broadsideblog

Reporting — you know, asking a lot of nosy questions — is dying

In business, Media on March 16, 2010 at 9:00 am
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Facts? You want facts?

You wish.

It’s only getting worse, according to the new, annual State of The Media, an annual report from the Pew Project For Excellence in Journalism. The report, their seventh, is enormous and detailed.

This, from the executive summary, struck me immediately:

Technology is further shifting power to newsmakers, and the newest way is through their ability to control the initial accounts of events. For now at least, digital technology is shifting more emphasis and resources toward breaking news. Shrinking newsrooms are asking their remaining ranks to produce first accounts more quickly and feed multiple platforms. This is focusing more time on disseminating information and somewhat less on gathering it, making news people more reactive and less proactive. It is also leading to a phenomenon in which the first account from newsmakers — their press conferences and press releases — make their way to the public often in a less vetted form, sometimes close to verbatim. Those first accounts, sculpted by official sources, then can rapidly spread more widely now through the power of the Web to disseminate, gaining a velocity they once lacked. That is followed quickly by commentary. What is squeezed is the supplemental reporting that would unearth more facts and context about events. We saw this clearly in a study of news in Baltimore, but it is reinforced in discussions with news people. While technology makes it easier for citizens to participate, it is also giving newsmakers more influence over the first impression the public receives.

I have added the bold and italics. This worries me enormously.

Here’s what happened yesterday when I spoke to the public affairs office of a major corporation. I asked for an interview with their CEO and determined, after more discussion, that lower-level executives might be better suited to this topic — part of the research for my book.

“Oh, a book,” she said. “They take up so much of our time.”

“No more time than a magazine or newspaper interview,” I retorted, a little — maybe a lot — sharply.

“No,” she said, “There’s all that fact-checking.”

News to me — most publishers do not fact-check at all; the onus is on the non-fiction writer to be ethical and honest and get it right. The most meticulous (or well-financed) hire their own fact-checkers, knowing no one else (which they still do for most major magazines) will make those calls.

I always explain in detail to potential sources not just what I want from them  — 10 minutes (more like 60, to start) — but why I need their point of view and how they fit into my larger story. I choose my sources carefully: my time and energy is limited and my book is only 75,000 words, of which most is my own story.

I was told I would have to sign a legally-binding document allowing them to review my material about them and to amend it as they see fit.

She called my request a “deep dive.”

This used to be called reporting.

I recently emailed a list of 20 questions to another source — who freaked out. “I don’t have time for this! Do you have any idea what you’re asking?”

Yes, I do. Like any reporter who cares about their work, I want as much detail as I can possibly get my hands on — not just that someone drove a car, but what color/year/make/model and whether the left mirror was cracked and why. I once covered a head-on car crash in Montreal between a small car in which everyone was killed and a city bus. It one of the most horrific stories in my career — the car’s windows, a sight I will never forget, were sheeted with fresh, wet blood. I only saw that because I got as close to the car as police would allow. My editor told me I was the only reporter to get the make and model of the car.

I didn’t want to do it. It was disgusting and terrifying — and I had my driver’s test the very next day.

That’s what reporters do.

We do not: sit in press conferences and take hand-outs and re-write press releases and let spokesmen tell us their shiny, happy versions of the story. Letting “newsmakers” tells us what matters — hey, it matters to their shareholders and Wall Street! — is BS. Letting corporate and government interests set and control the agenda is a recipe for disaster. And the more they get used to a lazy, stupid, under-paid, under-trained style of “reporting” the harder they bite down on the dinosaurs among us who want facts, dammit.

Not spin. Not a press release. Not just one interview, with three of their flacks sitting in and recording every word — but maybe three or four or 12.

I once interviewed a Navy admiral. She actually reached for my notebook to see what I had written. I shoved it under the desk and kept writing.

People will try, whenever and wherever and however they can — and they have powerful tools at their disposal — to intimidate, ignore, stonewall or confuse reporters.

You, readers, deserve better. John Edwards — shiny, happy guy….until some dogged reporters found out he wasn’t. Enron? Great company…until reporter Bethany McLean led the pack and said, Not so much.

No one likes to be asked a lot of nosy questions. Takes up their valuable time. Might make them uncomfortable. Might raise an issue they hoped no one had even considered. Might scare them.

The day we stop doing that, we’re all screwed.

  1. [...] Reporting — You Know, Asking A Lot Of Nosy Questions … [...]

  2. Caitlin Kelly is always wise when she discusses how journalists do their work on behalf of their readers/viewers/listeners.

    On the one hand, it has amazed me during 40-plus years as a journalist how often and how freely so many sources and subjects cooperate when they are not obligated to say anything.

    On the other hand, it frustrates me when sources and subjects who ought to feel a duty to communicate with their publics through journalists shut down, or “cooperate” by spinning the truth or lying outright.

    By those who “ought to feel a duty” I mean any source or subject who depends on the larger public for her/his salary. That means government workers at any level, who need to remember that they work for taxpayers galore. It also means corporate employees who offer their products/services to a trusting public.

    I hope a lot of those folks are reading Caitlin Kelly’s wisdom.

  3. Thanks, Steve.

    My favorite moment — ever — was the day a flack (ie. government spokesman) in Albany (my taxpayer $ at “work”) called me and started shouting at me that I’d quoted him in the NY Daily News when he’d spoken off the record. He had not. He relentlessly bullied me until I shouted back: “How dare you speak to me like this?”

    A colleague who overheard it told me this man is well-known for shouting (!?) at female reporters, and especially trying to intimidate those new to the paper, when, of course, you are on probation. The a—e even called my boss to complain. He, thank heaven, laughed and backed me to the hilt.

    This sort of thing is common and will only get worse if/when reporters do not push or push back,hard.

  4. Terrific piece, Caitlan. If I may, I’d like to add a little nuance and, separately, even more vehemence to your argument.

    First, the nuance. There have always been lazy and unethical reporters. The ratio of them to the professionals has never changed, but what has changed is what is demanded of the professionals.

    If reporters and editors want to keep their jobs, they have to perform like one of those 100-in-1 tools, creating ever-more assets for companies that over-acquired, under-responded and over-reacted. Journalists are singlehandedly propping up an industry run by incompetents.

    So they rush through every task and assignment, hoping against hope that if they can just work hard enough, this storm will pass and demands will slip from Abusive to Ridiculous to Aggressive.

    Where 100% of the professionals had time to always do good work with sporadic periods of great work, today it’s 50% at best. So mediocrity truly is the best our industry can settle for day to day.

    Vehemence: During the media engorgement that culminated with the Internet bust, most everyone wanted to be Po Bronson (http://www.pobronson.com/), reporting as a supposed outsider on the founding of the next great company. They fed on the optimism, iconoclasm and BS. They didn’t report.

    This is how the industry sold itself out.

    Business and Political Editors wanted scoops.

    Publishers wanted their titles closely associated with Internet economy (without actually doing much in the way of production and distribution innovation). They sold this impression to big-spending advertisers.

    Companies and politicians wanted great press, so they carefully adopted star journalists and fed tidbits to the rest. If there were four dominant pubs covering a given company, each had a hand-fed “scoop” every month.

    The titles sold themselves to ravenous advertisers, editors had their scoops and reporters were basking in the glamour of their careers.

    The companies and politicians had successfully domesticated the media.

    Why don’t the obese aquarium sharks attack divers? Who would feed them fresh, cut-up food if they did that?

    Ultimately, though, a large part of what has decimated journalism will recreate it — the Internet. The markets lost their minds over the Internet, creating the bubble. But the Internet also gives everyone a printing press, and that’s going to set things straight.

  5. Jim, thanks….Lots to think about in your post and so much of it rings true. Three of my former Daily News colleagues are now working on-line, staff, two for legacy media companies, one for a start-up.

    My partner works at the NYT, which canned 100 staffers in December 2009 (two-thirds took buyouts) and I see and hear the effects of this “lean” staff on my friends and colleagues there who are working their butts off. Whenever I call one of them, the only answer to “How are you?” is the same: “Busy. Crazy.” I would love a real paycheck, but I don’t know if I could take the concomitant pressure to be Excellent under such pressure to Crank It Out (see: Posner, Kouwe resignations amid plagiarism, both of which I blogged, each of whom pleaded overwork.)

    The Internet as savior? After I am offered a FT on-line job making $80k+, yes, I’ll drink the Koolaid. Right now it’s earning me grocery money. I appreciate it, but the ratio of effort to income is nowhere near that of print (for experienced print people) for the vast majority of bloggers.

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