Patience, Persistence and a bit of luck

Date: 12/20/07

By Charles S. Rice, ICFJ trainer
Trainer Charles Rice shows Ayten Farhadova how to use digital editing software to produce radio stories

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By Charles S. Rice, ICFJ trainer

“Don’t embrace obstacles,” became the mantra for ICFJ’s first class of in-depth investigative reporting in Baku. Ayten Farhadova says those three words, mouthed by one of her trainers, have made a difference in the way she approaches her stories now. “I used to start my story planning with “this will be impossible, this interview will be a problem, but now, I always interrupt myself and say why should it be a problem. And I always find a way to do it,” she said.

Ayten is one of the eight students taking part in a US State Department-funded four month course that began in October. The students have varying levels of journalism experience, but they all had one thing in common: each had experienced government officials either ignoring their attempts to interview them or of being told to come back another day.

“We waited three hours but the guy never showed up,” recalled student-journalist Vusala Alibeyli who had been told by a government official that he would do an interview for her story, but then had blown her off. She didn’t give up. Vusala kept returning to the government office building accompanied by her instructor, Khadija Ismailiyova, until finally the official gave her the interview for her story on the difficulties of being a pensioner in Azerbaijan.

Patience, persistence and persuasion were keys to each of the students getting most of the interviews they needed for their stories. In one case, Vuqar Alibeyli, who was working on a story about veterans unable to obtain their benefits, spent three weeks coming and going to a government office building before he finally got his interview for a story on how veterans often have to pay bribes to get their disability payments.

Elchin Sardarov interviews a woman who lives
amid oil wells near Baku

It was the power of persuasion that allowed Elchin Sardarov to shoot video footage at a polluted oil well site in the community of Balakhani, near Baku. New houses are being built on the toxic lands around a sea of oil wells. As he stood amid the litter and oil-saturated soil, a security guard with the state-run oil company demanded he turn off his camera. Elchin continued to roll and ultimately convinced the guard that his story could potentially save lives since it is important to point out that the land is not suitable for people to live on.

For most of these journalists, this is the first time they have confronted government officials about issues of corruption and bribery. The way the journalism program is structured, they get to hone their skills with reluctant government officials on a regular basis. Each student, most of whom work during the day as full-time journalists, are responsible for at least two stories during the four month program.

The project’s chief trainer, Khadija Ismailiyova, who works one-on-one with the journalists, says the more stories they do and the more interviews they conduct, the better they will get. “For most journalists, the problem is a lack of self confidence. This program helps our students to build their self-confidence and acknowledge the fact that what they are doing is very important considering the fact that government officials are often reluctant to give their comments and contact the media, especially when it involves corruption issues. I hope we prove to our trainees that when journalists are insistent and spend more effort on a story and show confidence, they are able to get the interviews they need,” Ismailiyova said.

This four month investigative journalism program is the first of three courses that will offer advanced skills to twenty-four Azerbaijani journalists to help them untangle complex stories. “My problem was to get information from people during an interview for a TV report. I learned how to be insistent while getting difficult interviews. When you spend more effort and explain to people how important it is to get their comment on the issue, that helps a lot,” student-journalist Sabina Akberova said.

The program is unique to Azerbaijan in that it provides long-term training for journalists, creates a realistic news room atmosphere with deadlines and requires each student to produce stories for publication or broadcast. The program also exposes the participants to all forms of media – print, radio, TV and online reporting.

Ramil Memedov, an experienced print reporter who is putting the wraps on his first-ever TV story, says he’d never touched a TV camera nor used video editing software, but now feels comfortable shooting and editing. He also feels more confidence when he’s doing an interview. “I’ve learned how to get interviews, make Trainer Vugar Mammadova assists Ramil Memedov in preparing a TV story on government corruption  vspace= contacts and insist on getting information. I don’t take “no” for an answer anymore. I used to call a government official once or twice and then give up if the guy says no, but I don’t do that anymore. I spent four hours trying to reach a government official – my persistence paid off, he finally answered and I got a comment.”

The participants are exposed to a variety of trainers and techniques. For instance, an investigative reporter from Los Angeles, Don Ray, taught them how to ask question without actually asking questions. His method, in which he asks the subject to “tell me about” or “describe for me” a particular event or feeling, often generates a descriptive response rather than a “yes” or “no” answer.

His method has proved useful to Ayten Farhadova. “Everyone talks in full sentences and they give me details. I give some information that I know so that I can get more information from them. If I feel the person isn’t telling me everything, I make eye contact and just sit quietly until they start talking again. He feels he owes me more information,” she said.

“This ‘don’t embrace obstacles’ thing, works! We should use it not only in professional life, but in everyday life,” Ramil Memedov said.

Read more about ICFJ Trainer Charles Rice.

For more information on this ICFJ program, check out the program site.

Editor’s Note:  The second of three, four month in depth investigative reporting courses offered by ICFJ will begin on February 5, 2008.