This module addresses these ethical questions:
- Are comments in email exchanges, Skype chats or Google Hangouts “interviews”?
- What should ground rules for interviews be?
- What about requests for questions in advance?
- Should reporters pay for interviews?
- Should reporters tell interviewees all the ways the interview may be used?
- What about covering traumatized people?
- Does a promise of anonymity become irrelevant after the interviewee dies?
Nearly every journalist does interviews. But sometimes interviewer and interviewee have different ideas of what the ground rules are.
First of all, what’s an “interview”? Increasingly, reporters connect with interviewees by phone, email, video chat and social networks. Some journalists consider any of these forms of communication to be as legitimate as a face-to-face interview in the same room. They use the word “interview” to describe an interaction on any platform.
Other journalists and organizations feel nothing can completely replace actually sitting down with a news source in person. They vastly prefer in-person interviews for all but the most routine exchanges. They also believe the reader should be put on alert if the “interview” consists of something other than that. They insist on saying in the story, “said in an email interview,” “said in a Skype chat,” etc. Some even mention if the interview was conducted by telephone.
There’s also the question of what quotes or information contained in an interview are “on the record” or not. Many journalists believe that unless the interview subject says otherwise, anything said can be freely quoted. (This approach is best suited to interviews with officials and others who have dealt with the press previously; it is not necessarily appropriate to conversations with people unfamiliar with reporters or with children.)
Several types of ground rules are available for interviews, so long as journalist and subject understand the differences. The Associated Press uses these definitions:
- On the record. The information can be used with no caveats, quoting the source by name.
- Off the record. The information cannot be used for publication.
- Background. The information can be published but only under conditions negotiated with the source. Generally, the sources do not want their names published but will agree to a general description of their position that does not specifically identify them.
- Deep background. The information can be used but without attribution. The source does not want to be identified in any way, even on condition of anonymity.
Once information or a quote is given on the record, are there any other barriers to publication?
Sometimes interviewees insist on “quote approval”; that is, that even an on-the-record quote must be sent back to the source (or a spokesperson) for approval. Sometimes, the interviewee also claims the right to modify the quote.
Some journalists accept this practice as the price of getting an interview with a sought-after subject. Others will give up an interview rather than agree to quote approval, believing the practice essentially reduces an interview to a set of written statements approved by the interviewee or his public relations team. These journalists may occasionally voluntarily check a quote with a newsmaker to make sure the quote is right. But they believe this must be at the journalist’s initiative, not a condition of the interview.
Similarly, some journalists will agree to show their finished interview, audio, video, etc., to the newsmaker before publication. They may genuinely want the interviewee’s assessment of the tone and accuracy of the piece. Others refuse to do so, on the grounds that content of the piece is exclusively their business. Showing a story to an interviewee can also lead to protracted pre-publication arguments.
Sometimes interview subjects ask for questions in advance or ask that certain issues not be raised. Some reporters will agree to such conditions to get the interview. Others will not give interviewees this chance to control the conversation. They may offer to list a few subjects they intend to ask about but reserve the right to ask about other things as well.
There’s also the question of whether the full purpose of the interview needs to be disclosed, even during the interview. If a comment by the interviewee during an apparently routine exchange becomes the “gotcha” quote in an investigative story, the interviewee may feel he was deceived. One way to address this point is to return to sources later, before publication, to let them know how a quote is being used and — without letting them “unsay” the quote — see if they have additional comment.
Some journalists pay for interviews or access, viewing payment as part of the cost of doing business. They may also feel that because their news organization “makes money” from interviews, it’s appropriate to pay something to the interviewee. Other journalists strongly oppose such practices. First, they can drive up the cost of newsgathering and turn every effort to get information into a negotiation. More important, when interviewees view their comments as a product they’re selling, they often tend to embellish them. They can also take ever more radical positions, or stretch the facts beyond what they said in the last interview, in an effort to “enhance” their product for the next paying journalist.
Many interviewees may not understand what they’re getting into by granting an interview. Some journalists believe they should clearly tell interview subjects — particularly young people, traumatized people or those unfamiliar with being interviewed — that their comments and images may be archived online forever. Other journalists feel most people are quite familiar with the online world and do not need such warnings.
Depending on the country and culture involved, ethics and accuracy may require reporters to devote substantial time to conducting interviews and to question people patiently and gently. Some interviewees cannot be rushed.
Interviewees who have suffered traumatic events often require particularly sensitive handling so as not to re-traumatize them by asking them to recount what they endured. Some journalists make a point of not interviewing anyone at a time of trauma or shock. Others believe such blanket bans are excessive, that retelling a traumatic event can be therapeutic and that coverage of victims is important to the community.
Reporters should also be careful not to react to interviewees’ answers in a way that suggests they have or haven’t said what the reporter is looking for. Some interviewees are eager to please and may distort their answers in an effort to say what the reporter wants.
Suppose a journalist agrees to an off-the-record or background interview with a newsmaker, who later dies? Is the journalist then released from his obligation not to identify the source? It’s a controversial matter. As a matter of law, at least in some countries, a promise of anonymity is a contract. The journalist may still have an obligation to honor the contract — if not to the interview subject, then to his or her estate. In such a case, the reporter might be well-advised to approach the newsmaker’s heirs for permission to use the material. There’s also a strong argument that, at least in the case of an interviewee of substantial importance, the needs of history justify the use of the material.
The primary author of this section is Thomas Kent.
See the section on “Confidential sources”
Shut up and listen: Getting the most from your interviews
Getting personal: Learning and telling life’s most intimate stories
Advance review: To show or not to show