Who is This?
Yesterday, I spent several hours trying to get a state agency to talk to me about a program they had created to help homeowners deal with the possibility of forclosure. I saw the story on Feedly and it sounded like a good one. I called the agency, identified myself and the staff person was reluctant to tell me the name of the program case manager. She directed me to another state agency where I had to leave a message on voicemail for their media relations person. That person called me back an hour later and said the case manager had been called and she was ready to talk to me about this program. I called the case manager and she said she hadn’t received any call and needed it before she could talk to me. I called the media relations person back and got her secretary. I told her I didn’t understand why it was so difficult to let me tell what I thought was a GOOD story. Half an hour later, I was called back by the media relations person who told me again that the case manager had been called and told it was OK to talk to me. I called the case manager and conducted the interview. I edited the story and it aired.
Supposedly, bureaucracies will talk to you all day about the good they do but will clam up like a safe if you want to talk to them about problems. That’s the assumption, anyway but it’s not always true. What’s seems more true is that everybody watches the news but nobody likes reporters. And waiting for call backs with reluctant interviewees when you’re on a deadline to tell even a positive story is a bad taste that’s hard to forget when that same agency sends out a press release about something they want to get coverage for. Your first thought, even if just for a second is, “You ignored me then and you want me now?”
So sometimes, reporters call with questions first and identification second. I did that this morning. I called an agency with some general operations questions that weren’t on the website. When I was asked who I was, I said so. That is an ethical responsibility. But if reporters aren’t asked who they are, sometimes in some situations, they don’t volunteer it because saying you’re a reporter is often followed by a promise to call back that never comes. Some people say it is unethical for a reporter to not immediately identify themselves when they call with questions. And if I’m asking the same questions that an average citizen might ask, the argument then is it’s not about the questions but about the intented use for the information.
Reporters not identifying themselves as they collect information for a story is not unprecedented. In 2004, the Poynter Institute, a leading journalistic ethics organization, published a story about the work of the Contra Costa Times and their investigation on the accessibility of public records. Times reporters called public agencies and asked for very general public information but didn’t identify themselves as reporters. And in each case, they were eventually thwarted by officials for arbitrary reasons. You can read that story here.
I called Poynter and talked with Al Thompkins. Mr. Thompkins has advised media organizations on ethical issues for years. He said with the Times, reporters were posing as citizens because citizens should have access to public information in a way no different from journalists. That was different than me because my intent for the information was for reportage, not general interest. I didn’t first identify myself because it might’ve resulted in no call back for a story I need to complete. Many organizations may be obliged to talk to citizens and journalists, but when a journalist is identified, they have to follow a protocol. In that case, the person who answers the phone deserves to know who they’re talking to.
But Mr. Thompkins also said that doesn’t mean there is never a time when a journalist doesn’t identify themselves. He once did a story about how the offices of then Senator Al Gore weren’t recycling. This was during the time when Senator Gore had just written “Earth in the Balance.” When the story came out, Mr. Gore’s office manager was practically apaplectic. Mr. Thompkins says if an individual or an agency has information that is relevant to a story, the first words out of their mouths should be, “Of course we’ll give you what you need. We just need to go through this process first.” In that respect, he said I was not as fair with the person on the phone as I should’ve been.
So that’s why I feel like crap. I think in my whole career, that was the first call that didn’t lead with my ID. I shouldn’t have let my experience the day before color me. But on the bright side, Mr. Thompkins said that as an ethics expert, my self questioning is just what he wants to hear. At the same time, he said he doesn’t want to hang up thinking I’ll be “pussy-footing” around anybody from here on out trying to block a story because of this minor sin. But for reporters, having reluctance to reveal yourself is always a tantalizing tease because you know officials and bureaucrats can run like white tailed deer even if the goal is to make them look good.
That’s bait I can’t take. Live and learn.