When I was interviewed a few years ago by an NPR personality, I was “coached” on one of my answers. S/he asked me a question, I answered, and then s/he moved the microphone to the side.
“What I was trying to get you to say was [phrase]. I’m going to ask you again.”
S/he then pulled the arm of the mic to return it to its position, repeated the question, and I gave the answer s/he wanted me to give.
This has bothered me, whenever I’ve thought about it, for years. Not only because this person I believed to be a respected member of the media asked me to change an answer so that it would conform to the story s/he’d already decided s/he wanted to tell (which felt so unprofessional and dishonest that I’m frankly still a bit shocked by it), but also because I allowed my answer to be changed.
It was my first big interview (NPR – who doesn’t fantasize about that?) about the book I’d just written, and the last thing I wanted to do was blow it. What if I didn’t say what s/he wanted me to say and s/he ended the interview?
I wish now that I had been stronger, that I’d forced the interviewer to do a little more work to tell my story as it was being told rather than one that had already been mapped out – minus a few agenda-friendly quotes – before we even shook hands.
But, live and learn. Nothing of the kind has happened to me since, fortunately, so there’s been no opportunity to ask another media personality the question I wasn’t brave enough to ask before: “What are you doing?”
Clearly, I figured, my interviewer was an anomaly, and most journalists—whether radio, newspaper, or television—could be trusted.
“What about Stephen Glass and those New Republic articles he fabricated?” you say. “And what about Jayson Blair?”
If you remember, Blair was a 27-year-old New York Times writer who, the New York Times itself reported:
…misled readers and Times colleagues with dispatches that purported to be from Maryland , Texas and other states, when often he was far away, in New York . He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.
So, what about Glass and Blair?
Considering the press they received and how fascinated the public was by their stories (Glass’ antics became the subject of the film “Shattered Glass”), I thought it was safe to assume they, too, were anomalies, and that they in no way represented the media overall.
But even if most stories by most reporters in most newspapers can be relied upon to deliver facts, I’m suddenly afraid Glass and Blair might be representative of too many members of the media. (How many is too many? Any.)
According to a 2011 Gallup poll, those surveyed rated the honesty and ethical standards of journalism as a trade a big, fat, “Eh.” Twenty-seven percent said journalists’ ethical standards were “low or very low,” 26 percent rated them “high or very high,” and 46 percent called them “average.”
As a point of reference, members of congress were rated the lowest (7% high or very high honesty and ethical standards, 64% low or very low), and nurses rated highest (84% high or very high, 1% low or very low).
Palling around with journalists in the “eh” camp are bankers, real estate agents, and building contractors.
As a newspaper writer myself, it surprised me to learn this. No matter how many times I’ve heard people say “You can’t trust the media,” I’ve always assumed it was because the person speaking was a liberal who’d been watching Fox News or a conservative who’d been watching MSNBC.
That was until Thanksgiving weekend, when a visitor told two stories about two different reporters from two different New York newspapers—one of the papers is highly regarded, the other not so much—who had interviewed her at different times for different stories.
The reporters (on second thought, let’s just call them “writers”) for both papers, the highly regarded and the not-so-highly regarded, either coached answers, created quotes out of thin air, injected the desired behavior or attitude, or falsified details because the actual answers, demeanor, and/or details didn’t necessarily parallel the
reporter’s writer’s intent for the story.
Some are undoubtedly not surprised by this. “Newspapers have always done that,” you may be thinking. “Everyone has a bias.”
First, that’s not bias, that’s lying. Second, I don’t disagree that there’s bias. It’s unavoidable. I have extreme bias, and it will often guide how I approach feature writing. It will help me select or reject stories, and it will often influence the angle I come from when I conduct an interview. But when it comes time to write, and I believe this is true for many news/feature-writers, it’s always the subject that makes the story, not the other way around.
It’s impossible to know how many others positioned as journalists are delivering fabricated or colored content, but after hearing the stories of my Thanksgiving visitor, I can no longer believe my experience was an isolated case, and I doubt I’ll read a newspaper again without being just a little bit skeptical of any story’s authenticity.
This is no small deal. There’s already too little we can wholeheartedly believe to be true, and too much we can count on to be pure entertainment. There has to be somewhere we can turn and expect to not be lied to. There will always be errors, but we should at least have the comfort of knowing the errors are genuine.
It’s so very easy to write the truth, to let the story be what it is. I’ve yet to come across a story or a subject that, once adequately explored, isn’t so interesting on its own that it needs a fiction writer to spice it up. In fact, an interview subject’s greatest fear should be that his or her actual words will be used, because they’re often more damning and revealing than anything a reporter could make up.
If you’re a journalist by trade (and there are at least two of you who write for NY newspapers who I hope are reading this), you must know it’s our simple duty to write – to the best of our ability – what is, not what we imagine or hope to be. Imaginings are for diaries, short stories, novels, and stage.
It’s our job to be someone people can trust. To separate ourselves from the frauds and the con-artists.
So, like, do that.