By Casey Bukro
Ambush interviews usually are not the way journalists conduct business. Seasoned professionals identify themselves as journalists and tell sources they intend to quote them, or ask permission to quote them. They make clear that remarks are “on the record.”
That’s the way it’s usually done. Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists occasionally get calls or inquiries, usually from young reporters, who don’t know that.
In 2012, a reporter doing an article on a controversial homeless shelter in New York asked: “Would it be unethical to call and not disclose that I am press?”
The answer from Hugh Miller, an AdviceLine consultant, was short and sweet: “Don’t. It would be unethical.”
Implicit in this exchange are questions of candor, disclosure and transparency. They raise the question of getting information under false pretenses.
Even the venerable New York Times can have a hard time with this one. Its public editor and its ethics-and-standards editor recently clashed over an article based on remarks Kabul bureau chief Rod Nordland heard at a private cocktail party.
At a book festival event in Brisbane, Australia, Nordland chatted with Korean-American author Suki Kim. Only eight to 10 people attended the “artist-only” gathering. Later, Nordland published Kim’s comments to him, criticizing prominent American author Lionel Shriver.
Kim, a New York Times best-selling author, was furious. She called Nordland’s actions “so unethical” and “not acceptable.” She knew Nordland is a reporter, but did not expect her remarks would be published in the New York Times. She thought she was just chatting with a fellow author at a book festival.
Liz Spayd, Times public editor, checked it out. Nordland told her Kim knew he was a reporter, and never said that anything she said was off the record. “I don’t consider that kind of stuff off limits,” Nordland told Spayd.
Do you need a policy to remind you that ambush interviews are wrong?
Spayd took the matter to Phil Corbett, the Times editor who rules over newsroom ethics and standards, asking whether Nordland’s actions complied with newsroom policy. Corbett answered:
“Our normal practice is for reporters to identify themselves when they are reporting. But in this case, Rod didn’t go to the event expecting to write a story—he only realized later that there was a potentially interesting story here. That’s not so unusual—good reporters often find stories that they didn’t set out intending to cover.
“In this case, it led to an unfortunate misunderstanding or clash of expectations. In the ideal world, that wouldn’t happen. In retrospect, it may well have been better to circle back to Suki Kim directly to interview her on the topic. On the other hand, as I understand it, this was a hotel room full of people, and she apparently was aware that Rod was a journalist. So I’m not sure how much expectation of privacy there could reasonably be.”
In a report on the incident, “Off the cuff, but on the record,” Spayd said she wasn’t buying Corbett’s interpretation.
“That seems like a stretch to me in this case,” Spayd wrote. “I believe Kim did have an expectation of privacy at this ‘artists-only,’ private gathering—as the literature promoting the event described it. She was discussing books with a man she knew was an author and journalist, just like her. And there was no mention of any story.”
Kim wanted the Times to remove her quotes about about Shriver, but that was denied. Talking about another writer in public, she Kim, would be “ungenerous and tacky.”
“Disagreements between sources quoted in stories arise with some regularity in newsrooms,” wrote Spayd, who mistakenly identified Shriver as a man. This is one of those stories where everyone who touches it seems to mess up somehow.
Nordland should have gone back to Kim, insisted Spayd, and asked her if she was willing to be quoted about Shriver. Or he could have quoted Kim from a video of her remarks to the general public, a version that did not attack an individual author.
“I believe editors should speak to Nordland and make clear that his approach did not meet Times standards and was not good journalistic practice,” Spayd wrote. She also wanted a note attached to his piece on Kim noting that a portion of Kim’s remarks “were inappropriately obtained at a private event.”
This is one of those stories where everyone who touches it seems to mess up somehow.
This case is notable for several reasons. Reporters often are urged to talk it over with their editors when confronted with an ethics problem. They should not try to settle it on their own. In this case, Nordland did not recognize that he had an ethics problem. And even if he did, the leading newsroom ethics authorities would have given him conflicting advice.
This is the puzzling nature of journalism ethics. Different people see it in different ways. There will be disagreement.
Looking back on it, or second-guessing, it would be easy to suggest that festival organizers could have adopted a policy in advance on when guests may be quoted and when they might not.
But really, do you need a policy to remind you that ambush interviews are wrong? That embarrassing a news source, and putting her in a bad light, is wrong? Whether it was done as an afterthought makes no difference. An act of journalistic rudeness is wrong.
Using the New York Times case as an example, it would be wise to advise everyone to keep their guards up in a journalism encounter. Any savvy author should know that reporters get paid to print stuff. Any savvy reporter knows that sources can be naive. They might reasonably expect that reporters occasionally are off the clock or otherwise acting human. It’s on the reporter to state the terms of the engagement.
Sensitivity to the welfare of news sources is central to ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists ethics code emphasizes minimizing harm and treating people with respect.
Journalists normally don’t get news at book-festival cocktail parties. An author’s criticism of another seems of limited news value. It’s more like gossip. Kim was right. The story was ungenerous and tacky. But as small as that story was, it highlighted how tacky ambush interviews can be.
Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers, submit a question.