Writing for The New York Times’ behind-the-scenes column Times Insider last week, reporter Sarah Maslin Nir shared the challenges she faces when trying to get a Donald Trump’s supporter to talk to her for a story. The newspaper’s critical approach to the presidency has gotten it included on the group of outlets that Trump has labeled “fake news media”. On his official Twitter account, he calls it the “failing New York Times.” Most of his loyal audience, thus, agree with his view that the paper and other mainstream media are working to serve as an obstacle for his mandate.
At the Trump Tower to cover his night over, Nir found many of the president’s supporters standing in the lobby and determined to reinvent her approach toward them. She introduced herself as the “fake news reporter”. The icebreaker introduction worked – they laughed. “The way to get skeptical people to speak to me in the lobby is the same way reporters get people to speak to us always – with the truth,” she wrote in her column. “Here is your opportunity to express your perspective, I say; why not use it.”
It is not only just the truth. In the post-truth era, reporters sometimes need more than that to get skeptical people to talk. When Brazil recent went through high-level political crisis that led to the then-President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, we reporters had to get creative to get her supporters to agree with interviews. They felt the media was creating the big wave of pressure to remove her from office, and so only spoke to magazines and blogs in her favor. Her cabinet also followed this course of action at that time.
The readers are the big losers in struggles like these between politicians and media. That is why reporters need to address this reluctance with all efforts. Humor, persistence, spirit of competition, empathy – everything is valid. The more creative the approaches, the more likely they are to work, as Nir’s example illustrates. In Brazil, as reporters, we frequently had to find close friends who knew the president’s supporters in order to get them to talk to us. Or, confront them with the fact that the story would be incomplete if their side was not represented. We would remind them that if they didn’t share their point of view, readers may not understand it, and as such they may lose potential supporters to the pro-impeachment side. It worked sometimes.
Of course, every reporter usually has his or her unique techniques to convince reluctant sources to contribute. For example, in a lecture to the World Press Institute fellows, experienced journalist John Ulmann, former investigative editor at the Star Tribune, recalled how a former team member got a macho prisioner to talk by questioning his manhood.
At a time when the First Amendment is being scrutinized and tested in the United States, what approaches do reporters need to get the skeptical to participate in stories in order to bring readers a balanced view? I wonder how a foreign reporter like myself get them to agree to an interview request? Should I introduce myself as “a fake news foreign reporter”?