Expert Commentary

Research chat: PBS NewsHour’s Margaret Warner

Interview with PBS NewsHour journalist Margaret Warner about how she prepares for interviews and assignments.

PBS NewsHour senior correspondent Margaret Warner has in recent years filed stories from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Egypt and Bahrain, covering important aspects of the 2011 Arab Spring. An award-winning journalist, she takes on a broad portfolio of topics that each require deep preparation. Before embarking on her broadcast career in 1993, she reported for Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Concord Monitor.

As part of our “research chat” series, Journalist’s Resource recently sat down with Warner to ask for some insights about the stories she has covered and her own journalistic approach. (Photos courtesy of the PBS NewsHour blog.)


Journalist’s Resource: What does your journalistic preparation process look like for segments and stories? What are the sorts of things you do to get ready?

Margaret Warner: It depends on what sort of segment it is — a conversation in the studio or an original reporting trip in the field. If it’s to prepare for a segment on that evening’s program — to interview officials, activists or experts — about a topic, it’s usually something I already know something about. But I also pull standard sources for background, secondary sources: the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Financial Times, for starters, and the Christian Science Monitor or credible foreign newspapers. For facts and timelines, I find the BBC website to be particularly good. Wikipedia also provides a pretty good outline and timeline. So that’s the way I start. Then I’ll go to the underlying source material — a copy of the Supreme Court briefs in a case, or the actual legislation, or a press conference by U.S. or foreign officials.

If I’m preparing to go to a foreign country for a three-week reporting trip, I go a lot deeper. I start with the secondary sources but then I do a lot of interviews myself on the phone with experts, particularly those fluent in the language of that country. The other thing I do is just sign up for Google Alerts for that country — I’m still on Google Alerts for Egypt. So every day, they’ll give me the nine or ten top stories, organized by topics. It’s a great way to stay on top of things, and you can read a much wider range of sources.

JR: Many people in the news business think that getting a background in print reporting early on in one’s career can be really crucial. Do you agree?

Margaret Warner: I think it’s very good for developing reporting skills. When I was coming up in the business, you had deadlines, yes, but you also had time to actually consider what you’re reporting before it was published. I worry that’s being lost. Now, of course, many reporters feel compelled to be constantly tweeting every observation that they have. All this conveying of micro-bits takes time, time way from further reporting. I still think print is a medium that allows you to come to considered judgments or assessments of what’s important, and put the facts in context and in relation to one another when conveying them to your audience. So I still think print is excellent preparation for good broadcast journalism.

JR: You helped create the journalistic “first draft of history” with your reporting on Egypt and the Arab Spring. But what do you think are the bigger research questions people are going to need to answer over time? What do you want to know?

Margaret Warner: It depends if you’re talking about a country or the phenomenon more broadly. From what I’ve observed, someone needs to do more exhaustive study on the comparisons and intersections of these movements. For example, we need to understand what made Egypt’s uprising successful and Bahrain’s less successful. Egypt hasn’t been able to pull off a true “revolution” yet, of course, because they haven’t been able to create a democracy in the regime’s place. But to understand the uprising in Egypt, we need a deeper understanding of many factors, like the role of the Internet-based media versus traditional organizations that came into play in a big way — whether they were doctors’ organizations or labor movements, for instance. And the effect of mainstream media — particularly in Egypt’s case, satellite TV.

My view is that it was the interplay of those three strands that made the Egyptian uprising happen, as well as political factors, like a military that wasn’t ready to fire on its own people. What happened within the military’s decision-making councils during those 18 day also needs to be researched. So it will be a matter of teasing out all of those strings. There’s no doubt in my mind that the chemistry among all those factors, coupled with the deep discontent of the Egyptian people, enabled the uprising there to succeed. But I think there’s a lot more to be answered about each one of those things individually as well as the interplay among them that will really be worth studying for a long time, and I bet will be the subject of a lot of history.

JR: Any tips for young journalists trying to produce well-informed work?

Margaret Warner: Wherever you can, go back to the original sources of material — on stories that rely on data, you can’t replicate the original research. But you can go back and read the data yourself — for example, the actual polling questions — and come to your own fresh analysis, rather than automatically accepting the analysis of others like other journalists or headline writers. That’s what I try to do. The results can be surprising.

Tags: research chat