A story here at UW-Oshkosh kind of blew up last week, when the student newspaper reported that the U was suspending the theater major, due to significantly low enrollment. The story originated from an assignment in my reporting class, as one student heard a rumor, got nosy and dug into the topic.
As part of the process of reporting the story, the student requested an interview with the head of the theater department, who declined the request via email. She did make a few basic statements to correct the errors associated with the rumor (She explained the department wasn’t being closed, kids could still minor in theater, there was potential for a reopening of the major etc.), but said she didn’t want to do an interview.
When the story ran, people were upset, especially the head of the department. From my perspective, she had a right to be concerned in some ways. The headline and a caption (neither of which the reporter wrote) were incorrect regarding what would be suspended. Those are fact errors that need to get fixed. She was also upset because several students quoted in the story were upset that their comments made the paper. (That’s another ball of wax, so let’s just sidestep that one…)
However, a lot of the email she sent to the provost, the adviser of the paper, the kid, the chair and assistant chair of our department, centered on the theater department’s efforts to make things work out for the people in the major and who want to declare a minor.
She noted that the department is picking classes to help kids finish their degree for those who remain in the major. She also noted that the kids are able to finish their degrees, something the university is contractually obligated to do. She also that the lack of a complete picture of the whole situation has caused stress for the students in the department.
My first reaction to this was: Well, you could have said all of that in an interview with the reporter.
I’m not picking on this one person, as I’ve seen this a lot here from various university folks. For example my boss was in a virtual meeting with people throughout the university who were discussing their concerns about how the student media outlet was covering something or how their voices weren’t being heard. He said something along the lines of, “Well, then talk to a reporter for the (student newspaper) about it.”
The chat then went silent.
This is the core of what I wanted to get into with this post. If a reporter approaches you, particularly a student reporter, and wants an interview on a topic that has some meaning to you and some interest to a broader audience, just do it.
Obviously, there are caveats to this, such as if you’ve experienced a tragedy and lack capacity to deal with a reporter. Also, if there are true concerns about your health, safety, job or other life aspect related to granting an interview. In those cases, turning down an interview is fine.
Aside from those kinds of situations, here are the top reasons why people DON’T grant interviews and why those reasons are dumb:
“I DON’T WANT THIS TO BE A STORY:” In a lot of cases, sources get asked to talk about stuff that is uncomfortable or problematic. To that end, they practice what we call “Ostrich Syndrome” in that they stick their head in the sand and figure if they can’t see it, it isn’t there. (Yes, I am aware of the whole myth of this, but it’s still what we call it.)
The idea they have is, “If I don’t say something, they can’t write it and therefore it remains a non-story.”
WHY THIS IS DUMB: For starters, it’s probably going to be a story, regardless of if you participate, so having the opportunity to tell your story is the better part of valor. Even more, the absence of someone in a story can create a sense among readers that a) this person is hiding because they’re a weasel and b) the allegations/problems/concerns noted by other people in the story are all real.
The other thing about the first story getting out to the public relates to a concept called anchoring bias. Psychologists have found that people tend to lock on to the first version of any story they hear and treat that as the “true version” of events. Every other version of the story or set of facts that emerges is merely used in relation to that anchored sense of reality, either reinforcing its stability or trying to cognitively “pull” people in a different direction. Regardless of whatever happens next, you can’t reset that anchor point. It’s the position from which all new information is related.
Therefore, if you decide to sit out the first round of interviews when a reporter comes asking, you’re literally ceding the audience’s sense of reality to someone else and you’ll never get it to entirely align with what you want to say.
“THE REPORTER WILL LIKELY SCREW UP:” It’s a fair point that people make mistakes and that things can get far worse. I’ve heard from dozens of people about how they were “misquoted” or that the nuance of a key point was lost somewhere in the inverted pyramid. These things do happen, although I will note that “I don’t like what you wrote” is not the same as “Your story was wrong,” something many sources just don’t fully comprehend.
Participating in a story is always a risk, even if the information is accurate. I once had a conversation with an interview subject who told me, “I read what you said I said and I know you are right about it. However, it is completely not how I thought I was explaining that topic and it feels wrong.” I, too, have done interviews where something I said in passing suddenly became the crucial element of a story that had nothing to do with why I agreed to the interview. So, I get it… But…
WHY IT’S DUMB: The propensity for a reporter to screw up a story goes up exponentially if that reporter is operating on a limit amount of information. To that end, it makes more sense to participate in the process and try to at least get the “right” information in front of the journalist.
In many interviews, I’ve taken the opportunity to ask the subject, “Here is what I’m hearing about X. Is this your experience?” I would occasionally get confirmation, occasionally get a rejection of the general premise and usually get “Well… Kind of…” and then the nuance started.
In the last handful of stories in which I’ve heard people complaining about how someone “got it wrong,” most of the “wrong” was a matter of gray, not black and white. Most it was also stuff that could have been clarified if the person had participated.
“I TRIED WORKING WITH THE MEDIA AND HAD A BAD EXPERIENCE:” The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. When we eat a type of food and we get sick, we tend to avoid that food. (17 years and counting for me since I had any McDonald’s food item…) We also tend to avoid things that were painful or awkward, having learned from our prior experiences.
If you took a chance to work with a reporter and it went South on you in a hurry, it’s probably pretty logical that you’d avoid working with that person in the future. Even more, why put yourself out for public shaming/ridicule/hatred when you don’t have to?
WHY IT’S DUMB: When people use the term “the media,” it takes in a lot of territory. Maybe you got interviewed by some random schmoe for a blog and this time it’s an award-winning newspaper reporter for the New York Times. Maybe the story you were dealing with the first time was a lot more complicated than the one you’re being asked to help out this time. Maybe the entire publication is now different than it was.
(Side note: It used to drive me batty when I’d have students come back to the newsroom and tell me a professor refused to do an interview because of how “the paper treated me” or how “the paper isn’t trustworthy.” I’d usually call the prof, who would regale me with a story about how back in 1983, a reporter reached out for a quote about the McRib or something and it was an unpleasant experience. To which I’d reply, “The staff here wasn’t even born when you had that experience…”)
There are dozens of other “maybes” I can go through, but the point is, you can’t generalize one social experience to an entire cadre of other potential experiences. It’s like saying, “I once dated a blonde and it ended poorly so now I never date women who have hair…” This is especially true with student journalists and younger journalists who are just gaining their sea legs.
Take one more shot. At the very least, you’re making an effort to contribute to the solution instead of the problem.