Day 4: Profile reporting
1. Profiles: The search for specifics
Profiles and features are a common element of sports reporting, a point that hearkens back to the idea that fans already know the outcome of games by the time they read any game story. It is important for reporters to tell interesting stories to provide something new and fresh. Profiles and features in general are a great avenue through which to accomplish that goal.
Good profiles avoid generalities and instead incorporate specifics — from unique anecdotes to detailed description. In profile reporting (as well as all kinds of reporting) it is important to keep in mind the notion of “show, don’t tell.” If a player is a hard worker, a good profile will show the audience how (s)he is a hard worker rather than simply stating that as fact. For example, in his profile on Washington defensive end Andre Carter, Washington Post writer Jason LaCanforra could simply “tell” the reader that he is a big man. Instead, LaCanforra shows the reader Carter’s size through specific description:
“The chiseled, 6-foot-4, 265-pound physique—lean and hulking over the other behemoths in burgundy jerseys—is imposing. But the first thing you notice is the feet. They look like two white cinderblocks, size 16 cleats made bulky by layers and layers of athletic tape, as if Frankenstein were corralled in the training room at Redskins Park. Teammates joke that when defensive end Andre Carter walks, the ground rumbles beneath him, and this endless tape sessions have already become legendary.”
Keep in mind that specific detail should add up to a logical sum in the way of saying something about the profile subject. Anecdotes, scenes and descriptive detail aid in the goal of showing an audience something about the profile subject in terms of his or her attitude, character, work ethic, etc. At the end of a profile, audience members should be able to say 1-2 words that sum up the character of the person being profiled.
Example: Watch the following ESPN profile on former BYU basketball player Jimmer Fredette. Notice the specific detail and anecdotes in the piece and how that substance builds an over-arching picture of Fredette. I often show this clip to students and ask them to do the following in groups:
1) What 1-2 words would you use to describe Fredette after watching this feature? How are those descriptive words “shown” to you, the audience?
2) Sum up this story in 10 words or less
I tell the students to put their two words on the board and then we go around the room with each group providing their 10-word summary. The exercise helps demonstrate to students how the piece showed them something about Fredette and the strategies employed in doing so.
2. Interview Techniques
In order to capture the specific detail outlined above, it is critical to conduct effective interviews. Interviewing for profiles can be tricky, especially if the person being interviewed does not have experience doing so. There are three strategies I teach students about interviewing. The first relates to “breaking the ice,” and establishing some comfort in the interview. In some cases the interviewee may be more nervous than the reporter and thus it is up to the interviewer to put that person at ease. A common question I often use to start the conversation is “Why don’t we start by talking about the season; can you give me a kind of ‘mid-term progress report’ for your season so far?” The resulting answer is usually general and I rarely use the quote from this question, but the point at the beginning of the interview is not to get a “money quote.” Rather, the goal should be to encourage the person to begin talking and establish some early rapport. Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter Jesse Smithey says that a related strategy he uses in putting players at ease after games is to walk side-by-side with them when conducting the interview rather than putting the recorder directly in front of them. This small shift in body language can yield helpful results in the way of making the interview seem less daunting for someone who is not experienced in being interviewed.
As the interview develops, invariably even good, open-ended questions will elicit general answers. The second strategy I teach students is to use the person’s own words to formulate a follow-up question. For example, an athlete may be talking about how fit she feels, attributing that to hard offseason training. I might follow up by asking “You mentioned your offseason workout was hard; what made it so hard?” Push for specifics so you can show the reader the player’s fitness, rather than simply telling them.
The final interviewing technique I teach is to simply avoid talking; one of the best strategies for getting an interviewee to elaborate is to simply say nothing at all. This is a hard strategy to deploy as it is our instinct to fill awkward silences. Good reporters will train themselves to hold back and let the interviewee add to his or her initial answer.
3. Participatory/community sports coverage
One of the newest genres of sports reporting is what is commonly called “participatory” or “community” sports reporting. This type of coverage focuses less on team sports and more on sports in which anyone in the community can participate. Because the coverage is not focused on competition as much as the act of participation, content is often produced in profile/feature form.
Content also varies by region; in Colorado, for instance, it is not uncommon to see coverage on skiing and hiking in the sports pages. In Southern California, the San Diego Union Tribune often includes coverage of skateboarding or surfing, two activities common in that part of the country. Other examples include coverage of local running races, triathlons, fishing, etc. Such coverage helps knit together a community and provide content that is of interest to readers who are likely participating in those very activities. Community sports coverage also includes profiles of local athletes or sports figures.
Example: Click here for an audio slideshow about a local Little League coach in Syracuse, NY. Note the focus on community by highlighting a local coach and his influence on youth in that area.
Participatory and community sports coverage is especially conducive to audio slideshows as doing so allows reporters to highlight numerous individuals and contribute to the “community” focus of the genre. There are several basic strategies to keep in mind when doing audio slideshow profiles. Firstly, they should include a variety of images, from close-up, mid-range and long-range shots. Doing so helps create surprise and variation within the piece. Second, it is important to match the audio with the visuals; if a runner is explaining why a particular course is difficult, showing visuals of various parts of the course will help show that point to the viewer. Finally the audio must include description and explanation. This latter point is achieved only through strong interviewing techniques.
4. Assignments for students
1. Mini-profile writing assignment. Attached here is
1) an interview I conducted with Penn State women’s gymnastics coach Jeff Thompson and
2) the article I wrote, published in Blue-White Illustrated, a magazine aimed at Penn State fans.
I give the interview to my students along with links to the coach’s bio online and ask them to write a short profile, using a delayed lede (see day 1 of this workshop) and thinking about the writing techniques we discuss in class (see the earlier workshop on feature writing for more detail on this point). After they turn in their stories, I give them the published version and we compare and contrast the two. We also discuss questions they would have asked the coach had they conducted the interview.
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