This week one of our campus reporters faced a situation campus beat reporters were anxious about from the start. While reporting on a story about non Muslim students at NUST, reporter Ahmed Saeed ran into some trouble with the administration. A few officials mocked his questions (“NUST has non Muslim students? really?”), some told him to contact another person in another office and then another and another. Eventually he ended up talking to an official who was like the others but different. This person had his own question for Ahmed: “Why should I answer you?”
Situations such as these are common in a reporter’s daily work, particularly for reporters working on beats that involve government officials and bureaucrats. Sources can be aggressive, confrontational; they can try to rile you up or make fun of you and hurl insults at you or they might simply challenge the basic nature of your work. We’ll talk about what you should do but first, here’s what you should NOT do: You should never get worked up. Remain calm, maintain your composure, and if you feel your first response will be one of anger, keep silent. It’s better to take a moment and think about what you can do next to get the information you require than escalating the situation.
While responses in such situations vary from person to person and case by case, here are some approaches you might try:
Be Honest: This is the most accurate, the simplest and, in some cases, the safest response: “Because as I have told you before I work for xyz news organization and I’m working on a story about this issue. I have been told by your colleagues that you might be better informed to answer my question for this story.”
Be Witty: Sometimes a quick-witted reply takes the edge off the tension. A witty reply to the question posed by the gentleman above could be: “Because I know you want to.”
Be Diplomatic: Diplomacy is all about diffusing tensions and negotiating settlements. “Don’t you think it’s an important issue?”
Appeal to conscience: This works sometimes with people who are on the edge about something but reluctant. “Because it’s the right thing to do.”
Appeal to vanity: I don’t want to encourage too much of this kind of behaviour but sometimes it works: “Because I think you are the best/right person to answer this question.”
The kind of reply you choose to go with depends on the actual situation you are in, how important the information is for you, and the kind of person you are dealing with.
Obviously, I’ve had time to think about the replies. In real-time, you don’t have enough time to think too much before you continue. Which is why you should always be prepared for unexpected responses from sources when you are working on tough stories. It’s also a good idea to know your own style when faced with such situations. The situation Ahmed faced might be a good place for you to test your own response style. Some people stay calm naturally, others panic, yet others react angrily. We’ll also talk in class about the ways we can navigate around situations where we get stonewalled by sources.
Finally, there will be cases where you will need to be aggressive or take a stand or when you decide the source is just too nasty for you to tolerate them or you assess the source to be of no value regardless. Be mindful of what this might mean for your story or working relations on your beat. The Associated Press’s Matt Lee uses this aggressive tone often in State Department briefings. Here’s one of his back-and-forths with former US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland from 2012: