Alan Riquelmy: No reason not to talk
My first editor in this business said he’d never give an interview to a reporter.
I have to say, it’s not the most uplifting message to hear in the first six months of your new career.
Reporters are going to get it wrong, he said. They can’t be trusted. Logical next step: no interviews. Ever.
It took me some time to realize that, like most things editors say, he was wrong. Not completely wrong. But wrong enough.
Most people will never encounter a reporter, newspaper or otherwise, in their daily travels. Some people, because of their jobs, deal with them regularly: government workers, elected officials, police, firefighters. But a vast majority of people never have to deal with the Fourth Estate.
But you just might find yourself talking to a reporter one day. And it’s good to know the rules they operate under, or should be operating under.
That’s why I’ve decided to give this TED talk.
First of all, any reporter should tell your their name and the organization they work for. They should ask for your name and how to spell it, and depending on the circumstance they should get your job title as well.
Now, here’s a problem I’ve stumbled upon over the years. The reporter gets all this information, the source obviously knows their words are being recorded, and then the person questions whether what they say will be in a story.
Yes, it very well could be. Be certain you want to speak with a reporter before giving your name and talking to them. You can stop talking whenever you want, but you can’t pull back your comments once given. Some reporters might let you, but they have no obligation to do it.
You can ask a reporter to read back your direct quotes, and they should. But you don’t get to look at their notes, and you can’t change your quotes to something you like better.
And, this is important, you can’t wield the phrase “off the record” like it was a magic wand. Don’t write a lengthy email and intersperse the phrase “off the record” in key spots, thinking it will work. Don’t sit in front of a camera, disparage someone and then declare that anything said in that chair is off the record.
A congresswoman once tried that last one. It didn’t work.
It’s best to know the rules going into any interaction with the media. “Off the record” is a phrase that means different things to different people. A better series of designations is “not for attribution,” “background” and “deep background.” Make sure you and the reporter understand the definitions of each before your conversation begins.
“Not for attribution” means the reporter can use information from the source, but not name the person. You see this in reporting from Washington: Sources close to the White House, and all that.
“Background” means the reporter can’t use the information gained from that person, but can go to someone else and try to verify it. If successful, the reporter cites the person who verified the information, not the person who initially provided it.
“Deep background” means the reporter takes the information to the grave.
It’s likely rare you’ll find yourself in a situation that requires these agreements between source and reporter. Instead, if you find yourself speaking to a reporter, it’s probably because you’re at a community event or talking to local elected leaders at a public meeting. Maybe you’re having a picnic at a park, or waving a sign at a rally.
Regardless, the reporter talking to you isn’t trying to trick you. He or she has no agenda, and they honestly try to record your words accurately, conveying the message you provide to the people who will read the story.
And if you want to share that story, go ahead and talk. That’s why we’re here.
Alan Riquelmy is the city editor for The Union.
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