IN WHICH I ADVISE MY READERS TO WATCH WHAT YOU SAY
A few years ago I saw a woman on a Manhattan subway wearing a cap that said:
I'm a reporter. Trust me.
It’s funny how people are really suspicious of me when I interview them. I’m not talking about their care in choosing their words, or their desire to make sure that I completely understand what they are trying to communicate, or their requests for me to read quotes back to them to make sure I got it down accurately. Frankly, in their shoes, I’d do the same thing, because being quoted innacurately sucks.
What I’m talking about is the assumption that I must be looking for dirt. Now, it is true that I’ve written a few “expose” type of articles, in which I brought other people’s bad behavior to light. When I interview the people who are guilty of bad behavior, they have every reason to be defensive. I may be striving to be fair and balanced, but ultimately, they are in the hot seat.
No, what makes me laugh is when I’m interviewing people for, let’s say, an article for a Jewish newspaper about wedding bands, and they act as if they are George Bush at a press conference about Iraq’s WMD. If they say something off the cuff that is less than nice, they fall all over themselves saying “please don’t print that.”
Really, when I write these little service pieces, my goal is not at all to cause trouble for people. I’m just writing about, say, the pros and cons of different kinds of bands. Nothing terrible. In fact, I enjoy the fact that I’m giving free publicity to the bandmembers I interview. They are usually nice people, and I like knowing that maybe they’ll get more business from readers who have learned something new. If there are disadvantages to a band, I might include it, but only in the context of educating the readers about who might be a good fit for the various bands.
I understand people’s anxiety. They don’t know me. And there are a lot of reporters out there who would blithely print someone’s off-the-cuff comment, even after the interviewee says “if you print that, my wife will divorce me.”
So, I’m here to give you all a service. In case you, my dear readers of Chayyei Sarah, are ever contacted by a reporter, please keep the following in mind:
1) My first piece of advice is, don’t speak to reporters. Ever.
2) Exception to #1: If you are running for public office, have a business you can publicize for free in the story, are aware of a little-known problem that is making people lose their health or their money, or if you are being paid by someone else to do PR for them, then definitely speak to reporters.
3) If you are tempted to speak to a reporter for the attention, see #1.
4) If you must speak to a reporter, first find out what publication this is for, get the reporter’s full name, and find out where else this person has published. Then, look up their work to see if you like what they do. If it bothers you, decline the interview.
5) Don’t say anything you don’t want to be printed verbatim.
6) If you must speak to a reporter, and if you must say something that you wouldn’t want printed verbatim, remember that if you want anything to be “off the record,” you have to say beforehand that it is “off the record.” If in a moment of bad judgement you say “Yeah, my wife has really bad breath in the morning,” then saying afterward “Oh, God, please don’t print that” does not help you. The reporter might be nice and not include it (I, for example, would not include that in an article, unless I really hate the person I’m interviewing), but the reporter is not obligated to honor your request. Your mistake, your problem. However, if you say “off the record, my wife has bad breath in the morning,” then according to the rules of journalism, you are off the hook. But before relying on this, see #5.
7) If you must speak with a reporter, begin the interview by saying that you’ll only talk if the reporter promises to read your quotes back to you, or email or fax them to you before sending the story to the editor. Technically, the reporter is not obligated to do this, but if you make it a condition of the interview, most will honor the request. However, most will not honor a request to send you the complete article for your review before it goes to press. The reporter is busy and already has an editor who is paying to see the article first.
8) Remember that reporters are not obligated to “clean up” your quotes by fixing your grammar or word usage. In fact, most reputable papers strongly discourage the cleaning up of quotations. So, if you talk like an idiot in person, your words, when written down, will still make you look like an idiot. Speak slowly and carefully.
9) According to New York State law, a telephone conversation can legally be taped as long as one of the people in the conversation knows that the tape recorder is running. That person, of course, can be the reporter. So, if you are being interviewed on the phone by someone who is in New York, or if you live in New York, you might be on tape, and they are not obligated to inform you of it. (By the way, I almost never tape conversations. I type fast and why should I double the time I have to spend listening to someone talk to me about the latest developments in Kosher pet food?)
10) Don’t ramble. Unless the article is about you, remember that the article is not about you. It’s about, say, why you hired a particular band, or why you insist on using kosher pet food. Stick to the subject at hand. Also, you are more likely to actually be quoted if you give short, well-expressed sound bites. So get to the point!
11) Exception to #10: If you know of an interesting story, such as a little-known problem that is making people lose their time or money, then by all means, at the end of the interview, tell the reporter that you have a tip for them. Or ask permission to send her a press release about your business, or whatever. But then, don’t take it personally if the reporter doesn’t follow up. And don’t harass the reporter by calling or emailing repeatedly, asking when she’s going to write about that story. Find a different reporter to harass.
12) Don’t offer gifts to the reporter. It’s unethical for him or her to take them.
13) It’s fair for you to ask for a copy of the article after it’s printed. However, the reporter is very likely to forget to do this (I, personally, never promise to do it, because I know I would never have time to arrange it—remember, I might be interviewing 15 or 20 people for the same story). Your better bet is to ask how you can access the article online, or ask for the phone number of the publication so you can call yourself and ask for a copy to be sent to you.
14) If after ignoring #1 and #7, you discover you've been badly misquoted in a newspaper or magazine, write a short letter to the Editor explaining what you really said. They might print the letter, which would help in decreasing the damage done to you. But if you really did say this horrible thing and now you regret it, suck it up. I told you never to speak to reporters.
Have any questions for Chayyei Sarah, the roving reporter? Click on “comment” and ask!