1/28/2006

"Warning, Other Reporters: This Conversation May Be Used In A Future Blog Post. Beep."

A journalist recently took issue with me for having having posted something that another journalist had told me over the phone.

"You gotta be careful about that stuff," said this reporter (I'm paraphrasing). "You can't just go and post things you've heard."

I can't? Really? Why not?

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That was my first reaction: pissed off, incredulous. After all, writing up what they've heard is what reporters do, and part of my self-appointed "beat" is covering the education media. [Clarification: what I'd learned had to do with what was going on inside a newsroom, not about a story idea or scoop.]

Just because a reporter was my source doesn't really change things.
Reporters are notoriously prickly about being sources. If anything, a professional journalist should know better. The conversation wasn't off the record. The information wasn't damaging or even a secret, to my knowledge.

I even emailed him to let him know something was up on the site, and took something out that he said wasn't public knowledge yet.

But in truth, I have my own issues with what I'd done -- and by extension with being a journalist and a blogger who not only covers education issues but comments on them and on media coverage as well.

First off, I wish I'd told the reporter I got the information from (and everyone else I talk to) that I might report what he'd told me -- right then while we were still on the phone. He wouldn't have liked it, and might have told me not to, but he wouldn't have been surprised and potentially embarassed if he'd told me something he shouldn't have.

In addition, I wish there was a way that I could have ahead of time made sure he (and everyone else that I talk and email with) that there's a possibility that I'll use what they say. Everything's on the record unless you tell me otherwise. I'm thinking I should have an automated Miranda statement, or an intermittent beep like when you call 911. (I've seen some websites contain notifications like that, actually.)

Maybe this is Journalism 101, but I've never really been comfortable with the journalistic practice that you're on the record until you're not, even though I understand it's usefulness.

I also have to say that there is, emotionally at least, a difference between reading what you said in the papers the next day or week or month, and seeing it moments later online. I don't know how to accommodate this intensified response, but I can see that it's there.

There's also something different about getting and using information from other reporters. First off, they feel in some theoretical way like they are "colleagues" -- even though I don't formally work with any of them (and in some vague way compete with them).

And, since I also like to cover and comment on education writing, the relationship is even more complicated. I'm an education reporter, but I'm also a columnist, and a media critic of sorts.*

Again, I don't know what to do with this difference, but I can see it. I am friends with many education writers, and careful to guard their secrets and ideas because I value their friendship and support and feedback.

But I'm not friends with all of them, and in many cases my only contact with them is when I'm responding to a request for information or ideas.

That's as far as I've got. Not so far, I know. Any ideas, observations, suggestions, lessons would be much appreciated. Apologies for the navel-gazing, but it's been useful for me.

*In fact, I ran into a situation once a year or so ago when I pulled some responses about education writing off of the EWA listserve - stripped of names - and put them on this site without having gotten permission. In that case, my fault was particularly clear since I'd gotten the information off of a private listserve.










5 Comments:

Anonymous kent fischer said...

Sure, i think it's OK [to use what you learn from another reporter], providing:

1. You expand, with independent reporting or analysis, on what you've
learned. Don't just regurgitate what the reporter has told you. It seems
lazy to just quote the reporter or to steal their idea without independent
verification. Why wouldn't you hunt down the first-person source of the news yourself? Wouldn't you want to, at the very least, verify that the reporter you spoke with got their facts right? And, importantly, talking to first-hand sources would allow you to break new ground on the issue.

2. If you do cite the reporter, give prominent credit to the reporter for
first reporting/unearthing the news.

3. Don't scoop the reporter you spoke with. That's poor form and
inconsiderate. Do that often enough and nobody will talk to you.

4. On your blog post, you say that you're friends with many, but not all, of the reporters you speak with. Take friendship out of the equation. It sounds like you'd burn a stranger but not a friend. To me, that raises issues of fairness and credibility on your part.

Just my two cents.

Kent Fischer
Dallas Morning News

5:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alexander,

I think you hit the nail on the head when you talked about the assumptions
going into the conversation. I have sources that I call on occasion for
other purposes than reporting, and with them I make it very clear that I'm calling for a story and am interviewing them.

With colleagues -- other journalists -- I generally consider the conversations to be off-the-record and a professional courtesy.

That's generally the ground rules unless I'm talking to someone I know
covers the media. The times Jim Romenesko's been in touch, I've assumed that it was on the record.

If Howard Kurtz or Jacques Steinberg ever called, I'd assume it's on the record and mention something specific that we were off the record. I think putting it out there like you did in your recent blog posting goes a long way to getting that perception out there.

In our newsroom and others, there's a lot of discussion that we need to
explain the ground rules to people who won't know they're on the record. We
do try to do that when talking to average folk. I think, oddly enough, in your situation the journalists don't know they're on the record.

9:16 AM  
Anonymous o/b/o charles lussiter said...

Alexander,

This is an old debate in journalism. I personally don't want my sources to be surprised. So I will alert them at the outset of a conversation that I am working on a story and want to interview them. This generally is a good signal that they are being quoted.

For those who've never talked to a reporter, I will go further and pepper my conversation with things like "how do you want your name to appear in the paper, Michael or Mike," lots of other signals that they are being interviewed on the record.

For things that someone says that could get them in trouble, I will often tell them directly that I may well use such and such a point and do they want that to stand as is or is there anything else they want to say to explain the comment. I don't treat this as a negotiation. On a couple of occasions, someone has made a persuasive argument to me not to use something and I don't. The best argument they can give is that what they're saying could well be wrong.

As far as quoting journalists, there is an assumed confidentiality that journalists think prevails. I've been quoted before by someone I was trying to help and I ended up taking myself off the story because my credibility was ruined. It sucked. So, I think you should be clear in what capacity you are talking to people. You are in a nebulous zone that may be hard for people to know whether you are talking to us as a colleague or as a reporter/commentator. If you were Howard Kurtz or some other media reporter, we would be already on guard knowing that their job is report on the media and we would be as circumspect as we wished. In your case, it's not clear.

I think it's easy to signal that you are quoting people by saying, hey "I'm interviewing people for a posting, what do you think about such and such?" and we should be able to pick up on it. If you have any doubt, then be more explicit and say you are planning to use such and such.

As far as whether you should have an extra ounce of skepticism for a reporter's statements. The short answer is yes. Reporters in the midst of a story often pass along theories and suppositions as truth sometimes contradicted by their later reporting.

The final word of a reporter is the story itself, not what they say along the way. That said, if someone is an eyewitness or a primary source then you treat them like any other source. It's just good if they are clear at the outset what you are doing.

Especially because many reporters often assume that speaking to another reporter is always confidential, when it's not. I know we're a prickly bunch, but I think you'll be happier in the long run if everybody's clear about what you're doing.

POSTED WITH THE PERMISSION OF
Charles Lussier
The Advocate
Baton Rouge, LA 70802
(225) 388-0331

P.S. -- I think some journalists prefer an "ask-questions, blame-the-source-later-for-any-misunderstanding" approach. They console themselves that people should have known for this or that reason.

This is a wrong approach in my opinion. If everybody is clear about the ground rules, you make up for in trust what you might lose in terms of unguarded comments that someone might say because they're don't think they're being quoted.

Having someone interview you and seeing yourself quoted later in an unflattering way really opens your eyes to how some sources must feel. Often the best quotes come during the late stages of a story when you're checking quotes and verifying small, factual details.

If sources don't realize they're being quoted, you don't get that kind of crucial help and trust.

P.S.S. -- TV reporters like John Merrow have explained before to other EWA listers how TV is different. Once someone says something on tape the source can't take it back. Much of the difference, to my mind, is the difference in the mediums. To give a sit-down TV interview is an affirmative act with a TV camera staring you in the face. You have to be pretty dumb not to realize you are being interviewed, though I imagine some do. Hidden camera stuff, of course, is a different beast all together.

P.S.S.S. -- All of this is not to say that sources don't end feeling betrayed layer. Janet Malcolm had a famous essay in which she says something to the effect that all journalists are betrayers at heart. Media writer Ken Auletta says some of his subjects like Rupert Murdoch feel betrayed when the final stories come out, but he doesn't feel he betrays anyone. He says he's clear to his sources about what he's up to, but these folks have giant egos that don't let them see themselves as others do. Teachers feel betrayed all the time by reporters. I think there's probably a good human behavior story here. Teachers are extremely sensitive to any hint of criticism and aren't generally very media savvy. People think because I quote someone being critical of them that I'm personnally being critical of them. They don't understand the emotional distance that has to exist in a reporter/source relationship. I've had sources who I became friendly with, but whom I nevertheless kept a certain emotional distance. I tell them if they are accused of raping a small child, I'll have to write about it and, though I'll bend over backwards to be fair, I won't hesitate to do my job.

4:45 PM  
Anonymous via eduwonk said...

In The Edublogging Business Do Loose Lips Sink Or Raise Ships?
Over at This Week Russo raises the question of when/what to post that you glean from various conversations, in particular with the media. It's worth reading because it raises some complicated questions about the medium.

For Eduwonk's money though the answer is pretty straightforward and different than Russo's. He says: "Everything's on the record unless you tell me otherwise." Here the policy is exactly the opposite: It's off-the-record unless we agree otherwise. I'm not a journalist and this is a blog, not some sort of streaming real-time dissemination tool about what's happening in the ed policy world with an obligation to relay everything that comes across the author's desk. Consequently, I choose whether or not something rises to the level of reader interest and/or appropriateness to post it here. Put more plainly, there are plenty of things I am aware of that never make it into this blog for various reasons. While that's not so different than how professional journalists are, there are still some differences.

First, in order to function effectively as a professional people have to be confident that emails, phone calls, and conversations with me are strictly off-the-blog-record and that I'd never repeat or relay something without express permission. I could, for instance, discuss plans and initiatives that various organizations are launching but that would break confidences and I'm not prepared to do that. Of course, if I pick things up through the rumor mill that's a different kettle of fish, but if a colleague asks me to review something for their organization or to bounce some ideas around then don't expect to learn about it on this site until it's made public even if it is germane to something posted here.

In addition to other policy types, I talk daily with folks from the media, both reporters and editorial types. They have to be confident that I'm not going to swipe their ideas or preview their stories. I'd probably get a lot of new readers if I telegraphed a big news story that was coming in some outlet but it would be an enormous breach of faith if the reporter had contacted me about it and I then used that information public in advance of the story running. In fact, perhaps I even take this too far. For instance I waited to post about the AFT's new blog until after Michelle Davis' story in Ed Week had run since she called me for it and my post would reflect the same things I told her. But, I'd rather err on the side of caution.

I also review proposals and manuscripts for foundations and publishers so often I'll know that something might be coming on a particular question but again, I can't post that. Finally, I work with public officials and serve on a public body myself, and those folks, too, have to be able to trust that things they say will be treated with discretion. I work in the policy world, that's what pays the bills, and the ability to work candidly and sometimes confidentially with people is key to being able to operate in that world.

On the other hand, what readers get here is a high degree of transparency. They can be confident that if I'm writing about an organization I've consulted for or serve on the board of or that gives grants to support/or has supported my work etc...I'll point that out. So, while an item might not include every tidbit, readers can be confident I'm not, for instance, touting someone's reforms while doing work for them without sharing it with readers.

Now the great thing about blogging is that it's a highly democratic and market-oriented medium. If someone else wants to sail closer to the wind and, for instance, out upcoming stories in newspapers and magazines then that's their business (and of course media outlets are always competing to be first on a story anyway so that pressure is already present to some extent in the public debate about these issues). How that would be received and what the impact would be on the writer's ability to get such information in the future is an open question. Drudge is one example of something like that but my guess is that nothing in the eduworld would likely rise to that level and be able to survive while behaving like that.

Nonetheless I'm confident that readers of this blog know that they're getting one take on things that is necessarily run through a few filters. And, readership is sustained and enthusiastic enough that I think this model works well and adds some value. And, there are different kinds of blogs out there so you're going to get a little of everything and I suspect the issues I raise above are more localized to niche policy sorts of blogs though every blog makes editorial decisions of some sort or another.

I still hold out hope that Education Week will start a more "expose" oriented blog if they're willing to take the heat. Journalists like the folks they have there can operate with a different set of rules and it might bring more stuff out into the open. In the meantime, as Don Rumsfeld says, you've got to take the edublog you have not the edublog you might want!

4:46 PM  
Anonymous o/b/o brian o'connor said...

I remember when I had to interview the Editor of my student paper for a
story for the paper he ran.

He was a senior and I was a relatively inexperienced sophomore. The rest
of the staff filed out of the room and the temperature dropped about ten
degrees, and it became blindingly obvious that he was being very careful
about what he said, in other words, that he was being interviewed. It
wasn't very fun for me or him. (He later mockingly claimed that I took
his quotes entirely out of context, so I think it turned out okay.)

I don't think that journalists should automatically assume that what
they say won't wind up in a paper/blog somewhere. I also make a point of
telling people I'd like to "ask them a couple questions" about something
before I launch into an interview. I don't say the i-word because it
intimidates people a little bit, and brings out either that aggressive
"How dare you" response or the "Oh please don't quote me on that,"
response, which essentially kills it.

I think it might be worth wile for journalists to undergo at least one
serious newspaper or magazine interview per year, even if it doesn't get
printed, just because it gives you a better understanding of what it
feels like to be across from you with a notebook.

Of course, I was always the zealot in the back of the ethics class that
raised his hand and said "Run it," no matter what hypothetical the
professor threw out.

brian o'conner
bristol news
POSTED WITH PERMISSION

5:25 PM  

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