Commentary – Be careful what you say

Joe McWilliams

Be careful when talking to a reporter. You never know when bits of the conversation may end up in a story.
A
lot depends on the reporter, of course, and perhaps even more on the publication he or she works for.

I have a lot of friends in positions of authority in local industry and government. They should know that I can’t promise absolutely not to repeat in print something that I heard outside of a formal interview.

Elected people, especially, I think, should be aware of this possibility. After all, they’re making decisions about what to do with our money, on our behalf as taxpayers. If they’re not aware of how important a burden of responsibility that puts on them, they’d better smarten up fast.

On the other hand, every good reporter knows you can’t go embarrassing people just for the fun of it. You do that, you lose respect and your sources dry up in a hurry. What you need is for people to know that you’re going to present an issue as fairly and accurately as possible. That’s no guarantee that embarrassing stuff won’t end up on the front page, but at least you won’t get a reputation for pursuing sensation for its own sake.

One does hear outrageous things, as a reporter. Racism and sexism dressed up as good ol’ boy jokes – nudge, nudge, wink, wink – are common enough. Sometimes someone will say something crude or stupid in the course of an interview and just assume [I guess] it’ll stay “between us”. With me, it does, although sometimes I wonder if they deserve my discretion.

Other times they’ll say: “Don’t put this in the paper!” and then go on to tell me women’s hockey is a joke, or some such. Don’t ask me on the record who said that!]

It’s a fine line we tread, but we get it right more often than not, I think.

However, just to be on the safe side, I’d advise anyone talking to a reporter to request sensitive stuff be off the record. It probably wouldn’t end up in the paper anyway, but you can’t be certain.

Then there’s the non-sensitive stuff, which is another ball game entirely. I have to get my column ideas from somewhere! This one, for example, is a rehash of something I wrote about five years ago. It’s a whole different ball game these days, of course, with people blathering away publicly on social media.

If they are people in important positions, where public trust is a factor, they deserve to be called on it when they say stupid things.

The climate has shifted and it seems a lot of news organizations are making their living trolling Twitter and Facebook and such. It seems weird, but the market exists [apparently] for retailing the latest outrageous Trumpian outburst [or whatever].

But here’s a scenario. Say someone in a local or regional position of authority says something ridiculous and damaging to their own credibility. Should you point it out, or let it slide in the interest of continuing good relations?

If you’ve seen them ranting intolerantly on Facebook, but act as everything is normal when you meet them in person, should you pretend it is?

I don’t have any answers here. Just trying to figure out how to navigate in this strange new world.

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