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"The Media"
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 business pursuits.

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 "Oh..."

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 you

  1. don't know the reporter;
  2. don't know the publication;
  3. are in an emergency situation and
  4. 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.

Yea, no 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 that interview.
  • 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 gray.)

If you have any personal comments, feel free to have Ab forward them on to me.


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