What are the consequences of talking to reporters?

Steve Kowch writes about the consequences of talking to reporters in his On The Kowch BlogI swear, from where I sit On The Kowch, the longer I’m in this game the more complicated life gets for working journalists. Take the latest ethical debate at the Canadian Association of Journalist (CAJ) about Informed Consent – do reporters have the obligation to warn someone about the consequences of talking to them before the interview begins?

The CAJ created a panel of some of the best and brightest people in Canadian journalism to get the answer. Among the people on the panel are Meredith Levine, a Western University journalism professor and three leading minds from the front lines of journalism practice – Toronto Star Public Editor Kathy English, CBC Ombudsman  Esther Enkin and Julian Sher, Senior Producer for CBC’s the Fifth Estate.  I wasn’t invited to be part of the panel – but they did send me the study in the hopes I would discuss it in my blog. So I will respond to the five questions the panelists were asked to start the discussion. Wonder if I’ll be on the same page as the panel members?

Question 1:  Does current media law on consent offer enough protection to subjects and sources?

As it stands, the only thing reporters are obliged to do when approaching someone for an interview is to tell them who they work for and if asked, show them their press credentials.

In my mind, as a reporter and a news director, if the person agrees to the interview than start asking questions. That said, there are times when the subject matter might be sensitive, I make it a point to ask the person if what they’re saying is on the record, if they’re sure they want to be quoted on that.  Just like in the intimate moments of life, No means No and I have never in all my years betrayed that rule in journalism. As a news director, I would sometimes ask the reporter if they’re sure the person agreed to be quoted on that or have it on the record. If there was doubt in the mind of the reporter, they were asked to check back with the person who did the interview. But in fairness, when in radio or television and you’re sticking a microphone in their face, it’s pretty clear that if they answer the question, it’s on the record.

Question 2: How big a risk is there for bad things to happen to people because they are interviewed by journalists?

Well, lets be sensible about this. If you’re interviewing a witness to a mob hit, you really don’t want to use that person’s name in the story. But you still want to know what they saw. So do the interview but refrain from identifying them or showing them on camera. If they’re a whistle blower, they know the risks but the law now protects whistle blowers so do the interview. When doing investigative reporting, you must protect your sources. I always make it clear in these circumstances that I get their permission (or my reporters have their permission) to use their identity. We go out of our way to make sure they’re ok with telling us the information for attribution. But 95 per cent of the interviews we do  – eye witnesses to news events, reacting to a news story, press conferences, announcements – have no consequences.

Question 3: When it comes to vulnerable people, should journalists expand their role beyond public information provider to be advocate or caretaker?

The short answer is NO. Journalists are supposed to be impartial and that means not taking sides. We’re here to inform the public, not take care of people we interview. Now, in the CAJ’s imaginary example of someone afflicted with mental illness who tells their story to a reporter and then gets fired from his job as a security guard, well I would not have used the person’s real name in the story. But I did have a case where a drug squad officer posed with a large pot plant in his office and when the photo appeared in the newspaper he got into trouble. Well, whose fault was that? The bosses knew about the plant in the guy’s office. They just weren’t happy to see him standing next to it on the front page.

Question 4: How should we balance the principle of serving the public with the idea of minimizing the harm we impose particularly on vulnerable and marginalized subjects? 

Okay, this is another version of question three. Who is the media to determine if the person is vulnerable or marginalized? We’re journalists, not social workers. Are there to be two classes of interview subjects. Rich and poor. Healthy and sick. Employed and those on welfare. Are we to assume the poor, the sick and the unemployed are less intelligent, less media savvy  than healthy, rich or employed people.  Most people live their lives never meeting a reporter, never mind being interviewed by one.  So for me, the same rules apply with the same warnings no matter where they fit into the social fabric of society.

Question 5: What proposals can we offer for doing a better job of consent with vulnerable and marginalized subjects?

Oy … so on the one hand we do everything we can to integrate the vulnerable and the marginalized into society so that they’re not discriminated against, but when it comes to asking them questions they need to be treated differently because they’re vulnerable and marginalized. I think the media needs to treat everyone equally because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what their social status or mental status or health status is, most people aren’t media savvy. So they all need to be given the opportunity to opt out, go off the record or just say no to the interview.

Now, here is where you can compare my philosophy and answers to how the CAJ panel members answered the five questions.

From where I sit On The Kowch, my favourite part of the CAJ study is the quote from Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg on what he tells people he’s about to interview. Steinberg describes “The Speech” as “a little preliminary warning I deliver to people who might not be fully cognizant, who might not  be factoring in all the consequences of publicity.” Here is Steinberg’s “speech”:

You understand I write for a newspaper. That I’m talking to you because I’m going to put what you say into an article, which will appear in the newspaper, which people will then read.”

Join in on the debate. How would you answer these questions. Email me at steve@kowchmedia.com and I’ll do a follow up blog with your responses.

Steve Kowch ran two of Canada’s largest newstalk radio stations in Montreal and Toronto for more than 14 years. He is the author of 99 Things You Wish You Knew Before Making It BIG In Media.