Saturday, May 20, 2017

The "Anonymous Source" Game

I've seen a lot of people on Twitter fussing and fuming about the "anonymous sources" cited in Washington Post and New York Times articles regarding the Trump-Russia investigation. They seem to think that because a source is unnamed, it makes that source less credible.

As someone who has been in the journalistic profession for 27 years, I'm stepping outside the intended audience for this blog -- fellow journalists -- to those of you who are NOT journalists and who do not understand how this works. Hopefully, this insight will clear up a few misconceptions. And if not, at least I've put pen to paper to explain how "The Anonymous Source Game" works.

Now in case you don't believe that I know what I'm talking about ... I spent 12 years in mainstream newspapers in Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina as a reporter and editor. I also spent four years covering Pennsylvania state politics in the Capitol for The Associated Press as a Newswoman. For the past 15 years, I have been a solo freelancer, writing for a variety of military, business and health publications. When I was with the AP, I covered the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, as well as the state Department of Education and the state Public Utility Commission during the deregulation of the electric industry.

So I know a thing or two when it comes to "anonymous sources."

Let me explain how this worked, using my experience with the AP in a highly-charged political environment. Let's pretend you are an AP reporter in the Pennsylvania statehouse.

So the day starts this way:

You come into the newsroom with your coffee, and the phone rings. It's a staff member for a state representative with a tip about a plan to secretly railroad an unpopular bill through the Legislature. The staff member says explicitly: "This is not for you to quote me. I am giving this to you anonymously. I just want you to know what is going on."

Now it's up to you as the reporter to ferret out whether this is true.

So you go downstairs to the press spokesman for the House Majority Leader and ask if it's true. He flatly asks where you heard the rumor, and you demure. He says he cannot confirm or deny it, but you could ask the committee chairman where the bill is currently sitting.

Now how are you going to get the story? You don't want to go to the committee chairman, because the second he knows you're onto it, he could impede your reporting. Before you hit him for an answer, you have to go to some more anonymous sources.

Using the information that the caller gave you while your coffee was getting cold, you start calling other press officers for other representatives. You find that no one wants to go on the record, because this bill is so controversial. But you give each person details that the caller gave you, asking if they can confirm or deny those details.

The reaction is always the same: "Where did you hear that?" You don't reveal where you heard it, but you ask for confirmation of whether it's true. Each person says, "Yes it's true, but I don't want you to use my name." You follow up with more questions, and each person adds more "meat" to the skeleton. With that "meat," you have more detail to ask MORE people about the bill. As you add more meat to that skeleton, each person who is subsequently interviewed confirms it. Or they may say, "Well, that is partially correct, but there is a little more you should know so that you have the full context." And then they may "correct" some of the story, all the while adding more details that you didn't know.

This process usually takes one to two hours, depending on how much the original source wants to bury the story and hide it from the public.

Now you have your ammunition. When you get a minimum of three independent confirmations, even though they are anonymous, you can feel confident that it's a story. I usually did not stop with three. I often went above and beyond and took the interviews to the next level, pushing for more detail.

All of these people are ANONYMOUS. But all of them have each independently VERIFIED information that started with a phone call. And all of them have also given you information that MATCHES the phone caller's tip, even though they are not talking to each other, and even though all of them do not know where you got the tip.

At this point, you go to the committee chairman. You ask about the bill, and he denies that anything is happening. "Where did you hear that?" (They always ask that question before they answer.) Again, you decline to respond and press on with the information that you know.

In that moment, the committee chairman always does the same thing. He turns white. He goes silent. He thinks for a few seconds. If he threatens you that you will be running with false information if you print it, then you say, "Well, these anonymous sources all confirmed it. Would you like to provide your version of the story so that it is fair and balanced?"

Boom. He will spill in that moment, because he doesn't want the story to go out without his words represented.

This is how anonymous sourcing works. It is a tool of the journalistic trade to unearth information that public officials want to hide from their constituents. It is very effective, and it is done with great care and thought. I never ran with a story that had one "anonymous" person. I always confirmed, reconfirmed and reconfirmed again. I always went through the process that I have outlined above.

And my editors never would have printed a story unless they were certain that I was damn sure it was 100 percent correct. At a minimum, we had to have three sources to cross-confirm each other's versions -- all of whom were not talking to each other, and all of whom did not know who the others were.

The Anonymous Source Game. Next time someone (*cough* *cough* *cough* Donald Trump or Sean Spicer) says a story can't be confirmed because of "anonymous sources," just remember the process I went through as a reporter. And I wasn't even on the national stage. I was in one state, just one cog in the media machine wheel.

If I went through those machinations, you can be certain that reporters at the Times and Post have also.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

CYA in Trump's "Dishonest Media" Climate

So when I was a sprightly, ruddy-faced child out of college, my late father imparted some wisdom that has governed my career. And to paint this scene fully, my dad looked, acted and sounded like Captain Jean-Luc Picard on the Star Ship Enterprise (no, that's not a joke).

When he wanted to have a "serious" discussion with me, he'd call me over to the dining room table, and I would sit expectantly and silently and wait for him to clear his throat.

"Cover your ass."

Now this made me sit up in my chair a little, because my dad was a pastor, and wow, that one was a shocker.

"What did you say, Dad???"

"Cover. Your. Ass. It's the only way you're going to make it in today's world. And you know how you do that? You keep handwritten notes on everything, and you keep them in this nice file ..."

(at this point, he pulled out a prepared manila file folder, on which he had very neatly written, "Heidi's CYA File") ...

"You keep them in this nice file, and then when anybody tries to say they didn't tell you what they really told you or tries to say you misunderstood or tries to say that you ... sorry, kid, but I have to use this language ... that you 'fucked up,' then you pull out your file here. And you put your notes, that are dated, and you say, 'Oh no. I think you're mistaken.' And after anyone tells you something, if it's your boss, you send them a note explaining what you think you heard, and you date it, and you put it in an office CYA folder, too."

You know what, my dad died 26 years ago, about four years after that little speech, and I have implemented his CYA advice every day.

Which brings me to today's sermon for you, my fellow journalists:

In today's manic environment ,where we have a sitting U.S. President that is churning public opinion against the free press, COVER. YOUR. ASS.

Since Trump took office, I have started to see a disconcerting trend among people I interview for stories, especially if they are affiliated with the U.S. government in some manner. They are starting to accuse me of misquoting them or misrepresenting what they actually said.

Now understand this. I've been doing this job for 27 years, and I type as I interview people at a conversational rate. I average about 80 words per minute.

But even with my lickety-split typing skills, when I saw how Trump was attacking "the dishonest media," I decided to go one step further. I started asking for people to answer questions via email. This is a common practice nowadays among slap-dash, green journalists, and for the most part, I disagree with it. I think it's lazy. I much prefer phone conversations.

However.

Trump has shifted the sands in our profession by accusing us of making things up.

The best way to "cover my ass" in this environment is to request emailed interview responses, when I am interviewing someone who is connected to his administration.

I'll give you one example, something that happened recently. (I will not name the government agency for my own reasons.)

About a month ago, I did a story for a university publication and had to interview top researchers across the country on a particular issue. I included a top official at this government entity. And following my newly self-imposed "CYA Rule," I asked for the interview answers to be submitted via email. This person did, and I lifted the quotes directly from the email and plugged them into the appropriate and pertinent areas of the story.

This week, I approached the person's press representative for a second interview, this time for another magazine. It was on the same topic but for a wholly different audience.

The press person responded that when she fact checked the first story, she had to change several things before sending the story back to the editor. (We can discuss fact checking policies in another blog entry.) In a terse and condescending email, she demanded to see the final story before she agreed to the source's participation. The inference was that I had taken comments out of context or misrepresented the individual.

Not to be cowed, I fired back a response. Would she like to clarify what was miscommunicated, precisely? I explained that I had requested emailed responses and had not changed a word of the responses that were emailed. I further explained that I had the original email to cross compare to any "issues" that she saw in the story.

And I copied my editor.

The press person responded several hours later, that she would agree to the source's participation. She did not follow up to my questions about where I had misquoted or misinterpreted or miscommunicated the source in the first story.

Cover. Your. Ass.

I don't know if this person's attitude was in any way, shape or form affected by the current Presidential administration's stance on the free press in the United States of America. But I do know that years ago, my late father gave me advice in his Jean-Luc-Picard-no-nonsense-voice, and I listened.

And now I'm telling you.

Cover your ass in this climate. Keep copious notes. And if anyone challenges your reporting, refer back to those emailed answers and say, "Oh. I quoted this word for word, the email that YOU sent me. Where exactly is the issue?"

Chances are, they'll back down without another word on it.

As for my inclusion of this source in this next story? I'm skipping her. I have plenty of other sources to fill it out, and I don't need her. Her press representative is too much trouble, and frankly, I have more important things to do than worry about covering my ass again when the story comes out in two months.

I just can't be bothered.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Response to Trump's "Dishonest Media" Charge

For months, I have largely kept silent while Donald J. Trump has maligned my profession and my colleagues as, quote, "the dishonest media."

But this morning, I need to say a few things about that, and it's largely drawn from a personal realization about my own career. Since 1989, I have been either a news reporter, news editor, AP staffer or freelance magazine journalist. Over 27 years, in one way or another, I have been part of what is now being unfairly labeled, "the dishonest media."

Today started like most days. I had two magazine interviews right out of the gate, and they were with researchers at a large university. The topic was about ground-breaking discoveries this university is making in the field of opiate addiction.

As I hung up from the second interview a few moments ago, the researcher said to me, "Thank you for doing this story. We are so grateful."

And that's when it hit me: The one thing that has driven me for nearly three decades in my career is that I have attacked every single story with the goal of making the world a better place.

Do I sound like a Pollyanna to you? No matter. Let me give you a few examples so that you know I know what I'm talking about:


  • When I covered child abuse stories as a news reporter, I was criticized for capitalizing on the suffering of innocent children. However, I saw it as a way to shine a spotlight on the evil being perpetrated. I saw it as an opportunity for teachers to know how to spot warning signs of abuse. I saw it as a chance for moms and dads to also be aware of potential abuse among people they trusted -- Scout leaders, youth pastors, the list goes on. I saw it as a way to make people aware to safeguard future potential victims.
  • When I covered political corruption, I was criticized (often) for being biased, for causing trouble where none was present, for stirring waters of dissent and hurting elected officials. However, I saw it as a way to shine a spotlight on those in power who were abusing their roles. I saw it as a chance to show regular citizens how they could get involved with their government and be informed about ways their government was not serving them. I saw my role as a checkmate on the chess board.
  • When I covered tragedies like fires where children were burned alive, I was criticized for yellow journalism, for being a heartless money-grubber seeking headlines. However, I saw it as a way to shine a spotlight on fire prevention. I saw it as a way for poor people to know why they shouldn't use space heaters and why it was important to have a working smoke alarm in your house. I saw it as a way to save lives.
  • When I cover any topic relating to the military, I am sometimes criticized for giving credence to the nation's violent past. However, I see it as a way to shine a spotlight on the role that veterans have played in preserving our freedom. I see it as an opportunity to help military families make connections between PTSD and issues that are plaguing their families and children. I see it as a chance to make their lives a little bit better with information shared by pediatricians, psychiatrists, social workers. I see it as a way to help military members find jobs after they have served our country. The list goes on.
Dishonest media?

Really?

Tell me how we are being dishonest. My colleagues may be unveiling information that makes you uncomfortable or that makes you wince or that makes you want to get on with the rest of your day in comfort. My colleagues may be questioning someone that you idolize and who you don't want to be questioned, because perhaps that might indicate you made a wrong choice in the voting booth. My colleagues may be reporting both sides of an issue so that everyone gets a fair shot at expressing their views.

But do not, for one second, call us "the dishonest media."

We got into this business for one reason: To make the world a better place.

If that's dishonest to you, then maybe it's time to visit the dictionary and get acquainted with what dishonesty really is.


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Telling the Truth in a Trump World

Twenty-two hours ago (at the time of this writing), President-Elect Donald Trump tweeted something that has been nagging at me as a journalist with 27 years of experience in both newsrooms and the freelance magazine landscape:

"If the press would cover me accurately & honorably, I would have far less reason to 'tweet.' Sadly, I don't know if that will ever happen!"

Initially, I freely admit, I took offense. My knee-jerk emotional response was, "You are the President-Elect, and critical press coverage is part of the package."

I covered politics for The Associated Press in the Pennsylvania Statehouse from 1995 to early 1999, during the governorship of Tom Ridge, who eventually became known in the aftermath of 9/11 for heading up the Department of Homeland Security. And I should first say this about politicians, and it is meant as a sincere compliment: They have really thick skins. I can remember chasing stories that would have raised the ire of the gentlest of souls, and yet every politician with whom I ever came in contact always treated me with grace and respect. You have to understand that my office was right in the center of the Capitol, too -- right at the top of the sweeping marble staircase of the Rotunda. I was *in* and *among* these politicians, hour by hour, day after day. I saw them at committee meetings, at lunch counters, in hallways, even in my office. Regardless of the political party, regardless of the story I was writing, they were always courteous. Of course the things that I wrote made them angry, when I was revealing something they didn't want revealed. But they never complained about my objectivity and never gave me pause to think that they held personal ill will against me for just doing my job.

Now let's speed up to Trump's tweet yesterday. Given everything I've just told you, you might understand why I would initially feel that he needs to man up and learn his new role as Commander in Chief and how the press corps figures into that relationship.

But as I contemplated it some more, the fairness that dictated my life during those days at the AP also must apply to Trump.

So to be fair to him, you have to look at the history of what has happened in the past 12 months leading up to that tweet:

First of all, Trump needs to not be so disingenuous by ignoring the fact that he was given unprecedented favorable coverage for his rallies during the months leading up to the primaries. Anytime I turned on any news station, they were rolling those rallies in their entirety. I have never seen anything like it. While networks cut away from other candidates mid-speech, Trump commanded the air waves night and day, and many of the rallies were broadcast without interruption.

I also would point out that there were many times when Trump's surrogates were allowed to spew falsehoods -- sometimes unchallenged by the broadcasters who had them on their shows. And one network -- CNN -- even hired Trump's former campaign manager. Tell me that isn't favorable coverage.

However, we saw the tide start to turn when the Access Hollywood tapes emerged. By this time, even those who had been favorable to Trump changed their coverage approach.

What we saw in the few short weeks between the release of that tape and Election Day was definitely an all-out assault on Trump. Every news outlet, with the exception of Fox News, threw everything they had AGAINST him.

Regarding print media, the only outlets I saw that consistently were negative in their coverage were The New York Times, The Washington Post and Newsweek.

I have to approach this topic with two personas: my journalist persona, and my "private American citizen" persona.

As a private American citizen, I was thrilled with the aggressiveness demonstrated by The New York Times, Washington Post and Newsweek. I follow their reporters on Twitter and heavily retweeted their stories, in the hopes that it would be enough to defeat Trump.

As a journalist, however, I have to admit to you that Trump is correct -- currently. In the beginning, he was treated as the golden boy, and now he is definitely being held up for as much public ridicule as the media can throw at him.

Now why should this matter to those of you in the profession? Just this thought: The overwhelming bias for Trump in the beginning of 2016 ... and the overwhelming bias AGAINST Trump at the end of 2016 has severely curtailed the trust the public now has in what you are reporting.

The problem now is ... even when Trump is engaging in terrible conflicts of interests, rocking the boat with China, appointing questionable mentally-balanced individuals to his Cabinet ... you as journalists have lost public trust to believe your stories, based on your performance in 2016.

And you may wonder, "Well where were YOU, Heidi Lynn Russell, in 2016, if you're such a great journalist?"

I was staying away from writing about politics. I knew I had zero objectivity to be able to cover anything fairly. So I stayed with my military stories and my business stories. As an American citizen, I was vocal against Trump. As a journalist, I didn't write one piece about anything he was doing on the campaign circuit. I didn't feel that with the training and experience I'd had, it was morally or ethically right for me to throw my hat into the ring on that front.

Going forward, I really don't know what the future of our profession will be. It seems that Trump is laying the groundwork to go after the First Amendment, and we already see disturbing actions and words concerning the press. However, to re-win the public's trust in your coverage, you're going to have to fairly cover ALL of Trump's actions -- both negative and positive. For example, I did see a couple of Cabinet appointments that aren't all bad. And despite that phone call with Taiwan, as a private citizen, I wondered if it wouldn't be so bad if China knew they couldn't push us around. But I didn't see any news coverage that looked at this angle -- rather, everything I saw bashed Trump. In every story we cover, there is always a nugget of the other side of the story, and in all of the coverage, I didn't see that "other side" reflected.

The bottom line here is that if you got into this profession to tell the truth, then tell the truth. Cover every single story as if you're an insect on the wall, observing it impassively. That's what we're paid to do. Let the public draw their own conclusions.

Your job is to solely present the facts.

And if you do that, then Trump will not ever be able to tweet again that you're not playing by the rules.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Why I Won't Write Political Stories Anytime Soon

Dial back in time to 1996.

Bill Clinton was running for his second term, and I ... I was second-guessing a decision I'd made as a cub reporter back in 1988.

So let's amend our little time capsule and dial back further ... to 1988.

I was one year out of college, still green and hungry to make a name for myself in the world of journalism. At age 23, I was working at a tiny little hole-in-the-wall paper called "The Coatesville Record" (now defunct) in south-central Pennsylvania. One day, Dave Lanute, one of my two editors called me over to his terminal.

"Are you registered to vote?"

"Yes."

"What party?"

"Democrat."

"Change it."

I blanched. "Change it to what, Dave???"

"Change it to Independent. You don't ever want anyone knowing which way you lean politically. Ever. They will use it against you and claim that your news coverage is biased. You don't have to do it. It's not a prerequisite for working here. It's just some friendly advice. It will save you headaches down the road. OK, that's all I wanted to tell you," Dave said, and then turned back to his computer screen like we hadn't even been having a discussion.

I changed to Independent that same week.

But when 1996 rolled around, I was hankering to register Democrat so that I could vote for Bill in the primary.

By this time, I was a "newswoman" (yes, that was my actual job title) for The Associated Press, covering Pennsylvania politics in the state Capitol, Harrisburg. If you visited the Capitol, you'd go straight up the sweeping marble stairs in a blindingly beautiful Rotunda, then hang a left through the door at the top -- and you'd be in the AP Bureau. And you'd see me sitting at a desk in the left-hand corner, busily calling people for quotes and pounding at my keyboard.

It was mid-winter, so about three months before the primary election. Three Republican staffers, all young guys, came into our bureau. Simultaneously, all five of us looked up. One of the GOP staffers started laughing.

"What do you want?" my bureau chief asked.

"We don't want anything. We're here to tell you that all of you are going to love what's coming out soon," replied one.

"And that is?"

"That is ... We have gone through voting records of every reporter who works in the statehouse and are listing their political affiliations so that lawmakers will know how biased they are when they report on their bills."

The room was silent.

"Good luck with that, jackass."

(Yes, that comment came from me ... sitting over in the left-hand corner.)

They all looked at me, and one raised his eyebrow, smirking. "Oh we don't need luck, we already did it."

"Then if that's the case, you'll find that those of us with two brain cells ARE REGISTERED AS INDEPENDENTS. Now go away, I have a story to write, and my deadline was five minutes ago."

They stood in the doorway with their jaws agape. I looked up from my keyboard. "Go bother someone else, I said! We're busy! Get out of here!"

I had a lot of fun that day, throwing that in their faces. I thanked my old editor at the Coatesville Record with every breath as I smiled to myself while they slunk away.

But now let's speed up in time ... to 2016.

I have been a full-time freelance journalist since I left the newspaper industry 15 years ago.This morning, I was on Twitter, bouncing private messages with a friend who had known me during the time I worked for the AP. He brought up an important question:

"You are so biased! Reporters need to be neutral, right?"

See, he was referring to my penchant for tweeting heavily about my views against Donald Trump. Today, not only am I registered Democrat, but I hold nothing back in my political viewpoints on social media.

So this needs to be addressed, both for anyone who wonders about it and for those of you who are just starting out in your professional careers as journalists:

Yes, I'm a reporter. Yes, I have covered politics in the past.

But you will not see me writing political stories anytime soon. In fact, if you dig through my social media posts, you will not see me posting any opinions about any of the topics on which I write.

I refuse to take political assignments. I am at a point in life where I can pick and choose the types of clients for whom to work. My clients are either military magazines or business magazines. I stay away from reporting on daily news -- and I definitely stay away from politics. I'm a political junkie at heart, and I loved (loved!) covering politics 20 years ago for the AP. But that was a different lifetime. And I've decided that it's more important to me personally to be able to present my views and objections to political happenings that I feel are putting the country at peril.

In my former life, I was required by my employers -- news organizations -- to shelve my views in order to try to give each story as much objectivity as I humanly could. Does it mean that reporters are objective? Of course not. Notice I said, "humanly." We're all humans, and if someone tries to tell you that they're an "objective journalist," never read anything they write again, because they're a big liar.

However, we are to maintain the appearance of propriety as journalists, and as much as it depends on us, report stories with as much fairness as we can muster.

It wasn't always easy for me. I can remember one specific story in Elkton, Maryland, when I sat across the table from the Grand Dragon of that state's Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was passing around leaflets near public schools, to recruit teenagers. I can tell you that I honestly wanted to lunge myself across the table and choke the smile off of that monster's face. But I wrote a story from the interview -- an objective story -- that laid out the facts about what the Klan was doing and how school district officials were combating it.

No, the Grand Dragon did not like that story at all -- and it's because he thought it would be a puff piece. That's how well I masked my feelings.

But back to politics. I think that in this era of social media, it's very important for young journalists to realize this:

If you're going to be on social media, keep your political views to yourselves. Register as Independent. Go after every story as if you were covering a nebulous PTA meeting. And you already know this, but it bears repeating: Do not allow your views to taint your coverage.

When I know that my views on an issue or a subject are so strong that it prevents me from doing my job, I back off. I refuse the assignment.

Now there is an exception here. There are times when your past experiences or who you are as a person will contribute to the story. For example, I am a former Army wife, and my ex-husband went through three deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving me home with a newborn infant, three weeks after this child was born.

Obviously, I am going to have strong views about the war.

However, I do have the perspective about how military life affects military families. So my stories will focus on how to help your child cope with deployments. How to reconnect after you're reunited. How to deal with PTSD.

What you will NOT see me write about, however, are stories about the political decisions shaping our troops. I do believe that the war was an illegal war. As a result, I would not write stories about pending legislation on war efforts, for example. You would not see me doing a profile story on a Congressman with a Hawkish view.

Here's another example: I'm a single mom, and as a self-employed writer, I pay for my own health care insurance policy. You would not see me write stories about Obamacare, however. You would not see me write stories about the insurance industry.

But you might see me write stories about how to shop for insurance plans ... or how to cut your home budget to make room for health care expenses.

Do you see the difference?

So.

Back to my friend's original question about my political tweets and my anti-Donald-Trump stance:

I would never take an assignment that would involve Donald Trump or his shenanigans. I would never accept a story about a political rally, an anti-immigrant campaign or even on the plights of immigrants.

However, you will definitely see me tweeting about it. You will definitely see me exercising my free speech right as an American to vociferously shout down hatred and bigotry.

And as for the rest of the stories out there ... oh, there are so many stories! ... You will see my silence on issues where there is a chance that my byline may be linked to them.

There are plenty of stories from which to choose. So choose wisely ... and wisely conduct yourself so that no one can say you acted with impropriety.

And when in doubt ... register Independent. And keep your big mouth shut about it.






Friday, April 15, 2016

The Troubling Development in the Lewandowski-Fields Fiasco

I usually feel like I have lived two lifetimes. The first was that of a news reporter, chasing stories on deadline and crashing into whichever politician, law enforcement authority or shady business that got in my way. The second is my current life, that of a freelancer and single mom to a boy on the autistic spectrum. My current life is not at all like the former, as you can see. So when a story like the Corey Lewandowski-Michelle Fields fracas hits, I'm intensely curious about what happened, given that previously, I found myself rubbing elbows frequently with people like Lewandowski.

Until this morning, I was firmly in the Fields camp. And anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I am hugely outspoken against Trump. (How can a "journalist" spout their personal views? That's a topic for another blog, but the short answer is that I no longer cover politics as a beat, therefore I am speaking out as a private citizen. But let's get back to this matter at hand -- the night in question.)

You can hit this link and read Lewandowski's words for yourself (http://www.politico.com/blogs/2016-gop-primary-live-updates-and-results/2016/04/corey-lewandowski-michelle-fields-222005), but in the meantime, let me shed some perspective:

When I was in Fields' shoes, I was about her age, covering politics for AP in the Pennsylvania statehouse. Before that, I also covered court trials for a tiny newspaper in a little-known town, Elkton, Maryland. I also covered local school districts for a mid-sized newspaper in York, Pennsylvania at another paper. In all three assignments, I dealt with characters who seemed to stop at nothing to prevent me from getting the information I needed for a story. And I was not at all shy about standing up for myself and demanding answers. There were several times when I got into shouting matches with these people, and as unprofessional as it sounds, for me, it was effective. That's because, like Fields, I looked on the outside like a female who could be pushed around. However, I used this to my advantage. I allowed people to think that I was unobtrusive and easily cowed. When they put a toe over the line, I'd drop the hammer. And they never forgot it, either -- and I always got my story.

Now here's the thing about the Lewandowski interview that bugs me:

He claims that he called Fields that night to discuss the matter AND that he has cell phone records to prove that he placed that call.

We already know that he lied about grabbing her. That much has been established with the video tape and the photos of the bruises on her arms, and I am not excusing that at all. And because he lied, we might say that he is probably lying about calling her.

But.

He has cell phone records that he placed the call.

Now this is why this is important:

Even though I had no problems going head to head with someone who tried to run roughshod over me like Lewandowski did Fields, I can ALSO tell you that in each and every case, the person ALWAYS called me to apologize.

This is why I believe Lewandowski, because this happened with me as a reporter countless times.

Maybe Fields didn't get the call. Maybe she was in the bathroom taking the photos of her arm when her cell phone chimed, and she was too upset to talk. Maybe she wanted to run the situation by her editors before talking to Lewandowski, because they of course would have to collaborate about an approach to a subsequent story.

But even if that was the case, when someone calls you, you know they've called. As a reporter who is covering a news event, it's incumbent on you to pick up the phone, even if you don't want to talk to them, and have it out.

And you know what?

If they apologize, you accept their apology, and you move forward.

In each and every case when someone apologized to me, I said, "Thank you. I accept your apology." And then even if I felt like they were 100 percent in the wrong, I still always added, "You know, few people realize I have an Irish temper and am a hot head. So I'm sorry for my part in this."

I'm not saying Fields would have had to apologize for anything, because truthfully, she didn't do anything wrong here. She was a reporter out to get a quote, and she was probably on deadline, and any reporter worth their salt is going to chase down the source and get that needed quote. Absolutely, I would have done what she did, and I did on countless occasions.

However, if Lewandowski called her afterwards, that was her opportunity to say, "Dude, do you realize how hard you grabbed me? I lost my balance. I have bruises on my arm! I just needed a quote, and this is why I went after your candidate."

That would have opened up the opportunity for her to then forge a valuable source relationship with Lewandowski, because at that point, he is beholden to her. She's in the driver's seat going forward.

And yes, I can say this definitively, because this happened to me personally. I always established a positive relationship going forward, and if they tried to block me from getting information, I always found a way around them. I always chased the story as if it were a game to me. The "Lewandowskis" were just pawns standing in front of the queen on the chess board.

We don't know what Lewandowski's motives were that night, and of course, everything out of his mouth is highly suspect going forward. We're not in his head.

But if he has cell phone records, proving that he made that call, it was incumbent on Fields at that point to accept the call, accept the apology, discuss things like a grownup, pursue an exclusive interview with Donald Trump (that's how I handled similar situations, and I always got those interviews) ... and let this guy know going forward that she was not to be treated like a Barbie doll.

That's it.

If you find yourself in a situation like Fields, first fight for that story. That's your job, and she did so valiantly. But if the person comes back later to apologize, you stand to lose everything if you refuse to pick up the phone -- and you stand to gain a lot personally, professionally and ethically by talking to the person who wronged you.

And in the process, you will earn their respect, whether they admit it or not.

Monday, March 7, 2016

A Blueberry, a Wildcat & a Chocolate Donut Walked into a Coffee Shop ...

So there's this coffee shop down the street from my kid's school bus stop, and the outside is about as non-descript as you can get, with a giant grey and black sign that simply says, "Coffee & Donuts."

I've driven by this place without notice. Even though it's in my "neighborhood shopping center," I have also walked by it numerous times in favor of a Chinese restaurant next door, my hair salon across the parking lot and a pharmacy that I hit for my sundries. 

But last week, I was hard up for something hot after waiting for that school bus with my child, and I decided that rather than drive about 10 minutes to the nearest Starbucks, I'd give this place a shot.

I was not prepared for the glory inside.

It turns out the sad little "Coffee & Donuts" grey sign was camouflage for a place filled with hipsters and urban professionals alike, crouched over Apple laptops and chatting in business suits against a backdrop of sleek tables, a corrugated steel counter, blackboard menus with colorful chalk drawings, mood-boosting music, local beekeeper offerings of products like "Bourbon honey" and even cool T-shirts.

I didn't even mention the coffee, did I?

By the time all was said and done, I'd walked out of that place about $20 poorer, having spent it on the aforementioned Bourbon honey, a giant Chocolate-glazed donut and the only thing I can describe as nectar of the gods -- a "Blueberry Wildcat" -- which was a latte infused with blueberry syrup, espresso, milk -- and melted white chocolate.

OK, so what does this have to do with your freelance writing business? 

Let's break this down:

My discovery of the coffee shop from Nirvana occurred last week.

All weekend, I was being a good girl with my yoga workouts, but I kept thinking about that chocolate-glazed donut and that Blueberry Wildcat thing. (I'm not sure what's in that chocolate glaze, but I think they're putting sour cream in it to give it a good bite. Anyway, I digress ...)

Fast forward to this morning. I take my kid to the school bus stop, and I know I have a couple of errands to run after he's safely on his way ... and I'm thinking about breakfast. I'd just thrown on my jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt. No makeup. The hair ... well, if you're a woman, you know how important it is to attend to the hair. I hadn't yet. And I was wearing a pair of scuffed up shoes because of mud left behind by a couple of snow storms. 

In short, I was in no condition to walk into that coffee shop to scratch that Blueberry Wildcat itch.

I did my errands and as I was considering going through a drive-thru for a Starbucks, I thought to myself, "No. NO! I am going to get that Blueberry Wildcat, dammit! I want that chocolate donut, dammit! I want to walk into a place with those cool people, makeup or no makeup, dammit!"

And I did. Despite the ease of a drive-thru window, despite the comparable taste of a Starbucks coffee, despite any embarrassment that might hinder my walking into a place without lipstick on my face ... I went BACK to THAT coffee shop.

And yes, this has everything to do with your freelance writing business.

Are you giving your clients the same craving for your writing services that this coffee shop jarred in me for its coffee and donuts? 

If you're not sure, let's check off a few boxes. Ready?

1. When you do your interviews, do you encourage people to send you their own typed answers in an email, or do you take the time to talk to them on the phone, encourage their verbal responses, push them to open up and work out extra gems of information they might otherwise hold back, even though it might add an hour or two to the time to complete the project?

2. When you write up your story lead, do you go for the path of least resistance and regurgitate your story pitch -- or regurgitate the lead the editor gave you on the assignment form? Or do you go through your story notes and ferret out that perfect quote or anecdote to lure the reader into the rest of the copy?

3. When you have a question about your notes, do you take time to contact your source again and ask if they meant to say things the way you are interpreting what they said? Do you go the extra step to ensure that you are accurately quoting them or representing their thoughts?

4. When you have a pile of statistics in front of you, are you diligent to interpret those and present those numbers in the context in which they were collected?

5. When an editor gives you a deadline, do you meet it?

6. When an editor gives you a word count limit, do you work hard to edit down your prose so that you will pack in as much meaning into a tightly-knit sentence? 

7. When an editor has questions, how do you respond?

8. Are you professional when dealing with your sources? Do you answer all of their questions, even after the story has been turned in? Do you respond to every PR professional who contacts you, even if you've already completed the assignment? (For the record, I do. That's another blog entry, but suffice it to say, keep your eye on the big picture for future stories. Kindness and courtesy never hurt anyone.)

9. Do you look beyond the short-term goal of making money and seeing your byline, attacking each story as if it's a service to the public or your audience? 

and

10. Do you see your writing profession and skill as a way to make the world a better place?

How many of those did you check off?

If you got through the list and hit most (if not all) ... then congratulations. You're the coffee shop with the Blueberry Wildcat and Chocolate Glazed Donut and Bourbon Honey.

And guess what ... if you're offering that level of service, even if you're not great at advertising yourself (guess what, my website hasn't been updated in 3 years, but I've been so busy with work, I haven't had time to do it) .... your clients will go out of their way to hit you for work ... each and every time.

Next time you consider taking a shortcut with your writing services, just remember me -- walking into a place without lipstick, hair askew, scuffed shoes and a pale make-up-less face, just so that I could get my fix for perfect food, perfect service ... and a perfect way to start the day.