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February 2016

What Really Motivates Reporters?

"Had there been a reporter along with Lieutenant Calley when he massacred those people in Vietnam, I think that probably wouldn't have happened."
~Bob Schieffer, CBS News

Greetings once again. Coming across that quote about "Rusty" Calley struck a chord for me -- actually a couple chords. First, I was also an Army lieutenant in Vietnam. As executive officer of a battery of self-propelled 155mm howitzers, I had ultimate responsibility for the deaths of more than 100 Vietnamese, all of whom (I fervently hope) were enemy combatants.

Second, an article I read recently reminded me that a few years ago Calley emerged from a quiet existence to admit his guilt in the My Lai massacre before a service club somewhere in mid-America. He actually watched his men deal out more than 300 deaths. Most were women, children, and the elderly, none of them armed. It was mass murder.

Schieffer was right on the money, particularly when you think about My Lai's place in America's tragic Vietnam story. But the veteran newsman's remark also had me thinking about what it means to have a reporter hanging around -- in much less dangerous locales, to be sure. The sort of free publicity inherent in a journalist's presence can be both a blessing and an impediment. And that's what I teach when I run media relations seminars.

What I'm referring to is a two-sided personal take. First, as a journalist (Kansas City Star, Business Week, Penn State faculty), I believed in full disclosure pushed as far as the law allowed. We demanded that elected officials keep their meetings open; often viewed "no comment" as an admission of malfeasance at worst, passive ignorance at the least; fiercely protected confidential sources; and dug into the background of anyone seeking high-profile public office.

But then I spent a few years as chair of a school board in Maine, and that changed everything. I wanted to control what appeared in the local newspaper. I couldn't get all the way there, of course, but I tried to manipulate the beat reporter by warning her ahead of time when I had something "newsworthy" to say.

By the same token, I'm amazed at how many times I tried to direct the board's conversation onto safe, noncontroversial ground when a reporter was in the audience. Worse, on way too many occasions I uttered something to the effect of, "I wouldn't be saying this if that reporter was sitting here."

So it depends on which master you serve. But how does that apply for someone -- perhaps you -- who hopes to get the most out of any press encounter? In the seminars I run for government agencies, nonprofits, and companies, the first topic I address is "agenda." There's a misconception out there that reporters routinely pursue political or personal agendas as they cover stories.

Well, yes, there is an agenda. But in nearly all cases, the agenda is themselves. They seek recognition from peers, promotion, higher pay, a steady climb up the professional ladder to top editor, a job in DC, an international posting, etc. They love the limelight, the front-row seat on history, and the front-page byline or 30-second "on camera" time. The best of them are obsessively curious about their fellow human beings, politics, science, natural disasters, technology, sports, you name it. As columnist Anna Quindlen put it, "Being a reporter is as much a diagnosis as a job description."

So please keep this in mind: Automatically distrusting reporters could be a lost opportunity. Welcoming them to your place of business or nonprofit and feeding their curiosity and professional pride by offering to act as a source ("on background," perhaps) could be a lasting step in the right direction. Trust them until they give you a reason not to. If that happens, by all means fight back. Go directly to their editors or producers and tell them you've been wronged. That way, you're going after their only real agenda -- themselves and their future.

Take care.