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.