During episode 35 of the Coffee with a Journalist podcast, host, Beck Bamberger, is joined by Mohana Ravindranath of Politico. Mohana is an eHealth reporter based out of Washington D.C. covering health technology, the digital divide, algorithms, and data privacy. During their conversation, Mohana gives Beck her insights on her process of crafting diverse stories, nurturing story ideas to fruition, and the future of health journalism.
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
Her Work Inbox
Beck Bamberger: Well, thank you for being here. First thing we like to get into is your inbox. How’s it looking? Is it crazy with pitches?
Mohana Ravindranath: It always is, and I’m not one of those inbox zero people. So I’ve got, I think 55,000 last time I checked.
BB: Oh my goodness.
MR: It’s a bit of chaos.
BB: Okay, so there’s two major schools of thought here. There is the, we seem to have the inbox zero people, and then they look sometimes never at a pitch. They just mass delete. And then there’s, I would say your category of folk. So do you just let it roll? Let’s talk about this.
MR: I do. I think I’ve been able to get it down to zero once or twice in my life, and that was quite a big step for me. They just keep coming in. So I do try to get to as many as I can, but I’m kind of drowning in emails.
BB: Wow. Okay, so how do you suss out pitches then? Or do you just not even look at those? How would you describe?
I guess I look at the emails that interest me. And there isn’t really a particular hard and fast rule for what that means, because what I cover evolves.”
MR: I am often covering things related to privacy. I’m often covering things related to contact tracing and apps and all these things. So pitches aren’t really the main way that I’m doing reporting. I am listening to what my sources in the field are saying, and I’m listening to what people are talking about. Every so often, I’ll come across an email that has something to do with that. That’s sort of what catches my attention.
Her Thoughts on Pitches
BB: So pitches, okay, don’t sound to be the source of a story for you.
BB: Do you ever use it as just a thematic indicator? Like, “Oh, that’s interesting. I got 10 pitches about that in the last two weeks.”
MR: Yes, definitely. I’ve noticed over the years as I transitioned from different beats, I noticed that obviously the tenor and the topic of the pitches I receive is different, but it does indicate what people are interested in. Where there’s money flowing sort of indicates what people are interested in. Often the pitches that I see in my inbox are funding deals and, “We launched this new app,” and things like this. So it does give me a sense of what people are talking about, what the buzzwords are.
But I think part of my job as a journalist is to separate what’s buzzy and what’s getting a lot of attention, from what actually warrants for their attention and oversight.”
BB: Yeah. Then with this gigantic inbox that you have that just keeps going, is there any filing that happens, of any pitches.
MR: I usually try to do my organization, my story lists and all that stuff, I’ll do that in Google Docs.
BB: Okay, okay.
MR: The first line of defense is email, of course. But then after that, I’ll transition the things that are interesting and that peak my interest into a Google Doc and then pursue the themes and the story leads that I come up with over there. So it’s kind of a multi-platform system that I have. I’m still working on it and it evolves, obviously, but-
MR: Any journalists, I think especially today, is working on many different planes of stories, like the quick pops and then the more in-depth kind of investigative things, and the things that you think might be a trend, but you’re not quite sure, and you’re sort of waiting to hear whether it really is organically a trend, those kinds of things. I’ve worked on what I’m hoping to perfect as I delve more into journalism and into health tech in particular, is how to manage all those different planes in the most efficient way.
How She Writes Stories
BB: You mentioned this with your sources here, so you’re not getting necessarily story ideas from pitches, but you’re getting them maybe, or listening to them, from your sources. How does a story that you do actually come about? For example, you were just doing, a piece that you recently wrote was about hurdles into med school diversity.
MR: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
BB: Did that come from a conversation with a couple people, or were you taking a walk and you thought, “You know what? Let me look into this.” How do these stories come about, when they’re especially longer form and more in-depth like these?
MR: Yeah, I think my main reporting technique is just to listen. I think what helps me do that is to reach out to, and talk to, the most diverse set of people that I can, and people at every level of the healthcare system. And for that particular story, even beyond the provision of healthcare, into the education, the training of the people that provide care. Even to talk to the people in that realm, you have to talk to students and you have to talk to administrators, and then you talk to the people that regulate or monitor medical education. So there are all these different kinds of planes. And I’m sure this is true in any industry, that it’s so complex.
There are so many levels here. But I think what delivers the most complex and meaningful stories are the ones that incorporate the feedback and the perspectives of all those different levels.”
For that med school story, I talked to students. I had chatted with people who are going through that process. Then I talked to people on the other end of the spectrum who are looking at applications, and what kinds of things are they looking for? And then talked to the groups that regulate that whole process outside of the schools. Then once you talk to enough people, you start to hear these themes emerge. That’s where I find the most value in reporting, is extracting those themes. But it does take a lot of conversations with people, sort of organic conversations, that sometimes don’t lead to a story. Sometimes it’s just a good conversation, and sometimes it just is something that leads, it becomes a story later when you hear another piece of it, somewhere down the line.
BB: How often does that happen, where you let’s say abandon the story? Does that happen like 50% of the time?
MR: I don’t have a number. There were some times that I think that I’m probably abandoning too many stories and other times where I’m working on too many at the same time, which means that one of them needs to be abandoned. So I don’t have a number for it, but I think one of the things I’ve learned to do as a journalist, and I hope to improve upon, is figuring out when it’s not the right time for a story.
MR: Sometimes you can pop something out, it’s super quick. But sometimes there are things that are just sort of ruminating. I mean, something that requires a little bit more marinating, something that maybe there are only two examples, and you need a third strong example just to adequately describe to readers how important this thing is. Depending on how newsworthy thing is, I think it’s important to give oneself time to really fill that out, and incorporate everybody’s perspective.
BB: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Man, I could just imagine a story you’re working on, I know this has been the case with other people we’ve had on here, where it’s months and it’s just months and you’re just building the qualitative insights and the interviews to finally pop a piece, it finally comes out. Oh my gosh, it really can be a lot. Versus, okay, a hard piece of news comes out, you got a story up in four hours because that’s the news cycle. It’s really interesting.
MR: Right. And I love that about journalism, and my role in particular, that there are so many ways that we can put out information.
MR: But I really do love the little bit more free-form process of learning about a topic organically. I think you sometimes are able to turn off the pitch brain and that way, and just sort of hear, just trust yourself to extract what’s important, and discover it as an outsider, as person who’s new to the field, versus what people are telling you. I think that it gives you the opportunity to determine for yourself what’s important versus what people are telling you is important.
BB: Speaking of people telling you what’s important, from publicists, since that’s who a lot of this show is listened to by, do you have anybody who just pitches you a valuable source, someone you’d want to get on the phone with, because they represent Dr. So-and-so who’s the leading, I don’t know, clinician at some hospital system or something? Are those ever valuable to connect you to sources?
MR: Sure, yeah. I think the important thing, what I like to do as a journalist, my philosophy really, is that we take all this into consideration. I like to think of my role as akin to a researcher or an analyst or something. My role is never to create an ad for somebody, or to include somebody’s name in a story. My role is to talk to the people that are important and to suss out where the story is. Of course the experts that come through can be part of that process, and even if it’s just informational, of course, can be a part of that process. But I like to think about my role as a reporter as figuring out what actually is important again, instead of just believing that something is important because somebody told me it was.
For Mohana, conversations with sources and media are essential to understanding various perspectives and constructing an honest and holistic story. Check out our blog, PR 101: Media Relations During COVID, to see how PR professionals are shifting amidst COVID-19 and continuing to build media relationships during the pandemic.
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