Wick Communications

Don’t laugh!

In Writing techniques on December 9, 2011 at 9:48 am

Hey, is it ever OK to laugh in the face of the guy you are interviewing?

That’s today’s question after Miami Herald reporter Marc Caputo laughed at an answer given by Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart the other day. If this account is to be believed, Caputo chuckled when Diaz-Balart suggested the Bush administration deserved some of the credit for hunting down Osama bin Laden and the U.S. involvement in Libya.

That prompted the congressman to say, “You laugh; are you a reporter or a debater? … It’s funny because, and I’m not giving you a hard time here, but usually reporters are reporters, not advocates.”

For his part, Caputo writes on the newspaper website that “the laugh was more an expression of surprise Diaz-Balart wasn’t giving any credit to Obama without strings attached.”

What do you think? If you giggle at something your source says, does that scratch the veneer of objectivity?

I think it can. I also think it may not. I think it depends. …

The dance between source and reporter is a subtle thing. As in any relationship, the cues are both spoken and unspoken. Your smile, a wink, the way you sit can convey your attitude. There are many ways to screw up an interview. And if you aren’t careful, you will put your source on edge and materially change what he or she says. I don’t think you want to do that, if you are a reporter for a mainstream newspaper.

Having said that…

If you’ve ever covered a beat, you have likely formed relationships of sorts with some of your sources on that beat. After months or years of covering city hall, you may have reached a point where you can chuckle at some asinine statement the city manager has to make for political purposes. You two understand each other. He knows your laughter won’t change the way you cover the story, that you will be fair regardless of your personal opinions, and you know that the guy is just doing his job.

Sportswriters who cover a team regularly, White House correspondents, local beat reporters all have a more relaxed way with sources than do reporters who just parachute into a story. That’s because the paratrooper hasn’t earned the trust of his sources yet.

Nobody asked me, but I think Caputo would have done better to keep the chuckle to himself in that instance. He says he hadn’t talked to the congressman for nine years (when, by the way, he and I both worked for the Palm Beach Post.)

Caputo is a terrific reporter and writer. I think his chuckle wasn’t that important and surely the congressman has heard worse. His defensive response was telling.

On balance, though, I think Caputo’s chuckle didn’t serve the reporter well.

Clay

 

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