Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.
Janet Malcom, The Journalist and the Murderer, via Slate. The Storytellers: Walter Kirn gets taken in by a con man.
So begins a review in Slate of Blood Will Out, a new memoir by Walter Kirn about his relationship with Clark Rockefeller, a real life Mr. Ripley who impersonated a famous name, lived the high life and was eventually charged on kidnapping and murder charges. Kirn’s book explores how, as a writer, he was taken in by the faux Rockefeller. Or, more precisely, by the German-born Christian Gerhartsreiter who successfully played a Rockefeller in New York City social circles.
But while Kirn explores why and how he was taken over a decade-long relationship, let’s go back to Malcom’s original quote, to the journalist as con man, to his or her relationship with sources, and why sources should talk with reporters.
In the wake of NSA revelations, national security journalists have spoken about their increased difficulty reporting the news (see here, here and here). And with the Obama administration’s use of the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers you can see why that would be the case.
So why should sources talk to reporters? It’s an important, unasked question, says Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley:
When you think about it, that question goes to the foundation of the entire edifice of a free press. And that foundation, at the moment, is shaky.
Let’s back up. No honest press, whatever its sense of mission and however firm its legal protections, can outperform its sources. It can’t be any better, stronger, braver, more richly informed, or more dedicated to broad public purpose than the people who swallow their misgivings, return the phone call, step forward, and risk embarrassment and reprisal to talk to the reporter.
The mythology of journalism enshrines the sleuths, sometimes the editors, even the publishers, but sources are really the whole ball game. Press freedom is nothing more than source freedom, one step removed. The right of a news organization to tell what it learns is an empty abstraction without the willingness of news sources to tell what they know.
Considering how important sources are, it’s stunning how little affection they get and how flimsy the protections are that anybody claims for them.
Give Wasserman’s article a good read.
It moves well beyond national security issues as it explores, again, why when a source’s quote can be nitpicked a thousand different ways — in “the online multiverse, and his or her words, motives and integrity will be denounced or impugned, often by pseudonymous dingbats, some of them undisclosed hirelings” — he or she should ever want to talk to the news media.
I’m going to be a bit all over the place with this one so hope you’ll bear with me. And the reason I’ll be a bit all over the place is because interviewing is really hard, and it requires different techniques depending on the purpose of the interview.
For example, your questions and interactions with a profile subject are going to be different than those you ask of people when reporting on public corruption. In the first, you’re trying to get at who this person is, what makes them tick why are they interesting. In the second, you’re investigating truth and lies, facts and figures and people who very much would like to dissemble and lead you astray.
Also, take into account your medium. How you interface with a subject for a two minute live broadcast is going to be very different than when writing a long form article.
Aside from the obvious (do your research, know your subject, identify what it is that you’re trying to get out of the interview), I want to focus a bit on the “softer” side of the process.
But first, lets start with something Chip Scanlan wrote at Poynter a few years back.
The dictionary defines a question as, “a sentence in an interrogative form, addressed to someone in order to get information in reply.” Notice that the root of the word is quest, which is a “search or pursuit made in order to find or obtain something.”
So let’s agree that interviews are formal encounters for asking questions, and the act of asking a question is part of a quest that we want to successfully complete.
Marc Pachter, who created and hosted an interview series for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, gave a TED Talk once about the art of the empathetic interview. One important thing he had to say — and I think this holds true for all types of interviews — is that we need to break through people’s external shells:
But it comes down, in the end, to how do you get through all the barriers we have. All of us are public and private beings, and if all you’re going to get from the interviewee is their public self, there’s no point in it. It’s pre-programmed. It’s infomercial, and we all have infomercials about our lives. We know the great lines, we know the great moments, we know what we’re not going to share…
…I was trying to get them to say what they probably wanted to say, to break out of their own cocoon of the public self, and the more public they had been, the more entrenched that person, that outer person was.
Towards the end of a 2000 profile with the American Journalism Review, John Sawatsky talks about how people who are interviewed a lot have a “message track.” Simply, stock answers to questions they’ve answered over and over again. If you follow sports, you see this all the time as athletes give rote, cliched answers about their latest successes and failures.
Call it a “shell” or a “message track” and you basically have the same thing: something you need to penetrate in order to get something worthwhile out on the other side. It can be difficult, of course.
Savvy sources are on to all of us, spinning back, all heat and no light, precisely because “we’re asking the wrong questions,” [Sawatsky] says. Under attack, journalists are conceding defeat to well-oiled propaganda machines without really understanding why they’re losing. In the last decade, media trainers have become such a growth industry, “you can even find them among small businessmen in Newfoundland,” Sawatsky says, teaching politicians and executives “how to run circles around journalists.”
Sawatsky, a former investigative journalist, has spent years exploring, understanding and formalizing interviewing techniques. ESPN hired him in 2004 to run training programs for its journalists and producers. As Jason Fry describes it, the sports network has become “his laboratory for deciphering the science of interviewing.”
Outlining Sawatsky’s method is too long for this space but if you click through to the links above, you’ll start finding great advice. Like the Smithsonian’s Marc Pachter though, there are empathetic techniques that draw answers out. These generally fall along the lines of asking “open” rather than “closed” yes-no questions, of listening rather than conversing, of asking a single question that the subject must answer as opposed to bundling a few together that lets the subject choose which path is easiest.
From the AJR profile:
Sawatsky applies the same discipline to interviews that E.B. White commended to writers—make every word tell. Using Sawatsky’s approach, the journalist is no longer a sparring partner but more like a therapist, a professional listener who leads the source down a path toward a goal, staying in control, giving up nothing.
Now, onto finding sources.
One of the hardest things about journalism programs is that you’re asked to report stories on all subjects under the sun. This week it’s science, next week it’s business, the following it’s local politics. Unless you’re very strange, you most likely don’t have an address book filled with sources you can talk to about these things.
So you start your research and start making some telephone calls and cobble together some sort of story that meets a deadline before rushing off to do it on a completely different topic all over again.
This gets easier once you’re on a beat. It’s a primary reason journalists develop beats. If local government is your thing you’ll start to know the players and know exactly who to call upon for particular stories.
A few things though: once you develop your source list, call on them just to check in. Make yourself familiar to them. Pick their brains about what they’re finding interesting and important. Some won’t take your call but many will. This can be a great lead generator. It will also lead to scoops because you’re proactively seeking things out rather than reactively following up on what you’ve read or heard reported elsewhere.
Second, never leave an interview without asking the subject for the names of people you should also talk to. Expand on this a bit though since you don’t just want an echo chamber. Ask them who disagrees with their thinking about the topic. For example, if we go back to local politics, ask who their adversaries are on a piece of legislation.
And finally, work your social networks, especially Twitter. Create lists of subject matter experts in the beat(s) you cover. Interact with them. It’s a great way to expand your source list as well as your overall understanding of whatever subjects you choose to cover.
Hope this helps. — Michael
Have a question? Ask away. Our inbox is open.
Milloy and other aggressive deniers practice a form of asymmetric warfare that is decentralized and largely immune to reasoned response. They launch what Aaron Huertas, a press secretary at the Union of Concerned Scientists, calls “information missiles,” anti-climate-change memes that get passed around on listservs, amplified in the blogosphere, and picked up by radio talk-show hosts or politicians. “Even if they don’t have much money, they are operating in a structure that allows them to punch above their weight,” Huertas says.
Tom Clynes’ takes an in-depth look at The Battle over Climate Science, a gravely overlooked issue. 98% of actively publishing climate scientists now say that it is undeniable, he explains, though disputes over the finer points remain unsettled. More shocking is Clynes’ exposition of the routine death threats, hate mail, harassment, lawsuits, and political attacks faced by these climate scientists.
FJP: There are two important journalism takeaways from this story. One is this asymmetric warfare that deniers use to attack climate scientists and their findings, which, because they are designed to be passed around the web, are quickly picked up by politicians and journalists. The second is that journalists continue to rely on non-scientists for their reporting on the issue, which severely skews public opinion.
"Multiple feet of sea level rising in the next few decades, that’s just fantasy,” says Myron Ebell, the director of energy and global-warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank. Ebell is in a taxi heading down K Street, Washington’s lobbyist row, talking to a reporter from theNaples Daily Newsin Florida. The journalist called to get his perspective on a new scientific study that warns of more frequent flooding along U.S. coastlines as higher temperatures accelerate rising sea levels. “The evidence is inconclusive,” Ebell says. “The [Antarctic] ice sheet is not shrinking but may in fact be expanding. The reality from the experts is … ”
Ebell does not claim to be a scientist. His background is in economics, and like Milloy, he was a member of the American Petroleum Institute task force in 1998. Yet his lack of scientific credentials has not deterred a stream of journalists from requesting his opinion of the newly released study. “Happens every time I get quoted in theNew York Times,” he says. Ebell provides two things most scientists can’t: a skeptical view of climate science and clear, compelling sound bites ready for the evening news or the morning paper. For a deadline-pressured journalist covering “both sides” of a complex issue, Ebell might seem an ideal source. Yet by including unscientific opinions alongside scientific ones, that same journalist creates an illusion of equivalence that can tilt public opinion.
“It’s that false balance thing,” Mann says. “You’re a reporter and you understand there’s an overwhelming consensus that evidence supports a particular hypothesis—let’s say, the Earth is an oblate spheroid. But you’ve got to get a comment from a holdout at the Flat Earth Society. People see the story and think there’s a serious scientific debate about the shape of the Earth.”
Click-through the read the whole piece.
New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters pulled back the curtain on political reporting Monday, revealing that many reporters now allow sources with the presidential campaigns to approve the quotes that will appear in their stories. He wrote that “it was difficult to find a news outlet that had not agreed to quote approval, albeit reluctantly.”
Here’s one: The Associated Press. “We don’t permit quote approval,” AP spokesman Paul Colford told me by email. “We have declined interviews that have come with this contingency.” That puts the AP in agreement with 58 percent of the people who said in our Twitter pollthat they never let sources review quotes. (The poll is totally unscientific and should be taken with the grain of salt that you normally apply to Twitter.)
Peters wrote that “quotations come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative.” Among the news outlets that have agreed to such terms: Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Reuters and The New York Times.
“We don’t like the practice,” said Dean Baquet, managing editor for news at The New York Times. “We encourage our reporters to push back. Unfortunately this practice is becoming increasingly common, and maybe we have to push back harder.”
If war correspondents were to be perceived as potential witnesses for the Prosecution, they may shift from being observers of those committing human rights violations to being their targets.
Journalists Protected Internationally But Not in the U.S.?
The U.N. Tribunal quoted above ruled that journalist Jonathan Randal could not be compelled to provide testimony in the case of a Bosnian official accused of ethnic cleansing. Apparently, that protection is not necessarily afforded to journalists in the U.S.
A case playing out in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston highlights the lack of protection for conflict reporters under U.S. domestic law. Ed Moloney, an award-winning Irish journalist who has covered the conflict in Northern Ireland since 1979, and researcher Anthony McIntyre are fighting to keep their confidential sources secret. Moloney, a permanent resident of the United States, directed “The Belfast Project,” an oral history project documenting “The Troubles” that was deposited at Boston College in an archive that would be sealed, according to the terms of the project, until the participants granted permission or died.
The British government is now seeking access to the oral history project for an investigation into the 1972 killing of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 in Belfast whom the IRA has admitted to killing because she was suspected of being an informant.
Under the terms of a bilateral agreement, U.S. authorities are cooperating with the UK investigation and have served Boston College with a subpoena to produce the materials. Moloney says these include confidential journalistic material he used for his book and documentary. If the subpoenas are successful Moloney may be legally obliged to verify the material so it can be used as evidence in criminal proceedings, something he says he will not do.
Meanwhile, Moloney and McIntyre have filed a legal challenge of their own asserting that they should be allowed to participate in the case so they can fully defend their interest in keeping the interviews under wraps. Their lawyers have argued that releasing the documents would violate Moloney’s rights under the First Amendment and could endanger the life of McIntyre because of his IRA connections.
A ruling is expected in the coming weeks.
But while the legal issues in the Moloney case may be complicated, the principle is not. Journalists covering conflict, particularly those reporting on human rights violations and crimes of war, must be able to protect their confidential sources in order to be able to do their critically important job with some modicum of safety. While that principle has been upheld at the international level in the Randal case, it has not been established in the United States.
FJP: Upsetting as this sounds, it is what it is. Key takeaway: CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon’s point that conflict reporters in the US must understand they can be subpoenaed as part of an international investigation and, if they are, their ability to protect their confidential sources is unclear. We await the ruling on this case and hope our journalists receive the protection they deserve.
A criminal trial subpoena is not a free pass for the government to rifle through a reporter’s notebook
Leonie Brinkema, US Federal Judge. United States of America v. Jeffrey Alexander Sterling.
In a case involving an ex-CIA agent accused of revealing classified national security information, the US government tried to force New York Times reporter James Risen to reveal his sources for his 2006 book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration (NPR review and excerpt).
Earlier this month Brinkema ruled Risen would not have to testify.
As explained by Charlie Savage in the New York Times:
The judge wrote that Mr. Risen was protected by a limited “reporter’s privilege” under the First Amendment, meaning that prosecutors had to prove that there was a compelling need for the reporter’s testimony and there that were no other means of obtaining the equivalent of that testimony. The government argued that such a privilege did not exist, but she recounted numerous other cases -– though none as high profile as the C.I.A. leak case -– in which other federal judges had invoked it.
This is an important victory for the First Amendment, and for the freedom of the press in the United States. Some people don’t seem to understand the connection between the ability of journalists to protect their confidential sources and a free press. But if whistleblowers in government, in corporations, and elsewhere in society can be hounded and persecuted, and if the Justice Department is able to use its power to turn reporters into informants, then investigative journalism in America will surely wither and die. The First Amendment will have lost its meaning.
Email from the New York Times’ James Risen to Salon’s Glenn Greenwald.
On Friday, a judge ruled that Risen would not have to testify about the identity of a source during the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA official.
Sterling was arrested in January and is accused of leaking classified information to Risen.
Glenn Greenwald, Salon. Obama’s whistleblower war suffers two defeats.
And added to our reading list.
We’re always looking for new sources so if you have recommendations drop us a note.