The importance of speaking to journalists

Gabija Gataveckaite

People can be reluctant to talk to the press.

The mission statement of The Washington Post, the newspaper that broke Watergate, is ‘Democracy dies in darkness’. The slogan lies in its masthead, right underneath the title. It first appeared in 2017 and references the paper’s legendary coverage which had tidal repercussions; not just Watergate, but the Pentagon Papers and now, Donald Trump.

For a story to exist, there must be sources. They can be ordinary citizens, politicians, officials or academics- but there must be sources. In the age of Trump bellowing ‘fake news’ at any reporter he has a distaste towards, it is crucial, now more than ever, that when contacted, sources have a duty to respond to reporters and give their version of the truth.

When sources decide to keep quiet, to ignore the email, leave the call unanswered or miss the coffee date, journalists are unable to share their side of the story. A fresh perspective and a piece of the puzzle is suddenly missing.

This is especially important for rookie reporters and student journalists. Sources, especially members of the public who have not dealt with the press before, may be reluctant to respond to journalists, especially if they seem inexperienced.

However, experience doesn’t come overnight and takes many, many years to build. If sources blatantly refuse to speak to reporters, that experience can never be built and the truth can never get out there, the other side can never be heard and democracy dies, both in darkness and in silence.

While declining to speak to journalists can be explained for members of the public who may wish to preserve their privacy, it is inexcusable for politicians, budding or not, or those running for public representation.

In a student sense, those running for positions in Students’ Unions should make time during their campaign to speak with reporters, students or otherwise.

Their viewpoints on certain issues may not necessarily be highlighted in 500 words of a manifesto, and speaking with a journalist may prove to be crucial in discussing topics which may not be raised otherwise.

In 2015, the ‘Brown Daily Herald’, a student newspaper in Brown University in the US, faced backlash for publishing two racist opinion pieces, for which it later apologised. However, student activists on the campus used the newspaper’s past as a reason for declining to speak to reporters.

In an article written by the ‘Brown Daily Herald’ news editor for ‘The Atlantic’, former ‘Herald’ editor-in-chief Rebecca Brill stated: “We were trying to fix this thing that was a valid critique of us, but the people who were critiquing us weren’t letting us talk to them.”

Before social media, the main tool of communication with the masses was through the media. Politicians would ring the local paper whenever they wanted their photograph to make its pages or arrange radio interviews. Now, politicians don’t have to go through all that hassle to reach thousands, they can simply tweet.

However, in the era of fake news and misinformation, journalists are more important than ever to fact check, verify information and contextualise stories. Declining to speak to reporters is counter-productive, as valuable sides of the story are left untold, fresh perspectives are lost, and the opportunity to do some valuable journalism is wasted.

The solution? Answer the phone call, reply to the email, attend the coffee date, speak to the reporter.

It’s the very least we can do.

Gabija Gataveckaite 

Image credit: Gillian Hogan