Knock, knock. Who’s there? Reporters


By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Assocaition

Reporters need to knock on doors to get the story, and editors need to give them the time to develop those stories.

That was one of the messages I took away from remarks made by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bob Woodward at a recent Indiana Bar Foundation event in Indianapolis.

To illustrate the point, Woodward talked about running into a brick wall in trying to interview a particular general for one of Woodward’s books on the Iraq War and the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

He knocked on the front door of the general’s home at 7:17 p.m. on a Tuesday night. The general answered the knock and, according to Woodward, said: “You still doing this shit? I don’t want to talk to you.”

Woodward stood before him silently. The pause grew by the seconds, and then the general waved him into his house. Woodward got his interview.

But the push by news organizations to get the story first – up on the Internet and out through social media – has reporters posting stories before checking for accuracy or getting verification.

Compare today’s rush to publish/post to Woodward and Carl Bernstein writing stories on six-ply paper so several editors could get a copy. Then the story was discussed at length, with editors posing questions that forced the two reporters to follow up with sources before the story printed in The Washington Post.

Granted, we’re talking about Watergate and the coverage of a presidential scandal. But the point is that stories were thoroughly vetted before publication.

With fewer editors and reporters and the added responsibilities of web and mobile, are reporters making the time to go beyond a phone message or email to get a comment or interview with a source?

Are editors giving reporters the time to verify a story that will damage the reputation of a public official or pushing for publication/posting to make sure the newspaper beats its competition in breaking the story?

Journalism on the fly has contributed to the lack of trust in the media found in a 2014 Gallup poll. Only 40 percent say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust or confidence that the media (newspapers, TV and radio) reports the news fully, fairly and accurately.

I more frequently hear from publishers and editors who are making decisions on whether they have the time and resources to cover what have been bedrock beats for reporters – the courts and police news.

If Indiana newspapers stop covering these key segments of local government, who will? How many radio stations still have a news staff? How deep will TV go when stories are presented in 15 to 30 second segments?

I fully appreciate the challenges that changes in advertising have put on newspapers and understand why many newspapers have cut newsroom staffs.

But there’s a line that can’t be crossed to cover news properly.

If Indiana newspapers cross that line, they give Hoosiers another reason not to read newspapers – print or digital.

No one wins in that scenario. Newspapers lose readers and dollars, and Hoosiers lose when there’s no one taking the time to attend council meetings and court hearings and cover police blotter items.

Let’s make sure reporting involves more than accepting the spin of public information officers or moving on to the next story when a public official uses stonewall tactics.

These stories are critical to Hoosiers – and newspapers.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association.