Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 2, 2021

PUBLIC EDITOR: So a reporter has contacted you for the first time...

By JAKE LEFKOVITZ | August 31, 2020

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COURTESY OF RUDY MALCOM

I’m telling you right now. It’s going to happen. A message request on Facebook from someone you have mutual friends with but swear you’ve never seen before. A text out of the blue from a number with an unfamiliar area code. An email with a subject line like “URGENT: interview request.”

It’s a News-Letter reporter. And they’ve got one question for you: “Could I interview you?” 

Interviews are the lifeblood of a newspaper. They’re how journalists learn new facts and insights and are what make the staff’s reporting credible. So I want you to be comfortable enough to say, “Yes!” But you should know a few things first, to protect both yourself and the reporter.

The first thing to know is that once a reporter introduces themselves as a reporter, you’re on-record with them. This is true before, during and after an interview. In fact, it is why sometimes you will see reporters write that someone declined an interview. Reporters can publish that because the person declined the reporter’s request for an interview while on-record. 

Going on-record means two very specific things. It means that your words and actions can be exactly quoted and described in the reporting. That technically means every eye-roll. And it means that everything will be attributed to you and your name. 

(A side note: The reporter is always responsible for making it immediately clear that they are a reporter. Members of the public deserve to be alerted when they are in the presence of a reporter. If it is not clear if someone is working as a reporter, be direct and ask them. They will not be offended.)

On-record interviews are always strongly preferred. It’s a matter of transparency. Members of the public can independently vet on-record sources and decide how much trust they want to give them. More broadly, on-record sources make a reporter’s work verifiable and open to critique. 

The second thing to know is that to go off-record, two things must happen. You must ask the reporter to go off-record, and they must agree to go off-record. Otherwise, you are still on-record. Expect to get some pushback. Like I just said, on-record interviews are the gold standard. 

The reporter will try to negotiate with you. They’ll ask if, instead of quoting you, they can paraphrase and still use your name for attribution. Or maybe they’ll want to quote you but offer to attribute your quotes to a description of you instead of your name. It’s up to their judgement about what will best serve the story and the public, ultimately.  

Whatever the terms, the reporter and their editor will have to get them approved by the editors-in-chief. Again, the staff of the paper do not use sources which are not on-record lightly. 

If you agree to terms with the reporter to go off-record, great! And if you do not, just walk away. Remember that they are just doing their job. Don’t take it personally. Be firm but respectful.

The third thing to know is that your interview should be properly documented. This is true regardless of whether the interview is on-record, off-record or somewhere inbetween. In an ideal scenario, the reporter will be recording it. In less-than-ideal scenarios, they should at least take some kind of notes. 

These materials protect the reporter from claims that they have fabricated material. And they protect you from being misquoted. So have patience if the reporter has some technical difficulties or is slow with a follow-up question because they are writing something down. 

Among the first things that the reporter should ask you are: how you spell your name, what pronouns you use and what is a good way to follow up with you. Reporters must uphold the basic dignity of every individual who is touched by their reporting. This begins with getting peoples’ names and pronouns right. 

The reporter should ask you these questions themselves. But still be sure to prompt them if they do not. 

The fourth thing to know is that reporting evolves. Sometimes in the course of chasing a story, the reporter’s evaluation of it or the actual story itself changes. In these cases, the reporter may want to reinterview you. This is one reason why it is important that you give them a way to follow up with you. This courtesy gives you the opportunity to have your most informed comments be what are on-record.

Reviewing your quotes is another important reason to give the reporter a way of following up. Once the article is at an advanced enough stage, you can ask to go over what you will be quoted as having said. This gives you the opportunity to dispute anything that you think misquotes you. (Remember the importance of interviews being documented? This is where that material becomes crucial.) Or you may request another interview to explain some of your remarks. 

However, the fifth thing to know is that comments that are given on-record cannot later be withdrawn from the record. Journalists owe the public a full and frank account of public affairs. Compromising the integrity of the public record by allowing sources to snip comments out of it is not compatible with this duty. 

At the same time, reporters’ accounts must also be accurate and newsworthy. What are your options if, after reviewing your quotes, you believe that your words are being used in an inaccurate or non-newsworthy way? Ask the reporter to speak with their editor. If you cannot persuade the section editor, you may appeal on up to a managing editor. Failing that, your last appeal rests with the editors-in-chief. All of their emails are available on the website under the “About” tab.

But hopefully, if you keep in mind all of the above, it should not come to that. The rules and procedures that I have outlined to protect yourself with are incredibly important. But they only infrequently actually come into play. So please, do not let this knowledge discourage you from ever agreeing to an interview. 

Being involved in the public life of the University is among the most rewarding parts of college life. Attending Hopkins makes you part of a body of students — a student body divided by innumerable things like school, major, year, housing, clubs and more. Contributing to the public conversation and speaking up is what makes you part of a real community that starts to transcend that. 

So when you get asked, “Could I interview you for The News-Letter?” I truly hope that you will feel both confident and excited enough to say yes. Confident enough that you know how to protect yourself. And excited enough to start making your story an important part of the Hopkins story.

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