When Reporters Put Words In Your Mouth

Many years ago, I led the media shop at Conservation International (CI), one of the world’s largest environmental nonprofits.

We landed a big media hit when ABC’s Nightline agreed to do a half-hour broadcast on CI’s plan to protect vulnerable species. ABC sent reporter Robert Krulwich – a journalist with a rather unique style – to interview CI’s president, Russ Mittermeier.

At the time, CI’s diverse Board of Directors included everyone from actor Harrison Ford and Intel co-founder Gordon Moore to Jordan’s Queen Noor and a Mexican concrete company executive.

Mr. Krulwich clearly had a plan in mind – he thought the Board was “radical,” and he wanted Mr. Mittermeier to say so. As Krulwich pressed on with his questioning, I got increasingly nervous that he’d get what he wanted. It’s been several years, but the exchange went something like this:

Krulwich: “Your Board is somewhat radical, yes?”
Mittermeier: “I wouldn’t say that. I’d say they’re passionate, engaged, and forward-thinking.”
Krulwich: “But if you define radical as passionate, engaged, and forward-thinking, they’re pretty radical, right?”
Mittermeier: “I wouldn’t use that word.”

Mr. Krulwich’s paraphrasing was a clever attempt to put words in Mittermeier’s mouth, and I suspect the majority of spokespersons would have fallen for it. But Mittermeier was a seasoned spokesperson and refused to let Krulwich get the quote he wanted. Better yet, Mittermeier didn’t even utter the word “radical,” which would have given Krulwich a potential sound bite.

Why did it matter? Because a headline reading, “Radical Environmental Group” wouldn’t have helped promote CI’s brand, which was that of a pragmatic environmental group open to partnering with industry. It would have reinforced every stereotype about environmentalism – and in CI’s case, it wouldn’t have been accurate.

If a reporter paraphrases your words, don’t accept the paraphrase unless it’s completely accurate. If it’s not, correct the statement in your own words – without using any of the reporter’s loaded language.