Posted on

Journalistic dirty tricks – how reporters try to get you to talk

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

Getting quotes from those involved in any story is central to a journalist’s work. And the bigger the story the harder they’ll try to get you to speak. Believe me I was one. I won’t confess to using all of the techniques listed below but I’ve certainly seen and heard them used over 35 years in the business. So, whether you’re caught up in a human tragedy or a corporate bun fight, if you genuinely don’t want to speak (or perhaps can’t) then here are five tricks reporters will attempt to loosen your lips. Forewarned is forearmed!

I should add that these tips cover circumstances where the hack at least has the decency to own up to being a hack. Hacks being hacks, there will be occasions when he or she will pretend to be somebody else – a grieving relative, for example. Or a doctor with a convincing white coat and a stethoscope to match (we carry a range of fancy dress items in our car boots and not just for parties). Think of the first category as dagger and the second as cloak and dagger.

DAGGER

  1. Speaking to me gives you the chance to put your side of the story. The thinly-veiled or sometimes explicit threat here is that if you don’t speak then others will and what they say about you may be much less than flattering than what you’d say about you. If others already have spoken about you this morphs into the this is your chance to put the record straight trick.
  2. So that’s a no comment is it?  A stark, two-word “no comment” rarely plays well with the public who, on hearing it, might think you’ve got something to hide. Journalists know it. And you know it. So they try to get you to expand because it’ll sound much better. Better to explain why you cant comment than to say those potentially pejorative words.
  3. Look you can tell me off the record surely? There’s no such thing as off the record. Or there shouldn’t be unless you trust the journalist saying it with your life. And why would you trust somebody who’d sell their grandma for a good story?! There are many variations on this theme such as strictly between you and me and look don’t worry I can keep your name out of it.
  4. Moral or emotional blackmail. There are lots of variations on this theme, the idea being that if we can’t turn your head with logic, twisted or otherwise, then maybe we can turn the screws on your heart. Here are a couple of the variations I’ve heard and, yes, tried: How would you feel if it was you or your family involved in this tragedy/incident/situation?  And: Don’t you owe it to them to tell us what’s happened?
  5. Kite flying. This is where a journalist will try to get you to confirm something by denying something else. Let’s say you’re involved in some way in a horrible accident in which people have died but nobody is officially confirming that there have been fatalities.  A kite flyer will pluck a figure out of thin air and say words to this effect: We’ve heard that six people have been killed and the figure is so silly that you say: “Oh no not that many.” So now they know that a number of people fewer than six but more than one have been killed and can state in their reports: “It’s been confirmed by those involved that there have been fatalities but it’s unclear at this stage exactly how many people have died.”

Next time…Cloak and Dagger: how to recognise journalists who pretend to be somebody else and what to say to them whether you rumble their ruse or not.

Why not join our mailing list to make sure you receive updates on this and other media, communication and organisational development issues?


Richard runs ACM Training’s emergency call handling and crisis communications workshops. He’s just delivered a training session to volunteer call handlers at the Grosvenor Group as a part of that organisation’s business continuity planning. For added realism actors were used to simulate incoming calls. If you’d like to test your readiness or make sure you conform to the requirements of the Civil Contingencies Act (as a Category 1 or 2 responder) then Richard would love to hear from you.