This is a guest post by Chris Bagley. Chris is a former legal reporter, UNC Law grad, and newly admitted attorney to the North Carolina Bar. You can find him on Twitter @CRBags or contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was perpetually intrigued by the motivations of people I wrote about during my twelve years as a journalist: their reasons for talking or refusing to talk to me, how they decided what to reveal, what to withhold. They were often a complete mystery to me. They were particularly fascinating for me during my two years as legal-beat reporter for the Triangle Business Journal here in the Raleigh-Durham area. My success in getting attorneys on the phone varied wildly, from forthcoming bankruptcy attorneys to reticent M&A lawyers, and from firm to firm.
During my three years of law school and transition into the legal profession, it has been equally fascinating to see the motivations from the other side. With that in mind, I’ve thought through a list of pointers that might have been helpful to the attorneys I tried to pin down and that I hope will be helpful to attorneys who get phone calls from other prying journalists.
Understand the reporter’s deadline.
A reporter who calls you may juggle a half-dozen stories, with one due next week, one tomorrow, and the other four within two hours. Know when she needs to get a comment from you.
Most text-based news outlets require reporters to file multiple articles each day to feed their websites, and the pace has increased with each passing year. At the Triangle Business Journal, the expectation went from two web articles per day in 2011 to about five per day in 2013, which I think is somewhat typical for local and metro publications. Reporters at national-level publications put out fewer items on average but may have to file three or four on a busy day.
And even with these heavier volume requirements, quality still matters. While one deadline may truly be important and inflexible, another may exist merely for the reporter to meet their afternoon quota. If your voice or perspective is crucial to the story, then a good reporter can push it back for a day so long as they can be counted on to get it back on time.
It’s also common to update a story after it’s published. If you want to be included and have time to talk, don’t be deterred by the reporter’s article having already been posted. That counts double if the article conveys a misleading impression of you or your client.
Know the reporter’s angle.
Before agreeing to an interview, get information about the article’s thrust, including any assumptions that the reporter may have. If you don’t already know the reporter, you or an assistant can search his publication’s website to see what he has written on the same topic or similar topics. This will give you some idea of his level of sophistication. It could also reveal a tendency to commit a particular error or to draw a certain inference that could reflect badly on you or your client.
Start the interview off the record in appropriate situations.
Everything is on the record unless you and the reporter specifically agree otherwise beforehand. Reporters generally prefer to go off the record sparingly. There are many good reasons for this and some arguable reasons. In any event, I saw this resistance soften somewhat during my twelve years in the profession, perhaps because reporters are under more pressure to produce and therefore in a weaker negotiating position vis-à-vis their sources.
Starting an interview off the record can give you a chance to understand the article’s thrust, as discussed above. It can also you a chance to assess the reporter’s familiarity with the issue and explain the basics of whatever law is relevant to his article. As a non-lawyer writing about often unfamiliar legal topics, I often found it helpful to start off the record with an attorney, and some attorneys insisted on it. You can suggest background reading for that accurately describes the relevant legal issue in a way that a non-lawyer can understand.
If you go “off the record”, either initially or mid-interview, make sure you both have a very clear understanding of when you’re going on the record. Don’t go back and forth multiple times, because that virtually guarantees a misunderstanding and subsequent dispute.
Make sure also that both of you have a common understanding of the ground rules, because the terms “off the record”, “on background”, and “not for attribution” can mean different things to different people, even though they’re sometimes used interchangeably. Any of those terms can mean that your comments won’t be, or merely that the reporter is only promising not to attribute them to you. Of course, anonymous sourcing can have ethical implications for both journalists and attorneys, but you both should know from the outset whether it could even come into play.
Live quotes matter.
“Can I get a quote?” is a standard line for reporters in movies. It’s painful for me to hear because it’s so clichéd and reductive, and because real-life journalists almost never use it. Still, it has become a cliché for a reason: Live quotes matter. The reporter is more likely to quote you near the top of the story than if she pulls language from your motion. If this is likely to burnish your image or your client’s image, then you should probably try to make yourself available for an interview, even if you’re only rehashing the content of a court filing as allowed by Rule 3.6(b).
If you don’t have time or are unwilling to do a full interview, consider directing the reporter to a particular section of a pleading or motion that summarizes your client’s position in clear and pithy language. I often quoted from documents based on suggestions like this, particularly when my understanding of the matter was otherwise shaky.
Getting to know reporters whose beats include you or your clients is likely to pay off. While I believe I was diligent in trying to be fair and accurate to everyone I wrote about, I can also say I used extra diligence when a solid relationship was involved. Even if you lack the time for a get-to-know-you conversation, you can develop relationships in other ways. During my two years at TBJ, several attorneys occasionally sent me public documents they came across on PACER, court websites, and local courthouses. I appreciated that tremendously. “Never burn a good source” is a maxim for journalists, second only, perhaps, to our professional obligation to give our audience full and accurate information.