Every once in a while, it does a reporter good to be quoted by other reporters. The good thing is that it helps a reporter understand why sources may feel they’re not quoted accurately. I know. I’ve occasionally been quoted, and occasionally I’ve felt the reporter didn’t really understand what I was trying to convey.
The bad thing about being quoted – other than being misunderstood – is that reporters shouldn’t be in the position of becoming part of a news story. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, of course; notoriety is thrust upon you despite your wishes to the contrary.
But the thing that really needs to be avoided is actively seeking to make yourself, or more generally the media, the subject of reportage.
What brings this to mind is an e-mail listserv flurry I witnessed recently involving reporters who cover state government. I wrote about this in a column for The Denver Post, and it created some ill will. Although I didn’t quote anyone by name, and used only one anonymous direct quote, it nonetheless ticked off some people.
For that, I apologize. I should have asked permission or at least given warning. Nonetheless, I was struck by how thin-skinned reporters can be when someone turns the tables and quotes them.
But never mind that. The point is, reporters are fooling only themselves if they think their difficulties in getting information qualify as a major news story that will win them public support and/or sympathy.
An old competitor and colleague of mine at the Colorado Statehouse had a wealth of folksy sayings. One of my favorites is: “I don’t care if trash like that kills each other.”
It applies to confrontations such as the Oakland Raiders playing the Dallas Cowboys, or left-wing nuts arguing with right-wing nuts. It also applies to those occasional disputes that arise between major state officials and the reporters who cover them.
An official will get ticked off at a particular reporter and stop granting interviews or inviting the reporter to news conferences. The shunned one and other reporters get angry. And then, sometimes, they try to get even.
In this case, the state was Florida, the newspaper was the Palm Beach Post, and the governor was Jeb Bush.
It seems this reporter had offended the governor and the former speaker of the House and so was barred from the House floor and a series of year-end interviews the governor was setting up.
The reporter who brought this issue to the listserv’s attention explained that the newspaper in question “has been aggressively reporting topics that have made the governor and the previous House speaker uncomfortable.”
This is, of course, a good thing in journalism. Making officials “uncomfortable” can win acclaim and prizes.
The initiator of this discussion also pointed out there hadn’t been any requests to run corrections or clarifications on any of the stories. This strongly suggests that what had been written had been uncomfortably close to the truth.
There was a considerable reportorial reaction to the surfacing of this affront, and it was heavily along the lines of good press/bad governor.
How dare the governor do that, most of the responses went. Write a story, they suggested, about how he’s trying to shut out the press and, by extension, the public.
At his next news conference, they said, put him on the defensive. Ask him what he’s afraid of. Walk out en masse. Make a big story out of it. Talk to political science experts about the possible reasons for a governor to do this. Keep hounding him.
There were a few calmer voices. One pointed out that these year-end reviews from which the Palm Beach Post had been excluded were primarily spun for the governor’s benefit and probably not worth much anyway.
And one or two dared to suggest that maybe the public “didn’t give a snit” about the media’s logistical problems. That in turn provoked responses from statehouse reporters who suggested that the public should care – and reporters should do their best to encourage their caring.
But you know what? Most of the public probably doesn’t give a snit – or any similar-sounding word. In a squabble between politicians and the media, the public won’t be very sympathetic with either side.
The media are not among the public’s favorites. Neither are politicians.
It’s too bad, really. Both institutions actually believe they are performing a public service. But they’ve spent so much time attacking each other’s motives, they’ve convinced the public that neither is deserving of confidence.
One e-mailer said the media shouldn’t care if the public doesn’t care about reporters being shut out. After all, he said, the public has an obligation to care about things that are – or aren’t – in the paper. And the media have an obligation to make the public more aware.
I agree. If only the public did, we’d all be better off.
If the governor is easily offended, that needs to be pointed out. But it’s a mistake for reporters to make themselves the focus of the story. The media’s job is to observe and report. It’s not to embarrass people who have offended them, or to take sides.
Most members of the public – those who still pay attention – don’t care about the media’s problems in getting a story. They just want to see the story, and they don’t care if trash like that kills each other.
Fred Brown, co-chair of SPJ’s Ethics Committee, is a newspaper columnist and television commentator in Denver. You can e-mail him at EthicalFred@aol.com.