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How do you document "did not respond to request for comment"?

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Turtle Wexler, May 18, 2012.

  1. Turtle Wexler

    Turtle Wexler Member

    I have a young reporter who wrote a story on a touchy subject this week. One of the sides in the story did not respond to interview requests and therefore got the "no comment" treatment in the story.

    Of course, once the story was published and they looked like fools, one of the leaders of the group issued a comment and wanted it retroactively added to the story. Uh, no.

    But after the dust settled, the reporter asked me how to document or prove that interview requests went unrequited.

    I gave her my answer, but I wanted to put this out to the larger group: How do you prove a lack of response?
  2. Starman

    Starman Well-Known Member

    "Joe Schmoe did not respond to interview requests by telephone and e-mail before this story went to press."

    When you make callback attempts, make detailed notes as to when you called, which number, and what kind of response you got (no answer, busy signal, answering machine or a real person declining comment -- get a name if possible.)

    Keep the e-mails with time stamps and again document the responses: no answer, automated answer, a "no comment" from a real person.

    In all cases, specify, "we need to hear from you by 6 p.m. Friday (or whenever) for your response to be included in the story."

    Then do a second-day story with a BRIEF recap of the first story, document your attempts to contact him, then run Joe Schmoe's response. But no, it does not have to be as big as the original story or played in the same page positions. If he wanted to be in the big original story, he needed to return your calls and e-mails.
  3. Batman

    Batman Well-Known Member

    Be fair, and use the right term for the right situation.

    If it's a breaking news story on deadline, and you can't get someone right away ... "Attempts to reach Joe Schmoe on Friday night were unsuccessful." Or, alternately, "Messages left for Joe Schmoe were not immediately returned."
    That implies it's a breaking story and you just couldn't connect. No one is at fault.

    If you play phone tag for a few days, or someone is out of pocket ... "Joe Schmoe was traveling/unavailable to comment."
    Same deal as the first. No fault on either side, you just couldn't connect.

    If the person calls you back but doesn't want to talk about the situation ... "When reached, Joe Schmoe declined to comment on the situation." That even leaves you some wiggle room to add a quote about why he doesn't want to talk, if there's a good explanation.
    Sort of a comment on the no-comment. It keeps them from looking like an asshole, while showing you did your due diligence in contacting them. It's fair treatment.

    If someone's just being an ass? If you've left 20 messages over a three-day span? Or if they've told you to fuck off? THAT'S when you drop the "Joe Schmoe did not respond to repeated messages" or "Joe Schmoe refused to comment" on them. That shows you did your part, and the person just wanted no part of the whole thing. It puts it on them as to why they didn't want to talk. It's the print equivalent of someone shoving a camera out of their face while scowling.
  4. Killick

    Killick Well-Known Member

    I've never worried about documenting attempts. If it gets to a legal stage (tho I can't imagine what recourse they would have), there are always email archives and phone logs. The one thing I always do is write down who I'm calling and their number in my notebook, so a quick answer's at hand for "who'd you try to call?"
  5. Turtle Wexler

    Turtle Wexler Member

    I'm just trying to spark conversation here, but who is allowed to ask that question?
    An editor - totally
    Another reporter - probably

    But do we answer that question for:
    a reader?
    web commenters squawking on the story?
    a stakeholder in the story, such as a school superintendent or athletic director?
    another source quoted in the story?

    To whom do we have an obligation to detail our newsgathering methods?
  6. BillyT

    BillyT Active Member

    Starman and Batman really nailed this with the first two responses.

    I can't really think think of much else to say. The documentation is, in my mind, really important. I also agree that if you get a response that adds to the story, you follow up.

    In answer to Turtle, *anyone* can ask. You get to decide who to answer.

    I think it depends on how transparent (in a good way) you are trying to be.
  7. Starman

    Starman Well-Known Member

    a) Your editors and publisher are the only people you REALLY need to answer to.

    b) Readers ranting at you by phone or email fall under the "dear dimwit on the phone" category (99.87% of the time they are going berserk at WHAT you wrote, not how you wrote it, and are just looking for any possible way to attack you).

    That is, assuming you have a reasonably credible answer for a).
  8. mediaguy

    mediaguy Well-Known Member

    Pet peeve: Writing that someone "refused to comment." It's not an obligation. You ask, they decline.

    Batman brings up a good point that you should include "immediately" if a story breaks at 9:15 and you don't get a response.
  9. Stitch

    Stitch Active Member

    Why should a reporter have to prove anything? It's not as if a newspaper will publish email logs and headers.
  10. Batman

    Batman Well-Known Member

    Not a bad idea to keep track, if you really want to hammer the person for not responding.
    "Joe Schmoe did not respond to 16 telephone messages and six emails left over a one-week span" is even better than dropping the "refused to comment" tag on them. And if you print the exact number, it's good to keep track lest Mr. Schmoe sue you for printing that it was 16 messages instead of 14.
  11. Batman

    Batman Well-Known Member

    Good point.
    "Did not respond to repeated requests for an interview" or "X amount of messages" is probably better and more accurate.
  12. Ace

    Ace Well-Known Member

    This is not so much about proving anything, it's a signal to your readers that your are tying to be fair and get the other side of the story.

    If you write that Podunk U. says that State U. refuses to play it in football anymore then your readers will want to know why State U made that call. It's a hole in the story you need to fill.

    But if you found this out at 9 p.m. and had an hour before deadline, made calls to the coach and AD and didn't hear back, you should say something along the State U officials did not immediately return messages.

    If you have more time and they just don't call you back or you reach them and they won't talk you alter the wording accordingly.

    Why would you be any less accurate about this than other facts in a story?
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