Weird Ways of News.

Chapter Three: Negotiating the News

We've investigated what makes news, and how it's manufactured. Now we turn to the actual"manufacturing process. How does that thin little Reporter's Notebook full of scribbles made apparently in journalistic Klingon become the story you read on the web the next morning? Well, reporters are like anglers: they rely on a hook.

Reporters' notebook.Let's pretend your first-rate education and your mom's connections have propelled you to the esteemed position of administrative affairs vice president for your local college. One day as you sit at your office Macintosh posting witty retorts on Facebook, you get a call.

"This is Irving Fern from the Daily OnLineGazette. I wonder if you can find the time for a little chat?"

You've just been called by the media for an interview. But note the reporter's approach. He asks for a little chat. Sometimes he asks for a visit, or coffee, or just an opportunity to ask a few questions, usually by telephone—reporters are ever in a hurry. The one word he doesn't use is "interview." Why? Sounds formal, intimidating, alienating. Hardly the relationship a reporter hopes to cultivate. A tip-off that you're dealing with a green reporter: she or he asks for an "interview."

In any case the reporter is not asking for an interview. He is proposing a negotiation. Collection of raw material needed for the news manufacturing process is based primarily on a series of negotiations between a news gatherer and human informants—that is, the reporter and one or more sources. From your viewpoint as a college spokesperson, the purpose of this negotiation is get your point of view reflected "accurately," that is, from your perspective. You also hope to get certain information out, to preserve and maybe even enhance the image of the college.
From the reporter's viewpoint, the purpose of this negotiation is to gather from you, a "source," some background, quotes, color and, all going well, a hook.
Let's see how this interview progresses. The reporter says, "Can we chat a little about the situation at your college?"

He's clearly referring to the only "situation" a reporter would likely call you about: the union of clerical employees' threat to strike. "Thank you for the opportunity to talk about this," you say (disarmingly, you think). "While I can understand the frustration of the employees, we just can't afford a 4 percent salary increase right now. Our university treasury surplus of $1 million would be drained in only a year, and we wouldn't be prepared for the emergencies that inevitably crop up in any university's budget."

Very prudent, you think: a comment reflecting the administration's concern for taxpayer resources, and its understanding of employee concerns. You plan to read exactly that in tomorrow's OnLineGazette. Accessing the next morning's edition, you find the story in the Metro section, bylined "By Irving Fern, Education Writer." This is what you read:

East Snowshoe State College does not believe the institution has the funds to pay a 4 percent salary increase, despite a reserve of about $1 million. "We won't be prepared for emergencies," said vice president for administrative affairs Joe Smith, noting a salary increase would drain reserves in short order.

"That's $1 million of taxpayers' money not being used for student needs," countered Frank Jones, chief negotiator for the university's union of clerical workers. "The emergency is now, and the reserve will not be exhausted by our 4 percent raise."

What happened? Well, you're mad, because your comments, and your viewpoint, aren't presented as you expected. Were you misquoted, then? Well, no. Were your remarks taken out of context? Um, well, no—we talked about the raise and the reserve. Nothing here worth the investigation time of a good media ombudsman. Still, something happened on the way to the pixels.

The Hook

Hmm. Let's peek under that reporter's foolscap. To a news writer, you are not a person whose opinion must be reflected as you prefer. You are a "source." You are one of usually a number of "experts" (at least for the moment) a reporter interviews for a story. Like students who gather information from several web sites to fashion a term paper, reporters gather local experts in an attempt to puzzle together a story. The reporter collects all the sources into a Reporter's Notebook, and on a audio recorder, and/or on video.

What happens to that information? It depends. Sometimes a reporter has an idea of what the story is about, either his own or one provided by his supervising editor. Maybe a news director said, "This is going to be a story about money, tax dollars, and whether the university has enough to pay the increase." Or, "This is going to be a story about the power of the union, and whether it can prevail against the university administration." Or, "This story will emphasize the disruption to students and to the city's economy if a strike occurs." Any number of viewpoints, which we might call angles or, more fishily, hooks, can be set up for this story.

Or no hook could be on the reporter's line at all. Often a reporter is sent to do a story with the simple request, "Put something together on the university staff troubles." In that case, the reporter is an optimistic angler indeed; he's going to ask the fish to provide the hook. That's you.

And you will—you, or another source. How? After a number of interviews, the reporter returns to his laptop and sifts through notes and/or recordings. What is this story really all about? he reflects. Where's the hook? Well, there's the money question, but here's a disagreement between that university administrator and the union leader. Wow, that's a really good hook! Now I know what this story is all about.

Remember those news values; our Big Three? Small wonder it becomes a hook. And who supplied the reporter with that hook? Well, you did, though you didn't realize it. You offered a foil for the union leader to goose a controversy, and a comment about that Big Three biggie, money.

Feel used? Well, you were, but don't be offended. As noted, an interview is a negotiation. Savvy sources know exactly what the reporter is likely to be looking for, and happily provide it—in their own manner, of course. A good public relations source keeps a whole sack of hooks dangling from her back pocket, though we sometimes know them by the more familiar pundit's term, "spin," offered by "spin doctors."

As an obvious example, politicians and their public relations doctors become masters at fingering a fistful of hooks and only occasionally snagging themselves. Every time your state representative holds a press conference announcing a new program, she's trying to set up a hook which she hopes will become an agenda, a community conversation and a debate. And despite declarations of journalistic independence, most news people gladly bite at the hooks offered by these sources. "What's this story all about?" Well, we nice politicians will be glad to tell you. It's the exceptional reporter who rejects the obvious hook and searches out others offered by less skilled tackle dealers. The negotiation of an interview works both ways, and the reporter isn't always at an advantage. Sometimes the fisher becomes the fish.

In your case, the reporter was in charge of the boat. (Are you getting tired of this fish metaphor yet?) Reporters often control negotiations with the non-media-savvy public, because they have more practice than most of us average folks. You're probably not a skilled media handler—few of us are, after all, as it's not in our day-to-day life descriptions. On the other hand, a journalist interviews people all day long. Of course, she's going to be good at it. She'd better be, or she won't be a reporter for long. Probably more reporters wash out of the business for bad interview skills than for mediocre writing skills.

You might look at this college story differently. Maybe to you it's about whether taxes should be raised, whether employees should be more satisfied, whether the trouble-making union president should be called to task, what would happen to students in case of a strike, or why the university president's viewpoint is reasonable. But often the one angle you don't agree with or didn't think of is the angle that finally becomes the published or broadcast story.

The Quote

An interview.There's more to it than that. The hook provides a general perspective. From there, the interviewer manufactures a story using the raw material of quotes. Quotes are what sources say. No ethical reporter will change the words of a direct quote, except to fix grammar and taste. For instance, if I say, "It be a damned nice day today," you might read that quoted as "Collins said, 'It is a darned nice day today.'" Beyond that, reporters are taught never to change the words of anything with quote marks around it.

But they don't have to use quotes. And they don't have to use all of the quote, as is more likely the case. Look back to your comment above, about the strike threat and university funds. Recall what you said:

"Thank you for the opportunity to talk about this situation. While I can understand the frustration of the employees, we just can't afford a 4 percent salary increase right now. Our university treasury surplus of $1 million would be drained in only a year, and we won't be prepared for the emergencies that inevitably crop up in any university's budget."

First, the reporter removed the phrase, "While I can understand the frustration of the employees." You obviously said that to emphasize the administration's empathy for its valued workers, and maybe you even mean it. But from a reporter's viewpoint, that phrase is not really germane to the central point. "Get to the point," reporters are known to doodle in the margins of their Reporters' Notebook when you think they're taking notes. Reporters like pithy, bold statements. They fit smoothly into a news story. Lob in several, and a writer can create a compelling rhythm to take the reader through the piece like a ride at the carnival. You won't bail out early. You won't even stop in mid-sentence. If the sentence is terse. You'll go on to the next one. And the next. It will become addictive. Ernest Hemingway knew this. So did Paul Harvey. You need pithy quotes. But you can overdo it.

Reporters call sources who speak in pithy and colorful phrases "good copy." If you don't generally talk this way, most reporters will help you out, paring your long comments into partial quotes—whether you like it or not.

Working back to our long-suffering illustration, note that eliminating the supposed extra baggage about your understanding of the employees does more than bump out your expression of empathy. It also eliminates your acknowledgment that this issue is not clear cut, but is complex, and that you understand that. Eliminating the phrase leaves the impression that the issue is simple, in your view. That gives the story more color, more punch, more readability; people don't like to hear stories heavy with mealy-mouthed hedging, even if the story really is quite complex. Reporters know that, and often try to find a simple hook by slicing away the verbal weeds snagging it.

Of course this may simplify unfairly, but reporters don't do this to be malicious: they normally have comparatively tiny amounts of space or time in any news operation,, and can't possibly present an issue in its full complexity. They must trim and direct, or you'll see no story at all.

This technique becomes most striking to news consumers who happen to know a great deal about a particular topic, perhaps because they are personally involved or know someone who is. What appears on the news, they know, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Also removed from the quote is the point about the "emergencies that inevitably pop up." This seems minor, but notice that without this phrase, your adversary becomes a little more credible. One million dollars sounds like a lot of money to most of us, and the audience isn't told that colleges need such a rainy-day fund for inevitable emergencies. So you appear a bit stingy when your comment is butted against an adversary's huff. Reporters must make quoted sources seem knowledgeable and credible. One way to do this is to set up quotes so that one adversary inadvertently bolsters another's credibility, as you did for the other source, the union representative.

Because news stories are mostly built on quotes taken from interviews, the believability of the story is only as good as the credibility of those interviewed. Reporters usually try to interview the biggest wigs they can find, but may settle for wigs available on deadline. To help establish the credibility of these lesser sources, reporters rely on credibility builders, such as choosing quotes by contrasting sources designed to establish—or undermine—credibility of another, as we see here.

So what about those inevitable emergencies? Well, the longer and more complex reality didn't make the final cut, because it didn't appear important enough in a tight news hole.

Editing and shortening is inevitable in the news business. Without someone wielding a cleaver, we'd end up reading or hearing verbatim transcripts of endless questions and answers from interviews and meetings. Most of us don't have time for even the reporter's boil-downs, much less for the originals. Do we lose something valuable in relying on reporter's choices? Sure. Would you really rather read verbatim transcripts? Maybe if you're a lawyer, but most of us would not; interviews and transcripts are often tedious, repetitious, and filled with minutia. Just try plodding through the Congressional Record.

Seeing your comments clipped and retrofitted into a larger whole may leave you feeling used. And you were, but not really abused. The reporter just looked at things differently, relying on a variety of sources you didn't talk to, and filling a mandate for a group of people (readers or viewers) you don't have to answer to.

Of course, you don't have to be hapless. Remember the spin doctor? In chapter four you'll take a quick tutorial at his medical school.

More to read

Using Quotes

Beverley J. Pitts, Tendayi S. Kumbula, Mark N. Popovich, Debra L. Reed, The Process of Media Writing. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997. Especially chapter 10: "Writing Stories Based on Interviews."


James W. Dearing and Everett Rogers, Agenda-Setting. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996.
J. Herbert Altschull, Agents of Power. The Media and Public Policy. White Plains, New York: Longman, 1995.


Follow a reporter through a series of interviews or watch a press conference. Compare what you hear to what you see or read in the broadcast or published story. Did you agree with the reporter's version? Who apparently set the hook—the reporter or the source? What alternative hooks could have been used?

By the way...

The Reporter's Notebook actually exists with just that title, and still a reporter's staple. It's simply a long narrow pad, spiral-bounded, easily carried in a purse or pocket. Many print reporters pride themselves on their ability to take notes rapidly. Here in the United States reporters often rely on a personal system of shorthand devised to reflect words they commonly hear on their beats. It's seldom formal shorthand—British reporters usually learn that, but United States scribblers, no—so it's perhaps decipherable only to the lay person willing to painfully agonize over what at first blush appears to be no more than the occasional blip from the flat line of a heart monitor.

For instance, you find a Reporter's Notebook incautiously dropped on the sidewalk outside the courthouse steps and read,
"C rec tx inc 10%, ch: "we nd nw fac fr our vtrs, & nw cths add essntl fr ths."

Of course, you can easily translate this: The commission recommended a 10 percent tax increase, its chair noting, "We need new facilities for our voters, and a new courthouse addition is essential for this."

Pity the grand jury that successfully subpoenas a reporter's notes for its investigation!

Most reporters also rely on audio recorders for faster and more accurate information gathering. However, they usually also take notes. Technology can fail, and even when it works, it's hard to find a specific comment from an hour-long interview tape without the touchstone of written notes.

Ombudsman, ombudsperson: A few years ago (okay, in the 1970s), the hot topic among people who cared about mass media ethics was the possibilities of the ombudsperson. She or he would be an actual senior staff member of the news operation, assigned part-time or even full-time to field audience complaints. An ombudsperson would examine the complaints and issue regular reports on air or in print, whether or not the complaint was justified. This "reader's (or viewer's) representative" became part of a number of news operations, but today most have fallen by the wayside, usually victims of cost, scarce space, or audience apathy.

Agenda-setting: Mass media researchers hope to assess media influence by trailing the squiggling line of a news topic as it makes its way through society and becomes an issue worth debating. Do mass media set the agenda for a community by presenting some issues and ignoring others? Many researchers are convinced they do, observing that while the mass media don't necessarily tell us what to think, they do tell us what to think about.

Grammar and taste: Ethical reporters never change a direct quote, unless the source injects expletives and obvious grammatical errors. That's cleaned up both to protect people who speak more casually than they'd write, and because "we're a family news operation here." Sometimes, though, a puckish reporter will leave a naughty bit in an effort to accurately reflect a personality ("Well, he is a rap artist, after all"), or because she wants to cast a negative light on a supposedly respected public figure afflicted with potty mouth.