Picking up the phone

by John Quiggin on February 15, 2009

This is a repost from my blog which got a fair bit of attention. The immediate cause was a hoax involving Australian culture warrior/revisionist historian/serial political enthusiast Keith Windschuttle, but the point seems more general.

Looking at various topics that have been covered by both journalists and bloggers, I’ve noted a common theme in which journalist deplore bloggers’ habit of speculating about subjects instead of “just picking up the phone” and asking those directly involved (examples here and here). The implied (and sometimes expressed) view of bloggers is that of lazy amateurs.

It struck me though, that asking questions of total strangers is both a distinctively journalistic activity and one that implies and requires a special kind of professional license. In fact, “Journalists do interviews” comes much closer to a definition of what is distinctive about journalism than formulations like “journalists report news, bloggers do opinion”.


Starting with the professional license, it’s generally accepted that journalists can talk to anyone they want, ask them questions and report a summary of their responses, with some selected quotes. This is quite something, when you think about it. If I called someone unknown to me personally who happened to be of interest for some reason, and started asking them questions on the basis that I would like to write about it, I don’t imagine the results would be very pleasant. The same license that allows journalists to do interviews is embodied in a whole set of formal and informal institutions including the press conference, the “background briefing” and the “leak”.

When journalists write about themselves as “breaking news”, what this normally involves is talking to a number of people and distilling the results into a coherent “story”.

The second part of this is perhaps more important than the first. There’s no obligation on journalists to report everything said to them; a major part of the journalist’s role is to select what is “newsworthy” and relevant to the story being told. There’s both a formal code of ethics and a set of informal conventions surrounding this.

The other side of this “gatekeeping” function is that newspapers and other media organisations are expected to cover anything that meets this definition of “news” (though they are often a bit coy in cases where a rival has beaten them to the punch). What this means is that journalists have to distil, from interviews, and to a deadline, a readable, and at least half-way accurate, story about a topic of which they may know little or nothing when they start. This is a difficult skill to acquire, and something we should remember when we complain that, on any subject where we are well informed, the media stories we read or see are often wrong in at least some important detail.

By contrast, on the relatively rare occasions when bloggers and other non-journalists do interviews, the practice, almost invariably, is to publish the result verbatim. More generally, bloggers typically don’t claim a gatekeeping function – the norm is to quote extensively and link to what is not quoted. On the other hand, there’s no obligation to cover any particular topic.

This difference in approach seems to me to get much closer to the centre of things than “journalists report news, bloggers do opinion”. In economics, for example, the distinction between news and analysis is largely meaningless. The information from which journalists and bloggers work consists mainly of official statistics and statements put out by governments, companies and organizations of various kinds. Here, for example, is the release announcing the Rudd government’s recent stimulus package.

Bloggers typically go on from here by briefly stating, or linking the relevant facts and then providing some analysis. Added value, beyond the analysis itself, is likely to consist of more links to relevant information or to further commentary.

By contrast, the typical straight news story would consist mainly of (what are presented as) quotes from government ministers, and reactions from the opposition, business and so on. Even when simply restating the governments announcement, journalistic convention requires that it be presented in the form of a series of statements, presented as if taken down by reporters. Press releases are routinely written to facilitate this.

Conventions like this differ a bit between media outlets and between countries. In the US for example, it would be normal for the main story about something like the stimulus package to include an interview with a person selected somehow to represent the impact on the average person, say the owner of an insulation company. In Australia, this kind of thing would typically be done, if at all, as a separate story.

Links: Legal Eagle makes much the same point about making calls to strangers.

{ 21 comments }

1

MOZ 02.16.09 at 12:17 am

I think the “no obligation to publish” is important too. Someone who gives their time for an interview can reasonably expect that you’re not wasting it. At the very least you should be expecting to publish it.

This is also happening with the rush to camera-wielding civilians to any site of interest. They get in the way, often think they should be treated just like bought media, and rarely if ever do anything with their shots. There’s no value received, in other words. Especially with video, dumping 30 minutes of unedited footage onto utoob does not cut it.

I face this as a protest organiser/indymedia volunteer fairly regularly – often anything advertised as a protest will have more “supportive spectators” than active participants, and they often get very cranky when politely pushed aside. The corollary is that I’ve often got very good access to public figures and random punters just by explaining who I am, what I want and providing a link to my website and some of the stories I’ve posted to indymedia. Likewise, some of the bloggers I follow have published material that clearly reflects more access to politicians than the usual punter gets.

2

Witt 02.16.09 at 1:12 am

One of the best things I learned from my first boss was how to pick up the phone and call strangers. He wasn’t a journalist, and he wasn’t a blogger. He was just a nonprofit researcher, and he showed me by example how to poke around in the literature, find a tendril of an interesting topic, and then chase down the relevant originators/disseminators to get more details.

It helped that at times he was working on behalf of well-known groups or foundations, but just as often he was off on his own wild hare, puzzling aloud why it was that there was nothing in the ___ about ____, and assigning me to pick up the phone and call a half-dozen folks to ask why.

I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and my overwhelming experience is that people love to talk about their work. Love it. It depends a bit on how busy they are and how no-name you are (I am 100% no-name), and some folks will send you a one-line e-mail and a PDF of their paper while others will settle in for a 20-minute chat. But by and large, if you have an honest interest in the topic, most people will respond.

The frame of the conversation is very different from either blogging or journalism, though. I’ve been interviewed hundreds of times by journalists. For better or for worse, their paradigm and approach are pretty standardized. I know they won’t violate certain of their own rules, and I also have to be aware that every word I say is fair game for publication. Political bloggers’ strong suit is the connection, dissection, and amplification of existing news and events. Non-political bloggers rarely seem to do firsthand investigation in any context.

So I somewhat disagree with your contention that If I called someone unknown to me personally who happened to be of interest for some reason, and started asking them questions on the basis that I would like to write about it, I don’t imagine the results would be very pleasant. Granted, when I do this it is usually in service to information-gathering rather than “I am going to write about this for the public,” but I don’t think that a lack of needing to worry about being quoted is what makes people talk to me.

It’s an interesting issue, and just as much so from the other side — how much time do I “owe” to the people who call me?

3

roy belmont 02.16.09 at 3:47 am

The “repost from my blog” link is to pagenotfound.

4

ejh 02.16.09 at 7:41 am

Some where in the Private Eye Story there’s a tale about how they once phoned up some chap in order to write a story against him – the crucial piece of information was in his own cuttings library at home and so they asked him if he could get it and read it out to them. He duly did so.

5

dsquared 02.16.09 at 8:49 am

How does “picking up the phone” differ from “emailing somebody”, which I get the sense that bloggers do a lot more?

6

Pete 02.16.09 at 10:32 am

Someone I knew once got a temp job compiling a “defence directory”: a list of the senior political and military leaders of the armed forces of every country, along with their contact details. Bizarre business model but there you go.

As few countries have this sort of information on their website, the job mostly consisted of phoning up people – embassies, international directory enquiries* etc. – and trying to find this sort of information out. It was astonishingly successful; I think one day she ended up speaking to the prime minister of Zambia.

Speaking of international directory enquiries, a friend of mine discovered that if you ring them up in the middle of the night, the staff on the graveyard shift may well have nothing to do and be willing to answer international trivia questions (“Who is in charge of the island of Sark?” “What are the counties of Holland called?”). This was about 10 years ago, now we have the internet for that.

7

John Quiggin 02.16.09 at 10:40 am

There are a bunch of differences between email and verbal interviews, and different ones matter in different contexts. For example, the default in email is that both parties have a full record of the exchange – by contrast, most interviewees don’t record or take notes. Then there’s the potential for an unguarded admission or slip in an interview. Conversely, there’s the off-the-record (and often deniable) character of much discussion between journalists and powerful sources – I doubt that either party would trust this if the discussion were by email.

8

Doug 02.16.09 at 11:38 am

“How does “picking up the phone” differ from “emailing somebody”, which I get the sense that bloggers do a lot more?”

Phone calls often take less time for the interviewee, which people appreciate.

I would amend Witt’s statement, and say that people love to talk. Period.

9

Ray 02.16.09 at 12:08 pm

Conversely, there’s the off-the-record (and often deniable) character of much discussion between journalists and powerful sources – I doubt that either party would trust this if the discussion were by email.

In this case, isn’t the interviewee acting on trust in an existing relationship, rather than trust in the press card? If you’re leaking something very sensitive, you might insist on a face-to-face meet rather than e-mail or telephone, if you have a pet blogger you’ll mail them things that you wouldn’t tell a journalist you didn’t know, even ‘off the record’.

10

Ben Alpers 02.16.09 at 1:16 pm

My institution’s IRB has such a broad understanding of its mandate that it is essentially impossible for anyone not in the College of Journalism to pick up the phone and talk to any living person as part of a scholarly project without jumping through a series of bureaucratic hoops designed for medical research. I am not even allowed to pursue the best practices laid down by the Oral History Association because the IRB has in effect deemed them unacceptable.

11

James Wimberley 02.16.09 at 2:42 pm

Pete in #6: “Someone I knew once got a temp job compiling a “defence directory”: a list of the senior political and military leaders of the armed forces of every country, along with their contact details.”
I really do hope the client was not also interested in their children’s schools, habitual routes to work, and whether their cars were armour-plated.

12

King Rat 02.16.09 at 3:33 pm

“What this means is that journalists have to distil, from interviews, and to a deadline, a readable, and at least half-way accurate, story about a topic of which they may know little or nothing when they start. “

This is, to my mind, the best thing about journalism as a profession. It’s a license to be curious. Every day, you learn something new, and if you do your job well (and yes, often we don’t) you can teach that something to a wide audience.

13

Witt 02.16.09 at 3:45 pm

Another key difference between e-mail and phone calls is the perceived investment of time by the asker. If someone’s bothering to pick up the phone and call me, it’s slightly more zero-sum than e-mail. There are only so many phone calls one can make; it’s not like sending the same cut-and-paste e-mail to 30 different people. Also, it’s easier for me to head off idiotic lines of questioning on the phone. [Someone recently asked me about tracking a particular ethnic group; I pointed out that the U.S. doesn’t have guards at each state border checking people’s papers.]

Also, I’m on shaky ground here (perhaps there is a sociologist or psychologist around who could explain this better) but my experience is that a) it’s a lot harder to say no to a voice on the phone than it is to ignore an e-mail, b) voices/accents/tones can convey a wealth of information that may make the askee more [or less] likely to trust the asker, c) powerful people often have an assistant or someone screening their calls and the human-to-human quality of explaining what you’re after or even throwing yourself on their mercy can get you through the gate in a way that e-mail just can’t.

All of which is not to say that e-mail is immensely useful in its own way.

14

bianca steele 02.16.09 at 7:02 pm

John,
Regarding the fact/opinion division of labor: I’ve seen it asserted (in a newspaper article about a man who blogged on a local issue and was sued for defamation or something similar) that bloggers are subject to liability once they start reporting facts. If they stick with opinion, they’re okay.

Newspapers, like much else in the United States, are scrupulous about not leaving themselves open to lawsuits, which are expensive in more ways than one. The way they do things is designed to close any possible openings to liability — generally speaking, bloggers don’t have the tools that would allow them to do the same. And, additionally, courts have ruled blogs don’t have a responsibility to inform the public and so don’t have the same immunities as the “official” press.

15

Seth Finkelstein 02.16.09 at 10:08 pm

As someone who is both an (occasional) journalist and a (unhappily Z-list) blogger, I’d say you’re mixing up a few different things here. You’re completely right as to there being a “professional license”, but it’s a license to confront someone – it’s not talking to them in general. As a blogger, I typically don’t have problems in talking to a mid-level or low-level academic about their research, though I usually e-mail. They’re generally grateful anyone cares at all. But businesspeople tend to have an attitude of “Why are you bothering me instead of rewriting my press release, and what’s in it for me to talk to you at all?”. A reply of “I’m representing the institution of The Press” is much more socially respected than “I have a BLOG” (meaning, ordinarily, I rant to a few people about my opinions).

This is different from the commodity recounting of events versus pontificating. That’s news/analysis, whereas the previous is about investigation. These can be intermixed (you can do investigation to get news, for example). But the social license is very significant in investigation, not commodity recounting.

16

John Quiggin 02.17.09 at 8:49 pm

I agree, the distinction really arises in relation to confronting/intrusive questions, and the cases I cited were like this. In the Windschuttle case, bloggers were speculating, based on internal and public evidence, that a particular person was the hoaxer (she was) and the natural journalist approach was to call her up and ask.

By contrast, calling up an academic to ask them about their work is pretty much like asking someone in the shopping mall why their baby is so pretty.

17

Martin Bento 02.17.09 at 9:34 pm

“bloggers are subject to liability once they start reporting facts. If they stick with opinion, they’re okay.”

Hmm, maybe what we’ll see from blogger is “liability laundering”: hiring homeless people as cut-outs for your defamatory opinions or facts in exchange for beer or joints. It will kind of undermine the vanity aspect of the whole thing though.

18

Anthony 02.18.09 at 3:12 am

With politicians, I’d expect calling to do much better. Politics in anyplace remotely democratic requires a talent for talking to *anybody* and explaining what you’re about. Asking a politician to talk, particularly about himself, is like asking an academic to talk about their research. At some point the problem becomes getting the person to shut up.

To a politician, a reporter is a filter and an amplifier – the reporter helps the politician reach more people, but can shape the message in ways the politician doesn’t like, if the politician is careless.

19

Alex 02.18.09 at 1:29 pm

Also, “just ring up the prime minister’s official spokesman” is easier if you have his phone number and you are officially considered entitled to an answer. This entitlement, of course, in part rests on a tacit understanding that you will not ask certain questions. It’s just the self defence of the Guild Of Serious.

Further, those lazy journalists. Why won’t they just write a RESTful web service that integrates diverse sources of official information? eh?

20

Alex R 02.18.09 at 2:01 pm

Ben Alpers brings up the point that I wanted to make. This is more applicable to academics than to bloggers in general, but academics are frequently subject to IRB restrictions that would more-or-less ban ordinary journalistic practice with regard to interviews. In a case I am vaguely familiar with, elaborate protocols had to be set up regarding how identifying information would be dealt with, the amount of time and location that records of interviews would be kept, and so on. And in this case, the interviews were with *public officials* who would routinely speak to journalists, for the record, as part of their jobs.

21

Ginger Yellow 02.18.09 at 5:56 pm

“Hmm, maybe what we’ll see from blogger is “liability laundering”: hiring homeless people as cut-outs for your defamatory opinions or facts in exchange for beer or joints. It will kind of undermine the vanity aspect of the whole thing though.”

It will also fail to provide you any protection against liability (at least in the UK). Republishing or quoting someone else’s defamatory statement renders you just as liable as if you said it yourself.

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