Monday, June 9, 2008

EDITORIAL: Reporters and News Sources

An editorial about News and Reporters is a bit unusual for a big city print publication. But in a small town, with few sources and almost daily contacts, the rules of the game may be quite "different".

If one were to read the Associated Press Style Manual (42nd edition, 2007), there are forty-two pages of "Media Law Briefing" regarding liability, libel, slander, and damages. While the manual doesn't offer step-by-step instructions or firm guidelines on specific topics, it does a great job of generally presenting these issues from a journalist's perspective.

In a small town, there are necessarily a very small number of sources of news worthy information - and a limitless supply of gossip, innuendo and local legend (usually in the form of "colorful" historical depictions). Separating the news from the folklore can be challenging at times, especially when it comes to historical events. So the tendency is to heavily rely on a few reputable, reliable sources that have access to information on a regular basis.

One tendency that develops over time, is for the source to assume a privileged status with a reporter by invoking the phrase "this is off the record". In the AP Style Manual, there are detailed several levels of "privileged" source material and each one carries with it an enforceable contract between source and reporter. The privilege is never given lightly by the reporter and the source should not proceed without express consent from the reporter. "Express consent" means that the reporter must agree to the privilege in every instance - that consent cannot be implied or assumed. Otherwise, there is no basis for tort or recovery of damages for harm in relating the information. The best example is in a "whistle blower" scenario, where the source of information needs to be kept confidential to avoid retaliation and perhaps loss of livelihood. The information may be reported and acted upon as long as the source of the information remains completely confidential. If the stakes are high enough as in a criminal investigation, the information itself may need to be kept confidential to avoid compromising the source's physical safety. Sometimes, the reporter can use the "edited" information to protect specific details while getting the story out and protecting source confidentiality.

What's the the difference in reporting the news? Interviews can be hostile or cordial and may usually go in both directions over the course of time. Sources that handle a reporter's inquiries with "no comment" are particularly subject to being presented in the least complimentary terms by reporters. Names are named, contact information may be reported, research can be presented without additional verification - and generally, more negative conclusions are drawn.

Contrasted with the cordial source, some details might be omitted or glossed over to reduce the public exposure of the source. For example, it's one thing to attribute an act or quote to "a local realtor" and quite another to report "Mr. John Xxx, of Y realty company, located at 123 Z Street, telephone 123-456-7890". Obviously, there's a huge difference in perception of the source's culpability in the reader's mind when reporting these types of details.

And of course, different individuals - public figures or just plain folks - should have different considerations in speaking to journalists. A public figure has little recourse to criticism, it's part of the cost of being a public figure. So the public figure always needs to weigh the risk of giving information versus appearing to hide the information. It wasn't the "BJ" that got Bill Clinton impeached, it was the cover up that caused the real problems. Politicians and public servants have a tendency to want to "cover their a**es" with a convenient lie rather than a privileged communication due to the balance they feel is necessary between credibility, deniability and responsibility in performing their public duties.

On the other hand, the private individual "John Doe" doesn't really have the same concerns, since generally their acts do not occur in the public forum. There's no reason to talk to a reporter if one doesn't want to go on record. Of course, many private individuals are firm in their beliefs and opinions and don't care who knows it - so they deal freely with reporters. Most others don't mind relating information, they just don't want to be quoted (or named).

Then there are those folks who just don't know how to act - newbies and amateurs in the public light. These tend to be private folks who are temporarily thrust into the public forum by some affiliation or association. Sure, you can use my name in your advertising - that sort of thing. Depending on the circumstances, these folks have assumed roles that are by nature or statute "public" - yet they feel it is only their personal business. For example, going on public record by forming a regulated committee/organization or engaging in political advocacy mandates certain public reporting requirements and de facto transforms an individual into a public figure.

Which brings us to the reporter's "feel" for sources and the credibility of their statements. The reporter is always in a position to evaluate not only the information, but the presentation. If the reporter doesn't feel he's getting the straight story due to the source's body language, eye contact, or demeanor - chances are the source will be more thoroughly investigated. If something doesn't "smell right" to the guy collecting the information, you can expect he'll be "nosing around" in your business. While complete disclosure isn't necessarily required, candor in presentation makes a huge difference. "No comment" or ignoring the reporter might change the story to examine you (the source) more thoroughly. Telling the reporter why you have no comment, or that you'd prefer not to answer because of possible retaliation makes a big difference. A little honesty goes a long way towards making interactions with the press more in your favor. Trust me o this one!

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