Journalistic integrity; journalistic perils

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interview journalismNot many writers/journalists own the publications for which they write. Generally, the “suits” have the executive responsibilities, and reporters are rather lower on the pecking order. Good writers still have some power and influence — the PR industry feeds on capturing journalists’ attention, and them getting the stories/messages they wish to the public.

I  happen to be one of the ‘not many’, as (when I’m not writing blog postings and stories) I currently have 100 per cent of the shareholdings in three corporations which publish our regional and national publications in Canada and the U.S. This is not a “get rich quick” scheme — and my personal income is nowhere near the stratosphere. Ultimately I expect the business will transition to key employees over the next five to 10 years.

The combined/dual status sometimes creates journalistic opportunities and challenges. For example, I’m working on a story based on information from some industry association leaders. They told me their perspective of the story on the condition that I don’t identify them publicly — if I call them for an official statement, they would give me something safe and innocuous. The story, therefore, is controversial and requires some extra effort to communicate.

One person involved in the story had written a letter to the editor to advocate his organization’s perspective on the issue. We published it in a previous issue. I called him to seek some elaboration of the observations of the individuals from another organization. Unlike most, he neither asked to be “off the record” nor did he speak in careful platitudes.  In other words, he provided some frank and critical quotes. Under journalistic rules, I can rightfully quote him and select how to quote/use his remarks (journalists have no obligation to use every word in an interview; hence the frequent refrain from people who are quoted that their words are taken out of context — a point that is often subject interpretation.)

Everyone else played it safe. A politician at the centre of the story issued a press statement, but declined a one-on-one interview; presumably, he knows that I cannot quote anything outside of his selected phrases. I can’t burn my bridges and name the association representatives who spilled the  beans on a not-for-attribution basis.

How should I handle this story? The question I faced was: “Should I observe journalistic conventions and not allow the individuals involved to review the story before publication” or should I exercise my publication ownership prerogative and break the rules by sending him a working draft. I decided yesterday afternoon to break the rules, at least for the person who I quoted directly who did not carefully orchestrate how his words could be used.

Needless to say, he is rather unhappy. I have his comments and need to sort through the “out of context” claims from his assertions of factual inaccuracy. Clearly, if I put words in his mouth (I didn’t), then I must correct the mistakes; if I have things out of context I need to determine if some vital fact changes the intended meaning of the quoted remarks in a fundamental way. I’ll do what I can to make things right, but I’m confident he won’t be happy with the end result because the story does not reflect his wishes or ambitions about how it should conclude.

One thing is certain: In conversing with individuals and saying I will send stories for review, especially if they have no experience in working with the media, I make clear that my policies are exceptional and unconventional and that they should be very careful about what they say and how they express themselves when talking with the working press. Media publicity can be a two-edged sword. If you handle it well, you can achieve results that magnify and enhance your objectives. However, if you are caught on the wrong end of the message, you can permanently damage your reputation and brand.

Take some time to learn the journalistic rules before speaking with writers or reporters. In this situation, I will sleep well tonight knowing I treated everyone fairly, even if not everyone will like the resulting story.

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