Leading the witness

Fellow standing desk user Marco Arment has a few thoughts on a purported podcast revival as recently laid out in New York Magazine.

But most of his post centers on past experiences with reporters who seem more interested in getting the story they want versus getting the story as it is.

Here’s Arment:

Almost every time I’ve talked to a reporter has gone this way: they had already decided the narrative beforehand. I’m never being asked for information — I’m being used for quotes to back up their predetermined story, regardless of whether it’s true. (Consider this when you read the news.) Misquotes usually aren’t mistakes — they’re edited, consciously or not, to say what the reporter needs them to say.

Talking to reporters is like talking to the police: ideally, don’t. You have little to gain and a lot to lose, their incentives often conflict with yours, and they have all of the power.


I don’t have takes from the reporters Arment spoke to, so I can’t reasonably comment on his claims or counter them with the accounts of the reporters. But I can talk about how this isn’t the first time I’ve heard reporters do this.

A while back (a year ago?) I caught up with a couple people I spoke to for my profile of Video Fan, the beloved brick and mortar video store here in Richmond that refuses to kick the bucket.

During our chat, we got on the topic of how local media’s treated the store. The two recalled an instance when a reporter (who I won’t name, nor his publication) came in with his lede already in mind.

The reporter would ask a question, the Video Fan employees would answer. The reporter would follow up those answers with: “So, you’re telling me [this thing that I want to hear] is what happened [even though it didn’t]?” In a courtroom, he’d be reprimanded by the judge for leading the witness.

I sympathize with reporters. So much. It’s a high-stress, poorly compensated profession that’s about as stable as the San Andreas Fault. And in a world where pageviews (sigh) determine the success of an article, there’s a premium on getting juicy stuff.

This is not the way to do it.

Reporters/journalists/editors should strive to tell the truth as best they can. Whether it’s a story about legally dubious NSA actions, or the local food bag’s adding a new gluten-free option, conform to the facts. Anything else is lying in various degrees, and lying is inherently anathema to journalism (or at least should be).

When I interview people, I have questions in my pocket that I typically air out: when did you do this? Why? To what end? It’s the general Five Ws mindset I’ve conditioned myself to.

I may even have assumptions about the person or situation too (it’s hard not to speak generally when I’ve written hundreds of stories over the years). But my pre-interview beliefs only inform the interview. They don’t dominate it. Whatever I get out of the person I’m interviewing, that’s my takeaway. I never use their thoughts/quotations to “back up [my] predetermined story, regardless of whether it’s true.”

Not only is it wrong/unethical to lead your interviewees, you’re also running the risk (by having your story already in mind) of missing out on a kernel of fact that’s way more interesting than anything you had in mind going in. Capitalize on this. Create a narrative or merely mention a facet that gets to the truth. Even if the story turns out to be as exciting as mid-morning C-SPAN, at least you’ve told the truth.

Bullshit dominates so much of our world. Reporters: sift through it. Don’t add to it.

Leading the witness