Award winning journalist Tom Parry on the importance of face-to-face media interviews

Tom Parry special correspondent

Tom Parry, special correspondent on The Mirror newspaper, explains the importance of feature writers and interviewees returning to meeting in person when COVID-19 restrictions allow. The award-winning journalist’s guest article for Fortitude provides invaluable insights for communications professionals.

One of the most remarkable trends of the last 12 months has been the way in which so many of us have adapted to working from home.

Thanks to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and other video conferencing apps, many of us have been able to replicate our roles without having to walk out of the front door. What would have been considered impossible just a few years ago has very quickly become the acceptable norm.

The pandemic has accelerated a trend which would undoubtedly have emerged anyway, but would have evolved gradually over many years, with considerable resistance from many employers accustomed to the office environment.

For me, as a journalist, the newsroom office has never really been an essential place to go. Although on memorable occasions I benefited greatly from the energy of being in a national newsroom at the moment when a huge international story was breaking, nearly all of my best work has happened when working remotely on my laptop.

I have filed copy from bizarre locations all over the world.

Just ten years ago, it would often be necessary to hire a satellite phone to obtain a signal with which to send text and images back to the office in London. Now, there are few countries – conflict zones and very hostile environments excepted – in which it is not possible to get sufficiently strong Wi-Fi in a hotel, café or restaurant.

All I need is a laptop, a phone, a notebook and a power source, and I have a ready-made office.

Collaboration


So, after 12 months of working remotely for so many people with very different jobs to mine, it feels as though they have caught up with something I was already doing. There is no doubt that Covid-19 will have a permanent and irreversible effect on the way we work.

But even though I am a huge fan of homeworking, I very much hope that another side-effect of the pandemic which I have noticed does not become standard practice. This side-effect is the tendency of some PR and communications professionals whom I have dealt with to make it more difficult for journalists to meet face to face with interviewees. 

Whereas before they might have said that the individual involved would be available to meet up at a certain time, at a location of their choosing, many are now suggesting a Zoom conversation. While this is fine for a quick chat to obtain a few quotes for a news story, it hampers a more in-depth interview, particularly when the topic being discussed might be emotive, harrowing, or difficult.

Better outcomes


Most of the best interviews I have done have come about because I have been able to spend time with the person involved, getting to know them, and being sincerely sympathetic.

Furthermore, what often emerges from a natural, face-to-face conversation is something unexpected, which often becomes the basis for the whole article. The way into it”, as editors will often say. When I am staring at someone’s face on a computer screen, that same engagement is just impossible.

There has also been a tendency amongst some media officers to suggest that the interviewee will supply his or her own photograph, rather than arranging for a professional photographer to visit them. In some cases, such as when an individual was shielding because they were in an at-risk group, this was understandable. But once the pandemic is (hopefully) over, it will be vital that these key relationships between journalists, photographers and interviewees do not break down.

Ultimately, the end-products – newspaper stories, web articles, TV and radio news clips – would be poorer for it.

Tom Parry specialises in working with charities and reporting on human-interest stories and social issues nationally and internationally. He was the British Press Awards Feature Writer of the Year 2014, British Journalism Awards Feature Writer of the Year 2017 and Premio Luchetta International Press category 2017. He has been nominated for British Press Awards eight times, and twice for the British Journalism Awards.

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