Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for May 21st, 2007

The humble interview

Posted by metaphorical on 21 May 2007

The humble interview, the linchpin of journalism for centuries, is under assault.

So wrote Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz on Monday. (Thanks to Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols for the link.)

Kurtz noted that

in the digital age, some executives and commentators are saying they will respond only by e-mail, which allows them to post the entire exchange if they feel they have been misrepresented, truncated or otherwise disrespected. And some go further, saying, You want to know what I think? Read my blog.

“The balance of power has shifted,” says Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at New York University. “Everyone used to be landlocked, and the media was the outlet to the sea of public discussion. But now there are many routes. . . . Readers have more power because they have more sources, and sources have more power because they can go direct to readers.”

There’s nothing humble about a journalistic interview, and the possibility of being misquoted is real. Back in te summer of 2000, I was interviewed by a NY Times reporter, as an ordinary citizen, about Al Gore. The idea was that many voters who might be expected to support a fiscally-conservative liberal Democrat like Gore weren’t, or were supporting Gore only with much reluctance. I described what it would take for me to support Gore ethusiastically. The Times quoted me as simply ready to vote for Gore with my nose held.

The reporter, or his editor, got it almost 180 degrees wrong. What I do for a living was misstated and I was called a “die-hard progressive,” which isn’t even true, let alone descriptive of my politics. There was no fact- or quote-checking. The reporter’s stated premise was that he was writing a series of articles and would check back periodically and see if my feelings about Gore changed. There were no follow-up calls or articles. I’ll know I’ll never talk to the NY Times again.

A few years ago, I did a story about the Slammer worm, one of the first big Internet viruses. It had taken out a number of Bank of America ATMs. A number of articles about it implied that the ATMs were on the net and the worm had infected the bank’s ATM network, which seemed to me obvious yet highly unlikely.

I got a Bank of America press representative on the phone and asked point-blank. She said yes, and so I had my money quote, on the record and everything. It still seemed very unlikely that the ATMs were directly on the Internet, though, and the spokesperson didn’t seem knowledgeable at all. So I asked her to please check with the people running the network. Instead of filing my story (on-line), I waited a day. Sure enough, the virus had overloaded a network that the ATMs relied on, making them unable to complete transactions. The ATM network itself, however, was unconnected to the Internet and uninfected.

Newspapers aren’t the only publications to practice Gotcha Journalism, as it might be called, but they’re the main players of that game. If sources have new policies against being interviewed live or over the phone, it wouldn’t suprise me to see newspapers the principal objects of it. Other journalists I know, both at my magazine, in the technology trade press, and elsewhere, don’t seem to be to be feeling the wrath of our sources.

I tell my interviewees that I will check any direct quotes I use, that I will provide them the context, and that even if they said what I quoted them as saying, they can ask me to change the quote to better represent what they actually mean. (If they can’t explain what was misleading in the original quote, I’ll feel free to use it and stand by it.) I’ve lost a few money quotes along the way with this policy. But I think readers can tell the difference, and in any event they are better served when journalists are fair—and accurate—with sources.

If newspapers like the Post are concerned about sources having new interview policies, they should think about changing their own.

Posted in journalism, politics, Times-watch | 7 Comments »