Saturday, November 25, 2006

How Does It Feel To Be On The Other Side

Journalists are not often on the other side of the line. Many of them have never been interviewed, so they have little idea how does it feel to be on the other side of the microphone.
It was weird to me when during one of the very first lectures of the Literary Journalism course at University of Missouri - Columbia our teacher Jacqui Banaszynski (Knight Chair in Journalism at the School of Journalism) reminded us how we always have to introduce ourselves to our subjects. She stressed out that we have to say our full name, name of the newspaper and the fact that we are journalists. "Otherwise the person on the other side might think that you are from the marketing department," she said.
That she was right, I realized after I returned from the USA. When I first spoke to somebody over the phone, I simply rattled my name and the name of the newspaper. Only after the person I was talking to at the end of our conversation asked me for my name again, I realized that he did not understand my introduction at all. To me it was crystal clear who I was and who I was working for. To the person on the other side of the phone, it was not.
It is not that easy being a subject of a story. I have been interviewed once and I was really worried after the journalist left. I knew I told her a few things I didn't want her to publish. I asked her not to, and she kept her promise. I was thankful.
I also hear such requests from the subjects of my stories. If I promise them that, I always keep my promise. But it wasn't until that interview that I realized how vulnerable the subject of a story feels in such a situation. He/she simply cannot do anything else but to trust the journalist.
But what if the journalist does not keep this promise?
Jacqui also emphasized how important is to tell the subject the context in which he/she will appear (how much space will be given to him/her, who else will appear in the story, will he/she be the only person interviewed for the story...). I know this sound weird if we think in the context of the political beat: to tell the politician who are going to be the other subjects in the story? We might as well tell him/her the questions that we are going to ask him so that he can prepare his/her answers.
But think about for example a florist who was interviewed for an hour for an article about orchids. He had probably told his/her friends and family to buy the paper because he/she is going to be the star of a newspaper story (so he/she justly thought after such a long interview). He opened the paper the day after and saw only a sentence or two of what he said. How did that make him/her feel? The experience probably left him/her with a bad aftertaste.
As Jacqui stressed out: for a good story, for the bond of trust between the journalist and the subject, and last but not least for a good relationship between the newspaper and its readers (who sometimes appear as the subjects of the stories), the subject (especially if he/she is not accustomed to dealing with media) has a right to know in what context his/her words will appear. This is even more important in literary journalism where the journalist immerse him/herself in the life of his subject.
It feels bad to be told one thing and then to see that another thing happened. So, don't tease if you won't deliver.

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