by Shari Downhill
from 6/28/07 theysaid
I have a few comments on this subject.
Just as there are conks working in the world of media, there are conks in
every organization. However, there are a few points I would appreciate you
all keeping in mind...
I am a journalist and photojournalist and proud of my initial occupation. I
started out in a small newspaper where resources were scarce and the
reporting staff was small. I ended my newspaper career at a mid-size urban
daily. I now write freelance for national periodicals, in addition to my
Over a 23 year span, I have seen a lot of both fine journalism and poor
journalism. I saw writers anguish over how to tell a story so the context
was accurate and all sides (or as many as they could reach) were
represented. And I also have seen slop - lazy, thrown together crap that
didn't come close to what journalism should provide to the public.
If you are approached by a print reporter,
- make sure to clarify what
publication they work for.
- Ask how to get in touch with them, and
- when they
plan on running their story.
- In addition, know that your request to review
their story "before it runs" will almost always be denied, as it should be.
HOWEVER, you have the right to ask for your quotes to be read back to you
prior to publication, and that
- the writer clarifies what context they will
be used in.
I have had this discussion with many, many other reporters. The
majority felt as I did - that's a legit request and I, personally, have
tried to abide by it whenever I could, or was asked.
If you read a story that you believe is inaccurate (particularly one you
have been interviewed for, and which includes your comments), you should
immediately contact the publication. First, talk to the reporter politely
and professionally. They'll either listen and address your concerns or blow
you off. If they blow you off, rather than getting mad and yelling (which
will promptly get you cut off at the telephone switchboard). Ask to be transferred to the managing editor. I have seen these folks work hard to
rectify a story gone bad. I have never witnessed a NEWSPAPER editor ignore a
complaint. I'm sure it's happened. I've just never seen it. And, I've had my
own share of stories to fix. When you work on a deadline, it happens. When
something needs to be fixed, it needs to be fixed.
If you are approached by an electronic media team - you're on your own.
Maybe someone else out there can address this area. I had a nice little
episode last year with a television reporter who "wanted to get the scoop"
and sat in an office with an corrupt Oregon senator and recorded my
conversation with him covertly. (Yes, this is illegal.) I tracked down the
reporter, and her station's managing editor and shook them up a bit. The
result? Not a thing...So, you see? Sometimes even a journalist is the
recipient of journalistic shrapnel over material taken out of context and
used by an idiotic, uninformed, lazy reporter.
Now, a word on memory...for most people unaccustomed to interacting with the
media, an interview can be incredibly unnerving. Just as your mind tends to
narrow, slow and skip slides in other "emergency" situations where your
heart rate becomes elevated (and other physical responses occur to ready the
body for fight or flight...) an interview - particularly with a camera
running in your face - results in similar mind altering phenomena in terms
of memory. This means that you just may not remember the situation exactly
like it occurred. Now, I know some of you who have been through this may
scoff. But, I'll give you this little example:
I was doing a story on Hetch Hetchy. The story traced back the very
beginning of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir near Sonora - back to the day when
the land was privately owned, and Hetch Hetchy wanted it, because San
Francisco wanted the water. I interviewed an older woman whose family had
"sold" their land to Hetch Hetchy. Actually, the way it happened was that
she was a widow and she was made an offer for her land and told that every
day she waited the offer would lessen in value. Needless to say, she was
very agitated about that memory. In her mind, Hetch Hetchy had essentially
stolen her ranch for pennies. At the beginning of the interview, I'd asked
her permission to record our conversation. She said "Of course you can,
honey." And so I did. I talked to her a number of times to make sure I had
the story right. We ran it. The next day she called my editor livid about
one of her quotes used in the story. One of her quotes had the word "dam*"
in it (with an "n"). It was an excellent quote. It summed up her position
very well. But, she said she would never, EVER have said such a thing. My
editor came to me for proof. I pulled out my recorder (I told him I had
asked permission to record the interview) and played it for him. He said
But, the thing is, I have no doubt this woman remembered what she had said
differently than what I had recorded. I don't think she even had it in her
to lie to my editor. She really, honestly, didn't remember using that word.
Now, we could debate about the use of that specific word in a story. But,
the point is accurate memory, particularly when a person is in a state of
agitation or fear.
Having your words etched into history is a scary thing, particularly when
- don't know the reporter;
- don't know the publication;
- are in an
emergency situation and
- know that when you walk away from that interview
you have become vulnerable to the interpretation of your message by another
person who may or may not understand what you just said to them.
wonder your heart rate is elevated.
Some things you can do:
- You can start by slowing down. Turn around and breath deeply.
- Look around
for back up.
- Is there someone you could confer with over important points?
- It might also help to have someone else listen in to the interview that you
trust. This also might keep you calmer and your speech slower and less
jumpy. (I always hated this as a newspaper reporter but if I were on the
other side, I'd do it.)
- And, though there was a day I didn't really feel
this way, your agency PIO (Public Information Officer) is often an excellent
resource for you. I know some incredible agency PIOs. (And then I also know
some not so incredible ones.)
- If the hair raises on your neck in the lead up
to an interview, listen to your intuition. Wait. Nothing says you HAVE to do
- If you don't feel up to it, then defer to your PIO. Those
folks WILL come through for you when they can. If you don't know who your
PIO is, just ask the reporter to contact the PIO. I can almost guarantee
they know who the PIO is. I always did.
So - good or bad - there are some of my thoughts on the media. Just as it's
lazy and inappropriate for a reporter to make broad, sweeping
unsubstantiated statements about wildland fire, so to is it inaccurate to
make such statements about "the media." It's not a black & white world -
unless you're color blind. (And then I still believe there are shades of
If you have any personal comments, feel free to have Ab forward them on to me.