The no comment comment

Lines from three big stories in today’s News & Record:

A shopping center is considered: “The homeowners have either declined to comment or not returned calls seeking a response.”

The state Attorney General is sued. “A spokeswoman for Cooper said the Department of Justice was unaware of the lawsuit until asked about it by a reporter. She said Cooper had no comment.”

UNCG gets a new basketball coach. “Repeated attempts to reach Dement and  Miller were unsuccessful Tuesday night.”

When I was a reporter, no comments and no callbacks were frustrating. They prevented me from getting the best, fairest and most complete story. As an editor, I kind of liked them. They allowed me the opportunity to speculate — internally — on why the source didn’t want to answer questions.

Certainly, there are times when silence is golden. (See Sandusky.) But In many cases, the silence speaks volumes. Let’s look at each:

* Homeowners aren’t talking about the possible location of a shopping center on their property? I suspect the developer told them not to, that it could screw the deal, which it might. Or might not. The no-comment policy does ensure that reporters will continue to dog the story and the homeowners.

* I’m not surprised that Attorney General Cooper doesn’t want to comment on a lawsuit filed against him and the state. It’s early. Besides, lawyers never want to argue a case in the media except when they want to. If he was truly unaware of the suit, who can blame him? But if the AGs office hadn’t prepared for a lawsuit involved in this case, they’ve fallen down on the job.

* The UNCG story is the most interesting. A school announces a new basketball coach and he’s not available to the media? What’s up with that? Even though the school let Coach Dement go, it still had a strong message to trumpet — new coach, new direction, new energy, commitment to win, moving forward, etc. But they didn’t want to make that case yesterday.Obviously something is wrong. Why would UNCG want to leave that impression in the minds of students, alumni, donors and fans?

* Let’s add one more: The Greensboro Police Department’s explanation of how it handled the extradition of a man who is accused of killing a New York City police officer. The Greensboro police released a statement, which is great, but no one was available yesterday to speak with the media, and according to WFMY’s 6 p.m. report, GPD didn’t respond to interview requests today.

I suspect that most readers know what a no comment means, and readers are pretty smart. To a reporter, no comment means continued work on the story, that there is something there worth pursuing, and if the reporter can’t get it today, he’ll try to get it tomorrow. Or the next day. Rick Amme, a crisis manager and former TV news anchor, tweeted yesterday, “If a reporter’s on your heels it’s your goal to get your best reasonable information in the first story.”

I asked him why sources resisted that advice. His response: “I think they’re often frightened, defensive, talking to non-crisis attorneys, and in a kind of denial.”  He expands in this post.

For many stories, a no comment or no callback means that the story lives on for another day. How that is good for UNCG or the GPD or Roy Cooper is beyond me.

3 thoughts on “The no comment comment

  1. I think the “no comment” construction can serve a good purpose. It lets the reader know that the reporter asked the question or tried to get more information. I am often frustrated by news reports that leave, to me at least, obvious questions unasked. Perhaps the reporter asked the question and got nothing. The “no comment” tells me the attempt was made.

    • True, Aaron, with this caveat: Reporting “no comment” sometimes doesn’t explain to the reader what specific questions the reporter was trying to get answered, and knowing those questions is key in some cases to knowing whether the reporter is really on top of the story — something that never can be taken for granted, particularly in this era of diminished newsroom resources.

  2. Sometimes the silence is both deafening and damning. W-S Journal article on High Point University:

    “Just how High Point’s ascendance has been received by the broader academic community is not clear. Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch declined to comment for this article, as did administrators at Elon University. Attempts to interview a spokesman for Davidson College were not successful last week.”

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