Having written news across several beats, I’ve grown accustomed to dealing with unfamiliar subjects. Most recently, I’ve had the opportunity to cover the first few NBA playoffs games between the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets. Sure, I picked up a lot about basketball contributing to BALLnROLL.com, but I’m still nowhere near the level of the hardnosed sports journalists who regularly cover the sport. If you’re a journalist who also finds themselves stuck in an unfamiliar situation, here are some tried and true tips that helped me survive my first postseason games.
Ask more experienced reporters
The veteran sportswriters I worked around during Games 1 and 2 of the series really helped dispel the myth of hyper-competitive reporters sabotaging one another. Most are happy to offer a newbie tips during any downtime they find (read: rarely, but sometimes). They might even tip you off to the scrum happening around the corner. However, note that the PR forces are actually paid to answer your more official questions, like when the locker rooms open or which important figures you should be looking out for.
Be a professional
According to the Toronto Raptors Media Guide book, the team’s PR department can be considered the media’s “personal Sherpas” (seriously, check page 314). They’ll go out of their way to help you, so pay them and the security forces due respect. Playoffs aren’t a great time to put the “it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission” adage to the test. When in doubt, ask a PR staffer what you can and can’t do in a situation. You don’t want to find out that still photography and cell phone use aren’t allowed in the locker rooms when it’s too late.
Be aware of your surroundings
Your situational awareness will keep you out of trouble and in the story. Listen to questions other reporters are asking so you don’t waste time by repeating them, look out for impromptu scrums so you can nab some juicy quotes for free and observe where more experienced journalists are congregating.
Respect your competition
It’s not all buddy-buddy in the media world. Reporters are paid to do a job, and sometimes that means beating the competition. Just remember that you’ll be seeing the same faces regularly, so there are times when you’ll need to know your place, too. Sports journalism has its own subculture, and there’s an unspoken pecking order for who asks questions first and who gets the one-on-ones if time’s tight.
Know when to back off
Journalists have to walk a fine line between asking the important questions and keeping things genial with the people they ask them to. If a player is sitting alone and blasting Drake on his headphones, there’s no sense disturbing him. Some personalities, like Brooklyn Nets head coach Jason Kidd, notoriously avoid controversy. That’s not to say you shouldn’t ask the hard questions — you must. Just feel it out. You won’t have to worry about hurting a player’s feelings if you bring up a bad play or failure. They’re contractually obligated to address that.
Prepare for anything
I’m putting this near the end, because you should already know that you never enter unfamiliar territory without a game plan. Learn who the major players are, what your limitations are as a member of the press and who are your points of contact. If you’re conducting interviews, prepare questions as though you’re guaranteed an exclusive one-on-one, then pare down the list when you invariably get 30 seconds.
Don’t forget to laugh
Tricky situations can send stress levels through the roof. If sharing the trenches with reporters prone to gallows humour and talking with fun-loving NBA players has taught me anything, it’s not to be too professional to have a good time. Laugh a little. Make friends. Joke around during an interview (feel out the situation, first). It’s good for your health.