Permit me a long post about something I’ve been musing on in my field of work: namely, how to build effective and mutually constructive relationships between reporters and members of the general public who may enter the news at some point in their lives.

Before I begin, a disclaimer: this is a musing on my own internal learning process. I’m not reinventing the wheel here; I’m not going to say anything that a thousand million reporters aren’t already doing and thinking and saying. But nonetheless, it’s my journey and, lately, my inspiration. And perhaps some will find that worth reading.

Below the cut.

So there is someone in my life who will not speak to media.

This person (oh, how I long for a standard gender-neutral pronoun) doesn’t get asked to interview much these days, but once upon a time, they were in some demand. Not through any choice of their own — not through power or position — but through the accumulation of wisdom, and expertise.

And once upon a time, they acquiesced to reporters’ requests to share that wisdom.

But then one day, Reporter Joe came along. And Reporter Joe asked some questions, said his thanks, and hung up the phone. All’s well that ends well, but this time it didn’t: when the paper came out the next day, my person’s jaw dropped. Misquoted. The words were right, but the application all wrong, the context misconstrued.

Don’t bother asking who Reporter Joe was; this was many, many years ago.

What is more interesting to me is this: despite having some positive experience with media, this single negative experience silenced My Person and all their wisdom to the media, forever. The trust was shattered, not just with Reporter Joe, but with the act of participating in media.

In fact, this person was shocked to learn — many years later — that Reporter Joe is actually quite a fine person; so negative had the experience been, they had assumed that Reporter Joe must be every toxic journalistic archetype: a vulture, for instance, or a cold buffoon.

And how many people do you think that My Person shared that opinion with?

And how do you think that word-of-mouth chipped away at the reputation of Reporter Joe’s media outlet?

I’ve been mulling these thoughts in my mind, because I think it points to the centrality of one thing that sometimes gets lost in reporting — which is that some parts of journalism are, by nature, co-operative. But in order to be co-operative, we have to give those sources agency. And we have to respect their consent.

To be clear, before anyone misquotes me: there is much journalism in which co-operation is not — and should not — be the goal. Fairness is always a must. But if you’re reporting on, say, toxic waste dumps next to a factory, or shady dealings by a cabinet minister, then obviously establishing a mutually successful co-operative relationship with the minister or the factory owner isn’t your goal, there.

But that type of journalistic work is only one facet of what happens in newsrooms around the world. A lot of what we do involves traipsing into the lives or professions of private citizens who neither seek nor especially desire media attention. And this is where we risk creating more ordinary folks who Won’t Speak To Media Anymore.

I think of this. Across the media world, workers (myself included) refer to many interviews casually and openly as a singular product, rather than the process: yes, I’m referring to the quote. “Can I just get a quote from you on…” we’ll say. Or “It’s almost done, I just need a few more quotes.”

It’s part of the lingo of the trade, but perhaps this acquisitive language — “you get a quote! You get a quote! Everyone gets a quote!” — isn’t the best way to frame what we want to accomplish, when we sit down with someone from the community, or a neutral expert on an issue, or a family thrust into the news by tragedy.

Back to the idea of consent.

It’s not uncommon for me to make a call for “a quote,” and have someone answer the phone with a dry, sometimes tacitly hostile joke about the media. It’s not uncommon for me to meet people who give a similar response, when they learn what I do for a living.

When I started probing people on the immediately negative response, I was struck by the common threads. It’s usually one of a few scenarios:

  • They were misquoted, or felt they were misquoted;
  • They had previously trusted the media, but ended up feeling exploited by the tone of the resulting coverage, or by the later lack of interest by the reporter in a follow-up story;
  • They had no personal experience of the above, but someone they knew had; or
  • They had no personal experience with media, but were leery of the lack of control over their message.

If you boil points one and two down, though, they essentially amount to the final point.

This isn’t surprising. We’re an autonomy-oriented species. Most people’s greatest fear, though it may express itself in different ways, is loss of control.

So when “ordinary people” without a platform of their own — read, people who aren’t politicians, corporate flaks or similar — agree to work with media, they are often aware on some level that if it goes wrong, the media version wins out. “The paper of record.” Tens of thousands of viewers on the evening news. Your misquote gets preserved in memory, even if it’s later corrected by the outlet.

I can’t really blame some people for not feeling great about this power imbalance. Especially when the story hits close to their hearts. Especially if they’re being asked to stake their reputation on it. Especially if they are, by nature, shy or private people.

Which takes me back to consent.

For a reporter, the bottom-line of consent in most ordinary reporting situations is that you establish that you’re a reporter, and they agree to talk.

But, to draw on some core beliefs of feminism, there’s also the concept that consent must be active and ongoing. Consent is not a torch to be passed — here you go, here’s your consent, don’t burn the house down with it — but a constant and evolving presence between people.

Under that model of consent, a person “giving” consent also takes lasting agency in what they’re consenting to. They become a part of the process — and in so doing, they take ownership, at least in part, over what’s created. But allowing them the ability to do that must begin and end with the reporter.

Often, it’s as simple as paraphrasing back to people what they’ve just said; once you’ve given them agency over how you intend to use their words, they’re going to be on board. Sometimes it’s a matter of using instinct and careful listening to gauge the best way to handle a source: are they really blowing you off, or do they just need some time? (And if you as a reporter in a high-pressure industry don’t have that time to give, how do you choose to respond?)

Sometimes, it really just comes down to saying: “let’s create this together,” and spending as much time discussing what both of you want to see come out of the story, as interviewing for the story itself. Sometimes, what the source wants from the story is totally unworkable for a media outlet. That’s okay. It’s not agreement, but the act of being heard that builds trust and fosters active consent.

Last year, when I started thinking consciously about community stories and interviews with “ordinary people” not as a process of “getting a quote,” but as a process of inviting them to be actively engaged with and take ownership of the product, I was immediately struck by a difference in feedback.

People became, generally, more forgiving of tiny (non-material to the story) errors. They became more assertive in offering feedback on the story, good and bad, but always constructive.  They became more willing to engage with me on previously taboo topics. And — this is the most important thing — they became more willing to bring others into the process for future story ideas.

It’s a slow build, man. Takes a long time. But it’s worth it.

No reporter ever wants to be Reporter Joe. No source wants to be Regretful Source Mary. And maybe, if we can build all types of community reporting big and small as a process of collaboration and active consent, nobody will ever have to find themselves in those toxic positions again.

  • Steve Boyko

    Oh, very well said, well said indeed.

    Several years ago I was the president of a group dedicated to getting the railway station in Fredericton restored. I had a good ongoing relationship with the local newspaper, one reporter in particular, and occasionally I would provide a few words as things came up in relation to the station. It was all very satisfactory for our group - we got exposure in the news - and good for the newspaper - they “got the quote”.

    Fast forward a year, and the reporter called me at my work and asked me a question about a “secret” letter being passed around in my workplace that we had been asked not to talk about outside work. I felt ambushed and I felt the reporter abused our relationship to try to get a scoop on the story. I was pressured into acknowledging the existence of “a letter” but cut it off there. I ended up having to talk to our lead PR person to disclose that I spoke to the media and got in a tiny bit of trouble.

    I felt the reporter was very unprofessional in abusing the relationship. We were done from then on and I had nothing further to say to that reporter on any topic. I would still talk to media if the opportunity came up but I will be wary.

    In case you’re curious, we were successful and the station did get refurbished.

  • Melissa Martin

    Thanks so much for this comment — this is a perfect example of how reporters can really damage their relationships with people and in the community by not respecting that relationship, even without realizing they’re doing it.

    Navigating moving from “on-record” source to “off-record” source can be a risky thing for both parties. It sounds like what went wrong in this case was that the reporter came across as feeling entitled to move the relationship in that direction. Ideally, that type of thing should be navigated with mutual understanding and a mutual respect for the risk that is being taken.