Ask TON: Taking Notes Discreetly

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Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question:

When you are reporting for a narrative story, interviewing sources—say a researcher or a family—how do you take notes or record what’s going on without being obtrusive?

Dan Ferber, science writer at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and longtime freelance science journalist and author:

I don’t know how to be inconspicuous about it, so I’m transparent instead. I’m open about what I’m doing. But I do try to stay out of the action. I keep my mouth shut and let the other people there talk, ideally to each other, and ideally about whatever it is I’m writing about. Typically I’ll have a notebook handy to jot down what I’m seeing, hearing, smelling, what the air feels like, all sorts of atmospherics. I try to do that in the slow moments when I’m on the scene with the researcher, family, whoever, but not much is happening just yet.

When the researcher or a family is doing something interesting that I might end up using, I stay quiet and pay attention. I jot down in my notebook any snippets of dialogue or, especially, action, that seem potentially powerful or poignant or emblematic of what I think the scene is all about. I try to keep an audio recorder running and often take snapshots with a point-and-shoot camera. The audio and the snapshots very often help flesh out what remains in my memory and the chicken scratches in my notebook.

Also, the same evening or the next morning at the latest, I try to type up recollections of any character I want to describe or scene I think I might use. These recollections are usually less granular than what I captured at the moment everything was happening, and complement the on-the-scene reporting.

Brooke Borel, freelance science journalist:

I think it’s important to balance getting the information you need with making the source comfortable. If they feel skittish about how you’re recording your time together, you aren’t going to get the best material, but you also need to have a good enough record that you can recreate a scene later on.

When I was reporting for my book, for example, I spent two-and-a-half weeks traveling through the UK, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Germany. Most days were packed. There is no way I could have remembered everything I needed to when I was writing those chapters months later without my audio files, notes, and photos. I almost always have my digital recorder, an Olympus VN-6200PC, hanging on a lanyard around my neck. I point it out early on and explain that it will run in the background so that I can double check quotes and other information when I write the story.

Near the beginning, I also remind sources that anything we talk about could potentially end up in the story unless they explicitly tell me they want to go off the record, especially if they don’t appear to be media savvy. I’ve learned that it’s better have the ground rules clear from the start so there aren’t any surprises. The recorder usually fades into the background after that, but if I get the sense a source isn’t opening up because of it, I do sometimes put it away and rely on my notes. As the recorder runs, I use a small notebook to record details like scenery, a description of my source, and anything else I notice that won’t get captured by the audio. If the source says something particularly illuminating or quotable, I check the time on my recorder and jot down the timestamp along with a note about what they said. I’m intrigued by the Livescribe pen, though, and might invest in one to streamline my process.

I also usually have a small digital camera in my pocket. I take a lot of photos when I’m reporting and have found that I go back through them often when I’m building a scene. I wait until the source seems comfortable before I start snapping, though, and I also ask to make sure it’s okay to take photos of specific rooms or people or items. All that said, I don’t continuously take notes or pictures. Many times during interviews, I’ll set the camera and notebook aside and just listen.

Paul Raeburn, freelance science journalist, author, and chief media critic at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker:

For my new book, Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked, I interviewed a family with a child with Angelman syndrome and another family with a child with Prader-Willi syndrome. (The two are related to the same set of epigenetic factors.)

I interviewed the children and their parents in their homes, and I made no effort whatsoever to disguise or downplay the fact that I was recording and taking notes. My strategy was the opposite. I asked to sit at a table so I could set up my laptop, I put my recorder on the table, and I tapped away as we talked. I understand the problem: We want people we talk to, especially regular people who aren’t accustomed to being interviewed, to be relaxed and to speak candidly. But I find that when the conversation takes hold, the noise of the keyboard or the downward glance at the recorder recede into the background.

And there is also a principle here: It is essential that reporters identify themselves properly and fully, in order to win the trust of our sources. I admit that in both of these cases, the families and even their children were eager to talk to me. (The child with Angelman has very limited speech, but he was very affectionate and able to communicate happiness and friendship without words.) But in a more antagonistic interview, a source is less likely to overlook recording and note-taking, so even in those circumstances, it’s probably best to dangle equipment and notebooks where they are convenient.

Linda Marsa, freelance journalist and author: 

Sources know why you’re there, so I don’t think it’s a case where you can hide stuff—like when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein would excuse themselves from talking to sources and would secretly take notes in the bathroom during the Watergate investigation. The main point here is making sources feel comfortable enough that they forget you’re taking notes or recording them.  And if you forget about it—i.e., don’t be obsessive—they’re more likely to forget, too.

I almost always tape conversations when I’m meeting scientists in person. In-person interviews are not a conversation—they require very intense, active listening, which you really can’t do if you’re too busy taking notes. But the new digital recorders—which are so tiny—make it easier to be less obtrusive. And scientists expect that you’ll be taking notes and recording, even if they’re just showing you around the lab.

When I’m with so-called “real people” sources, I usually just jot down notes about key points because you’re really there to get a feel for who they are and to pick up bits of color to flesh out your narrative. I think we all have a tendency to take too many notes, which can be a distraction for your subjects and stop you from being fully present and catching all those telling details that bring a story to life.

You can also jot down notes verbally into your tape recorder—here again, those small digital recorders which fit into a shirt pocket are a godsend. You can go back later and fill in the blanks over the phone or via email.

These days, I use my smartphone a lot to take notes, too—taking quick shots of the person so you remember exactly what they’re wearing and what they look like, or of the scenes so you can re-create them accurately later on. I usually make feeble jokes about what a hopeless technophobe I am—which is true!—so people feel a little more comfortable with me taking photos. And I tell them they’re just for me—we won’t be using them in the magazine.

One other point: Use small notebooks—the kind that can fit in your pocket or purse. Those reporter’s notebooks work well. Here again, you’re trying not to draw attention to what you’re doing, and a smaller notebook is easier to manage.

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