Investigating Reporters: What’s Wrong With This Story?
Memo to self: Watch your step.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that private companies and government agencies have hired consulting firms to rate reporters and columnists who cover them. The idea is to sort out friend from foe, so if you’re Wally the Company Flack and Johnny Deadline calls you out of the blue three minutes before you’re walking out the door on Friday afternoon, you can call up his dossier on your computer screen and know where he’s coming from.
In other words, you’ll never be caught off guard by that Sunday school voice that starts out by saying, “Hi, have I caught you at a bad time?” because you can see right there on your screen that the little phony has trashed your company 15 times out of 15 chances the last six years. Not to mention that time back in ’91 when he identified you in the paper as “ assistant vice president in charge of marketing” when you were vice president, dammit, with three assistants working under you , for Pete’s sake.
Now, fully informed about Johnny’s life story and penchant for underselling you, when he says, “Hi, have I caught you at a bad time?” you can sit back, put your feet up on the desk and say, “No, you’ve caught me at a very good time, Johnny. What’s on your mind?”
As advantageous as this is for agency flacks and company execs, it’s downright apocalyptic for journalists, ranking only with the breakdown of the office coffee machine as potential threats to doing our jobs well.
In theory, the rate-a-reporter idea is benign. One consulting firm, for example, contacts public relations professionals and uses their assessments to rate reporters on a 1-to-10 scale for such things as accuracy, verification, interview skills, industry knowledge, balanced reporting, writing ability, integrity and personality.
Journalists don’t care whether interview subjects like them, and none of us cares if we’re rated friend or foe. We come in search of answers, not accolades.
Besides, trying to decipher a reporter’s intentions isn’t that tricky. To prove we have nothing to hide, here are a few key phrases and their translations:
Reporter: “I was just wondering if you could help me with something.”
Translation: “I’ve got you nailed to the wall six different ways, so don’t even try to squirm out of it.”
Reporter: “This will only take a few minutes.”
Translation: “I could care less about your plans for the rest of the day.”
Reporter: “A couple things still confuse me.”
Translation: “I know you’re lying.”
Reporter: “Thanks, you’ve been very helpful.”
Translation: “When your boss reads this, good luck finding a new job.”
Since most corporate PR people and government flacks already understand all the above, you have to wonder why they’re going to all the trouble to computerize journalists’ performances.
Let’s get paranoid, shall we? What was troubling about the Journal story is that some consultants have gone beyond just ranking reporters for accuracy or writing style. Some have gone so far as to investigate private aspects of reporters’ lives, presumably to turn up biases or to figure out how best to get on a reporter’s good side. In the old days, all that took was a tall Rob Roy.
The implications of the current trend, however, are much more ominous.
It’s one thing for the Acme Co. to wonder whether the reporter covering them buys their product or not, but what if the background check is more complete than that?
Imagine the stifling effect if Wally the Flak has this bullet in his chamber:
Johnny: “A former high-ranking executive says your top brass over there at Acme knows your product is unsafe but has done nothing about it. Do you want to address that?”
Wally: “Be happy to, Johnny, but could you clarify what your ex-wife meant in her divorce filing when she said you liked to dress up in princess clothes?”
That’s a little more information than Acme needs to answer Johnny’s question honestly, but you can bet they’d be glad to have it, especially if Johnny had been a little too rough on them in the past.
Democracy works best when reporters ask legitimate questions, get honest answers and then write accurate stories.
It won’t work at all if the powerbrokers are waiting for us every time we show up, sporting smug smiles while thumbing through dossiers.
Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.