Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Reporting Life, Part Three

By Kathleen Miller.

1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Shortly after lunch, it’s time to start assessing what information you’ve got, and what information you lack. It’s time to fill the holes in your story and often time to dash out to cover a press conference or meeting.

If the event’s a ribbon-cutting for a new recycling center or workforce housing program, it’s a safe bet the press isn’t there to cover the excitement. Often, it’s the only way you can pin down a number of influential people or elected officials on other issues. Or eavesdrop on what other reporters are asking.

You feel slightly sleazy as a reporter when you’re standing next to somebody from a different paper or station and literally taking notes on their questions. But you quickly learn they do it to you, and it’s better than the alternative, letting them have the elected official to themselves, including any juicy tidbits they might drop along the way, or getting sucker-punched by an article in the next day’s paper.

3:30 to 5:00 p.m.

About mid-afternoon, it’s time to start assessing what information you’ve got, what information you lack and what information you absolutely can’t live without. It’s also time to play tough-guy with your sources. Remind them of your need for information and that the story will run with or without their comment.

I think sometimes people think it’s best to say no comment on touchy subjects, but I couldn’t disagree more. If the story’s gonna run, it’s gonna run. The reporter will be given a certain amount of space to fill, and if you’re sticking with “no comment,” you’re giving the other side more space for their spin.

It is the journalist’s obligation to attempt to give both sides a chance to speak, but they’ve done their job by trying to reach you by phone and e-mail. If you’re not returning their messages, that doesn’t mean they won’t run the article. It just means you won’t get a chance to present your case.

Sometimes you’ll see different terms tossed about for “no comment.” A “could not immediately be reached for comment” generally translates into “we called them at the last second and they weren’t there to talk” or “this story is breaking right now and they didn’t answer their cell phone.”

A “declined to comment” means “we reached them with plenty of time, and they weren’t mean about it, but they wouldn’t touch the subject.”

A “refused to comment” means “we’re mad they won’t comment, they’re mad we’re writing the story but they won’t say anything on-the-record,” - loosely translated, of course.

This is also the time when sources will try to play tough guy with you, a.k.a try to kill a story.

Last December, I was tipped off that an assistant fire chief had crashed a county-owned vehicle into a cop car while driving home from a Redskins game. I called several county sources about the tip. One tried to kill the story by making me question my own reporting skills and news judgment. He told me I was late, that everybody else had the story days ago, and that no other reporter in town thought it was worth running, so he wasn’t sure why the Examiner and I were so interested. Said with just the slightest hint of derision, of course.

It worked for a few minutes. I got off the phone and thought about whether I wanted egg on my face for this story while I was applying for another job. Whether I wanted egg on my face in general, if this all turned out to be no big deal. Whether I should bother pursuing it, if as this guy said, nobody else thought it was worthwhile.

Then I realized that at face-value, this story was interesting. “It’s my worst nightmare to crash into a cop car,” I said to the source during another phone call, “and I don’t drive a county-owned vehicle.”

Even if the story turned out to be nothing more than a simple “Thank God that wasn’t me” article for readers, it’s worth noting that a county’s assistant fire chief crashed into a cop car while in a county vehicle. Not Watergate-level news, but certainly worth a few head shakes, even if the guy turned out to be stone cold sober.

So we ran the story. A spokesman for the fire department noted there had been questions about the assistant chief’s sobriety, but said he’d seen nothing that proved he was drinking. My bosses ran it on the inside of the Examiner, in a single-column story, no pictures, no big, bad headline. We played it straight.

And the next day the emails and phone calls poured in. People had been talking before the story ran. I was contacted by folks who said they were county residents and their firefighter neighbor had mentioned the incident, others who said they had previously heard firefighters at a lunch spot discussing the accident themselves. They said the assistant chief had been drinking at the Redskins game.

Four days later, we ran a second story after it came to my attention the county had in fact tested the assistant chief’s blood alcohol level after the crash. The police had not done so, but a personnel office did the tests as a matter of course after an accident involving a county vehicle. They told me they wouldn’t release the blood alcohol test results, citing personnel confidentiality rules. The Post followed the story that day as well, with several of their reporters looking into the issues.

I wound up getting a new job shortly thereafter and moving to a Annapolis to cover the state legislature for the Associated Press, but I always wondered what those blood alcohol tests said, and wondered if we’d ever know.

We do know now. The Post’s Spivack stuck to the case, and was able to get a copy of the blood-alcohol test results. The guy blew twice the legal limit, hours after the accident. Luckily no one had been seriously hurt.

This is why competition is good, why it helps to have multiple papers competing for stories and access to information. I may not have had the right contacts to ever obtain those test results, but Miranda Spivack did. Maybe her editors weren’t interested in running the story at first - pure speculation - but they got interested after the Examiner ran it. Or maybe the county official lied to me about the Post passing on the story in the first place.

And this is why it matters to trust yourself, and not be swayed from a story by a person who questions your judgment.