As a general rule in life, I’ve learned that people who are open and honest about what they think are generally more trustworthy than ones who are closed and reserved. It is a simple concept but, for one reason or another, one people tend to ignore when reporters call them.
When a person’s name is listed next to a “no comment” or “unavailable for comment” in a newspaper story, an automatic trigger should go off in readers’ minds. The natural question – “what is this person worried I will find out?” – is the right one to ask. Many times there is an understandable reason for a “no comment”, such as in stories on pending legal cases or on topics that could jeopardize a person’s confidentiality. Other times, people are honestly too busy or not around to take phone calls.
We have recently seen the effects of a person not giving the full story to reporters. Last Wednesday, the Student Association Senate seemed to be stonewalling President-elect Phil Robinson on the cabinet nomination votes. At 1 a.m. Thursday a story was ready for print about how senators were keeping Robinson in the dark about his own cabinet. When Rules Committee Chairman J.P. Blackford called The Hatchet with the names, readers were given a story about the actual vote, instead of one about Robinson’s speculation about the secrecy.
In the same issue of The Hatchet, reporters were unable to reach Vice President and Treasurer Louis Katz, who began a controversial faculty complaint line. We reported on what he said at a Faculty Senate meeting but were unable to print his candid thoughts about why the phone line is important to GW.
Washington Times readers were also unable to get the full story about the phone line from Katz, who The Times was unable to reach. Does Katz have something to hide? Probably not, but we won’t know for sure until he answers reporters’ phone calls. Thankfully, President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg did make himself available for an administration response, although his comments conflicted with what Katz said at the Faculty Senate meeting.
Another example was mentioned in University Police Department Director Dolores Stafford’s letter last week. It is true that there is more to the Music Department theft story, but only because she did not fully explain the situation with the cameras to our reporter. We accurately reported that UPD had submitted a request for the cameras but failed to report that it was up to the administration to decide whether or not to spend an estimated $50,000 wiring the building for cameras. This is not a case of a “no comment,” but it does show that providing more information to reporters is beneficial to everyone.
A similar situation happened when we reported that the elevator outside the Marvin Center was frequently malfunctioning, keeping students in wheelchairs out of the building. A reporter asked for comment from Peter Konwerski, the building’s director, who said he had not heard reports of problems. He failed to tell the Hatchet that his staff had received multiple requests to fix the door and completed the request each time one was made. Readers were not misled in finding out that students often encountered a broken elevator, but they did not get the whole story that the elevator was constantly fixed after breaking repeatedly.
As a reporter at GW for four years, I have found most sources who refuse to comment on cases do not have anything to hide but are worried how the information will be portrayed in a story. In these sensitive cases, it is best for a person to be honest with the reporter and let him or her know what they are worried about. A promising sign: almost 90 percent of people quoted in Hatchet stories who are interviewed after every issue say they were happy with the way they were portrayed.
-The writer, a senior majoring in
journalism, is Hatchet editor in chief.