By Erin Barney
I don’t recommend reporting without a plan. The stress of scrambling for a story ultimately works against a journalist, occupying brain activity that should be dedicated to interviews and collecting details.
However, this isn’t to say good plans won’t implode and cause absolute mental mayhem anyway. Such was my experience in during my Medill Explores trip to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
The OTC accommodates athletes from all different sports, so its training and physical therapy capabilities are virtually endless. I had an idea of just how endless coming into the trip, and thought it could make for an interesting story.
I carefully prepared a list of questions for the medical staff and slung my Nikon over my shoulder, ready to capture all the ankle-taping action. But that was as far as I got.
We were warned about the OTC’s strict interviewing policies. After all, we were invading these athletes’ homes and were asked to respect their privacy. But it was pretty shocking to hear that the trainers couldn’t talk to me, I wasn’t allowed to take photos, and was even advised against asking athletes to talk about the medical attention they receive while training.
Onto the plan B I didn’t have.
Tossing my questions and going off script was actually the best thing I could have done for myself. I was more casual and relaxed with the athletes and open to discovering a whole new story. I decided I would write about whatever interested me most after chatting with them. Cryotherapy caught my attention.
This was by far the most in-depth reporting I’ve done at Medill. I had to sort through the mountains of research, and nearly every study on the frozen chambers was inconclusive. I had no choice but to make that extra call or ask one more question for clarification.
But when I sat down to write, the medical commentary I had dwarfed the anecdotes from athletes who had actually had cryo treatments. I contemplated stepping into the frozen chamber myself. My editors said the story wouldn’t work without a first-hand experience.
More calls, emails and transcriptions ensued, but I was thrilled to have it pay off (and to avoid -120 degree temperatures). I found just the track athlete I needed to humanize the cryotherapy debate and satisfy my editors.
To the very end, this story felt overworked and clunky. Each new bit of information I gathered seemed to be set back by the next. The research, writing and editing felt unending.
But that tumultuous process is OK.
Not all stories are going to reveal themselves so perfectly and organized, but part of being a great journalist is wading through the muck. I certainly had to here. It took having a lot of faith in my own instincts and my editors to keep after this story—a story that was created out of denied access and a casual chat in the bleachers.