Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘journalist

Something’s Burning

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Something's Burning

Andrew Jennings is a Scottish investigative reporter who has been following the mismanagement and corruption at the European soccer agency, FIFA, for nearly 15 years. In a recent interview with NPR’s Melissa Block, he said he provided the FBI with internal financial documents in 2009 in an effort to help the Americans prosecute FIFA’s wrongdoing. The FBI, along with Interpol and a number of other law enforcement agencies around the world began arresting FIFA executives on Monday, June 1st, 2014.

Ms. Block asked Mr. Jennings if he felt he had violated his journalist integrity by providing those documents. Mr. Jennings adamantly said no, saying FIFA is a corrupt organization, everyone knew it was corrupt and little was being accomplished in the way of internal reform, which he believed it needed desperately. This again brings up the question of how much should a journalist insert themselves into the story and it reminds me of a story from J-school which is built on much historical precedence.

A photographer is photographing a protestor who is preparing to self-immolate himself. What should the photographer do? Should he keep taking pictures as the person sets themselves on fire in the most desperate act of political protest, or should he drop the camera and save the person from what would certainly be a graphic, horrible and painful death? According to Wikipedia, journalist and photographer Malcolm Brown won the World Press Photo of the Year in 1963 for choosing to take just such a photo. In it, a Vietnamese monk named Thich Quang Duc set himself ablaze in protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government of President Ngo Dinh Diem.

There have been 133 self-immolations for political reasons and 10 for economic reasons since Brown’s photo. Journalism has since weighed in on the journalist’s responsibility to intervene. The Society of Professional Journalists cautions journalists in a release from January 2010: “Report the story; don’t become a part of it,”  Even in a crisis, the SPJ says  journalists must be objective.  Actions the SPJ defines as not objective include advocacy, self-promotion, offering favors for news and interviews, injecting oneself into the story, or creating news events.

But Roy Peter Clark, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who recently wrote for the journalism ethics organization, the Poynter Institute, said “That standard – to observe, cover, but not intervene – is surely not absolute.” He continues, “There are those rare moments when a reporter (or other professional, such as a psychiatrist) realizes that life or public safety is on the line.  That professional may choose to assume a different role, to put on a citizen’s hat rather than a journalist’s”. Journalists have a responsibility to tell the story in a way that insures their credibility by not showing bias. But they also have a responsibility to be human beings.  That can be a tricky wire to walk.

What is the life or public safety issue regarding FIFA?  Some have argued that the thousands of immigrant workers that have died in Qatar’s hellish heat as they prepare the country for a possibly ill-gotten 2022 World Cup tournament might be cause for intervention.  Others like Mr. Jennings, simply see organizations like FIFA stealing what is precious to the people, and believe the people don’t deserve to be lied to or stolen from.

“What would you do”, asks Mr. Clark, “if you saw someone trying to set himself on fire?  I would probably run for my own safety, yell like crazy, and point out the danger to others.  I know Good Samaritans, braver than I, who would try to stop the action.  I doubt I would take out my cell phone and make a video of the self-immolation”.

Mr. Jennings made a similar choice. Under extraordinary circumstances, he heeded the call of the FBI to help them put out a different kind of fire.

The Bottom Line

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Rain Stick

“Nattering Nabobs of Negativity”.

I was a kid when Spiro Agnew spoke those words as he resigned from the Office of the Vice President in 1973.  Mr. Agnew had been accused of corruption and allowing his office to be influnced by outside monied interests. Specifically, according to Wikipedia, Agnew was investigated by the United States Attorney’s office for the District of Maryland, and charged with having accepted bribes totaling more than $100,000 while holding office as Baltimore County Executive, Governor of Maryland, and Vice President.

But instead of speaking to that responsibly, he did in his press conference what a surprising number of the high profile accused (and convicted) for mostly any crime tend to do.  He talked about what he felt had been done to him by the media.  Agnew implied that the news media had used their role to turn public opinion against him.

The news media is a lot like a rain stick.  Kids who’ve been to camp know its a hollow tube, taped at both ends and filled with rice or gravel.  When you shake it, its supposed to sound like rain.  Two things about a rain stick.  First, it doesn’t shake itself.  And second, no matter how much noise it makes, the noisemakers stays inside the tube.

People accuse the news media of causing problems by amplifying the small into the ginormous.  But that’s not how news works.  The public have to believe there is something there to wonder about in the first place. They have to care.  And although  the news is very, very good at finding those little things to be examined, if people aren’t really interested, reporters don’t follow up and the story eventually fizzles.  In other words, people have to want the stick shaken.

Don’t believe me?  Look back at all of the times reporters have been kidnapped.  If there is ever a instance when the media would push a story to drive a story, it’s then.  And even then, it was hard to keep the public interested in media’s efforts to get one of it’s own released.  By contrast, when a journalist is accused of unethical behavior, that captures everyone’s attention because people are thinking, “That journalist has been in my house making suggestions to me and my family about what we should do or how we should live.  They’re always supposed to be right, ethical, above board”.

That can feel like a betrayal which is much more personal.  And curiously, even some of those journalists, if they find themselves muttering Agnew’s defense, know its public interest, not necessarily their colleagues, driving the story.  Yes, the media does eat, chew and spit out a lot, but its a diet largely dictated by the public.  If that wasn’t true, newsrooms everywhere wouldn’t be filled with image consultants, social media accounts and rapidly spinning revolving doors.

So when Governor Kitzhaber said in his statement of resignation yesterday that “it is deeply troubling to me to realize that we have come to a place in the history of this great state of ours where a person can be charged, tried, convicted and sentenced by the media with no due process and no independent verification of the allegations involved”, he is, in some ways, repeating the sentiments of those who don’t see that although the news media isn’t necessary the light of day, it can be the magnifying glass.

But it isn’t holding itself.

What’s in a Name?

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Press

For anyone who watches, reads or listens to news, you know the people who deliver that news to you can go by different titles.  And sometimes, it’s not always easy to understand how the title connects to how they are delivering it.  This is a primer for you.

Anchor or Host – This is usually the person whose voice you hear or whose face you see.  Often, they introduce people, called reporters or correspondents, who have stories to tell although they too tell stories.  The difference is reporters and correspondents have gone somewhere else or are somewhere else and either tell that story from where they are or have come back to share what they’ve learned.  The stories the anchor tells may be from someone else, meaning the anchor probably didn’t author them.  Also, anchors tend to their stories only from the “anchor chair” in front of the microphone or the camera.  This is why sometimes, your anchor will be “on assignment”.  Anchors or hosts sometimes become reporters to help them resharpen their reporting skills or because of their prestige or stature within a station, they are afforded the opportunity to do high profile stories and return to the station to tell them.

Correspondent – A correspondent is a reporter who reports from a location outside of the country which is home to their media organization.  US reporters working as foreign correspondents serve like diplomats.  They may be assigned to a news bureau in a country for a year or more and spend time developing contacts in that country.  They may regularly use foreign language skills and work closely with the US State Department or the US Military.  Because of their connection to media and government, they may also be targets of hostile host nationals who would seek to kidnap and extort or kill them for some political or geo-political purpose.  Many times, when a network correspondent leaves an assignment, they return stateside for a period to “detox” from their foreign service which may have included long stretches in war zones.  Freelance correspondents however may move from one such hot spot to another.  Much has been written about this suspected “addiction to conflict” among some foreign correspondents.

Reporter –  A reporter usually operates close to their media organization “in the field” although they may occasionally report “away” but in the same country.  They tend to float from one story to another depending on where the station needs them to go.  Or they cover certain types of stories all the time; the political reporter, the finance reporter, the crime reporter.  It used to be that reporters traveled with support.  For instance, a newspaper reporter would be accompanied by a photographer.  A TV reporter would be accompanied by a videographer.  Radio reporters, because radio didn’t have a visual component, went alone to stories and had a tape recorder.  Today, because of budget cuts at media organizations and the increase in the use of social media, newspaper, TV and radio reporters may be responsible not only for telling the story verbally or aurally but also visually.  Many reporters may now carry small, high definition cameras for providing content for station run, social media accounts.

Journalist – Ideally, all anchors, correspondents and reporters are journalists.  A journalist is a storyteller who, under the best conditions, investigates stories and tells those stories with a minimum of bias and in such a way that the reader, viewer or listener has enough trustworthy facts to make up their own mind about what the story means to their lives as well as to whom and what they care about.

Written by Interviewer

January 27, 2015 at 04:48

Falling In Love Again

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Peach

As a journalist, when you talk to someone you end up liking, either because of their work or their personality, it can be painful to hear later that they have gotten involved in some kind of personal or organizational scandal.  At that point, you have a choice – you can either try to talk with them again to find out what happened and give them a forum to tell their side of the story, or you can not talk to them because you don’t want to seem like you’re piling on.  A journalist will tend to do the first even though to the subject, it can feel like the second which is why they may not choose to talk to you.  Then, the journalist might feel like, “I like you, but are you hiding something?” which can lead to, “Were you honest with me when we first talked?” which tends to turn on the nose.

This is how skepticism forms and the reason why so many journalists have so much of it.  So each time a journalist interviews someone new, there is this push and pull.  Distance from a subject is a professional necessity of the job.  And although we may not like someone personally, we may admire what they do professionally.  Or we may not like the work they do but think they are peachy-keen.  Of course, we try to keep these feelings to ourselves.  But if we like what they do or who they are and they end up in or near bad stuff, it can be hard to not feel a little disappointed or betrayed.

Each new face, new story, new personality sings to us because we tell stories by listening to stories.  To tell it well, we have to know it well and that can draw us in.  Every time we turn on the mic, we can fall in love again.

Damn it!

Written by Interviewer

January 25, 2015 at 02:09

CBS correspondent Elizabeth Palmer speaks volumes

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Elizabeth Palmer

Elizabeth Palmer, a correspondent for CBS News gave an excellent report this morning from Paris about how the French snapped up every copy of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.  The magazine was the target of a terrorist attack last week that killed staff and police.

Over the last few days, there has been a discussion in the media as to whether the media should show the cover of the magazine.  Critics say covers that depict the prophet Mohammed are disrespectful and incite violence.  The attack, claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was precipatated it says by previous covers that also depicted the prophet Mohammed.

The discussion has mostly been around the reaction by print and online publications and should they or shouldn’t they reprint Charlie Hebdo’s controversial images.  The intesting thing about Ms. Palmer’s report was that at the end of it, she calmly held her copy of the magazine up to the camera while doing her lockout.

The thing is, the report showed many French buying, holding and reading the magazine.  And for at least the last two days, the proposed cover has been broadcast around the world in advance of the record setting 3-million print run.  And while journalists are discouraged from editorializing, they can occasionally say something without directly saying it.

Ms. Palmer didn’t have to hold the magazine up in front of the camera as  she was ending her report, but as a journalist, she was also making a statement.  I think she was saying, as were the  French and journalists around the world, “We own this”.  A friend had another interpretation; “F—- You, Al-Qaeda.”

Either way, classily done, Ms. Palmer.

Who is This?

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Press Pass

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.

Written by Interviewer

July 11, 2014 at 01:33