Rascally rabbits

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.

Classic scoundrels: Rocky and Mugsy

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.

Classic scoundrel: Elphaba

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.

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About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

7 thoughts on “Rascally rabbits

  1. Spin Doctor

    Being on the receiving end of most of these tactics at one point (except bait and switch) I can say email or phone call should be the first option. Both work fine.

    The annoying thing is getting that call or email mid-morning announcing you are live at 6, so I have to develop responses by 4 to meet your deadline after you have been working on it for 2 weeks.

    Reply
  2. Funkmeister

    Try thinking about investigating their side of the story, initially, as if it is a separate story.

    As you wrote, they are likely proud of what they consider their mission and accomplishments, so approach them by email or phone, telling them that you’re interested in them and their activities. That’s completely truthful. Let them give you their “dog and pony show” first, get a spokesperson for an interview and ask appropriate questions based upon what you’ve seen and heard there. Then, after hearing all about their activities from their perspective, mention the allegations and invite them to respond.

    In this way you’ll approach them truthfully, with respect; give them the opportunity to tell you what they think is their overall story, without being placed on the defensive; after which they will have an opportunity to address the allegations; all without you coming across as accusatory.

    Good luck!

    Reply
  3. KP

    For heaven’s sake, just call them up, tell them you have received some alarming/startling/concerning information about the facility and before you air the story, you want to give them an opportunity to share their side of the story. Offer to meet first and ask, even encourage, them to allow an on-camera interview, explaining you want to give them a fair shake and equal time.

    I don’t think any of the tactics suggested above are fair and sound more like Fox5 or Channel 46’s approach to tough reporting.

    Like Spin Doctor, I deal with the media daily and I appreciate it when they are honest and upfront about what they know and what they are looking for in the story. That’s the way good reporters do it.

    Reply
    1. live apt fire Post author

      KP: You wrote “I don’t think any of the tactics suggested above are fair,” yet allow me to point out that your suggestion is consistent with what I wrote in the subheads “write them” and “call them.” Assuming they’d want to know why I requested a visit, I’d give them the reasons you suggested.

      Good reporters are generally upfront with respectable institutions employing professional media contacts. I’m pretty sure the folks I’m contacting will lack that sophisticated touch.

      Reply
  4. Fred

    It looks like you have just become self-aware of the unversial dilemma afflicting every top-notch ace investigatve reporter.

    God bess you as you seek the path of true enlightenment and wisdom grasshopper.

    Reply
    1. live apt fire Post author

      I’ve had variations of this dilemma on many previous occasions. I’ve just never blogged about it before while plotting strategy. Thanks for the good vibes.

      Reply
  5. turdpolishertv

    Had a similar one several years back. Worked for 6 weeks documenting illegal activity spanning more than 20 years. ND wanted us to hit them with a request the morning before the story aired. Reporter and I insisted we give them a minimum of 24 hours to respond.

    Of course, they didn’t, then demanded an opportunity to answer the allegations once the story aired.

    The best you can do is be straight with them, give them an adequate amount of time to investigate before your interview so that they can have some type of answer for you, then go ahead with the story as planned.

    Reply

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