Like a Rolling Stone: Ethical Bombshells in Interviews

What is your role as an interviewer? Asking good questions, as a listener.

What’s the role of your subject? To give you things, to tell their story, they have their own agenda. Some of the people you interview know the drill. Some don’t. They give you a talking points sheet and call it a meeting. There are people who should know sometimes, even if they don’t.

The mayor of a town has to understand that what he says carries some weight.

Then there are people who don’t know the drill at all. “Will this be on TV?” A person who asks you that does not know the drill. Then do you take advantage of them? What are the ethics of that?





You put the audience, the truth first.



What’s the rule for when you identify yourself to a source?

What about hidden reporting? Is it legal?

Are you always going to explain when you’re on the record? What if you say this is all on the record, then they say something they just said is off the record? Do you just ignore it, or do you remind them it’s off the record? Then what do you do with that information?

What about if you have to make investigations?

Almost nobody has an interview ethics policy.

Are you ignoring an unpleasant truth? Or are you deciding something’s not good enough to run in the paper?

What if a judge was sitting with you and said, “I had another damn Mexican in here today… you know those people shouldn’t be here in the first place. When I get one, I just give them the maximum sentence.” But you’re off the record.—you figure out whether you want to burn the source, use it or not?, he’s violating his oath of office. He says he would use it, he would tell the judge to his face that he’s going to use it.

Is a journalist a journalist all the time? Does that turn on and off? Should you always be considering stories in every conversation you ever have?

What about remarks made in class? Legally, there’s no protection for that anymore. But don’t you want discussions in class to be freewheeling, just like Bob Dylan?

What do you do when you think your source is a liar? If they can’t get it across to you, then what do you do? If that person believes there’s a conspiracy? You have to just suspend judgment and interview. That doesn’t mean go put it all in a paper somewhere, but just interview. Find out how it looks to that person, even if it’s the obnoxious person. Do your best to understand, then go back and evaluate.


Studds Terkel: “What I bring to the interview is respect.”

–these people he was interviewing weren’t necessarily presidents, but steel workers, people of the streets. He’s not going to betray them, not going to weasel the story out of people.

Except, first and foremost, you have to tell the truth.

–the source is an important aspect, though. You may not feel like you’re manipulating in any way if they’re withholding important information. Some people act like they already know, but if they call your bluff, you’re done. Some times people do the opposite and people decide you’re too dumb and wouldn’t know. You act like you know nothing.

If people aren’t telling you something, don’t give them a heads up that you’re going to keep searching for it. You want it to be too late so they don’t try to block it.

What about Greek coverage? They order people not to talk to the newspaper. That’s harmful to cover that beat, but it’s also harmful to other student organizations. Now they run more stories that have a positive spin to win them back. Is that okay? If you simultaneously let them stiff you on one story while running another story they wanted? Then it’s a mistake. You do the stories that should be done to serve your readership. Sometimes you have to say they wouldn’t talk to you about this. Let them chew on that positive story.

Records, records, records. If you’re a private institution, this is harder because you don’t have the state open records law, but look for them.



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