Friday, October 31, 2008

A note on news interviews

I should have mentioned this in my previous post on Agnes Lin's interview being tweaked by the Straits Times.

Most journalists cultivate their sources zealously, particularly important and powerful people. Access to a newsmaker is one of the most prized resources of a journalist.

But a much less talked about fact is that journalists frequently use their own friends and acquaintances as subjects in their own articles (Candace Bushnell, of Sex and the City fame, has mentioned that her columns grew out of her own experiences in New York City, and that Carrie Bradshaw is her alter ego). Heck, I recycle my own and my friends' experiences in my own blog too.

Many Straits Time journalists, however, omit this little detail in their stories.

I know a few acquaintances that work in local media. The journalists' bylines appear in the newspapers regularly. And on more than one occasion, someone from the public they interviewed for a story was not, in fact, a random person but someone they already knew personally. How do I know this? Because the person interviewed was a mutual friend of ours.

Now, I'm not saying that the people interviewed in the Agnes Lin story were personal acquaintances of the journalist who wrote the story. I am not singling out the Agnes Lin story for particular attention. Neither am I saying that interviewing someone you already know for a story is an unpardonable transgression. Far from it.

I am just sounding an injunction that anyone who consumes media of any sort (and not just local stories, although I admit to a propensity to distrust local media) should be cognizant of the  possibility that an interviewee was not chosen at random. The so-called member of the public interviewed for a particular human interest story may not be a random disinterested (in the impartial sense) person whose opinion is solicited, but could instead be a person specifically chosen by the journalist on account of personal relationships, or to work an angle the journalist has chosen to focus on in his or her story.

This can put a whole different spin on the article depending on how the journalist wishes to frame the story.

For example, it's been striking to me how a certain pastry chef who is the young proprietor of a restaurant in Holland V called 2am has been mentioned a few times in the Straits Times, once on a feature on young chefs, and another time in a feature on late night dessert bars. There might have been other mentions of 2am in other articles. This is a remarkable achievement for a restaurant with little pedigree.

I may be wrong, but I can't help but wonder whether 2am was getting plugs in the local media because of some unseen friendship dynamic at work.

[You could argue that 2am dessert bar is famous in its own right and deserves all the press it gets. A quick Google search of 2am turns up multiple hits. To which I answer: chicken and egg. That's precisely why a restaurant owner might want her journalist friend to write up about her hot new restaurant. Buzz generates buzz.]

Separately, I actually have a co-worker who once dated an editor at Elle magazine (Singapore). They've since split up. Now, my co-worker is a nice guy and not bad-looking, but he's definitely not supermodel material. Ergo my surprise when I heard that he was once featured in Elle magazine as one of Singapore's "Top 25 Bachelors".

So you should forgive me if I seem to come off as being skeptical of local media...


Maryann said...

I have been following your blog for over a couple of weeks now and I must say your entries have provided fresh perspective on how the crunch is slamming markets all over the world.

Anyway, I thought I'd give you some insight into how newsroom hacks work, or at least, my own experience when I was working as a journalist in KL.

Friends and acquaintances do come in handy for quotes especially for topics on general interest. I see nothing wrong with a reporter making use of them. I mean if you happened to have and old school mate who's a a neuro-scientist and you were writing a piece on strange addictions then why not pull that cable most available to you?

I think what's important is relevance and plausibility. Is the person a good example or anecdote for the topic being discussed? If yes then by all means use 'em.

What I tended to do was to try and have some degree of separation -- use friends of friends. After all it is all about the network. That would typically be the case for any city or urban-related topic. Of course if I'm doing a piece on rice or tobacco farming then I'd be sure to get my a** out in the fields to track down a random farmer. Realistically, given the time constraints, you'd probably contact the trade organisation first and then move on from there.

I think what better journalists try to avoid is recycling the people they use or at the very least not quote them more than once in six months!

Still, I wouldn't worry about explaining why you're sceptical of local media or just the media, for that matter. Like any intelligent consumer of mass media, I wouldn't believe everything I read either. There really is a lot of trash out there...

mjuse said...

Thank you for comment. I can't say I've been providing a very fresh perspective since I've mostly been reproducing what's been written in other blogs, perhaps just with a bit more local color.

As for your journalistic insights, they are most definitely welcome! i'm not a journalist myself, and the great thing about blogging is that I can access the opinions of people who have real experience with some of the things I blog about.