When they won’t even say ‘no comment’

June 24, 2024
The rising tide of nonresponses coincides with the growing hostility toward the press, at least among some. (Photo by Ken Cedeno/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

As the author of CNN.com’s daily newsletter about the news and entertainment industries, Oliver Darcy regularly reports on some of the world’s most powerful communications companies. Some of those companies, however, don’t bother to communicate with Darcy. 

The phrase “did not respond to a request for comment” pops up almost daily in his reporting. “I find it strange, to be honest,” says Darcy. “It’s the job of spokespeople to tell the best story about the companies they represent. And here they are actively laying down the sword and not engaging in the battle.”

Any reporter who has sought comment from the subject of a news story—a basic obligation of impartial journalism—can relate. Nonresponses are rife, and growing rapidly. A Nexis database search of hundreds of news sources for the term “did not respond to a request for comment” returned 728 mentions in May 2014. The same search for May 2019 produced 1,590 hits. In May of this year, the number had grown to 3,616, indicating a fivefold increase in ten years.

The phrase turns up in news stories about every kind of subject—politics, business, sports—and in newspapers, network newscasts, wire-service reports, and blogs. A spokesperson for the maker of Sriracha hot sauce, for example, didn’t respond when the San Francisco Chronicle sought comment about the company’s plans for a temporary halt in production last month. Nor did the representatives of a dancer accused of sexual misconduct when the Hollywood Reporter called about it. A recent New York Times story about Republican threats of retribution for former president Trump’s felony convictions hit the daily double: it included two DNRRCs from two sources.

The rising tide of nonresponses coincides with the rise of social media, which enables the subject of any news story to bypass pesky journalists by putting out his or her own messages. It also parallels the growing hostility toward the press, at least among some political figures. Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s former press secretary, Christina Pushaw, sometimes posted media requests to her social feeds before bothering to communicate with the reporter; she then all but invited her followers to deride the reporter for seeking her input. Reporters seeking comment from Twitter’s press office in the months following Elon Musk’s purchase of the platform received an automated poop emoji. At least it was a response.

Washington Post reporter Kent Babb received no response when he sent LSU women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey message after message seeking her cooperation for a potentially controversial profile he was writing. Then, in the middle of the NCAA tournament, Mulkey called a press conference and denounced Babb and his story, even though it hadn’t been published (Mulkey’s attempted end around likely drew more attention and readers to the article). “This is an increasing phenomenon,” said Babb. “I see it more on the pro sports level, specifically baseball and Formula 1, though it’s infiltrating the college ranks as well.”

Aside from a potential loss of accuracy, there’s a more fundamental issue in all the DNRRCs: Can a story really be fair, or at least complete, without a principal subject’s perspective and comment? Despite the best efforts of reporters to obtain such comments, does the epidemic of nonresponses weaken journalism?

Sign up for CJR's daily email

“It really is counterproductive,” said Justin Baragona, a Daily Beast reporter who has run into his share of cold shoulders. Sources “gain nothing by ghosting a reporter.” Baragona draws a distinction between “no comment” and no response at all. The former implies at least some interaction between a journalist and a would-be source, he noted, if only the off-the-record kind. Such interactions can benefit both sides: sources can dispute facts before publication and even steer a reporter away from a story entirely. “Reporters don’t want to publish something that’s not true,” he said.

Some communications advisers say responding to press inquiries is no longer worthwhile, especially amid crises when the requests can turn into a deluge. At such moments, an organization is better off issuing a statement, buying ads, or posting its own takes on social media, said one such adviser, who asked not to be named so as not to affect business relationships. Using so-called “owned media” enables an organization to control its message, whereas interactions with the press are risky and unpredictable, this adviser said.

Other PR pros say there’s still value in responding to reporters. For all the potential pitfalls in trusting a reporter, news reports—so called “earned media”—still have greater credibility than ads and can reach large audiences. “Not replying is cutting off your nose to spite your face,” said Larry Parnell, a professor of strategic public relations at George Washington University and a veteran corporate spokesperson. Not doing so “looks like confirmation that the story is correct and that the [subject of the story] just doesn’t want to talk about it. Companies won’t know about stories you can prevent or make less negative by calling the reporter and engaging.”

Linda Thomas Brooks, the chief executive of the Public Relations Society of America, said it’s “shortsighted” to think not responding will do much good. “Buying your own media is a tactic, but it’s not the only tactic for getting your message across,” she said. “We always advocate that our members be responsive” to reporters. “Working together is really important.”

There are, of course, simple logistical reasons why spokespeople don’t return calls to reporters, Thomas Brooks said. One is that the sheer volume of requests can overwhelm recipients. Another is that requests sometimes arrive after business hours, or offer little response time before publication.

And sometimes it’s just not going to happen. While reporting a story last month about a TV network, Baragona sought comment from its chief spokesperson. Baragona was puzzled when the spokesperson, known for her prompt replies, didn’t get back to him. He later learned why: at the time of his inquiries, she had gone into labor and was on her way to the hospital to give birth.

All in all, Baragona thought that was a pretty good excuse.

Paul Farhi was a reporter for the Washington Post for thirty-five years. He covered business, a presidential campaign, and the news media. He left at the end of 2023 and has been a freelance writer, contributing to The Atlantic, The Athletic, Nieman Reports, The Daily Beast, and CJR.