CommonSense Blog

Reporter’s Curse

By Ryan Flinn | Aug 02, 2013

A lot of times as a reporter, I’d get a call from a company spokesman after I publishes a story asking why I chose the angle I did. It wasn’t what they pitched me; they’d say. Or they were confused about why I brought up certain details they thought were unrelated to the news most relevant to their client.

The reason often is the news that companies are promoting is usually…boring. Or maybe I should say safe. As a flack, I’m getting a greater understanding on how much time and effort go into creating seemingly simple news announcements. Whole teams of people across different companies have to craft the message, sign off on it, and take into account so-and-so’s sensitivities, “must haves,” “avoid at all costs,” and then clear it for legal and regulatory issues.

Then someone on top has an issue with the way something is phrased and the whole process starts over again. (Journalists can go through a similar slog in getting a feature done with layers of editors adding in their two cents and suggestions). In the end what gets approved is sure not to offend anyone, contradict previous company directives or promise a goal that isn’t 100 percent certain.

So when journalists ignore the main message, and focus instead on why the company chose to put the release out when they did, or what the machinations behind it were, there’s going to be confusion (among other feelings) from the team that worked so hard and so long to put it together.

It’s something I call the reporter’s curse. I was trained to notice details, sniff out motives, “see the bigger picture.” Journalists rarely take things at face value – there’s that old saying – “if your mother tells you she loves you, get a second source.” Such thinking may help see details others miss, but it can also lead to difficulty living in the moment.

Here’s an example — I was at a concert last weekend, but instead of enjoying the music, I spent a good chunk of time wondering what the roadies were doing backstage, what the guitarists are actually thinking when they stand in front of each other jamming (for like the millionth time in their careers), trying to figure out a pattern to the light show, how much leeway the backup singers have with picking their outfits – mundane details that nonetheless could be an interesting lead for a story.

It’s part of the reason readers (like myself) get frustrated with political reporting – articles will focus on how and why a politician is arguing for a position on a hot topic, or what it means for them to be taking the position, instead of the legislation or solution itself. It also happens to be what the reporters themselves find the most interesting.

As a reporter, I’d always appreciate it when spokespeople gave me some insight into the context behind the news, even on background. Maybe there was a tidbit about competitive pressure, or a desire to be the first to market with something, or it was the new CEO’s pet project. These details might not make it into the article, but they could lead to additional tangential reporting to flesh out why the news is interesting to readers who don’t care about the topic, or the company.

I get that a lot of companies prefer this type of information stay secret, or at least not come from them. Some of it can’t be openly discussed, but a lot of it is mundane errata that can appeal to a reporter’s interest in the sausage-making aspect of the news. It might also get you coverage when a reporter would otherwise ignore it altogether.