The Reporter Is Not Your Friend

A few years ago, a reporter who was writing a lengthy profile of a judge was conducting a long phone interview with a lawyer who frequently appeared before that judge. Attempting to praise the judge and to explain his courtroom style, the lawyer told the reporter that the judge was the type who tolerated “no bullshit” from lawyers who weren’t prepared. The entire interview was on the record, or at least the lawyer made no effort to put any part of it off the record.

The profile of the judge eventually appeared, of course including the lawyer’s uncensored and directly attributed quote about the judge. The lawyer, incensed that he was quoted in this way, called the reporter immediately and asked how in the world he thought he could use that quote. The reporter replied that the quote was accurate, vivid, and not defamatory in any way; why wouldn’t he want to use it? What was wrong with the quote anyway, the reporter asked the lawyer. The lawyer was simply praising a judge whom he knew well, and it wasn’t as if the judge had called the lawyer and complained about the quote. From the reporter’s perspective, nothing unusual had happened. He had simply gotten a good quote from a source.

The lawyer sputtered and said he had no idea that a journalist would quote that word; it made the lawyer look bad. Wasn’t there some unwritten rule that indelicate words shouldn’t appear in newspapers? That word was automatically off the record, of course, right?

Well, there is no such unwritten rule (or written rule), and the lawyer didn’t win that argument. The lawyer’s career probably didn’t take a big hit, but he was embarrassed.

The message is that reporters aren’t your friends. They may chat with you on the phone or in email in a casual manner, and you may exchange interesting comments with them, but their goal is to write the best, most dramatic, most newsworthy story possible – and not to be concerned about your sensibilities.

The answer, of course, is to be careful about what you say, and if you don’t want what you say to appear in a news story, preface it by the statement that what you’re about to say is off the record.