The myth of journalistic betrayal

January 4, 2018
Image: Aftab Uzzaman/flickr.

Like the young Aztec men and women selected for sacrifice, who lived in delightful ease and luxury until the appointed day when their hearts were to be carved from their chests, journalistic subjects know all too well what awaits them when the days of wine and roses—the days of the interviews—are over. And still they say yes when a journalist calls, and still they are astonished when they see the flash of the knife.

Thus ends Janet Malcolm’s 1989 masterwork on the journalist-subject relationship, The Journalist and the Murderer. It’s less famous than her opening gambit about journalistic con-artistry, which reads, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible.” Then Malcolm delivers the fatal thrust: Journalists don’t just seduce, betray, and profile murderers, they’re metaphorical murderers themselves.

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It is a claim that, depending on the reader, is outrageous, thrilling, cathartic. And it’s mostly wrong, especially when it comes to daily news.

I’ve spent the last 10 years studying what it feels like for ordinary people to become the focus of news stories. Only in rare cases do journalism subjects feel betrayed by reporters. In fact, many have positive experiences “making the news.” Past survey research has found that over 60 percent of subjects of even inaccurate news stories say they are not just willing but “eager” to do it again. That’s because a news appearance can confer a lot of benefits on a private citizen, especially publicity and status. Many subjects conclude those benefits outweigh the more negative aspects of participating in a news story, such as aggressive reporters or even inaccuracies in the coverage.

Since 2008, I’ve interviewed more than 90 private citizens who wound up in the daily news as experts, survivors, witnesses, heroes, criminals, and more for my book, Becoming the News. Most recently, I’ve talked to voters who spoke to national news outlets about the 2016 presidential election. Even in the highly polarized political climate following the election, subjects’ experiences were largely the same: they had goals they hope to achieve when speaking to reporters, and assessed the overall experience in light of the consequences of the coverage on their lives.  Some people had been named in only one article. But those who had made the news for big events had appeared in multiple stories across many outlets in print, radio, and TV. My interviews lasted up to four hours, covering everything from the subjects’ original experience to the interview process to what they thought of the news coverage and any repercussions they faced afterwards.

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No question the journalist-subject encounter is unequal. From the subjects’ point of view, journalists show up late, leave early, and get a lot wrong in the process.

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And while subjects rarely feel betrayed, they do often feel manipulated and pressured, especially in the wake of traumatic events. In fact, the practices that subjects find most exploitative are the ones baked into journalistic routines, responses to the daily pressures of journalistic work, like deadlines. Often, the whole experience is more surreal to subjects than it is damaging. The word they most often use to describe what it feels like to interact with journalists and find themselves in the media spotlight isn’t even negative. It’s “weird.”

Though many people reported positive experiences overall, the negative scenarios they encounter highlight some of the most difficult inflection points in the relationship between journalists and their subjects. Below I illustrate these experiences through the eyes of some of the archetypical subjects reporters include: the survivor, the expert, the witness, and the hero.


The Survivor

Alegra (all subject names here are pseudonyms) agreed to speak to the press after she contracted an illness that ended her pregnancy. The severity of the condition for pregnant mothers was little understood, so she felt a strong obligation to spread the word.

The process was grueling and uncomfortable. Alegra hated the spotlight. TV crews, in particular, were hurried and disruptive. She understood it was part of their job to be pushy, but it was hard to take. She recalled that one national network “really wanted a picture of the baby that I lost, and I just refused over and over and they continually asked until the minute they put it on air. It was annoying and it upset me and my husband, but that’s their job, you know? You just have to expect that. They want to get their story.”

Alegra was exceptionally understanding, though many subjects are willing to put up with a lot in exchange for the chance to spread information. Alegra and her husband were willing to weather the inconvenience and emotional whirlwind of fending off aggressive journalists, because they felt they had a lot to gain. As she explained, “We felt that if we could at least get this out to one pregnant mom and she alerts her gynecologist earlier than I did, and is saved, then it’s helpful.”

But if subjects feel journalists bullied them excessively or the published story failed to deliver benefits (if, for example, they feel the journalist omitted or badly distorted their main point), they’re likely to conclude the exchange was unfair.


The Expert

It’s often nerve-wracking and uncomfortable to be in the news, but sources aren’t clueless. The experts I spoke to—who provided background or specialized knowledge to reporters—generally knew they were forfeiting control over their words and images in exchange for the chance to be in the news.

Subjects easily piece together theories about what journalists plan to write based on the questions journalists ask and how they react to the answers. Based on those cues, subjects then try to adjust their behavior in the interview and their expectations for the story.

Often subjects feel like they’re being pressured to say something the reporter wants them to say. Bella, a university professor, was contacted by a reporter from a national paper about a new product related to her area of expertise. She explained, “We had quite a pleasant conversation in which [the reporter] described [the product] and I made some comments. But it was very clear to me that he had a storyline for his article, and that involved asking a professor whose field this was, and that that person would be aghast.”

I asked her how she could tell. She replied, “Oh, I mean, it was transparent. It really was: Did I not disapprove of this? He had that storyline. And I could tell it to such a degree that I had to keep resisting it very consciously.” She later concluded, “He was not rude. I don’t feel like I had a terrible experience. I just felt like I was part of a scripted, already written piece where I was supposed to be just the line from the Ivy League professor.”

Bella said she spent so much time trying to deflect the reporter’s pressure to fit a particular role she ultimately wasn’t able to convey much of substance at all.


The Witness

Deanne was the sole witness to a suicide attempt that left her shaken. A TV crew soon appeared “out of nowhere.” She said, “I saw the reporter and her crew. I think she had a little posse of three people with her. But the minute I said, ‘Yeah, I was here. I saw what happened,’ I didn’t expect that immediately she was going to say, ‘Harry, turn on the lights,’ and I was going to have a microphone in my face. There was just no transition. She never said, ‘Would you be willing to discuss it?’ It was just Boom! We’re in it.’”

Catastrophe survivors and witnesses may want to speak to reporters, for a lot of different reasons. But they may need a minute—or longer—to decide whether they want to talk to the media right then. (See, for instance, a Hurricane Harvey survivor’s reaction to being questioned by a reporter this summer.)

Deanne said she “got a fake vibe” as soon as the journalist started interviewing her. The brash, no-nonsense reporter abruptly turned maudlin, apparently trying to get Deanne to emote for the camera. As Deanne said, “It was fake. It was cheesy. It was like she’s giving me these knowing, sympathetic looks and I was like, ‘How the hell did I get here?’”

Snapping into a different character on-air may feel normal and necessary to journalists. But that shift can feel phony and manipulative to subjects, especially if they’re reeling from traumatic events. If you just saw someone die, or narrowly escaped death yourself, you don’t want someone to fake sympathy—you want them to be sympathetic.


The Hero

Keith, a police officer credited with averting a major terrorist attack, initially enjoyed the recognition as a hero. (He had lunch with the mayor and received a call form the president.) But soon he started to feel uneasy. He was still grappling with what he had seen and done. But the real problem was having to reconcile the media’s version of himself—a kind of superman—with the person he knew himself to be.

Keith recalled, “I’m being paraded all over the city. Then you get quiet time and the id and the ego start playing ball in your head. I don’t feel like superman, but everyone’s telling me I am. ‘I’m a normal guy.’ ‘No, you’re not.’ ‘I’m Keith.’ ‘No, you’re not!’ It’s like I’m on ‘shrooms. I find myself every night at three in the morning staring at my refrigerator. ‘What’s going on? What the fuck is going on in my life? This is really fuckin’ weird.’”

He concluded, “I think the media caused this. Depression set in. For no fucking reason. It was the battle in my head between being superman and ‘No! I’m not superman.’ But everybody tells you you are. You’re torn between what the media says you are—and meanwhile I’m still the guy who yells at his dog and fights with his wife and road rages on the way home and probably drinks too many beers. But I’m still Keith. It was really weird.”

Keith took no issue with how he was represented by specific journalists for specific stories. He hardly remembered those details. It was the cumulative effect of the news coverage and the way people were reacting to it that felt so weird.

This may be the most fundamental difference between how journalists and their subjects view the news process. Daily journalists tend to focus on producing an accurate story, then move on to the next. But to subjects, the news product matters relatively little.  Sure, they want it to be accurate and, whenever possible, flattering. But really, it’s the consequences of the coverage they care about most.

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Ruth Palmer is Assistant Professor of Communications at IE University in Madrid and Segovia. She is the author of Becoming the News: How Ordinary People Respond to the Media Spotlight (Columbia University Press, 2017).