How To Influence People (As Long As You Don’t Make Friends With Them)
I like board games. I have, let’s say, a few of them…
Don’t bother counting. There are more than 100 on those shelves. But here’s the problem with being a journalist who moves to a new city (as I did a little more than a year ago): It’s hard to meet people with whom to play board games (or engage in many other activities).
What I mean is this: if you’re a journalist and you don’t work in a major metropolis, there’s a good chance that almost anyone could become a source for a story at some point. Some people you’ll talk to once and never again. Others you’ll keep coming back to. But two of the big rules of the job are: (A) don’t get too close and (B) don’t report on your friends and family (sometimes abbreviated as “stay objective”). It’s hard to do that if you’re friends with your sources outside of work.
I’ve met a number of people in the last year who are interesting to talk to and whom I thought might make nice dinner guests or game night participants, but I’ve had to stop myself from inviting any of them anywhere.
I should also point out this is a line that gets blurred A LOT. I’ve known cop reporters who regularly go out for drinks with the officer who’s their key source at the police department. Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight once used a public ceremony at Assembly Hall to give A NEW CAR as a present to the longtime sports editor of the Bloomington paper because they’d been close friends (and activity companions outside of work). Say what you will about Knight’s well-documented lack of good judgment, but the reporter needs to nip those sorts of things in the bud.
The problem is there’s no rulebook for this. It’s up to each journalist (or each newsroom) to have its own moral compass. Many have rules about what’s known as “payola” or “pay for play”. Basically, the rules state that a reporter doesn’t take gifts in excess of a certain, small amount of money and/or doesn’t take gifts not available to the general public. The point is to eliminate any appearance that a source can buy influence by giving a reporter a coffee mug, a tee shirt or (in Bob Knight’s case) a new car.
There are extremes to which this is taken. A journalist I know used to strictly enforce a rule in which he would not take ANYTHING, including free food at an event where he was doing an interview. It’s a little silly to think a free crab puff or a bottle of water will influence coverage, but I understand the impulse. Surely there’s a middle ground, right?
This gets us back to my beloved board games. If I do an interview with a Purdue professor (which we do often around here) and I think they’d be a fun dinner guest, do I just resolve to recuse myself from reporting on them ever again? And if I do, won’t I eventually run low on sources if these people also see fit to befriend me?
It’s a question that, quite frankly, makes me a little lonely sometimes. I’m not about to give up my newsroom ethics, but I also can’t play Settlers of Catan by myself. Maybe this is another reason so many journalists “go to the Dark Side” and become PR flacks or lobbyists or political operatives — in those jobs you’re ENCOURAGED to cozy up to people.
I’m interested in your thoughts. Where would you draw the line between source and gaming buddy (keeping in mind the station has to preserve some measure of objectivity and distance from its sources)?
To illustrate my quandary, a quick anecdote about the late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. He was famously friendly with John Kennedy when the two lived near each other in Washington, D.C. during Kennedy’s time in the Senate. Even after the senator became President Kennedy and moved to the White House, Bradlee and his paper got scoops because of the relationship between the two.
People today, I think, broadly lionize Bradlee as a hard-charging editor with a nose for news who made sure his reporters “had the story” before it went to print. But let me pose this to you: even though the Post‘s Watergate coverage was legendary and Pulitzer Prize-winning, isn’t it fair to ask whether Bradlee, Woodward and Bernstein would have pursued a scandal on a Democratic president’s watch as doggedly as they did when Richard Nixon (and his enemies list, which included the Post) was in office? It’s the kind of question that would be easier to brush off if Kennedy, Bradlee and their wives hadn’t supped together so often.
Please post in the comments your answers to these questions (confining your responses to how you think WBAA best serves West Central Indiana):
- What are the rights of WBAA journalists to fraternize with their sources?
- Does it matter how often we speak with someone?
- Does it matter the person’s relative influence in the community?
- Does it matter whether the person is a donor to WBAA?
I know we often live inside our own bubbles as reporters, so I’d like opinions from outside the bubble, please. Tell me what you, as a media consumer, believe is a sensible way to proceed.