The reporter and the reported

Today in class, we talked about the big elephant in the room of journalism: ethics.

It was a pretty interesting conversation, and it really did surprise me thinking about how often journalists run into ethical dilemmas.

I won’t describe the exact dilemma we were discussing, but basically, a reporter had to decide whether or not to err on the side of their source or their editor. The source didn’t want a story published for a week for a certain reason, but the editor wanted it published that night. It was a long conversation that followed suit – should she have pushed back against the editor? Should a reporter automatically trust a source?, etc – and I really thought about it afterward.

The main point I took out from this whole conversation was the idea of trust and how elusive trust can be within the reporter-source relationship. Sometimes the source doesn’t want you to publish something (or a whole article, for that matter), and this could be done out of good intentions or bad intentions. Sometimes the source wants you to do the complete opposite: publish, publish, publish!

But, in a class I took last semester, I remember perking up about a sentence my professor said: “You can never tell anyone’s intentions ever about anything.”

If you think about it, it’s true. You can’t tell anyone’s intentions. This veil that conceals everyone’s actions is particularly apparent when a reporter is talking to a source, and understandably so. The reporter is coming into the situation with a goal (an article) and the source is coming into the situation with a different goal (their voice, opinion, makeshift personal PR campaign, etc.). This is complicated when both reporter and source play the status game: the reporter is asserting his or her role as the tough but empathetic questioner, and the source is playing a marionette game with the things he or she decides to tell the reporter.

It can be incredibly exhausting. Thinking about it certainly doesn’t help, either!

I’m writing this post because I was actually doing something totally different from journalism – trying to find the former Gen. Petraeus’ Army counterinsurgency release – that lead me to an interesting website. This website provided the link to the old counterinsurgency release, and it was obvious that this person who owned the site was a severely distrusting, left-leaning, anti-government citizen.

Of course, using this website as a reliable source would hardly be a good idea. But there was one great point this website owner said as a disclaimer below the release’s .pdf link. He told the viewer to make sure to remember that while this document was easily accessible, this accessibility is questionable itself. He was basically saying that because this document was public, it was a subtle shot at publicity for the Army. He also said that he’d prefer to have the military do its bidding and finish its jobs privately, instead of pulling in the public with a cheap shot at PR in its public releases.

(Now, I’m not saying big huge companies and big players like the Army should keep documents private. I’m not. I’m just saying he made an interesting point.)

I mean, think about it. This guy makes a good point. Any large entity that knowingly releases a document, series of documents or even a mere press release has some intentions that aren’t going to be stated in said document. Even if said entity releases documents after pressure, you must admit that some conversations had to happen to make sure it was okay and that ultimately wouldn’t ruin everything. Of course, I’ve never pressured anyone for sensitive documents – so maybe I’m out of my element there.

But anyway.

Any other source could very much do the same thing – using his or her knowledge and documents as a bargaining chip. Perhaps making a poker reference is too cynical. But, in a way, the conversation between reporter and source is a game – a game within which both sides must play.

In the discussion today, it seemed that some people perceived this source to be malicious in his request to have the article not be published yet. Others thought it was a rightful use of privacy. I’m not sure which one is right. Maybe elements of both are.

Maybe he did want to control the media. Maybe he did just want to keep his private affairs under wraps.

His intentions are unknown. So are everyone else’s.

Reading intentions is impossible – literally – but hopefully there’s a way to counter the “game” we play with sources. Personally, I’m a little too trusting. But some of my counterparts can be too skeptical.

I’m not quite sure when is the right time to push the skeptical card, and when is the right time to trust your gut and your source.

I’m sure that’s a problem that professional journalists have too. Does it get easier? That’d be something I’d like to know.

For once, I don’t have a beautiful sum-up sentence for a post. It’s an issue that leaves me conflicted. Hopefully over time I will learn to deal with it with more elegance than edginess.

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