Ethical Bombshells in Interviews

The notepad I found while cleaning out my room.

I’ve been cleaning out my room in my apartment here in Virginia Beach trying to pack everything up for my move on Sunday and came across an interesting read. I found my notebook from the CMA Journalism Conference in Louisville, Kentucky that I attended with my college newspaper staff in 2010.

I was flipping through it when I found a session called, “Like a Rolling Stone: Ethical Bombshells in Interviews” and I remembered that workshop immediately because it had been such an abstract unconventional session.

The description for the workshop reads like this:

“A long and decorated military career ended with a magazine interview, setting off some finger-pointing even among journalists. How far should you go to explain “on the record” or “off the record” in your interviews? Does it make a difference if you talk to the source regularly? What if your responsibilities to the source and your audience come into conflict? Don’t wait until you walk into the minefield. Adopt a battle plan by answering some key questions about principles and practices.”

I was sitting in the workshop next to Andrew Deitrick and Sam Thrift at 4:30pm, which was the last session of the day, so all we could think of was where the staff would eat dinner that night. I forget who taught the workshop but I remember the professor being very intense. UPDATE: I just looked it up and the professor was David Simpson, Georgia Perimeter College (former reporter and editor for The Associated Press and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

He asked us tricky hypothetical questions and scenarios about on or off the record dilemmas, when to identify yourself, personal relationships with subjects etc., and questioned how we would respond to the given situation. Once everyone in the room had answered the question, we all sat expectantly looking at the professor waiting for the correct answer. He just stared at us in a prolonged silence until someone said, “So what’s the right answer?” he gave us a funny look and said, “There are no right answers. Ethics are tricky. You have to decide what kind of hat you want to wear when practicing journalism.” I think I heard a collective, “huh?” resonate throughout the room.

Suddenly Andrew started scribbling on his notepad, I looked over to see what he was writing and saw him drawing different types of hats on stick figures. “When talking about ethics today, I won’t tell you what is right or wrong, you will have to come up with your own ethics battle plan” he said glaring at us as if he was suiting us up to walk into a war zone. Everyone exchanged puzzled looks and I heard Sam let out an exasperated sigh and immediately open up her conference book to

The first page of my notes had very abstract bullet points.

see what other workshops she could attend at this hour.

The first few things that I scribbled down right away seem pretty abstract like:

“What hat do you wear when interviewing?” or “Listen” and  “Everybody has an agenda” and ” Lying is in the eye of the liar” but the more and more he spoke, the more interesting the workshop became.

He pointed out that as a journalist your number one job and obligation is to tell the truth. But is it easy to always know what the truth is? The answer he gave us was a solid no,  which is why as a journalist you have to be skeptical at all times. “The subjects you will be interviewing will always have an interest and an agenda, so they could be lying to you” at that moment I wrote in all capital letters, BE SKEPTICAL: ALWAYS A MOTIVE. EXPECT THEM TO LIE.” He went on to say that in our search for truth it is difficult because, “You don’t write the truth, you write what people say and people will lie to you” So how do you avoid reporting mis-truths? “You have to make sure you are only writing the facts and make sure you are citing attribution for anything anyone says.” That way if the subject lied to you, it was their lie and not yours. (Maybe Dan Rather should have listened to this then he wouldn’t have been shamed with memo-gate?) The most important thing as a reporter is to report and give people a chance to consider what are facts because since you are only reporting, you can’t give them assertions.

My ethics battle plan that the professor instructed us to make.

So with that, he had us all write down an “ETHICS BATTLE PLAN”, a plan that would be personal to our own ethics beliefs and that only we could take into an “interview battle against the liars”. Sounds really intense, right? The professor was so extreme while explaining the battle plan that Sam decided she had found another workshop and had left me with Andrew who was still doodling on his notepad. So I wrote in big block letters. “ETHICS” and battle plan in all capital letters above the block letters. On it I wrote:

  • Decide what your obligations to the subject/audience is.
  • Always explain if you are on the record.
  • Set rules with your interviewer.
  • Do you want to cooperate with the PR goals of your subject? (NO.)
  • Always identify yourself as a reporter. The only time you don’t have to identify yourself as a reporter is if you are getting police records that are already open to the public.
  • Avoid conflict of interest because it will add bias to the reporting.
  • Don’t burn sources unless it is WORTH IT.
  • Subjects are liars. BE skeptical, but keep your skepticism well hidden until it is needed.
  • Suspend judgement and just interview them for the main part of the interview. Ask the skeptical follow up questions once the main points have been covered.
  • Bring respect to the interview (goes back to the secret skepticism)
  • TELL THE TRUTH.
So while the workshop itself was a strange one to sit in, it sticks out in my mind because it was so strange. The number one thing I walked away with from the workshop that gave no answers was: no matter what the ethical dilemma is there is only one answer and that is that a journalist is always, “Obligated to tell the truth.” That is the bottom line.
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2 thoughts on “Ethical Bombshells in Interviews

  1. Victoria:
    I’m glad my session in Louisville was memorable! I did another version at the Orlando convention last month and tried to make more concrete suggestions about ethics policies — actually because I had seen a little criticism along those lines on another Louisville participant’s blog. If you’re still in Louisiana in fall 2013, the convention will be in New Orleans and you’d be a great guest speaker/success story! Good luck with your career.
    David Simpson
    Georgia Perimeter College

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