Do Reporters Use Intimidation Tactics Or Not?

Last Tuesday, I published an article called “5 Tactics Reporters Use to Intimidate You.” The article generated more disagreement than any other media relations story I’ve written, with feedback ranging from totally supportive to thoroughly dismissive.

If you missed it, the original article detailed five tactics reporters use to get the edge in interviews, such as artificial deadlines, uncomfortable silences, and tightening tempos.

Of the thousands of readers who clicked on the story, dozens commented. Half of the commenters thought I was right on. The other half thought I was crazy. Below are a few comments gathered from various sites on which the story appeared:

“If I received complaints that a reporter who worked for me was intimidating or threatening interview subjects, step one would be a warning not to do it again, and step two would be firing.” – David, newspaper reporter and editor

“I’m glad to hear the journalists say they have never used these tactics — please interview me anytime! You’ll probably get better results than the reporters I deal with regularly who do use these tricks. There’s one additional one — implying that I must be lying when I answer a question by saying ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”  – Lori, PR professional

“I was a reporter for 20 years and I never purposefully used any of these tactics — or knew of their existence.” – Alan, former journalist

“I too am a former reporter and editor, now in PR. The tip about dead air – I’ve used that tip in my PR career, and it works every time!” – Jill, former reporter and editor, current PR professional

“Sure there are around a few incipient stars who are always looking for a highlight reel item. Just like every office has some super ambitious types. But the reality is much different than this movie version of how the media works.” – Reinventionist, former full-time journalist

“I’ve had a reporter spend the better part of a morning with me on the premise that she wanted to do a feature on our institution, then started asking questions about litigation by an individual, about which I certainly could not comment. Another screamed at me that I took too long to get a quote for her and slammed down the phone.” – Nancy, PR professional

“…unless your client (or you) will be talking with a local investigative journalist, much of the tactics discussed are kind of 20th Century.” – Marilyn, PR professional

“I’ve used them all, and many more.” – David, staff writer, alternative weekly

Many of the reporters who commented on my original story seemed genuinely taken aback by the article. My sense is that they’ve never used – or heard of – these tactics, and thus felt that I smeared their profession. That’s good news, since it means many reporters have rejected these tactics.

But my reporter friends are either unaware of or willfully ignoring the reporters who do use these tactics. They may not be as widespread as PR folks fear, but they’re a whole lot more common than these reporters are willing to acknowledge.

Still, the reporters are right about something, and about that I offer a mea culpa. A commenter named Raman Job put it best:

“Readers would have been better served if the post said “some” reporters use these tactics. I’ve been handling media calls for 17 years and know that people who do this are in the minority.”

He’s absolutely right. I should have inserted the word “some” in order to make perfectly clear that the majority of reporters don’t use these tactics. They don’t. But spokespersons tend to remember the ones who do, and I’d rather they know how to cope with them effectively.