SJN Newsletter #19: Building Trust to Secure Interviews for a Complicating the Narratives Project Takes Patience, Persistence

Once in a while as journalists, when trying to land important interviews, we run into big, harry, thick, machine-gun protected walls that are as impenetrable as Ft. Knox to a gold thief. The wall seems small when you name it: trust. But equally impenetrable when you try to write, talk or phone your way through, around or over it.

I’ve covered controversial topics before. Kind have made a specialty of that challenge during the past 15 years of writing about sexual violence, domestic violence and human trafficking. But rarely have I encountered a Great Wall of a Complete Lack of Trust or interest in talking with me as I did when I began my Complicating the Narratives fellowship for Solutions Journalism Network focused on the movement to decriminalize sex work.

I had been reporting on anti-trafficking initiatives and individuals for almost ten years at that point, so connecting with experts in that realm was easy. Actually, it never was hard, because even back when I first started writing about it, everyone in that camp wants to talk about what they are doing. Sex workers and sex worker advocates, however, are far more reluctant. I understood completely. They have been burned repeatedly by journalists or community activists who didn’t understand or support their movement or wanted only to sensationalize it.

That’s another obstacle we face sometimes: controversial topics and the fallout of bad, unobjective journalism or people who don’t understand what the job of a journalist is when writing about controversial topics that try to show both sides of the story, favorable and not so favorable. Either way, you’re going to end up with some unhappy people who have lost trust in the entire journalism process, all of which has been fed by a trend to blame “the media” for all of society’s – the world’s – ills. Whenever you don’t know and don’t want to dig a little deeper, it’s easy to cite the nameless amalgamation of the media as the scapegoat.

Anyway, that was the particularly recalcitrant barrier I was facing, and it probably was exacerbated by the fact that I had done so much writing about anti-trafficking efforts, primarily from the law enforcement side – sort of the mortal nemesis of sex workers and advocates – and the survivor recovery side. I had not spoken to anyone on the sex worker side of the movement, not because I had anything against them, but because I was focused on the people and organizations so passionately committed to combating the heinous crime of sex trafficking or to those helping victims and survivors who had been severely hurt by traffickers.

I started, as you do, with the network of experts I knew. Have you ever spoken to or do you know of anyone involved in the movement to legalize or decriminalize sex work? I got a few different answers. “No.” “No, I don’t really want to talk with them.” “Not really, but have you tried Soand So? I read an article about her recently.”

Next, as you do, I started Googling my fool fingers off. Easy enough. I identified a variety of organizations and individuals, colorful, dynamic people, many of whom were sex workers or former professionals of the sex industry themselves. What was not so easy was the five months of getting ghosted or loud and clear rejections.

One of the most frustrating was being ghosted by an attorney at an advocacy agency in Ohio, my home state, that was given to me by a sex worker in Cleveland who I had met several years earlier when she took a “How to Pitch an Article” workshop I taught for Literary Cleveland. She didn’t know the person well, but she and a small collective of sex workers in Cleveland had been working with them to get their fledgling coalition up and running.

No matter. Despite ongoing emails sent and phone messages left – even after I had begun connecting with and interviewing sex workers and advocates for several months – the person wouldn’t even send me a “no” or a form blow-off. I came to learn from others in and out of Ohio that there isn’t much of a movement here for several reasons, including an extremely conservative state legislature and administration that everyone knows will never pass any sex work decriminalization laws let alone consider them.

Was that going to stop me? Nah. Was I frustrated? Yes. Had I lost a lot of valuable time to interview and write about people? Possibly pitch articles about them? Yes. But my gut told me persistence would pay off. I just needed to get that first “Yes,” and that would lead to others.

In addition to patient, I knew I had to be completely, 110% honest about who I was and what I was doing, who I was interviewing, what I was planning to write and why. I did not want there to be any question about my intentions, my sincerity or where I was coming from for this project.

My initial goal was to leverage my Solutions Journalism Network Complicating the Narratives fellowship to learn about the movement to legalize prostitution or decriminalize sex work. (I was still learning how each side viewed both of those objectives quite differently.) I made sure my background and my goal was clear to everyone on the decrim side in every email, every phone call.

I got pushback on all of my terms, of course. Language is central to the entire movement, and both sides have sometimes divergent and not always correct definitions, so I started off trying to learn the terms, how to use them with whom. For example, sex workers do not like to be referred to as prostitutes, and they are only interested in “full” decrim, not limited or state-regulated decrim. I have continued to refine definitions and contexts along the way. Language is especially important in any attempts to write legislation, which is at the heart of initiatives on both sides for or against decriminalization of sex work.

For the first several months, then, I encountered two responses from the pro decrim side, either fields of crickets or usually, but not always polite NOs. Still, as the meme says, I persisted.

I wasn’t learning much from the rejections, either. The ghosting by some, cold nos by others told me I was moving against the grain, most likely because of my previous and ongoing focus on anti-trafficking efforts. I had unwittingly created a substantial barrier against trust, since pro sex workers’ rights/pro decrim proponents already came equipped with a natural distrust of journalists. If they spent any time perusing my website or Googling my articles, it was apparent I sported anti-trafficking gear. All the more reason for me to be forthcoming in any communications.

Finally, in October persistence paid off. It was only one interview: Blair Hopkins, executive director for SWOP Behind Bars. SWOP stands for Sex Workers Outreach Project, which is an umbrella network of several loosely connected organizations that I had been contacting for several months. (I soon learned from Hopkins that they were in fact, extremely loosely connected and didn’t really work together much.)

But it was a great interview. I made sure I was completely prepared and that she would have time for a full-length interview. I had read a lot about sex workers and their movement from articles, videos, individual websites, and public-facing advocacy organizations. Fortunately, Hopkins was happy to talk about her organization and the work they do to support women who have been imprisoned for prostitution charges or have been released and need help recovering their lives. Hopkin’s passion for her work clearly came from a deep sense of compassion and empathy for sex workers and the hell they frequently get thrown into by being incarcerated. In addition to advocacy, SWOP Behind Bars is also a great solutions provider for these women and their families.

As I chose to do with all of the profiles of the people I interview and write for my “Night Shifts” newsletter, I gave a comprehensive assessment of who the person is, the work they do and why. Whether I personally agreed or disagreed didn’t matter. I kept out all opinion or commentary, unless it came from another expert in the field. Doing so helped bolster the growing trust factor because they could see, while I was writing about people on both sides of the decim river, I was not injecting any personal responses or arguments but letting each person tell his or her story that expressed only what they believed, not me. I have also hyperlinked research, websites or articles they had written or recommended that support their beliefs. My goal was to create a comprehensive Who’s Who of some of the key players in the struggle for or against the decriminalization of prostitution or sex work, depending on which side they represented.

Hopkins turned out to an effective solutions provider for me, too. When we finished our interview, I asked her if there were a few sex workers or advocates she would recommend that I speak to for my project. It took her a couple of weeks to respond. I knew she was overloaded with her responsibilities, so I was grateful when she sent me a list of names, contact information and a brief synopsis of who they were. She then sent introductory emails to each of them to facilitate the ice breaking.

And break the ice did. After almost half a year of pro-sex-worker interview drought, Hopkins had graciously blasted through the ice damn for me. In her emails she made it clear that she enjoyed talking with me and that it was clear from our interview that I was serious about this project and being as professional, objective and fair as possible with the intention of presenting both sides to introduce my readers to the people involved in the movement.

I went on to interview roughly 25 or more people based on her introductions and the subsequent introductions of those people to others. In fact, now more than a year since my fellowship started, I am still interviewing people and making connections for additional interviews long after the fellowship concludes.

That one interview provided me with the foundation of trust that I could then build on. The challenge was the persistence required to keep sending emails and leaving phone messages or reaching out to people on LinkedIn or Twitter, constructing the trust it took to secure that first interview, then doing the preparation work that enabled me to perform a good first interview and write an effective profile that was professional, not confrontational or disrespectful in any way.

The rest was easy. [Insert wink emoticon here.]

Next Up: Dan Nash, former Missouri State Patrol officer and head of the human trafficking unit and co-founder of the Human Trafficking Training Center in Springfield, Missouri.