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