How reporters and sources talk to each other

Journalists tend to know how to curse. So do cops. When the two come together as reporter and source, profanity can ensue. Are male-to-male conversations different from female-to-male? This is from Joe Killian’s Facebook page. He is a reporter at the News & Record, and I reprint this with his permission:

“So I was talking to a city cop the other day while on a story. First time I’ve met the guy. We’re talking on background or off the record about what cops think of a certain area of the city. Our conversation meanders on to places to eat in the city. I mention my wife and I live near this little taqueria we haven’t gotten to try yet. ‘Oh, I know the place you’re talking about,’ he says. ‘It’s so g……ood it’ll make your dick hard.’

“When I told my wife this story later she was appalled. ‘What is it about you that makes people think they can say things like that to you?’ she asked.

“But here’s the thing: male cops talk to male reporters like that all the time. There’s this strange male thing where the casual use of profanity or sexual talk is used as a signal that we like each other, that we’re not going to be too formal, that we’re comfortable. And it’s not just cops — it’s happened to me with lawyers, politicians, political operatives, even people in education when I covered that.

“But it occurs to me that female reporters don’t often experience this — and probably wouldn’t want to. Does that mean male sources can’t find a way to express the same thing to female reporters? Of course not. It does probably mean there are things like this on which I’m missing out with female sources and about which I know nothing, though.”

Several people weigh in with comments. Joe continues:

“When you’re reporting professionally day in and day out, there’s this strange little dance you do with sources. You want them to trust you, you want to develop relationships with them. Mostly, you do that by earning their trust and impressing them with your writing and reporting. But you also decide, on a case by case basis, just how familiar you’re going to be with each of them.

“I’ve found that in that professional atmosphere, where it’s understood I’m doing my job and they’re doing theirs, men are far more likely to go outside the bounds of conventionally understood good taste in conversation with me in order to subtly (or not so subtly) communicate to me that we’re close enough for them to talk that way in front of me and they aren’t afraid I’m going to be offended or I’m going to put it in the paper.”

“I very rarely have women do this to me, for some reason. Not that it’s never happened — a prominent female politician I was covering at the time once told me a dirty joke that literally struck me dumb for a moment. But it’s the exception. I think this is because, for some reason, there’s a tendency among men to talk to one another this way to form some sort of bond or as a sort of shibboleth between one another.

“The idea is expressed crudely (because it’s broad, not just because it’s crude) in this clip from Clint Eastwood’s ‘Gran Torino.’ ‘You see, kid — that’s how guys talk to each other.’ Which isn’t true — not anymore, anyway. But — perhaps because there might be consequences for it in a professional context — I’d have a hard time imagining that cop or any other source saying something similar to (my wife) in a similar chat. I guess she had a hard time imagining it, too.”

Then two women comment, one a reporter, one not. First, the reporter.

“I’m most successful talking to male cops by acting cutely unaware. Something really changes when a female reporter gets aggressive when gathering information. But strange things happen when female reporters and male law enforcement officers have a longstanding relationship. At one of my jobs, I became close to the county sheriff. He had a daughter about my age, and he occasionally gave me advice that a father might give his child. He knew I didn’t get along with my editor, and I knew everyone else liked him because he never made waves. During a conversation one day, I wished aloud that the paper had different leadership. ‘Him? Ah, he’s a pussy,’ the sheriff said. ‘He doesn’t have the balls to say anything that might piss anyone off and he if he thinks he has offended someone, he’ll shit his in his pink panties.'”

And now the civilian:

“I think the reason a male source wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) say that exact phrase to a female reporter is because it’s a gendered sexual reference. Lots of ‘male bonding’ talk is gendered and sexualized that way – it’s a way of, as you say, acknowledging that they’re comfortable and saying, ‘We’re just a couple of guys on equal footing here.’ And I won’t say it’s wrong, but it does emphasize gender divisions in society and the way we accept that ‘This is how men talk to each other, that’s how women talk to each other.’