Saturday, October 25, 2008

Civility: at odds with journalism?

I have recently noticed a strong cognitive dissonance between some of the things I am required to do as a journalist and how, in the past 25 years, I have been brought up to act.

Let me say that I have a copy of Steven Carter's Civility on my bookshelf. I read the book in my first year of college for an introductory political science class. I couldn't tell you exactly what's in it.
But I can tell you that when I did read it, it planted a seed in my brain about civility and how often the people in our society demonstrate a mind-numbing lack of it. I worked behind the counter of a downtown coffeeshop for nearly seven years, and I could light your hair on fire with stories of how uncivil people can be, particularly in situations with strangers.

I'm afraid, and I think Stephen Carter would agree, that there is a dearth of civility in American society, despite our claims of having a civil society.

Well, I think I have been brought up to be civil, and since that class in political science I have certainly been aware of my triumphs or shortcomings in the area of civility.

These past two weeks I have been on a story where I could and probably should have been decidedly uncivil in my attempt to reach a source who refuses to talk to me, despite the fact that she is in public relations for a big company and it is her job to at least talk to reporters, even if she won't disclose any information.

My editor advised that I start calling her office every 15 minutes to let her know that I will not go away.

Let me tell you that my civility alarm certainly went off at that suggestion. For one thing, she nor her company have done anything wrong, nor are they obligated to talk to me at all. And although the story is a matter of public interest, it is not a matter of public safety, money, or anything else that the public is entitled to information about.

The situation reminded me of a pet peeve of mine: I can't stand the thought of people hounding hotel personnel in order to get a room upgrade, or a refund, when they really have nothing to complain about. I know there are people out there (some I could name) who make it a point to complain about anything to anybody in order to get free stuff.

So I'm left with this internal conflict: reporters are supposed to get stories, track down sources, convince people to talk to them. Yet I want to be civil. Where's the balance? Where do I draw the line?

If you have advice, I'd love to hear it.

[This is why I want to go into government reporting, because I'm absolutely fine with hounding public officials who aren't keeping up their end of the political bargain.]


Joshua Meekhof said...

I see you conflict. I too know many people who use uncivil tactics in attempts to receive undeserved things. That being said, isn't it part of your world (journalism) to "get the story"?

SLW said...

Think of it like a teacher...
the person you're calling is a student who hasn't gotten their homework in, so you are hounding them until they hand it in. I wouldn't call that being uncivil. Just a constant reminder that you are still there, and you need something from them.

SLW said...

It's not like you are throwing spitwads at them, or smacking their knuckles with rulers...that may be a bit uncivil.