Crisis Management: Reporters – Like Businesses – Have to Keep Their Noses Clean: Dealing with the press
News item: During annual “Sunshine Week,” newspapers champion open and accessible government as essential to our democracy.
While working as a reporter covering local government many years ago I called a town manager, who had become a friend, to see if anything was happening. He asked, “Rick, can we go off the record?” I said I’d prefer not. He insisted. Because of our relationship, I grudgingly relented. He then dropped a bombshell. He said his town’s waste treatment facility had failed and was pumping untreated sewage into a river that was a source of water for communities downstream.
I said, “You can’t do that to me. You can’t take me off the record, reveal something of great importance throughout the region and insist I help you keep it a secret.” I threatened that if he didn’t release me from our agreement, I would violate it anyway because the matter involved public safety. He reluctantly agreed, I did the story, and our friendship ended.
Often during my local government reporting years I would have to pry loose information in the public interest. Indeed, the only reason some of my bigger stories were big was because I had to ferret out facts others were guarding. Earlier disclosure would have diminished both my reports and the tarnishing of reputations.
Conversely, while reporters demand accessibility, they must police themselves if they want public and private officials to be more forthcoming. Having been outside journalism for more than 15 years, I have observed that: 1) most leaders want to comply with disclosure laws, but 2) in borderline cases they sometimes resist: not to hide, but out of concern for a particular reporter with a reputation for unfairness.
A couple of years after the river sewage situation some reporters and I were in an office in the local city government center. The mayor was about to begin a legal, private meeting and asked us to step outside. While we were waiting the mayor suddenly stormed out of the office. He held a still-running tape recorder clearly left behind to secretly record the meeting. It was unethical, possibly illegal, and the mayor was apoplectic. He ordered the offending reporter to get out.
The vast majority of reporters do NOT operate like that, but almost every client that works regularly with journalists has some kind of a nasty press experience to tell. It makes it difficult to convince them that it is in their best interests to disclose troublesome information and mend fences when they worry that one of these news mavericks will be out to get them.
A New York Times story in 2005 cast a shadow on journalism and local TV news in particular. It told how newscasts ran government prepared PR pieces as though they were legitimate news. Not only did they often not reveal to viewers the real sources of these “stories,” they suggested that the narrators were actual reporters, or, they used their own journalists’ voices and faces to lend credibility. The latter step made it appear that a locally known reporter actually prepared the story when he/she did not. (Some news operations have engaged in a variation of this for years, taking health or science stories prepared by outside firms and adding the faces and voices of local reporters to make it look like they did the work.)
So, if TV reporters are going to demand disclosure, their own news operations should reveal the sources of the video they show their audiences, and, in the broader sense, beef up their own self-policing. There are encouraging signs.
In 2005, there were self-corrections of internal scandals at CBS News and The New York Times itself. CNN executive Eason Jordan resigned after suggesting American troops intentionally fired upon reporters. Charlotte, North Carolina’s WBTV fired a news producer for lifting copy from a newspaper without crediting it. And remember that it was the media itself, The Times, that investigated the TV news habit of running PR pieces as news.
News managers apparently increasingly realize that the same “disinfecting” sunshine they want beaming on government and business is not a spotlight, but a wide beam that can clean their own houses as well. The public is doubly the winner.