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American Journalism Review
<b> Jerry Mitchell’s Reporting Tips </b>  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2005

Jerry Mitchell’s Reporting Tips    

"Be willing to listen to lunatics. Much of my reporting has centered on the radical right, the lunatic fringe. The truth is, if you want to truly cover these people, you have to spend a lot of time with them and, more important, you have to listen to them. An occasional head nodding won't cut it. As crazy as it sounds, you have to be interested in them. Just because someone is nuts, has no credibility and a personality so offensive that you feel a need for a shower later doesn't mean that person can't be a valuable source. He may be crazy enough to get you those sealed documents you've been coveting for months."

"Be willing to appeal to motives you despise. You need to understand that their motives are often very different from yours. Perhaps they like to see their egos stroked or their rivals taken down a notch or two. Perhaps their motives are more complex and bizarre. The bottom line for you in collecting information is to find ways to appeal to those motives. In obtaining the sealed records of a state segregationist spy agency known as the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, I used a variety of sources, all with different motives."

"Be willing to harass. I'm not talking about the Mike Wallace in-your-face-so-you-automatically-look-guilty approach. I prefer what I call 'polite harassment,' perpetual persistence that shows you're not going to give up until you get what you want. An example: I had to get a quote from a lawyer. I called that morning and reached his secretary, who was very polite. I explained why I needed the quote. In short, she began to turn into my ally. I called every hour, asking for him. By the time I called at mid-afternoon, she said, 'Hold on a minute. I'm going to get him on the phone right now.' He talked to me."

"Be willing to dial the wrong number. Once, I was searching for a guy named Hollis Creswell, who had given Byron De La Beckwith his alibi [in the death of civil rights leader Medgar Evers]. I knew he had lived in Greenwood, Mississippi, but I didn't know where he'd moved to. I picked up the Greenwood phone directory and saw there were several Creswells listed. I picked the one that looked most promising and dialed. 'Is Hollis Creswell there?' I asked in my most polite Southern accent. 'No,' the man replied, 'You want my cousin. He's living over there near Maben. I've got his number.' Hollis Creswell ended up giving me the only interview he ever gave to the media. And that story showed some of the inconsistencies that Creswell and the other policemen gave in their alibi stories."



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