The concept of “balance” in a TV news story is tricky. When people act a fool, odds are they’ll get coverage that highlights their foolishness. When people in government do wrong or commit egregious mistakes, the coverage will reflect that newsworthy fact. By definition, it will be unbalanced. And it can still be good journalism.
Here’s a tip for public information officers (PIOs) who have to speak on behalf of individuals with government agencies who screw up: Talk about it. Own up to it. Be honest. Make the release of information timely. Or, at least pay lip service to the concept of answering questions and exploring the issue that has suddenly thrust you into the spotlight.
And if you don’t, then don’t cry about the coverage you got.
Some weeks ago, I dealt with a government agency that screwed up, inadvertently victimizing an innocent person in the process. I’m not going to name the agency or its spokesperson (it’s not a local law enforcement agency). The agency doesn’t have a reputation for mistake-prone boneheadedness, and I’d never dealt with the spokesperson before.
I called the PIO, who quickly sent me a one-line e-mail acknowledging my voice mail message. Six hours passed before the spokesperson communicated further. I missed the phone call, which came shortly before my story aired. Minutes later, I got an e-mail with a bland statement saying the agency “had reason to believe” its screwed-up behavior was based on good information. There was no further explanation of the “reason,” which was at the heart of my inquiry.
The story aired. The next day, I got a terse e-mail from the PIO complaining the piece was “one sided,” and that I’d failed to include verbatim the spokesperson’s “had reason to believe” line into my piece.
With great restraint, I sent the spokesperson an e-mail:
“I note and respect your criticism of my story… I would like to chat with you or your designee on-camera about the specific point you emphasize in your note, eg. the reasons you (screwed up). This would give you an on-camera opportunity to shape the story to your satisfaction, an opportunity (your agency) declined yesterday.”
The spokesperson replied by saying it would be “inappropriate” to provide an interview because an investigation was “ongoing.”
- Side rant: Investigative agencies routinely give information about, and provide interviews detailing, “ongoing investigations.” Examples: Any interview with a fedora-wearing detective at a crime scene; any cold-case interview. Yet spokespersons for such agencies use the “ongoing investigation” as excuses to withhold information and especially interviews, and expect reporters to take this excuse seriously. I am forever restraining an incredulous chortle when I hear this excuse; it’s unprofessional to openly make fun of PIOs who think they’re offering serious-minded reasoning when they aren’t.
- Obviously, there is proprietary information in certain ongoing investigations that can and should be withheld. Reporters expect that. But using it as an excuse for a news blackout is just plain lazy. (And when PIOs hear this excuse from higher-ups in their agencies, they should demand a higher-quality excuse.)
So this is what we get: An agency that screwed up; declined to provide timely or responsive information; declined two interview requests — and complained that the coverage was one-sided.
And this, from an agency with a reputation for a measure of sophistication and serious-mindedness.
I don’t know where public information officers come from. Perhaps there’s a Ronald L. Ziegler School of Spokesmanism someplace, which churns out obfuscating publicists who learn to distrust reporters and shade the truth. It’s unlikely that school’s teachers want any advice from me.
But for those hiring a PIO, though, allow me this: Generally speaking, the best spokesmen / women are former reporters. There are plenty of them out there. Hire one.