As a journalist, how obnoxious can I be?
November 23, 2011 12:42 PM   Subscribe

A source has refused to talk to me. Should I drop it or take advantage of a recent opportunity?

I'm writing a story on a relatively non-controversial subject (architecture), but the principal architect on a project has declined to talk to me. My guess is because this particular building project is controversial because of the local politics, but the architecture firm is Western and foreign.

I sent an email, but his PR person intercepted and refused. I called him and suggested we talk off the record, he declined. Now, I have an opportunity to go to a reception where he will be in attendance.

I'm going to keep on pursuing this story with or without comment, but his insight would be helpful.

Do I respect his wishes and leave him alone? Or do I give it one last shot and introduce myself at the reception? Or perhaps there's another tactic?

As a journalist, how obnoxious can I be?
posted by Cwell to Work & Money (22 answers total)
I don't think it would be obnoxious to politely take your shot at the reception, relate the standard, "I am writing the story and hope you'd welcome the opportunity to present your side of the story."

Whatever he wants to do, his employer may have said that he (and others) will not make comments to the media without the proper approvals.
posted by ambient2 at 12:47 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a journalist, I'd say give it a go. It's hardly obnoxious and the worst he can say is no. Also, if he says yes, it can be funny annoying over-zealous PR people. As a journalist you should upset PR people sometimes.
posted by rhymer at 12:48 PM on November 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Absolutely give it a go. Have a tiny notebook with you in case he gives you a few seconds on the spot. Have a business card to leave with him to give him the opportunity to contact you later. And be prepared for possible anger / dismissal / curt refusal. If that happens, be polite and disengage gracefully and quickly.
posted by t0astie at 1:00 PM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

You've already spoken to him and he's declined to speak with you, even off the record. If you surprise him at the reception, you'll likely get a negative reaction. If your goal is to get him to open up (as opposed to giving you a possibly worthless quote at the reception), I'd suggest that you do some background interviews with his friends/peers and leave them with a positive impression that you'll write something fair/favorable. If you feel comfortable, ask them to put in a good word for you.
posted by BobbyVan at 1:03 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd like to live in a world where journalists and other writers of non-fiction considered it a priority to persist in their attempts to speak with primary sources. So, yes. Please do.
posted by jsturgill at 1:09 PM on November 23, 2011 [8 favorites]

Former freelancer and also PR person, my answer would be: Christ, no.

You got a no from PR, you got a no from this guy direct. By approaching him again you will ensure:

a) You piss this architect off at a social function.
b) You probably piss his PR person off when they get wind of it, and will subsequently never get any info from them again, about anything (blacklists are real).
c) I don't know if you're writing this for a publication, or freelance, but be aware they could very well call up your editor, chew you out, and threaten the withdrawal of advertising etc. Publications take threats like this very seriously. I have seen journalists that have worked for publications for years immediately fired by calls like this.

I know everyone's getting all "All the President's Men" up there, but the reality - especially in the current environment - of being a practising journalist does not gel with this kind of rude, pushy nonsense. There is a place for hard questions; that place is in interviews, a social occasion is not that place.

You need information, and - withstanding any leverage - why would you think that being obnoxious and rude will get you what you want? You're not going to be some Edward Murrow truth-digger with this, you're going to be like someone on a crappy current affairs show or NewsCorp bullies.

Write the story, forget the quote or try to find someone else to talk to. This guy was never a "source". Sources are sources of information; he's refused to give you anything, and whether you think so or no, you don't have a right to it. From a career standpoint, it's unprofessional; from am ethical standpoint, there's no justification; from a human standpoint, it's a discourteous dick move.
posted by smoke at 1:54 PM on November 23, 2011 [13 favorites]

Go, and tell him you're writing the story with or without his point of view, and want to give him a chance to make sure it's accurate, and that you really want to consider his point of view. Then drop it, and just be nice to him and anybody else. Unless it's really muck-raking, I wouldn't be aggressive.
posted by theora55 at 2:13 PM on November 23, 2011

Didn't mention in my comment, the first one in the thread, that I have written full-time for daily newspapers and a popular magazine, freelanced for popular websites and other magazines. All I know is what I've seen (and done); I've pushed all sorts of people (U.S. senators, Saudi Arabia's oil minister, world-class athletes, etc.) a little from time to time. Colleagues have done so, too, never been chewed on by a superior for it or had a colleague who was.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this can and should be done real low-key, politely, professionally and quickly.

There is a non-zero chance that someone will get irked, but if you handle it well and your boss(es) have a shred of backbone, the likelihood of trouble coming of it is awfully, awfully small.
posted by ambient2 at 2:19 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Journalist here. I think this is the sort of thing you need to evaluate on a case-by-case basis.

In this particular situation, I'd say, don't do it. Ask yourself this: if you do approach him, what is the best possible outcome, within reason? He has already declined to talk to you, even off-the-record. You will be approaching him at a social function, and, even if he isn't particularly bothered by you, I don't see how he gives you anything more than a few minutes and some relatively meaningless, boilerplate quotes. Those aren't exactly hard to come by.

Here's what I'd do. Talk to some other people, and gather as much info as you need. Then, circle back to him (and/or the PR person, depending) and explain that you have spoken to xyz and they told you abc. Make sure they understand that you are going to write the story with or without their input, but that you would really like their thoughts on the project, what people have said, etc. This may persuade them to give you an actual interview. It may not - you may just get a no comment, or some meaningless boilerplate, in response - but it stands a considerably greater chance of yielding good information than cornering the guy at some reception. You're trying to write a story here, this isn't shame-on-you-action-news.
posted by breakin' the law at 3:07 PM on November 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Maybe introduce yourself while acknowledging the earlier refusal? Something like "Hi I'm Cwel, great to meat you. We spoke earlier about the story I'm writing on MegaBuilding for Important Publication. I'm sorry we weren't able to talk, but I've really enjoyed learning more about your work/the project and just wanted to introduce myself. Let me know if you're interested in the future. [hand him your card] Thanks." Then excuse yourself unless he has more to say and don't bother him again. If he wants to talk, he has the opportunity to do so either immediately or anytime in the future, and if not, you've made a connection and might have a shot at speaking to him sometime in the future.

In short, you could try keeping the focus on introducing yourself rather than on getting an interview.
posted by zachlipton at 3:23 PM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

From the perspective of a professional, though not an architect, I would be highly annoyed if someone who I and my organization had turned down twice approached me at a social function and tried to get a quote out of me. It would be a possible sign that they're trying to get a quote in order to make someone look bad (even if you're just trying to flesh out the factual background to a story). I would worry that they would try to embarass me with a "no comment" quote that tries to make me sound evasive, and let my PR person know immediately. I'd also cease to have a good time at whatever function I was at.

From a professional perspective, speaking to journalists is rarely a good idea, except when you're defending a client (with their permission) or the reputation of your own organization, or it's a story unrelated to a client file and you're just trying to raise your profile. On any topic that's remotely controversial, you're just opening yourself up to being embarassed when some idiot journalist quotes you out of context or a client gets pissed because he wanted the whole thing to be as low-profile as possible, or you accidentally disagree with his viewpoint. That's why they're turning you down. It's not going to change. If he wouldn't talk to you off the record, that's a clear signal you're getting nothing out of him. If you keep trying, he is going to get very defensive, because he's going to perceive some hatchet job coming, whether that's the case or not. Let it drop and write your story without talking to him. Save the awkward cornerings for the people who deserve it.
posted by Dasein at 4:07 PM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

The only approach I'd make is "can you tell me, off-record if you like, WHY you don't want to talk?" Then drop it. Chat about the weather, shake hands and move on.
posted by gjc at 5:25 PM on November 23, 2011

You're invited to the event. It's your job to get a quote, an observation, anything that you think will add to the story. Pissing someone off is pretty much the job description. Maybe you'll get lucky and he'll have a couple of drinks and open up.
And it's not his kid's wedding--it's a job-related event.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:32 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think that the zachlipton approach is perfect.
posted by Kwine at 6:29 PM on November 23, 2011

He's not a source, he's busy and doesn't want to talk to you. Telling him you're going to write the story anyway might work if it's going to appear in the New York Times, but other than that zachlipton's approach is all you can do. Remember that while journalists think they're very very important indeed, nobody else does.
posted by joannemullen at 7:18 PM on November 23, 2011

It's worth pushing on hard-hitting stories, or stories that are about that source as a person. You're assigned to profile a local bigwig? Try hard to get their point of view. You're accusing someone of a bad action? Be damned persistent. You're trying to pull together a non-controversial story and there are other people who can provide the same information? Let it go.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:57 PM on November 23, 2011

I meant, of course, to say "great to meet you." However, "great to meet you" might be appropriate if the architect in question is designing a new slaughterhouse or butchershop.
posted by zachlipton at 8:22 PM on November 23, 2011

Respectfully, I disagree with Smoke almost completely. Persistence (a few times in exactly the situation you describe) has occasionally got me what me just what I want. The PR in question has generally had to live with it; they've rarely, if ever, held a grudge against me in the long run. Many good PRs recognize there's a cat and mouse aspect to journalism.

I've worked as an editor too. If a PR called me to tell me that someone writing for me had acted in this way, I'd ask the PR why they were telling me the journalist was doing their job. Then I'd call the journalist in question and have a laugh about it.

None of this is to say to I antagonize everyone: I'm a normal, freelance features writer, not some investigative uberhack. I don't fall out with PR people unnecessarily and get on with some very well. Of course there are plenty of times when it just isn't worth it. You have to pick your battles, although the situation you describe doesn't strike me as high stakes.

Unless I was interviewing Hollywood celebrities, I wouldn't worry about being blacklisted. I know some people who regard it as a kind of honor. You want to respected by PRs, not liked.

The reason for all this is: I didn't become a journalist to write what PRs want. If that's what I wanted, I would have become a PR and I'd be a whole lot richer.
posted by rhymer at 6:54 AM on November 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

Have just noticed two typos in my above comment. OK, I'm a journalist, not a sub or a proof-reader.
posted by rhymer at 7:12 AM on November 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

And it's not his kid's wedding--it's a job-related event.

There's no information in the question about what kind of reception it is. The poster just said, "I have an opportunity to go to a reception where he will be in attendance." Unless it was a seriously high stakes issue, I wouldn't bother him about it at a social function we both happened to be invited to.

Former journalist here, and I'd go for the polite, casual introduction as my approach, make a little small talk, maybe joke a bit if that seems appropriate. The tactic here is that any direct personal contact that leaves a good impression will pay dividends in the future. You could maybe drop that you've spoken over the phone in the past but let him connect the dots for himself. Again, the focus should be on respecting the situation, letting him see you respecting his social space and enjoying the moment, while dropping that you're a journalist who's working on a story he might be interested in.
posted by mediareport at 7:22 AM on November 24, 2011

Oh, and then follow up with a phone call a few days later, now that he has a face and a pleasant encounter to associate with your name. "Hi, sir; it was a pleasure to meet you at X function last weekend. As I mentioned [or not, if you didn't], I'm working on a story you might be interested in, and thought I'd see if you might have changed your mind about offering a few thoughts for the article?"
posted by mediareport at 7:25 AM on November 24, 2011

The only approach I'd make is "can you tell me, off-record if you like, WHY you don't want to talk?"

This approach seems guaranteed to piss off the source, particularly in an ambush situation as the poster describes, in a situation where he's already demonstrating little respect for the source's privacy. From the source's pov, nothing is ever off the record. Once it's said, sources can never control what a journalist decides to do with a comment.
posted by bonehead at 9:20 AM on November 24, 2011

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