoir.