Be Persistent When Seeking Comment And Be Precise About Who Won’t Comment

In recent weeks, there’s been discussion in the newsroom about best practices when it comes to seeking comment from people or institutions that are in the news (for “good” and “bad” reasons).

What follows doesn’t cover every potential situation. But when we need to ask for comment from someone or some organization, we must:

- Give them a reasonable amount of time to get back to us. What’s reasonable? Discuss that with senior editors or DMEs.

- Try more than once and in more than one way to get in touch with them. One email is not enough. Pick up the phone. Knock on the door. Send a registered letter if there’s time. Camp outside their office.

- Follow the multiple requests with one more “we’re going to broadcast/publish” phone call seeking comment when there’s an hour or so to go before the story is live.

- Be precise about who or what either didn’t respond or declined to comment. If our requests went to a politician’s press office, for example, we need to say it was that office or the politician’s staff that didn’t respond or declined — not the politician, who may not have known we reached out. Obviously, if we spoke to or reached the politician, we can say that person declined.

- Be transparent about our efforts to get comment. “The senator’s campaign staff didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.” Or, “NPR contacted the CEO’s office multiple times this week, seeking comment. We got no response.” Or, “John Doe, the company’s spokesman, said CEO Smith would not comment.”

- Stand ready to update our report, or file a new one, if we get a response after deadline.

Finally, there’s a question that’s always good to ask in these cases. If you were that person, would you feel you’d been given a fair chance to either respond or decline to comment? The answer should be “yes.”

(“Memmos;” Oct. 31, 2018)

October 31, 2018

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