In God We Trust. Everybody Else Gets Recorded

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has found himself playing a lot of defense this week, as recordings of his calls in and around Jan. 6 hit the media. The recordings appear to directly contradict McCarthy’s frequent statements that he did not and would not tell President Trump to resign in the wake of the Capitol Riots:

WASHINGTON, April 22 (Reuters) – Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, came under fire from some of his fellow party members, after an audio recording showed him saying that then-President Donald Trump should resign over the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot.

The comments, which McCarthy had denied hours before the recording emerged, could undermine his widely known ambition to become House speaker next year if Republicans take control of the chamber in November’s midterm elections, as expected.

We could spend an entire post with clips of politicians of every stripe saying they never said something, followed by audio or video evidence that shows they said that EXACT THING. It’s why this joke rings so true:

Q: How can you tell when politicians are lying?
A: Their lips are moving.

Instead, let’s talk about the importance of recording everything you can shake a stick at when you interview sources. Here are a few things to keep in mind while doing that:

Rules for recordings

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press notes that federal law allows you to record calls and other similar communication with just one party to the call knowing that the recording is happening.  In addition, 38 states have adopted similar “one-party consent” rules, which allows you to record someone without their consent. The other 12 states require that all parties involved in a phone call or other similar discussion consent to the recording. In almost no circumstance can you record a call to which you are not a party, a concept often referred to as wiretapping.

You can find a full listing of the states and their laws on recording on here on the committee’s website.

What you “can” do doesn’t include what you “should” do, in that trust and credibility play a pretty big role in what we do. Thus, ethically, it’s better to just ask people right up front if you can record the call or record them in person when you’re conducting the interview in most cases. If you’re trying to catch someone in a lie, that might not work, but if you’re interviewing the Queen of Corn Elise Jones about her exciting duties that go with the title, I doubt you’ll need to be surreptitious.

Also, for all the grumping journalism traditionalists do over email interviews (and I include myself among the grumps), the use of email does provide you with a written transcript of what the person said, so it’s a lot harder for them to cry foul when the stuff hits the fan over their comments.

What if a source says no?

One of the risks of behaving ethically is that someone might tell you not to record the interview. In that case, you have a few options.

Explain why you want to record them (to provide the most complete record, to back up your notes in case you misunderstand something, to allow you to be more conversational because you aren’t burying your head in your notes), in hopes that this will soften their stance.

If that doesn’t work, make the case that this is good for both of you because it protects both of you from having mistakes get into the public sphere. It’s also good to have that record for future examination, in case something needs to be looked back upon.

If none of that works, you’re kind of stuck between doing the interview without the recorder or not doing the interview. It’s a choice, but be ready to make that choice either way.

How best to record

Before you do any recording, you should have tested out your recorder in a few different environments. See what kind of range you get, the overall sound quality the device provides and if anything you would normally encounter in an interview would limit the device’s effectiveness. (If the source is playing with a pencil on the desk where your recorder sits, will you hear nothing but a series of TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP sounds?)

People can get jittery when they’re being recorded. Interviews themselves can freak people out, so the idea that every word they say is being preserved for all time can make things a little more anxiety-provoking. (A broadcast student of mine referred to interviews that go to hell because of a recorder fear as the source having “red light syndrome.”)

That little red light on a recorder can be a powerful tool, so it’s best to keep it away from them. If you have a recorder that can pick up sound from a bit of a distance, you can keep the recorder in your hand and flip over a piece of your reporter’s notebook to cover the thing. Eventually the source will forget it’s there and relax, I would hope.

If that won’t work, I try to at least obscure the red light or place it in an unobtrusive space. The goal is for it to blend into the background. If your recorder is so weak that you almost have to lodge the thing into the source’s nasal cavity to get a decent recording, buy something better.


Best Practices for Recording

It makes a lot of sense to purchase a separate recording device if you have the ability and funds to do so. Depending on if you need broadcast quality audio or just something you can hear and understand, costs can range between $20 or so to upwards of a couple hundred.

It is possible to use your phone to record in a pinch, but a lot can go wrong, including an app that only records a few minutes because it’s a “free” edition (and they never told you that) or an app that gets knocked off any time you get a text or alert. Also, battery issues are pretty prominent when it comes to most of my students’ phones, as they’re usually on their hands and knees in the classroom before class, searching for a power outlet.

For recording phone conversations, that mini-recorder plus your phone on speaker works well for low-grade audio. If you have a landline, which most of you probably don’t unless you work in an office that has these dinosaurs, you can get a phone coupler for a couple bucks online that allows you to jack your recorder right into the phone itself. (In days before this technology, reporters would drill holes in their phones and wire in recording devices. It looked cool, but the tech was risky.)

In any case, here are some basic tips to help you out:

  1. Make sure your recorder is functional and ready for recording. Do a test recording, check the batteries, bring extra batteries and generally make sure this thing will do the job.
  2. Test the recorder in the environment you’ll be recording, when possible. If you have some annoying background noise, see if you can move the interview elsewhere or tell your roommate to turn down the Cardi B. for 20 minutes.
  3. Start the recorder before the interview and ask the person if they would allow you to interview. This seems counterintuitive, but the goal is to capture the person’s answer on the recording. If they say yes, the thing is already going and they didn’t see you turn it on or place it somewhere so they aren’t freaking out as much. Plus you have the confirmation on “tape.” (or whatever term we’re using for digital stick recorders)
  4. If the source says no and won’t change their mind, pick up the device and shut it off in front of them to clearly show you’re abiding by their wishes. It’ll help with trust and credibility. Then, be prepared for hand cramps.
  5. Keep the recorder going all the way until you are out of the presence of the interview subject. Even after you agree you’re “done,” things can come up or other questions can happen. You want those recorded.
  6. Immediately check your recorder after  you are outside of the interview to make sure it worked. If it didn’t, you can pour some additional work into fleshing out your notes while it’s still fresh in your mind. If you figure out what went wrong and now the recorder works, you might be able to run back in for a quick follow up question or two before the source is involved in something else.

Hope this helps. Any other suggestions or thoughts on this are always appreciated.


(a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)

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