No comment or late comment: How long should you wait for people to speak up on their own behalf?

Student media adviser and blogging guru Kenna Griffin sent this out on Twitter today and it got me thinking about our rights and responsibilities regarding fairness to sources:


Her blog post, which you can read in its entirety here, touches on a lot of good issues in regard to fairness, transparency, accuracy and the importance of the story. She also makes some good points about how things have changed in the digital age versus the newspaper’s “hard” deadline.

I often found that the hard deadline was a double-edged sword: I got more time to wait for someone to call me back because I didn’t have to send the story to press until 1 a.m.. That said, it also meant that if I caught a late-breaking story and only had until 1 a.m. to get it out the door, some people weren’t going to be around for comment, thus leaving me with a weaker piece.

Digital deadlines mean you can send stuff to your readers whenever you want, which is great when you have content worth sending. However, I know from personal experience, that when I’m waiting for a quote from someone and I have the ability to just hit “publish” and move on, I get really twitchy. Patience is a virtue, but not one with which I have been endowed…

Griffin lists some key thoughts about the best practices for deciding when to wait and when to pull the trigger. Here are a couple others that I’d add, especially for those of you working in a digital field:

  • Will waiting longer likely lead to a comment? In some cases, you have worked with a source and that source is usually pretty good about getting back to you, so the wait makes sense. In other cases, you are more likely to find a unicorn playing bass in a punk band than you are to get a quote back from a source from which you requested an interview. If you think time is likely to lead to success, hold on to the piece. If not, publish it as soon as it’s as good as it’s going to get.
  • Is this a case of “ostrich syndrome” on the part of the source? The legend involving ostriches is that when they become afraid, they stick their head in the sand, thus not seeing the danger, but clearly being no safer than they were before they did it. It’s not true, but it does provide us with a good jumping off point for how sources can be delusional regarding their interactions with reporters.
    A number of times, a source has tried to dodge a reporter’s call with the idea that if they can avoid saying anything about the topic, the reporter won’t be able to run the story. In those cases, I tended to tell people to run the story anyway, with an explanation that we tried to give this person a chance to say something. Just like any other form of bad behavior, you shouldn’t reward sources who try to kill stories by dodging you.
  • How permanent is your choice? This is a tough issue that tends to lend itself more toward student media outlets. When a publication comes out once per week, an unanswered claim or a one-sided story can become codified in the minds of readers before another source gets a chance to say something. Even more, if it the last paper of semester or school year, that decision not to hold a story for a comment can seem almost vindictive. However, if you run your media on a digital platform and you can update at a moment’s notice, the choice seems a lot less painful. When it came to the Oshkosh North Star situation, I felt pretty solid about publishing whatever it was I had in hand, even if I was still hoping for another quote or comment. I knew that if something popped up, I could tweak what I had. If I worked at a newspaper and it was going out this week only, on actual paper and I would never get another chance at it, I’d probably feel a lot more anxious about my choice to publish.


One last thing about the “no comment” issue: People who tell you “no comment” and then continue to talk are, in fact, commenting, so feel free to use whatever they tell you. It’s not your fault they can’t shut up. When people don’t comment, we used to joke about how to translate the way in which the “no comment” was listed in the story:

  • “Smith declined to comment:”  This essentially means you got a hold of the person, the person was decent to you and told you something along the lines of, “Look, I really can’t say anything or my boss/my manager/my spouse will kill me.” You feel bad for the source and you kind of understand.
  • “Smith refused to comment:” You reached the person who told you “Go (INSERT ACTION THAT DEFIES PHYSICS HERE) yourself and the horse you rode in on!” The person might also have been running down a flight of stairs, screaming “FAKE NEWS!” at you.
  • “Repeated attempts to reach Smith on his mobile phone, home phone, congressional email account, two fundraising dinners and his house in Yonkers were unsuccessful.” That weasel is dodging us…
  • “Smith’s whereabouts are unknown at this time and the Journal was unable to find him.” This guy might be dead.

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