Beat from the Editor's Seat: Setting the record straight

Interviewing a subject about a potentially sensitive matter can be a tricky endeavor.

While a reporter's ultimate goal is to draw from the subject facts and statements that will provide useful information to the reader, he will first have to gain the trust of the person he is interviewing. He must present himself not as an interrogator or a detective but as an interested representative of the public looking to fully understand all sides of an issue before putting a single word to the page.

An interesting dilemma, then, arises when during the course of an interview a subject asks to say something "off the record." What is a reporter to do? Try to commit the ensuing statements to memory? Include the information as an anonymous quote? Insist that there is no such thing as being off the record when the press is present?

It's easy to think of journalists as reporters, writers and producers of information, but journalists really ought to first and foremost be listeners. It is simply impossible to put together an article that has relevant and meaningful information for readers without first listening carefully and critically to a variety of sources.

There are many ways to listen. Sometimes, to listen is to pay attention to the words a person is saying, take detailed notes and record direct quotes when necessary. Other times, listening means putting down the pen and having a conversation; the unrecorded but candid revelations of these conversations may never make their way into an article verbatim, but they can be of tremendous value to a writer in planning the approach, execution and tone of an article.

Another situation in which professional judgment is necessary is in cases where individuals make telling or interesting statements within public settings such as demonstrations, meetings and ceremonies. While it is usually conventional to include in an article statements made by featured speakers, how should a reporter treat remarks made by audience members or passersby? What about when a Lamron staff writer is in class and his or her professor makes a controversial comment?

Generally speaking, The Lamron abides by the principle that a person's words should not be included in an article unless they were spoken under the pretense that a reporter is listening. This precludes most off-hand and overheard comments from being treated as equivalent to carefully-worded statements - all subjects ought to be given the same opportunity to ask questions of the reporter and have a quiet discussion whenever possible, which is why articles are almost always authored by a single writer even when an issue warrants complex and extensive coverage and exploration.

Of course, there are situations where lines are blurry and tough decisions have to be made; reporting can be a stressful and sometimes thankless job, but it's a job that is critically important. Whether or not words make it to print, it's essential that someone listens to them and treats them with the caution and respect that they deserve.