My Election Story Took an Unexpected Turn. Here’s How I Handled It.

This is the second of three student pieces produced in Montclair State University’s “On the Road: Reporting from the Field” multimedia course.

What happens when the main person you want to interview for your story says no two weeks before you plan to travel across the country? You pivot.     

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When my Montclair State University “On the Road” class decided to go to Phoenix on a reporting trip, I knew I’d be going outside of my comfort zone, away from my New Jersey community that I knew like the back of my hand. But I wanted to challenge myself. So, I decided to focus on a beat that I had not explored much in my undergraduate experience: politics.       

In a presidential election year and with Arizona being a swing state, the timing was perfect. The challenge was finding an original story to pitch on a topic I’m not well-versed in.              

It started with research. I spent hours on the internet and in libraries learning about our country’s political system over the past two decades. Eventually, I narrowed my search to the Republican Party and decided to investigate the evolution of GOP identity since Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016. 

My main focus was how the influences of populism and nationalism have redefined what being a Republican looks like today. I was particularly interested in talking to Rusty Bowers, Arizona’s former House speaker who was ousted by his own Republican Party after testifying against Trump before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot.  Bowers faced harassment, intimidation and a swatting incident following his testimony on June 21, 2022. 

The challenge was finding Bowers. Given that he faced so much scrutiny for speaking out against Trump, he had been out of the public eye since losing a GOP primary for a state Senate seat in 2022. The Arizona state Legislature proved to be a dead end, so I turned to local political journalists, one of whom contacted Bowers on my behalf, asking if he would be open to an on-camera interview about his experience. 

I thought this was my breakthrough moment — an interview with a major politician, potentially producing an exclusive about the future of Arizona’s Republican Party. My heart swelled with anticipation. This was going to be my best story yet.                                                         

And then he said no.   

Two weeks before my peers and I were to fly to Arizona, the core of my story had disappeared and I needed to act fast.                    

I immediately started brainstorming new ideas. I asked myself, “If my target audience is college students, what would they want to see?” For many young people, especially those who are Gen Z, the upcoming election will be their first or second time voting for a president. And that’s when I found a new angle within a day of losing my old one: How would Gen Z in the upcoming election? 

I knew I was going to need some help. I was going through some medical issues and everything was becoming difficult to balance. My classmate Nino DeNino stepped in to co-produce the piece and we began researching how young voters in this swing state acted in previous elections. We found that in 2016, only a third of them showed up to vote, but in 2020, more than half did, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. 

With this data, we decided to book several student voices as well as Avery Xola, voter education manager at the Arizona Clean Elections Commission, which administers public financing of elections in the state. We finally had a fleshed-out angle with willing sources, only days before we were to get on a plane.                                                            

Working on the fly teaches you to stay calm and determined. It can be disappointing to lose a key interview or have a story fall through, but what is most important is how you respond to that. Do you let the disappointment consume you, or do you use that energy to find another way to tell a story? If you have done enough research, there is a good chance you may have bumped into other possible angles along the way. Take a step back, look at what you have and redirect. 

Being a journalist is about being resourceful and staying on your toes. When one door closes, a good journalist will go through a window or crawl through a vent to get to the heart of the stories they want to tell. 

Terry Dickerson

Terry Dickerson is a recent graduate of Montclair State University with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Journalism and Digital Media and a passion for giving voice to underserved communities. She is also a co-anchor for “Arizona Stories: Border, Water and Politics.” She will be starting as a news associate at NBC News in the fall.