Once bitten, twice shy

 

The Elephant in the Interview

"The Elephant in the Interview," collage illustration by Keith Rozendal

 

We were asked in class to recount the first time our names appeared in the news, and true to Andy Warhol’s prediction, we all had a 15-minute period of fame to recount.

Did they spell our names correctly? Occasionally, but most of us had our eyes open to the way in which our experiences barely resembled the “first rough draft of history” appearing in the paper.

If our reactions are typical, it has serious implications for our work. Many of our sources are going to be once bitten, twice shy concerning the media.

What do you know? I’ve seen it several times already.

I’ve heard the reflections of two scientists and a federal Judge this past week that opened my eyes to the manner in which a reporter’s mere introduction, “Hi, I’m Keith Rozendal from the Santa Cruz Sentinel,” can trigger complex defensive reactions that can’t help but shape our understanding of a story.

Magnifying conflict between earthquake scientists
Geophysicist Thorne Lay briefed us in class on his research detailing how typical earthquake data collection and tsunami warning systems missed a huge [magnitude 8] earthquake triggered by the 29 September 2009 earthquake near Samoa and Tonga. Nature magazine published alongside Lay’s report a parallel analysis by a New Zealand-based team that also reviewed evidence indicating that two “great” earthquakes occurred within two minutes, one of which was masked by the other’s effects.

When they learned of each other’s work, the scientists noted some points of disagreement in their conclusions. Knowing well how the news media love a good conflict, the lead authors actually developed a media strategy to head this off at the pass. They both agreed to emphasize their common conclusion, that a major earthquake had been missed, and to downplay the minor question of the timing of each of the events in the “double-whammy.”

Guess what? A third scientist, recruited by Nature to comment on the papers, framed his article around the disagreement. This carried over into some of the reporting, it seems, despite the efforts of the two teams to present a united message.

Looking for conspiracy with the arch-villain BP
Terry Hazen, an environmental microbiologist studying the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, found himself addressing an entire audience of science reporters this past Thursday. Some of his presentation seemed inspired by his other interactions with the media in full awareness of the manner in which the oil spill is typically covered.

First of all, Hazen chose to avoid the media altogether until his work had been fully peer-reviewed and published, recognizing that his conclusions about the rapid degradation of the oil by bacteria would be seen as a bit of good news for the Gulf, and his research sponsors BP.

“Was this an environmental catastrophe?” Hazen asked, “no doubt about it. I don’t want to give anybody the idea that I am giving the oil companies a free ride,” he said.

Hazen, perhaps recognizing the desire for reporters to pull a good conflict-of-interest story from the raked muck, was careful to preface his presentation with several statements concerning the independence of his research.

“We were not restricted in our research in any way,” he said. Hazen went on to insist that any data provided by BP was raw and not pre-proccessed, there was no guidance of the research from BP, and all of the samples he collected were carefully tracked through a chain-of-custody paper trail.

“I was completely in control,” Hazen insisted.

“The scientist doth protest too much, methinks,” retorts the cynical reporter.

A Judge judged due to media over-simplification
A 2006 ruling by Judge Jeremy Fogel of the 9th US District court halted execution by lethal injection in California. Recently, he’s been in the news again as the state seeks approval of new procedures and policy concerning the mechanics of lethal injections.

In coming to his 2006 decision, Fogel had toured the death chamber at San Quentin, interviewed people involved in the execution process, and heard testimony concerning past executions, the drugs used to put prisoners to death, and arguments about whether these drugs could leave the condemned conscious, yet paralyzed, at the moment when their hearts are stopped.

Looking for a character for their stories, reporters tried to include Fogel, the man, in their articles reporting his ruling, failing to appreciate the ethical rules that prevent federal judges from commenting on cases and using their personal views to decide questions of law.

In a fascinating article Fogel prepared for a legal seminar on the constitutionality of lethal injection procedures, he expresses his frustration at closely following the media coverage of his ruling, seeing regular mischaracterization of the case, yet being rendered mute to correct the record. He also tells of the personal impact of the stinging criticisms he often received that were triggered by misreported facts.

In the end, Fogel has sympathy for the plight of reporters who, like judges, “often face a steep learning curve when dealing with issues that are simultaneously controversial and complex.” He notes that reporting that follows an intensive period of public attention to a case often becomes much more substantive and accurate.

“Although it was frustrating not to be able to answer questions about my decision publicly, it was comforting to discover that, over time, the media gained a broader perspective, and their portrayal of the case and of the issues involved became more complete.”

Not a simple conversation
I’m a social psychologist by training, and I am not at all surprised to get a glimpse at the complicated, strategic, and wary responses people have in their interactions with the media. As a reporter representing a media organization, I will inevitably trigger in my sources memories of the sometimes bad, sometimes good experiences with the media they’ve had in the past. They will inevitably–sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously–seek to manage the impressions they are making with the reporter and to shape that reporter’s story.

As a result, I will never step into an interview with the naïve notion that it is a conversation between two individuals seeking simply a common understanding of the facts. There’s an elephant in the room, assumed to have a satellite up-link to network central, that affects our interaction and may stand in the way of arriving at the uninflected truth.

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One Response to Once bitten, twice shy

  1. nadiadrake 15 October, 2010 at 7:43 am #

    I encountered several people this week who refused to speak with me or didn’t want to be photographed. So far I’ve had very cooperative sources, and I just rolled with the punch and found someone else. I think it’s interesting when sources are very obviously attempting to espouse their own agenda, or have very specific requests about what they want or don’t want to see in a story — it’s a balancing act to remain sensitive to their preferences and still maintain journalistic integrity. The story comes first — but you don’t want to lose a source for ever and ever.

    Confession: I’ve been guilty of avoiding reporters on occasion. In the past, I’ve sometimes not had time for an interview — in fact, I just interrupted my post to send an email to someone who’s been wanting a q&a for months — or didn’t want to talk to a reporter whose work I didn’t respect after prior interviews (just so this might make more sense — we often had people writing and reviewing ballet performances who knew nothing about the art and didn’t take the chance to get even basics the right. It’s like, ‘why bother? Makes no difference what I say.’)

    But now I’m feeling guilty and hypocritical. As a newbie reporter, I would hope my sources might be understanding of unintentional foibles and clunky phrasing. But I also feel like I owe it to them to do my job well, to build up some background info before going in, so I can ask intelligent questions about Georgian folk dance or oil spills. and not inject my own naivete into a story that might be important to them personally or for an event. And I always ask for clarification when necessary — I’ve called some people back more than once. But they appreciate it.

    Let’s call it an uneasy alliance — each has to trust the other.

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