Lead Story / How PR Can Protect Sources
Don’t Jump in Head-First: Media Ethics Professor and Columnist Shares Inside Tips for Negotiating the Finer Points of Interviews
“A reporter has the obligation to make sure you know when you’re on the record,” says Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics Edward Wasserman, who teaches journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University when he’s not filing columns for The Miami Herald, The Palm Beach Post and the Knight-Tribune wire service. “Even so, reporters are not in the business of saving people from embarrassment,” he warns.
The comment follows a story by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Natalie Pompilio about a former San Jose Mercury News columnist who apparently believed she was speaking off-the-record — and yet was quoted by a colleague after she went on to work as a press secretary for Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown. Pompilio’s insightful piece — which ran in the American Journalism Review and was entitled “Does No Mean No?” — raises questions about the ground rules of interviews for PR practitioners, media trainers and sources alike.
“In this case, it’s difficult to believe that someone with [the source’s] media sophistication would have made inflammatory remarks unless she thought she was sharing private concerns with a colleague,” Wasserman says. “So it comes down to whether the reporter behaved properly, whether he chose to benefit from ambiguity — or whether it was a case of miscommunication.” Either way, “This type of thing happens,” he cautions. Wasserman offers these quick tips for negotiating interviews — and for avoiding unhappy situations like the one outlined above:
1. Align yourself with the reporter’s needs — find out about deadlines. “The first thing you need to know is how much time you have with the interviewer and how desperate the reporter is,” he says. “You will then have a better sense of how thorough the reporter will be and how thoughtful your remarks can be. If the story is weeks out, you’ll probably have several conversations and may talk in different ways at different times. This will give you more flexibility. In addition, [asking about deadlines] helps to align you with the reporter as a collaborator — you can present yourself as being on hand to help and do things like provide background.”
This is sickeningly true. Over a series of conversations, sources can often seduce reporters into collaborators. Do not be part of this pernicious practice.
2. Don’t jump in head-first — get the reporter talking instead. “A smart approach is to open by saying, ‘Let’s talk a little bit off the record first.’
Never do this. Asking to speak off the record is a clue you are about to say something which should remain unsaid.
You want to get a sense of the person and his agenda — and this is one way to get that,” Wasserman suggests. “Say, for example, ‘This part’s not for publication.’ That gets the reporter talking and gets him to tell you what the story is about and where he’s going with it. Most reporters are too savvy to give you the angle, but just ask what they’re hearing and what they need. Knowing what other sources are saying will tell you whether this interview [opportunity] is for you. It lets you know how you will fit into the story — and gives you time to formulate an appropriate sound bite.”
I would be real careful about asking what other sources are saying, there are far too many reporters only too happy to play lets you and him fight.
Similarly: “Once you get a sense of what the story is and whether the person is on deadline, then I would schedule time for another conversation,” advises Wasserman. “Most people aren’t great on their feet. This lets you try out some thoughts and ideas in a way that doesn’t wind up in print. Remember, also, that reporters are more likely to agree if the [reschedule] is positioned as a way to increase accuracy and avoid [corrections].”
3. Know where you stand — ask about the interviewee’s policies when it comes to protecting sources. “There’s nothing wrong with telling a reporter that you can provide information — but that he’ll have to confirm it from someone else before he can use it,” says Wasserman. “If a reporter tries to get you talking by saying he won’t use your name, then ask how far down the road the reporter will go to protect his sources. Some papers have policies in place saying they won’t divulge sources unless ordered to do so by a court. Others will rat you out if they get a letter from a lawyer. You need to find out where you stand with the reporter before you agree to be a source — especially if you’re dealing with a story that might [cause you or someone else harm].”
Reporters who disclose sources names are not ratting out their sources, they are informing the public, which is their job.
4. Make sure you understand each other — don’t leave attribution up to interpretation. “Let’s face it, most of the time your worries about being named in a story are really about [the story making] things mildly awkward for you. For example, maybe your boss will look at you cross-eyed. In those cases, going on the record is really subjective,” Wasserman says. “But the real issue is to make sure you and the reporter understand each other. For example, some people think ‘off-the-record’ means the conversation’s not happening — others think it means their names can’t be used. I would avoid those distinctions,” he advises. “Instead, use the definition. For example, say, ‘I want to say some things, but I don’t want you to use my name. Can we talk about attribution?’ The goal is to get beyond misunderstandings before you speak.”
In addition: “Understand that it’s the reporter’s job to authenticate information by identifying a source as thoroughly as possible,” Wasserman says. “That means the reporter will push for as close an attribution as possible because he has to — not to screw you.”
Exactly so, it is the reporter’s job to tell readers the source of their information. Reading a newspaper is not a faith-based activity.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask to hear your quotes — many reporters will comply. “If you’re still concerned after or during the interview, then consider asking to hear your quotes,” he suggests. “This is a touchy area, but most reporters will read back what they have you saying while they have you in the interview. The reason is they want to ensure accuracy and give you a chance to clean up quotes during a call — they don’t want to have to do it later or [issue a correction]. However,” he cautions, “this can only happen during the interview. Most reporters will let you edit yourself on the call, but they’ll tell you to piss up a rope if you call later to change a quote. Also, make sure the reporter feels that you’re not trying to control the context or story elements. Tell him that you don’t want to edit the story — you just want to make sure you said what you meant to say.”
This is extremely good advice. Even if you never go off the record, you want to be sure the reporter got the quote right. Even the best note takers make mistakes. That is why I prefer reporters who use tape recorders. If possible, ask the reporter if they mind if you make your own recording of the interview. The purpose of this is not to catch a dishonest reporter, but to allow you to evaluate your interview technique and improve upon it.
6. Understand the reporter’s job — make allowances for minor mistakes. “What reporters do is very hard,” says Wasserman. “It’s hard to get things right. Three reporters can sit in on the same meeting and end up with three different stories,” he allows. “This isn’t because of bias. It’s due to limited resources, primitive tools and deadline pressures. Reporters aren’t taking minutes, but relating what they think is important to readers. So be forgiving,” he advises.
This is also excellent advice. If you do not have a background in journalism, try to do some original reporting. You will quickly discover how difficult it is to take notes and pick out the most newsworthy parts of any event.
Wasserman concludes with this advice: “I know it’s hard when you pick up one paper of 400,000 copies and you think you sound like an idiot. Naturally, you’ll want to react. If you do respond or complain, however, start the process with the reporter,” he suggests. “Send an email saying, ‘Good story, but I feel that what I said was distorted.’ Remember that issuing corrections isn’t such a loss of face in print. Broadcast outlets won’t likely comply — but for others, it makes them into ‘nice guys.’” His point: “Have no compunction about demanding corrections. Just do it with [tact] and understanding.”
This whole controversy started because a newsmaker wanted to say something inflammatory about someone. This is what anonymous sources are all about, you want to put out dirt on someone, but don’t want to take responsibility for said dirt. Anonymous sources aren’t courageous whistle blowers, they are gossip mongers at best and character assassins at worst. NEVER BE AN ANONYMOUS SOURCE. Let us put an end to this pernicious practice.