Eight Warning Signs That a Reporter Plans to Flip the Script

by Scott Baradell | PR and Pop Culture

Eight Warning Signs That a Reporter Plans to Flip the Script

I love journalists. Hell, I used to be a pretty good newspaperman myself, and the blogosphere has given me a chance to dabble in the discipline of journalism again here and there. I also work daily to convince CEOs who are suspicious of the media (is there any other kind?) that most journalists do their jobs with integrity. I annoy my corporate clients when I tell them what I believe: that you’ll hear more heartfelt discussion of ethical questions in a newsroom than you’ll ever hear in a boardroom.

Having stipulated all that, let’s be real: Reporters are known to occasionally flip the script on their subjects.

By “flip the script,” I mean they sometimes will give you the distinct impression they are writing something that will flatter you or otherwise serve your interests — when all along they’re planning to eviscerate you with the spiral binding on their reporter’s notebook.

Is this ethical? Let’s just say I’ve known reporters who feel bad about doing it. But frankly, it’s a necessary part of good journalism. A classic example is brilliantly portrayed in the 2005 film Capote. In the movie, author Truman Capote struggles with his deception of killer Perry Smith; the scene where he refuses to admit to Smith that his book is called “In Cold Blood” is painful to watch.

Was Capote’s behavior wrong? You tell me — but it resulted in the greatest nonfiction book of the 20th century.

I’m no saint; I’ve done it myself. In fact, I won an award from the Associated Press Managing Editors of Texas the time I did it to televangelist Robert Tilton. Tilton was riding high and making millions when I talked with him in 1990. He hadn’t done a media interview in years, and he chose me because he was convinced I was a naive kid who would buy the snake oil he was selling. I never lied to him — but I also never said a word to disabuse him of the notion that I was that naive kid. My story was the beginning of the end of his ministry.

Of course, day-to-day examples of flipping the script aren’t always this heroic. Sometimes people just get screwed.

So, as you prepare your CEO for that next big interview with the news media, what are the warning signs that a reporter plans to flip the script on you? Here are eight of them:

1. The journalist is vague about the story angle.

Reporters don’t call you unless they have a pretty good idea what they’re going to write about. For example, they might want to profile you as a fast-growing company in your industry, or they might want your take on a specific trend or controversy. If you ask them their angle and they mumble something that doesn’t sound like a focused story idea, it might be because their real angle is that they think your CEO is a crook.

2. The journalist has a history of hard-hitting reporting or pointed commentary.

After being contacted by a reporter you don’t know, the first thing you should do is Google them to see what kind of stuff they write. If you go through a half-dozen CEO profiles and find one coronation and five eviscerations, those probably approximate your odds.

3. The media outlet typically does not have nice things to say about people like you.

Be mindful of the slant of the publication. For example, alternative weeklies traditionally take an anti-business approach. Unless you’re an upstart entrepreneur who is doing something disruptive to the status quo, this kind of outlet may not be for you. More and more mainstream media outlets are falling into political camps as well; if you’re a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing carbon emissions or saving lab rats, don’t go on Fox News unless you want your cause ridiculed before a national audience.

4. A competing media outlet has just said something nice about you.

Reporters hate getting beat on a story. They also hate doing the same story someone else just did. So if you’ve been the subject of some laudatory coverage, you’re eventually going to meet up with a reporter who wants to knock you off your high horse. Be prepared.

5. The journalist is reluctant to tell you who else has been interviewed for the story.

You can learn a lot by asking a reporter who else he or she has interviewed for the story. For example, if the reporter has prepared for the upcoming meeting with your CEO by talking to a bitter business rival or even-more-bitter ex-wife, you might be in for a bumpy ride. If a reporter hems and haws when you ask the question, that might be all the answer you need.

6. The journalist is uncomfortable when asked his or her point of view.

It’s often useful to ask the reporter his or her point of view on a controversial issue. Many reporters share their perspectives freely when their opinions are neutral or in alignment with yours. When they think you’re full of it, on the other hand, they tend to ramble on about objectivity and how the “story is about you, not me.” If they start talking like that, you’re probably toast.

7. The journalist gives nonverbal clues that suggest deception.

The general clues people use to determine if someone is being deceptive (microexpressions, for example) are helpful in a face-to-face interview. When reporters are distant, make little eye contact, and seem overly protective of what they’ve written in their notebook, you might be in trouble.

8. The journalist makes it apparent that he or she has already done ALL of the reporting for the story — except for talking to your CEO.

You’re dead meat now. The reporter has lined up everything and just wants to fire away at you — “I’ve discovered this document in your trash; I have the chatroom transcript; I talked to your mother-in-law; what’s your response?” Duck and cover.

Even if you strongly suspect a journalist is planning to flip the script on you, that doesn’t mean you should respond with a “no comment.” In fact, you still need to provide the reporter with information and, in many cases, the CEO should go ahead with the interview.

But you’d better go into it ready — focused for battle, talking points down cold, with both guns blazing. And record the conversation.

[This post is also at MarketingProfs.]

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22 thoughts on “Eight Warning Signs That a Reporter Plans to Flip the Script

  1. Geoff_Livingston

    They are all likely to do this… Whether by intent or incompetence. I think that any spokesperson should always be guarded in any interview situation… Or for that matter, in the company of any journalist they do not know personally.

    I’ve seen the post mortems. They are never pretty.

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  2. Anonymous

    This is well-done. I think the Capote example is apt. Sometimes people do have to make tough choices to achieve great work — in journalism or any other profession.

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  3. Anonymous

    As a reporter, I have to disagree with some of this (though a lot of it is on target).
    A reporter who is vague about the angle is out to get you? A lot of times, I’m vague about the angle because I don’t know yet what it will be. Guess what? We don’t all pre-judge what the story is before doing the interviews.
    And I would never tell who else I’ve interviewed, or what my personal views are – never. Whether the piece is likely to be positive, negative or in between. A reporter simply has no business answering such questions.

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  4. Scott Baradell

    I think that reporters often give what they need to to get a story — as long as they can do this without lying. That’s why I’ve found many reporters who will make a point of saying that they agree with you on this or that — so you’ll feel comfortable opening up. It’s a way of getting the subject on your side.

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  5. Anonymous

    Personally, I’m suspicious of any source who wants to know what my angle is going to be for a story. And when they start asking for the names of those I interviewed, that signals a warning that the source is trying to hide something.
    That said, I’m never out to burn people – but if someone’s lying, well, that story is going to be better than any nonsense fluff piece.

    Michael Marizco

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  6. Anonymous

    Interesting piece, and thanks very much for sharing. I’m a reporter, and every day I have to duck questions about what I believe. Even if I agree with someone I’m interviewing, I don’t want to say that, lest a) the person repeat what I’ve said b) the person later ask me to give my opinion on something I disagree with or c) the person complain about the finished product by saying something like, hey, I thought we were friends…

    The one point I would make is it’s always better to respond than say “no comment,” because you never know if the reporter has something that’s ACTUALLY wrong. Besides, it gives the CEO the chance to get a quote in the paper.

    I’ve never heard of # 4.

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  7. Anonymous

    This is my philosphy… I’m not out there to be your cheerleader, but I’m not “out to get you.” The story is what is. Often hat means I don’t write the story as you would want it to be told, but my ultimate goal is write a well balanced story that represents balance, integrity, true honesty and credibility. Accuracy is not necessarily on someone’s radar screen when I’m trying to get through the spin of someone else’s agenda. If I look you in the eye and ask you a question, the answer needs to be said with those ultimate qualities in mind… otherwise… write your own press release and stop expecting to call that the news.

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  8. Cathy Resmer

    This is good advice for anyone interacting with reporters, though I would add a couple things.

    It’s really irritating when people ask me about my “angle.” I often haven’t figured it out when I talk to sources, because I’m still trying to gather info and understand exactly what the story’s about. Often I enter interviews with a set of questions, and the angle is entirely dependent on the answers I get.

    Though I would probably know more before I set up an interview with the CEO of a big company.

    I also try to avoid talking about my own beliefs, though I’m happy to answer questions about how I understand the story. My personal political beliefs shouldn’t really be an issue, I think. I rarely discuss them with sources.

    For the most part, though, this is great advice. I often wish the people I interview knew more about dealing with the media.

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  9. Anonymous

    Very interesting story.

    I’m a reporter and I find that sources often think I agree with them or that I’m on their side just because I’ve said “uh-huh” or “I know” during an interview. Usually that’s just to keep the conversation flowing along, but people can misinterpret it as support.

    I also agree with the comment that being vague isn’t necessarily a sign of deception — I’m often vague about the story angle at the beginning of my reporting. And sometimes I don’t really have it clear until I sit down to write.

    Thanks for your advice that CEOs not hide behind a “no comment” for negative stories. The best PR people I’ve dealt with manage to soften my hard-hitting stories by being open and giving access and portraying their point of view in a persuasive and sympathetic way.

    Sometimes I’d rather have a “no comment” because then it’s easier to write. A clear negative story line is just muddied up by “on the other hand” quotes. :)

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  10. mshenefelt

    I’ve been in the news business for 30 years. I’m amused by the column. What a paranoid, cynical view. It reveals much about the evolved art and science of spin in organizations that can afford to hire clever flaks. In this phony climate, the average (yes, also cynical) reporter may wonder how much fire is hidden by the smoke. Evasive, nuanced, vague, muddled, too-smooth sources and their flaks often get what they fear, but not because a lying reptile journalist is out to get them.

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  11. Anonymous

    I’m a reporter and I agree with a lot of Scott’s comments. But I’m also skeptical of any CEO or any other person of official-dom trying to create a spin that would only better him or herself, business or organization.

    We are not cheerleaders. If we are, we should be getting paid a heck of lot more than what we are now (two years experience with a salary of $27,000 a year).

    It’s our job to write the truth and get beyond the misinformation. At the same time, we need to be able to defend ourselves with sources who get angry and yell at our editors or publishers about an article (or threaten to pull advertising if there’s no correction or clarification to the truth).

    I have to be able to trust my sources on everything they tell me. Otherwise I’m doing a great disservice to the public.

    I also liked Scott’s message about there being more heartfelt discussions about ethics in a newsroom compared to any boardrom. I only wish that statement was true in smaller markets.

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  12. Scott Baradell

    mshenefelt,

    How would you have handled Capote’s dilemma then, or Joe McGuinness’s in writing Fatal Vision, or…the examples are endless.

    If you want a CEO to step into your newsroom like Bambi in the headlights, I don’t blame you. But if you think the CEO will always get a fair shake when this happens, you’ve REALLY drunk the Kool-Aid.

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  13. Guy

    Interesting piece and interesting comments. As someone who’s been a daily newspaper reporter for almost 30 years, as well as, briefly, a government agency spokesman, I’ve noticed that reporters and sources tend to think about stories in two contrasting ways.
    Reporters classify stories on how much play they get or impact they have, or on how well-written or well-sourced they are. A story with one of more of those attributes is a “good story.”
    Sources (and their PR people) classify them as either “good, meaning “positive” or “bad, meaning “negative.”
    The different points of view are natural, and even valid, but it’s important for both reporters and CEOs/PR people to remember that “good” and “bad” mean something different to those on the other side of the notebook.
    CEOs shouldn’t think that reporters are necessarily thinking in terms of “positive” or “negative” and reporters shouldn’t feel flattered when a PR person tells them they wrote a “good” story.

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  14. T.K. Folsomani

    This is interesting, but clearly sounds like CEOs, corporations and their flacks have a lot to hide, hence this little tip sheet.

    Reporters aren’t nearly as sinister as they are made out to be. I think these ideas of cynicism, secrecy and fear are more likely traced to insecurity on the corporation’s part — just not wanting anything to get out that is not part of their pre-approved message.

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  15. Anonymous

    Quite a few reporters have come in here babbling about their journalistic integrity and their objectivity.

    Gentlemen, the sooner you realize you’re just p.r. men like Scott Baradell, working for money-hungry CEOs who are no different than the ones Baradell represents, the sooner you can stop pretending to be doing important work and get on with your lives in a different career.

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  16. Scott Baradell

    Ok, now that last comment WAS cynical … of course, there’s also too much truth to it these days, with the consolidation of media companies. it’s only the few family-owned companies that care much about journalistic integrity at the corporate level anymore, which is why the Dow Jones purchase is so devastating.

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  17. Anonymous

    The guy, and it’s got to be a guy — bitter, cynical, and more than a tad corrupt — who said “Gentlemen, the sooner you realize you’re just p.r. men like Scott Baradell, working for money-hungry CEOs who are no different than the ones Baradell represents” is nuts.

    No one would go into journalism, or stay there, for long if they believed that. The pay isn’t worth it. I’ve worked as a journalist for more than 20 years, and I can’t remember ever working with a reporter or editor who believed his or her work as exactly the same as the work done by pr folks like Scott Baradell. There’s nothing wrong with what Baradell does. But it’s not the same job.

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  18. Rob Witham

    Interesting piece. I am a reporter for a family-owned community newspaper that does pride itself on accuracy and fairness in reporting. Having experienced a reporter “flipping the script” on me when I managed a business in another industry I can also understand people’s reluctance to consent to an interview with a reporter. When I write for my blog I am opinionated; when I write for the paper I truly try to maintain a neutral perspective because the story is what the story is. I refuse to spin a story to get better sales or more attention. In the long run I am building a reputation for fair, unbiased, honest reporting. Sadly, not all reporters share that conviction. Thanks for the perspective!

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  19. Anonymous

    Remember that there are still a few layers between the reporter and that paper on your doorstep. Sometimes the way a story is understood has nothing to do with the way it was reported; all you need is an editor to add an attention-grabbing headline in hopes of selling a few more papers, or to rearrange some of the paragraphs so that the bit about your sketchy past or embezzlement allegations is more prominent, while the part about your charity that saves puppies was cut (because people don’t read the business pages for puppies.)And what’s the point of interviewing a CEO if you haven’t already done all the research? That’s not sneaky, that’s so you don’t waste their time asking questions you could answer yourself–they usually only give you half an hour anyways. My point? If I’m guarding my notebook closely its because you’re boring and I don’t want you to catch me doodling.

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