What follows is some thinking-out-loud handwringing over how to approach a key portion of an actual ongoing TV story. You, the reader, are invited to weigh in, as always.
The story is about an entity that purports to do good work but, I’m told, is doing things that are whacky and craven and borderline abusive. I’m gathering evidence of this behavior, mostly through interviews with folks who have had first-hand experience. The story is a project that will probably air in a couple of weeks.
To a lot of folks, this is garden-variety investigative reporting. I like to say that all reporters are investigative reporters, because we all have to research stories. But this story has an element of exposing the alleged bad behavior of people who probably don’t want to get caught (or who may not realize their behavior is aberrant) . This is the stock in trade of some reporters for whom I have much admiration. I do it rarely.
I’m aching to talk to the perpetrators of this allegedly bad behavior, though I can’t until I’ve gathered my evidence. Once that happens, I need a strategy. On the one hand, I need to give them a civilized opportunity to discuss their issues and offer their viewpoint. On the other hand, I need to maximize my ability to question them and to document their facility, which operates on private property but has a public presence.
What’s the best way to approach them? I have several options.
Write them. “We’d like to visit your facility,” an email could begin. It probably wouldn’t say much more than that, though they’d undoubtedly ask why and I’d have to tell them.
An email would probably give them their fullest opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of allowing a TV crew on the property and telling their side of the story. Email would also allow them to share their potential dilemma with advisers. Given the widespread distrust of the news media, this would most likely result in a “thanks but no thanks.” Email is also very easy to ignore.
Call them. “We’d like to visit your facility.” A friendly-sounding human voice might flatter them into agreement. Nuances of conversation can be shaped to soothe concerns, while still being as truthful as I need to be about my intent (and by that I mean: Fully truthful, but without necessarily exposing every detail of my evidence during an initial phone conversation).
Yet asking permission in advance — by phone or by email — runs the risk of them admonishing us to stay off the property.
Visit them. We pull into the parking lot. I visit the office while a photog waits in the car. Or does the photog start shooting outdoors before we get kicked off? A visit might make them feel cornered.
Confront them. Pretty sure I wouldn’t do camera-rolling visit without taking a more civilized approach first. But it’s an option if they decline or ignore my initial queries.
Bait and switch. Enlist a coworker to make an innocent-sounding pitch for a visit, implying that the coverage will be bland or flattering. After they agree to allow it, show up and give ’em hell.
This last option is certainly tempting, and would give me instant access to the alleged scoundrels. Though I don’t know this, I suspect it’s done by TV reporters with some regularity, justified with it’s the best way to expose the truth. Yet it’s fundamentally dishonest. If I did it in this instance, it would make me a hypocrite. So it’s ruled out (and is submitted here merely as food for thought).
Frequently, the on-camera explanations / evasions of alleged scoundrels are as enlightening and as interesting as the airing of the allegations against them. In this instance, I suspect that the folks I want to interview would have enough hubris to try to justify what they do. Or perhaps they’d try to set me straight, and portray my eyewitnesses as liars and sheisters.
So far I’ve only heard one side of this story, and it’s kind of harrowing. I won’t know the other side until I ask.