Why Talk to a Reporter?

I noticed an interesting pair of tweets this week by a newspaper reporter who was complaining about someone she had interviewed. The first tweet was;

“Going crazy again from Kafkaesque non-responses to media inquiries. I wonder how they would like it if I answered their questions like that.”

Shortly after that, she tweeted;

“Example: PR guy asks: Are you reporting on our event? Jen: The NOW plays an important role in regularly reporting on events in the community”

That one made me chuckle. The reporter is Jennifer Moreau and she works for a community newspaper called NOW. The next morning, I decided to interview her. I left a message at about 10 am and waited for her to call back.

While I waited, I googled her. Rabble.ca described her as “a community news reporter with a background in feminist anti-violence work.” I found a sports story she had written for a college paper. A blog published an opinion piece she had written in 2005 opposing legalized prostitution. On her Twitter profile she called herself a “reporter and an Argentine tango dancer”.

Shortly after noon, she called back and we had a chat about how people answer a reporter’s questions. Her main complaint is with government types who provide what she calls “vague non-responses”. That makes her suspicious. She assumes they are hiding something. To her, “transparency is the new objectivity.”

Like most reporters, Moreau believes there are certain “basic questions that need to be answered” on behalf of her readers. Her belief is that she is simply an unbiased story teller and her readers will decide the veracity of anyone’s statements. She can imagine few situations where there might be legitimate reasons not to speak publicly.

The problem, of course, is that sometimes there really isn’t a story and people are put in the position of denying an unfounded accusation. If the source of the charge has any credibility (and sometimes even if they don’t) reporters will rarely kill the story. Their version of transparency is to allow the accused to make a statement of defence. And if that statement is not very good, well – in Moreau’s words “I’m not there to protect people if they make stupid remarks.”

That is precisely why no one should talk to the media if they haven’t been properly trained. I am very concerned that my clients don’t make “stupid remarks”. I also know that they must have clear, concise messages before talking to reporters and they need to be prepared to say them more than once.

Jennifer Moreau seemed uncomfortable when I pressed her on her past position against legalized prostitution. If I had a client in favour of it, I asked, should I suggest the client refuse to be interviewed by you. After some hesitation she replied, “If I were in your position – yeah.”

Near the end of our chat, I asked if she had been interviewed before and what it had been like for her. She confessed that she had done interviews as a spokesperson for a volunteer organization. She hadn’t had formal media training but, she said, “we had points that we wanted to get across in the media that we just kept repeating all the time.”

Gee Jennifer, maybe in the end we’re not as different as you think.

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3 Comments

Filed under Communication, Media, Messaging

3 responses to “Why Talk to a Reporter?

  1. You wouldn’t go out in public without brushing your hair (or your teeth). Going on the record for a media interview requires a bit more preparation, and it goes further than mere media training. Clients also need to be prepared for specific interviews. A good PR person can anticipate close to 100% of the questions a client will be asked – and can hold up a mirror that shows the client how their responses will be received and interpreted (not always the way they think). Media training and media prep offer clients a chance to ensure they’ll be understood, an opportunity to course correct when they’re presuming too great a knowledge of their specific subject matter, and a chance to de-jargon their communications. I’m thinking de-jargon should have been OUP’s word of the year, not ‘unfriend.’ 😉

  2. Hi Ken,
    I was anxiously awaiting your post to see what you would write! This was a very interesting discussion, and you brought up a lot of good points, especially with your background as a reporter and now as a media coach.
    A couple of things: The incident I was complaining about, where I got a non-response to my inquiry, was regarding a real, well-established problem, not a non-story based on unfounded accusations that the reporter refuses to let die, although I agree those exist.
    However, the response I got did not answer my question, which was: What is the government doing about this problem? This is a legitimate question that deserves an answer.
    The phrase “transparency is the new objectivity” refers to reporting, not spin doctoring, and I would interpret it as a way to counter bias. Objectivity means representing the facts without influence from personal feelings or opinions. I see reporting as a method, almost scientific, where the journalist is involved in a rigorous discipline of verification. Meanwhile, being transparent means naming sources, people and their credentials or conflicts of interest, for example, so the readers can decide who to believe and why. The method of checking the facts and the use of transparency to show the reader where the information came from are what protect the story from the bias of the reporter.
    Also, what you interpret as me seeming uncomfortable about my “past position” against the legalization of prostitution is hesitancy and thoughtfulness on whether I should be reporting on an issue where I have taken a very public, opinionated stance. This is not a “past” position either; this is something I still uphold. The question is: Can I separate my opinions from the job as a reporter? If I am worried about something like this I go talk to my editor for advice. If it were that bad, I would not do the story. But no reporter is completely without opinions – it would be a farce to claim otherwise. I’m sure in your many years of reporting, there were stories you came across where you had an opinion about something. However, the journalist’s job is to present the facts, which leads us back to the method of verification.
    Also, why say I “confess” to having worked as a media spokesperson in the past? We were taught in journalism school to avoid loaded terms like confess, deny, admit, etc. because they imply guilt. My work as a media spokesperson was for a rape crisis centre and transition house that publicly spoke out against violence against women. I’m not confessing anything, and I happily offered this information. Stick to “said” instead, it’s more neutral.
    But back to your original question: Why speak to a reporter? I would say not talking to reporter is worse because silence speaks volumes. And like I said in our discussion, if someone doesn’t want to give me the information, I’ll go find it from someone else, and that first source has lost all control of the “messaging.”
    Kind regards,
    Jennifer Moreau
    P.S. The name of the newspaper I write for is the Burnaby NOW – we shorthand that to the NOW often, as you saw in my Twitter feed. Also, the opinion piece on the legalization of prostitution was for the Tyee, it wasn’t a blog.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Jennifer, you’ll notice that I published your entire comment without editing and its word count is longer than my original post. Mainstream media rarely gives anyone that opportunity which is why it’s very important that people are trained to get their message right the first time.

      I can’t agree with your premise comparing reporting to scientific method. For one thing, your deadlines prevent you from doing an exhaustive analysis of the information and, as transparent as you may think you are regarding sources, your readers never know if other voices were left out of the article. That is, unless you use words that imply guilt like “refused to comment.”

      I do, however, applaud your resolve to use neutral language in straight reporting. My piece was meant to be interpretive and though you may have happily confessed, I sensed that you were wary of some of my questions. In a quick scan of your Canwest big sister web site, by the way, I found “vows”, “scoffs” and “denied” used instead of “said” – all in one news story.

      I question why it makes it “worse” if someone is too busy or not prepared to speak to a reporter. You say you will get the information from someone else but what if that information is not as accurate? Are you sacrificing accuracy for expediency? Too often the story is printed or aired and the agenda is set by who ever had the best quote.

      Finally, why can’t transparency apply to “spin doctoring”? In times of crisis, I tell my clients to tell the truth and to tell it fast.

      I just want them to prepare themselves before they return your call.

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