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.’


“Life is not an audition, and neither is our work”

In the comments of this post, Jay Rosen asked: A related factor is: what is the style of reporting you want to be doing if you are just passing through on your way to some place more cosmopolitan?  If you see your performance in Anytown, USA as an extended audition for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune or the Washington Post, then you will try to do Inquirer journalism in Greensboro. But maybe that’s not what Greensboro needs. In any case, you can see how this could lead to homogenization.

It interested me because I think it based on an outdated premise. Fifteen years ago, yes. Reporters — all journalists — who were ambitious and wanted to work at large papers set their sights high. But in the past five years, at least, most of the reporters leaving Greensboro — and I think the other medium-sized newspapers in North Carolina — are leaving the business entirely. You all know the reasons why.

One of them is that jobs at large papers have dried up. And in a real sense, it’s not safe to aspire to work at the largest papers in the country. The Chicago Tribune? The Philadelphia Inquirer? The L.A. Times? They’re all laying off people, or are taking dubious journalistic steps, or are struggling mightily. And if you do get on at one of the large papers, you’ve hung a big target on your back. Reporter FIFO.

Mid-size papers prize large J journalism and small j journalism. They want the same stories that the Washington Post wants, and the same ones that the community weekly wants. What they don’t want — or shouldn’t want, to be more precise — are the stories that everyone else is doing. In days gone by, reporters in Greensboro wanted to go on the presidential political campaign trail, wanted to go to Iraq during the war, wanted to go to the NCAA Final Four even if a local team wasn’t playing, and wanted to travel to Augusta during Masters week. We sent them, too. (Well, not to Iraq.) We sent them because it was fun to compete with the big dogs and it was a reward for the reporter. And no question, in some cases the reporters wanted to go because it made for good clips for their next career stop. I’m sure that some reporters who wanted to move to big-city papers did swing for the fences every time they came up when they should have been hitting singles, doubles and hit-and-runs.

But those were the old days when there were more reporters and more money. Did the readers care that a local reporter was in Augusta or Des Moines reporting a national story? Not that I’ve ever been told. But those were the days when we didn’t think we had to worry about “our” newspaper becoming “the” newspaper to readers. We were ignorant and prideful, no question.

But what do I know? I asked Jay’s question of a couple reporters at the News & Record who are top drawer, ambitious and certainly qualified to move to larger papers. Their answers are what you might expect them to say. But I know them well enough to know they aren’t blowing smoke.

From Mark Binker, who has covered the state capital for the News & Record for a long time:

So what Rosen is really asking is that if I, as someone who is entrusted with the job of covering state government and politics for the News & Record, would be doing something differently if my ultimate career ambition is to be at a bigger paper. 

The answer is no. The further answer is my editors should fire my ass posthaste if the answer were yes. Why would I want to be the kind of person (or employ the kind of person) who sacrifices the broader good for my personal goals?

I do the job I do because as far as I can figure it’s the right way to do it. Yeah, I do some goofy and lighthearted stuff. That’s my byline on a weather story in today’s paper….

But I also have been involved in helping to show the odd public official the way out of office. People in my readership, including some of those involved, learned about the state legislature redrawing county commissioner lines on the sly from my reporting. I’ve tracked down the governor to ask her what the heck she meant by “suspending elections.”

Further, who else other than my colleagues Joe (Killian) and Amanda (Lehmert) are watching the Guilford County and Greensboro City governments with a dogged an impartial eye? Are you telling me the work that Taft (Wireback) has done bird-dogging scandals and transportation issues isn’t of value to everyone in our community, not just those who happen to take the paper?

In short, our work here is an important and impactful as if it would be if I were doing it for a big city paper. In fact, the job of state house reporters in general and local newspapers like the N+R is all the more important because there are fewer of us doing it. Everybody is covering the presidential race and the machinations in Congress, but hardly anyone pays attention to the state political scene where decisions much closer to the quick are made.

So no, we do what we do because it’s important, because this is where we want to be, at least for the moment. Life is not an audition, and neither is our work.

Joe Killian, who covers county government:

I think a demonstrable ability to do really good news features may more marketable than really good beat reporting. To write a great news feature you have to get into the subjects’ lives, get things out of them they may never have said to other people (or anyone at all) and you have to be able to craft a good story with what you get.

Those are all things you have to be able to do as a beat reporter, too. But some of the work that it takes to be a good beat reporter – developing relationships with people who may never end up in your stories, but will still be invaluable to finding and getting your stories – is very hard to demonstrate to a potential employer through clips. If you’re a good beat reporter it should look like big stories – Mark Binker’s pieces about the ABC board, for instance, or my revelation that Guilford County paid $47,000 for a website that was never finished and getting the first interview with the guy they hired – just came out of nowhere and you were there to write them. No one sees – and it can be difficult to shine a light on – the hard work it takes to build a network of people who trust you and respect your work, and therefore will feed you information or have conversations with you in which they might not even knowthey’ve given you a killer story idea.

I asked Jeri Rowe what he thought about this, though. As a former beat reporter turned feature writer turned award winning columnist, he said he thinks demonstrating versatility is important. He said you need to have a grounding in beat reporting, demonstrate you can really write through good features and alsoshow them you can do multimedia/web journalism.

Couldn’t agree more with him on the multimedia thing — although as resources grow more slim most young reporters are probably going to have to do that on their own time and their own resources (including social media, which doesn’t cost their newsrooms anything).

Although he points out, and I agree, that going somewhere bigger isn’t necessarily the answer if your goal is to do stories about which you’re passionate and to make a difference in your community. That’s about finding the right fit, whatever the size of your publication or audience.

Personally, my advice to reporters looking to “move up” has been simple.

* Learn everything you can about digital. Make sure your digital footprint is large — blog, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. Show you have skills. Link out on your blog. Curate on Facebook. Be smart on Twitter.

* Write every type of story you can. No experience is a bad experience. Who knows what will catch another editor’s eye. I came to the News & Record to interview for a reporting job. It wasn’t until I got home that they called and offered an editing job.

* Attitude is vital. The HR people cringe when I said it, but my whole role in the interview process was to judge organizational fit. I wanted someone who could do every type of reporting and writing and would be happy doing it. I wanted someone who was a lifelong learner. And I wanted someone who was open-minded to try stuff, even if it didn’t make a lot of sense.