In our media training sessions we do our best to let participants in on some of reporters’ best kept secrets – the little tricks they frequently use in the course of gathering information, conducting interviews and writing stories.
We’re familiar with these tactics because in our many years as reporters and producers, we used many of them! But I admit I was shocked to learn what’s apparently been going on between scribblers and their police sources across the pond.
Tricks of the trade
A just-released report on the relationship between the London press and the city’s Metropolitan Police Service warns bobbies to watch out for ten tactics “used by some in the media.” Among them:
1. Alcohol. Late-night carousing, long sessions, yet another bottle of wine at lunch – these are all long-standing media tactics to get you to spill the beans. Avoid.
2. Flirting. Often interlinked with alcohol. Designed to get you to drop your defences (got to love that British spelling!) and say far more than you intended. Be careful.
3. “I’ll make it worth your while.” If you think they mean money, say no and beat a hasty retreat. Make sure the press office and Department of Professional Standards know.
Seriously? I admit I did my share of “late night carousing,” but this started after the 10 p.m. news was over, long after most day shift cops were in bed. And most of the lunches I ate were fast food scarfed down in the car on the way to and from assignments – not fine dining experiences with wine on the menu!
Frankly, during my “single” years in the news business, I worked nearly all the time – way too much to do much flirting. And “I’ll make it worth your while” were words that never crossed my lips. Are you kidding? I remember delivering a radio newscast that included a story about the federal poverty level – and realizing I was under it!
Assume makes -- well, you know
One warning in the London report did hit home:
4. “A source told me the name of the man you arrested. Can you confirm the spelling?” Say no. This could be a tactic to get you to confirm a name they have been given from elsewhere so they can print it. It may be a guess, or it could be a ruse.
This was one of the tactics I used all the time: the assumptive question, and it’s one we warn participants about in our media training sessions.
If I suspected or had been tipped to a piece of information, I sometimes avoided asking a source for direct confirmation. Instead, I’d ask a question that required the source to confirm the information in their answer to my question.
For example, instead of, “Was the employee fired?” I’d ask, “Who made the decision to fire the employee?” Answer the question and confirm for me what I only suspected: the employee was fired. Even if they said, "Sorry, I can't tell you who fired him," I still had confirmation of the termination.
Avoid this by refusing to play along: “For legal and ethical reasons, I can’t discuss the person’s employment status, but here’s what I can tell you…”
Two of my other favorite tactics were:
Statements as questions. This is an aggressive way to ask questions that can make an interviewee defensive, even angry – and lead them to give answers that are more emotional and, thus, more interesting.
For example: instead of, “Are you passing the higher costs along to consumers?” I’d just state, “You’re passing off your higher costs to consumers,” and wait for a response.
Smart interviewees (often, ones who had been through media training!) didn’t rise to the bait. They ignored the hostile nature of the question and answered it like any other. If they didn’t understand what I was asking, they said so: “I’m sorry, what’s the question.”
Silent treatment. I used this tactic literally all the time – and participants in our media training seminars say they get this all the time from reporters they deal with.
I’d ask a question and the interviewee would give me a short answer, indicating that this was perhaps a subject they didn’t want to talk about. Instead of asking another question, I’d look back at them and smile expectantly, as if they must have more to say. Most of the time, they did. They’d fill that awkward silence, even when it was in their best interest to shut up.
You can beat this tactic by turning it back onto the reporter: stare back until the reporter gives in and asks another question.
What tactics have you seen reporters use?