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Jul. 14 2010 - 11:54 am | 382 views | 0 recommendations | 12 comments

Should journalists be required to give ‘Miranda warnings’ to their sources?

Commander of International Security Assistance...

Should General Stanley A. McChrystal have been read his rights before being interviewed?

“I should have realized you were going to quote me. The concept of being prepared for everything you write to be viewed by the world is really starting to hit home for me.”

That’s a message I received from someone I wrote about recently. We had gone back and forth by email about a story, and then when I published it, I quoted parts of the discussion.

People are wary of talking to journalists. When they do overcome their fears and talk to us reporterly types, they are often taken by surprise when they see their words in print. Phrases sound different when cut off from their paragraphical pack and presented naked and alone in quotation marks.

I read of one journalist who starts every interview by quoting from Janet Malcolm’s Journalist and the Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

Perhaps if Michael Hastings had started his Rolling Stone interview with General McChrystal this way, McChrystal would have been more taciturn around him. Or at least would not have gone bar-hopping with him.

Malcolm compares the journalistic-source relationship to a romantic one, with both the journalist and the source attempted to seduce one another: The journalist wants information and the source wants to control the story.

Given my legal blogger glasses, I see the the world of journalism as being more similar to the world of law. Like officers of the court, we do research, interviews, and fact-finding to build a case. Whereas they use the information to press charges or sue, we write a story about it. Given that, I suggest that journalists should also offer “Miranda warnings” before interrogations…

I’ve been on the other side of this. When a New York Times reporter called me as a source for a Style section story, I wasn’t very happy about how it turned out.

So as both an officer a journalist and a source, I would suggest the following “Miranda warning” for journalists to offer before interviewing someone for a story:

You have the right to answer my questions or to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used in my story. You have the right to request that this interview be on background or off the record. If you don’t know what that means, read this Wikipedia article. You have the right to tape record this interview, though I may just take notes. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you? Great. First question…


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  1. collapse expand

    I think the best demonstration of the relationship between sources and journalists can be found in the Woodward’s book “The Secret Man”. A source should assume everything said can and will be used. What I do not like is when your words are interpreted. Lets face it, some journalists are better than others. You can blame it on laziness, sloppiness or just plain ineptitude. I hate to say it but you should never trust a journalist (no offense Kash). They cant help it, while trying to sniff out one story they might bump into a whole other one that you are now the center of.

  2. collapse expand

    Some years ago while being interviewed, I was asked by a reporter to explain my opinions and where they come from. I explained where I work and what we did there. I also explained no less than three different times during the interview that I was speaking only for my self as a citizen engineer, not for my employer.

    The piece came out in print with me acting as a spokesman for my employer. HOW DO THESE PEOPLE GRADUATE FROM COLLEGE AND NOT UNDERSTAND THIS CONCEPT?

    Oddly enough, I was notified by a neighbor today that this very paper is looking for someone to speak to them about another newsworthy situation near me. I will not go on the record with them. They misquoted me very badly last time, I’m not going to let them do it again.

    In short, how can we trust that journalists will accurately reflect what we tell them?

  3. collapse expand

    Your disclaimer won’t work. You need to explain fully and carefully to every single “civilian” (ie. those who have never been interviewed and/or media trained) WHAT it means to go “off the record” or “on background.” People do not know these phrases and journos use them to their advantage in whatever way it suits them.

    I begin every interview — phone, face to face or email by making clear that — UNLESS previously stated (i.e. before starting that sentence or thought) that this is now off the record or not for attribution — it is ON the record and I will use it in full and attribute it to you.

    Seriously, referring someone you are asking to trust you to Wikipedia? I’d hang up on you just for that. How long can it take to explain courteously and calmly what you need and why?

  4. collapse expand

    I’d say Caitlin’s warning is pretty clear and outright encourages you not to talk at all. Anything less (or more legalistic) would tend to dilute the message.

    In the case of McChrystal, he was a general in the United States military: he knows all about operational security and information security. He was in charge of regional operations during wartime and I guarantee he drafted, advised on, or issued policies relating to speaking to the media in his area of operations. If there is anyone, other than a journalist, who has no excuse for what happened, it’s him.

  5. collapse expand

    I think every journalist should go through the experience of being quoted at some point. It can be an awful experience, even when the quotes are accurate in themselves. But jcalton is right that McChrystal doesn’t even come close to qualifying for my sympathy. He should have been more sensible around nearly anyone, let alone a reporter.

    I do something similar to Caitlin and it generally works very well. I tell them that I will respect an off-the-record or background request, but it’s their job to tell me when we’re off; it’s not mine to guess.

  6. collapse expand

    Journalists have a job to do. Sometimes the job of a journalist is as important as the job of a military general or a banker or an elected legislator. Part of a journalist’s job is to find knowledgeable sources who will speak accurately and candidly. No journalist should ever fool a potential source by suggesting the words and ideas will not be published. But no journalist should ever scare away a potential source with a dire-sounding Miranda warning.

    As an investigative reporter over 40 years, I’ve done my best to build trust with every potential source. One way I build trust is a practice still considered controversial among journalists, although as far as I can discern the practice is accepted by a higher percentage of journalists than in decades past.

    The practice is this: I tell sources that before the story reaches the public, I will conduct a detailed accuracy check regarding what I plan to attribute to that source, as well as contextual material. As a result of the accuracy check, the source is never surprised by what I will be disseminating to my audience.

  7. collapse expand

    I agree with Steve — in very specific circumstances. Several major sources for my retail book agreed to speak freely with my explicit agreement beforehand that they could see their remarks before the book goes to press. I was OK with that; better they feel relaxed and chatty and we’ll clean it up later. But, typically, no — I tell them my story’s focus and length and market, and why I have chosen to speak to them — and we go from there.

    I have been interviewed and misquoted. Every journo should experience it. It might smarten them up to be on the receiving end — as Kash learned with the NYT and her interview by them.

  8. collapse expand

    I think handing a business card ought to be fair enough warning. If you wouldn’t tell your gossipy aunt, don’t tell a reporter and don’t be shocked to find gambling going on in a casino or something you tell a journalist in print. That’s my civilian perspective.

    Happily, they won’t give you the cover of Rolling Stone if you catch me saying something foolish.

  9. collapse expand

    Great discussion. I know you know this, but we have to earn a living at this and getting interviews is how we do it. Giving such a warning will most likely scare off some interviewees and decrease the number of interviews we get. Many times we have a legal department of our own that can screen for problems without having to bring the interviewee into it at first. And then it might pay to look at some of the award winning interviews and see if they would exist if a warning was given up front. Thanks for this, it is a great discussion.

  10. collapse expand

    Miranda protects those being questioned in criminal matters from self-incrimination and the right to legal counsel. It’s supposed to protect us from those who do the questioning and that take the words that are spoken and twist them from the meaning they were intended to something quite different. It is also why it should be standard protocol to record all interviews involving any criminal investigation, then there is no question of what was discussed “on the record”. The problem is that the system and so many involved within it, try to subvert Miranda and work around it’s intended purpose.
    So your question is should you as journalists Mirandize those whom you interview? Why would you find that necessary if you maintain your integrity, report the truth and only the undistorted facts? If you say it’s “off the record” then simply don’t violate that privilege. To me, if you feel you must inform or “warn” me that before I speak to you I must understand that you might be unethical in your reporting, then I guarantee I will “remain silent” and the interview is over. Just my opinion!

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