Politics, Technology, and Language

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

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.

7 Responses to “The humble interview”

  1. Blue Athena said

    I find it hard to imagine ever agreeing to an interview without the right to verify and approve what was written. I would just never put that kind of trust in anyone without good reason (running for office, falsely accused of a crime and advised by my lawyer…). But otherwise? No, I don’t think so. I’ve been misquoted all to often without giving interviews…why would I introduce another element of risk?

  2. Blue Athena said

    My 8 year old niece was interviewed by a local newspaper after winning an award she had worked hard to achieve. She was so badly misquoted in the paper that I don’t think she’ll ever give an interview again. It was really upsetting how they manipulated her words, despite having several people present who knew what she actually said. Maybe it’s best that youth are learning the lesson young.

  3. When I was living in Wayne, N.J., the local ad-rag was so poorly written and edited that I felt only sadness and pity for the hapless, obviously undertrained and surely underpaid woman who seemingly wrote every word in it.

    I gather the misquote of your niece wasn’t of the Gotcha variety, rather it was due to blinding incompetence. When we regret the slow demise of newspapers, it’s great publications like the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and the amazing N.O. Times-Picayune, not those Gannett fishwrappers that consist of one local story, a page of AP wire stories, and a bunch of ads and flyer inserts.

  4. I too have been misinterpreted. The journalists in question used a quote out of context making it seem like I was a real looner. They also used some pictures of mine in way that made it look like the person I was talking about was the one at the picture which was not the case. In this case it was mere clumsiness, nevertheless it was a valuable lesson as it was most embarrassing for me. The problem as always the time and the want for action, though most of the time working at sublimely unconsciousness level.

    I think the Internet and blog revolution is doing something wonderful with journalism. The way you connect/link the news articles to blog posts – this way background data is never longer away than a click. The newspaper can of course control which blogs are linked to the article, but most of the papers I read is letting them roam free.

    One fitting example would be a debate article in Sweden’s biggest newspaper about how an alarming percent of the Swedish youth sees communism as a good force and some even thought it better than liberal market economy. The editorial the next day then ran a piece about the misled youth and that something had to be done.

    After doing some clicking around I found blog that informed me that the organization responsible for the debate article was sponsored by a leading neoliberal think tank in Sweden. Clicking some more I also found some of the question that most of the arguments were built upon, and of course to no surprise they were completely bogus and so full of errors that three year old could have done a better survey. I then proceeded to cancel my subscription(the final drop) of the newspaper after an angry call to the complaints desk.

    So with a few clicks you can usually check several stories on the subject, find the facts and quotes referred to in the story and even send an email or two and finally do an post about it.

    The point is that with the Internet checkups can be made in minutes compared to the daunting task before. This I think will profoundly change the way journalism is done. Whether it will change in good or bad way I am not to say.

  5. Swanny said

    I’m sorry, I thought this was going to be a post about Humble Pie. I am sooooo disappointed.

  6. How can humble pie have any relevance to your life, Swanny?

  7. Swanny said

    Who doesn’t love 30 Days in the Hole? Or Four Day Creep? Or even C’mon Everybody?

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