Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why newspapers are dying, Part 2

When I was a student at the University of Minesota, the Gopher hockey team had a player named Brian Zins, from the Aurora-Hoyt Lakes area of Minnesota's Iron Range. Years later, "Zinny" showed up here in Red Wing as the manager of a Chrysler dealership, and we actually had the chance to work together for a while. Our sons played hockey together, we've golfed together, etc....He's a terrific fellow who has spent most of his adult life in the car business, and is now a manager at a Chrysler dealership in Coon Rapids, Minnesota.

Most car retailers are very busy these days, thanks to the government's "Cash For Clunkers" program (real name: Cars Allowance Rebate Systeam, or CARS). This program, from the brain wizards in the Obama administration, allows consumers to trade in old cars that meet certain criteria, and get up to a $4,500 credit towards the purchase of a new car that gets better mileage.

Tuesday afternoon, Zinny takes a phone call from a woman who says, "I'm looking for a Jeep Patriot or Jeep Compass for my boss." He explained that they were out of those two particular models. She asked why they were out, and he said that the CARS program, along with low inventories that are normal for this time of year, had depleted their supply of the Patriot and Compass. "Are you afraid you're going to run out of cars?" she asked. Zinny answered with a joke that is common these days in the auto business: "They (the government) will run out of money before they (the dealers) run out of cars."

According to Zinny, the woman made a little more small talk, asked some questions that he considered a bit odd, and a few minues later the conversation ended.

The next morning, on the front page of the Star-Tribune, was a story about the CARS program and the increased business at area dealerships. Included in the story, by someone named Suzanne Ziegler, were quotes from "Brian Zins, a manager at Coon Rapids Chrysler Jeep."

I saw the story, and it caught my interest because I know Zinny is not a fan of the Star-Tribune, largely because of its institutional liberal slant. So I sent him an e-mail, asking in a good-natured way why he would give quotes to an organization I know he disdains. That's when the story gets interesting.

Zinny called me back and said, "She never told me she was a reporter." He took the call and believed he was talking to a customer who was - as she said - looking for a vehicle. "After she asked a couple of kind of odd questions, my antenna sort of went up," Brian said. "And then towards the end she mentioned that she worked for the Star-Tribune, but she never said she was a reporter."

Over the past 20-some years, I've dealt with reporters from all over the country, from the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, USA Today and all the major TV networks to small-town radio stations in rural Minnesota. In all of that time, I have NEVER had a conversation with a reporter who didn't first identify themself, and let me know I was talking to a news organization, for attribution.

To call someone under false pretenses, and take quotes for attribution without letting that person know they were talking to a reporter, is incredibly unethical for a couple of reasons.

First, people might speak differently if they know they're talking to a reporter. Think about how you would choose your words differently if you knew they were going to be printed or broadcast.

Second, many firms prohibit employees from talking to the media, preferring that all media inquiries be referred to someone authorized to talk about the business. I've worked in several different organizations in which I was the only one authorized to talk to the media. Imagine that Brian's employer had such a policy in place. He might well find himself out of a job because he spoke to a reporter operating under false pretenses.

Fortunately for Zinny, he didn't say anything that would embarrass him, his employer or the auto industry (and he wouldn't because he's a classy guy), but the entire incident begs the question, "Why?"

Why would a reporter not identify herself as such? Why would she make up a story about looking for a car "for her boss"? Why would she feel it necessary to deceive someone about the purpose of the conversation? Why should a businessperson be subjected to this kind of deception?

This is the kind of behavior that has led us to the point where, as you can see here, people have very low levels of trust in the media. Now, every time you see a quote in the Star-Tribune, you should wonder if the quote was obtained under false pretenses, if the person being quoted really said when they are reported to have said, and how they might have altered their remarks if they knew they were speaking to a reporter.

No comments:

Post a Comment