Tuesday, May 01, 2007

What happens if sources stop talking to reporters?

One of the built-in contradictions (or is it a connundrum?) of the news-gathering business is that at the same time reporters are struggling to tell a story, they are forced to edit it like crazy.

When I was a reporter, I would routinely come back to the office with a notebook full of notes and quotes. I'd have various hand-outs that someone had given me, and often a tape recorder with the verbatim of the interviews I'd just done. Then I'd have to sit down and "tell the story" pulling the quotes and information that I thought worked in the story I was writing.

And that's the problem. I like to think I was a good reporter and that I managed to convey the "real" story, without being influenced by my own biases or preconceived notions of what the story was. But of course, that's just wishful thinking. I was as much a part of the story as anyone else involved. Most of the people involved in the news business understand this - especially in the political world, which is where I spent most of my time. That's why "sources" tended to deliver the goods to certain reporters. They had a pretty good idea in advance what kind of reception their comments would get and how the story would probably come out. That's the way the game was played.

Times change
In today's news environment (I've been out of the business for 12 years now) the rules have changed. Things like the 24-hour news cycle, the Internet, instant communications, blogs, company websites, etc, are putting all kinds of new pressures on the conventional reporters and editors that bring us the news. We're living through an information revolution and who knows how it will work itself out. Perhaps it won't. Continual change now seems to be a given in our world.

But however much the news-gathering process has changed, most reporters still depend on time-honored tools, like conducting interviews with their subjects, then digesting the results, choosing the appropriate "best parts" and presenting the story as a unified whole. The reporter as narrator provides the overall commentary and his sources contribute quotes and ideas at the appropriate places.

That's how I did it. In fact, that's still how I work, when I'm writing stories. But the problem is how often the "sources" in the story are uncomfortable with the result. They spent 10 minutes, or an hour or more chatting with the reporter. They answered a variety of questions and covered a whole range of subjects. But the final story might contain only a single quote, and often they don't like the way it looks in print. I often ended up writing stories that I thought were accurate and others seemed to think so - but not the subjects of the story. And this didn't just happen to print reporters. If anything, radio and TV reporters had to be even more ruthless, compressing everything down to five second clips that backed up what they were saying.

So back to the question that sparked this post. What if those sources decide not to talk to reporters anymore? What if the specialists and "smart people" that reporters always look for decide they don't want to play that game anymore? What if they have their own blog, where they can write about the issue, but do it in their own words? What if they don't need reporters to get their point of view out? And, most importantly, what if the public can just search on Google or Technorati under a hot topic and find those points of view themselves? Where does that leave our traditional reporting?

So many questions
There are a lot of questions and I don't have the answers. But the discussion is on-going and worth watching and thinking about. I welcome your thoughts on this in the comments.

What got me started on this was a column by Jay Rosen, in his PressThink blog, called Last Week That Man Tried to Run You Over. Why Are You Having Dinner With Him? It's about the New York Times recent decision to pull out of participating in the White House Correspondents Association Dinner.

I'll let you read it for yourself, but what I wanted to note was Rosen talking about a couple of recent incidents where he was interviewed by reporters because of his status as a journalism professor. And while he was not misquoted, the way the results of the interview were used met the journalists' needs, but did not necessarily reflect Rosen's own views.

Here's an excerpt:

Two weeks ago, Jim Rutenberg, a Times correspondent in the Washington bureau, interviewed me about the upcoming Correspondents dinner and in particular the choice of 70’s-era comedian, Rich Little, after last year’s funny man, Stephen Colbert, held the press and president—and the dinner itself—up to extremely effective ridicule. This is not the opinion of the journalists who were there, of course, Rutenberg included. In his view Colbert “just wasn’t funny.”

Rutenberg’s article made me wish I had followed, in this instance, blogger Dave Winer’s policy. When asked for a phone or e-mail interview, he usually declines. “If you have a few questions, send them along, and if I have something to say, I’ll write a blog post, which of course you’re free to quote,” he said last week. Responding to Winer, and to this event with Jason Calacanis and Wired magazine, Jeff Jarvis wrote: “The interview is outmoded and needs to be rethought.”

I know I’m rethinking it. Rutenberg and I had a pretty detailed conversation about the put down of the establishment press under Bush, certain failures of imagination in Washington journalism, the interpretation of Colbert’s performance in 2006, and the “musty” feel that the invitation to Rich Little had. I pointed out, for example, that Little was at his peak at roughly the same cultural moment that the Washington press coprs was at its peak in the afterglow of Watergate.

But what Jim needed me for was the bloggers vs. journalists debate. “In hiring an impersonator practiced in an old-school approach to comedy, meant to entertain but not offend, the White House Correspondents’ Association has, however, provoked left-leaning political activists, who see his assignment as a retreat from last year’s dinner.” (Subtext: Wow, the left is as angry with the press as the right was. Just listen to the so-called Net roots attack us for not carrying their message.)

What I think we will see more of is people participating actively in both the "old" and "new" media. It will start with people like Rosen, who have their own blog. He may well still grant interviews to people, but he'll offer his own transcripts on his website, or in his blog. We're already seeing that sort of thing more often, where someone will write that they were interviewed for some show, and post a transcript of the interview. The show might include only part of it, but the entire interview is available. That didn't used to happen.

As news junkies, we will now be able to do more of our sleuthing to find out all the details about a story and make up our own minds on an issue. We can watch the news conference live (not just edited clips later), then we can visit the various sites of the groups involved and get their side of the story. Then we can watch the various stories produced and see how they interpret the material that we've also been able to look at.

I know that sounds like a lot of work but as our technology develops, we'll be able to find those original sources as effortlessly as changing the channel on our TV. I think it will make for a more news coverage. We will still have "star" reporters who are visible and trusted, but they will have earned our respect by what they do - not by what they're told by people who know the "real" story. And that's OK with me.


Donna Papacosta said...

This is a fascinating issue, Dave! Thanks for the links and your thoughts.

Dave said...

You're welcome, Donna. It is fascinating. And if you're interested, Thursday is World Press Freedom day, so there will be plenty more issues for us to watch. Rory O'Connor from Mediachannel.org has a piece about it.