Finding the line between the comfort zone and safety

A reporter in this class had an experience recently that she wrote about on her excellent blog. I think many of you will find it interesting. I’m going to try to find time to invite her to talk about it in class on Tuesday, so please read about it over the weekend.

Would you have handled this situation differently? If so, how?

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22 Responses to Finding the line between the comfort zone and safety

  1. I’m going to blame my response on personality and past experience, but I don’t think I would’ve gotten into his truck. A barrage of questions would’ve entered my mind (and probably left my mouth) the moment his demand was spoken, including “Where are we going?” and “Why can’t I follow you there in my own vehicle?” I can only imagine how those 5 seconds of hesitation played out and can’t fault Emily at all for following her gut. In these situations, it’s sometimes the only compass you have.

    I completely understand the quandary this farmer’s actions put Emily in and why it caused her to question not only her abilities, but his integrity as a source and the quality of the interview. This concept of moving outside of our comfort zones to more effectively tell the story has its benefits, for sure, but we also have to temper that with wisdom regarding our personal safety. I think this is especially important for us as women reporters.

    I have to say kudos to Emily for having the foresight to inform several people about where she was and who she was interviewing.

  2. Julia Boudreau says:

    I want to start by saying that the blog post was very interesting to read. I felt as though I was seeing the situation as it was happening and could feel some of the fear Emily felt. The question of whether I would have handled the question differently or not is had to decide. My non-journalistic mind of the average college student tells me to tell the source that I would rather just stick to our plan and stay at the Mcdonalds. My journalistic mind however becomes excited at the possibility of increased information and uncovering insight to add to my story by traveling in the truck. In the end I think Emily handled it the best way by deciding in the moment, at that point in time if she felt safe or not. I think safety is best determined by the person who is in the moment dealing with the situation. I might have also said a few Our Fathers as I was stepping in.

  3. Hannah Spaar says:

    Wow. What a scary thought!

    I’d probably have also gone, but had some of the same problems as a result. I’d like to say that it’s because I’ve grown up in a rural community where most people are farmers, but that doesn’t cancel out that getting in a truck with a middle-aged man and not even knowing where he was taking me would be extremely far from my comfort zone.

    I probably would have gone, and later said that it was a really dumb decision. But I also would have asked where we were going and making sure I could contact someone to let them know what was going on. It would probably be my editor, since I’m pretty sure my roommate would not be okay with the idea of me just getting in some guy’s truck.

    I think the entire thing is sketchy on the farmer’s behalf… why didn’t he just ask her to come out to the farm in the first place?

  4. I do not think I would have accepted to get into the truck. Why?

    First of all, I am not in my country and I do not know how to react in case of emergency or danger. I would have probably lost the opportunity of this interview even if I would have insisted to interview him at McDonalds, as scheduled, and got at least some information.

    Secondly, French people usually fear of kidnapping. A mother would always say to her children “never talk to someone you don’t know” “don’t accept candies”… and believe me, it is hard to go against your background then.

    I think Emily was right to wonder if she had to go out of her comfort zone. She was the only one who can evaluate the situation and make the decision. Knowing that some people were informed about this interview may have made her feel more comfortable. “If something happens, someone will hopefully wonder where I am.”

    It is hard. Very uncomfortable. But I think it is part of our job. Being reporter does not match with comfort and safety. Thus, we have to create our own limits and be quick-witted.

  5. Emilie Stigliani says:

    Considering Emily was unprepared for the encounter, I think she did the right thing in that particular situation. She got material for her story and got back safely. It was also smart that Emily did a gut check before getting in the truck. The gut reaction can be a powerful indicator.

    Even though it turned out to be the right decision this time, it was also a risk. If I were Emily, now that I had that experience to draw on, I would develop interview policies. No location changes without prior arrangement. This would be a guide and a source of strength the next time a situation came up. I could simply say that it’s my policy not to change locations and could attribute it to my ability to conduct the interview and unpreparedness to meet and interview another source at that time. Both reasons are true. With a plan, those five-second decisions are much easier to make.

    I’m glad Emily shared her experience. It gives me the opportunity to think ahead about own interview guidelines.

  6. nilesmedia says:

    I’ll chime in on the big thanks to Emily for sharing this experience! I’m glad she got home safe and sound, and with material. It’s also good that some people knew where she was (supposed to be) and who she was with.

    My hackles go up at the thought of the way the subject handled the interview, however. It reminds me of a similar situation that was handled quite differently. Several years ago when I was in documentary school working on a project about the Maine State Prison, I had the opportunity to interview a former inmate who had served 24 years for murder. Introduced by phone by his parole officer, I met Leland at his house — down a long dirt road in the woods of a rural town. I informed my teacher and roommate where I’d be, and made a plan with my roommate that if I hadn’t called in by 3:30, to call his house. (No cell phone at the time, I was going to call her from a pay phone on the road.) The interview was fantastic and we just couldn’t stop talking. I lost track of time and the phone rang — trusty roomie. I was embarrassed, but Leland completely understood. He guessed immediately what the arrangement had been, and he was nothing but gracious about it. In fact, he was impressed that I was looking out for myself.

    I was lucky to get to meet Leland, but it’s not a matter of luck that the exchange didn’t hurt my interview: It’s a matter of Leland respecting my professional practices and my boundaries simply as a human being.

    I like to think that if I were to meet with a subject who, unannounced, wanted to change locations, I would first find out where he wanted to take me, then offer to drive in my own vehicle, then thank him for waiting while I called my editor to deliver the update before we took off. And unless there was something that I really didn’t want the subject to hear, I would do that right in front of him — especially if my hackles were up at all. It’s a way of saying that there are people watching over this from a distance; it might not make a difference, but it could be a message that helps someone with dubious intentions keep his actions in check.

    And when it came down to this person sharing with me that he had never intended to meet me at the agreed upon location, I would share back what had really bothered me about that! He was responsible for shifting the dynamic of the interview, but we as journalists can also be adaptive and must learn to communicate with people on their ground and on terms they understand. In this case, I think that setting my own boundaries with a character like this could actually go a long way toward cultivating our rapport (in the best case scenario) or at least really seeing his character (if he responds poorly). Who knows if that wouldn’t end up informing the story just as much, albeit from a different angle.

    One other thought about establishing interview practices as Emilie mentioned is that (Katherine, I trust you won’t mind?) we can always blame it on our editors! “Sorry, it’s a newsroom regulation that we have to have editorial approval for any unplanned change of venue,” or something like that, and then go ahead and call the editor. It’s kind of a different take on the suggestion that if someone wants us to change one of their quotes, we have to ask our editor first.

    • emilyg87 says:

      Hilary, thanks for this response. It was really very helpful to me. The paragraph where you describe how you would have dealt with this situation sounds so professional and prudent, I’m embarrassed I didn’t think of any of those tactics.

      My second biggest fear, after the fear for my safety, was that of estranging this source by questioning his integrity. I do wonder, as prudent and legitimate as those suggestions were, if they would have made my source less open with me.

      And does that matter? Maybe my safety should always just figure above my source’s comfort…

  7. reedkath says:

    Not only do I not mind, I think it’s a good suggestion, Hilary, to blame it on your editor if tell a story subject/source whom you don’t know well that you can’t at the last second change the location of the interview — that to do so violates a policy. It’s a good dodge in an awkward situation.

  8. I cannot imagine being in that position. I would have to say that in that situation, I probably wouldn’t have gotten in the truck. I wouldn’t be familiar with the location or the interviewee. I don’t think that I would feel comfortable changing the location at the last minute. I would probably have said I wasn’t dressed to go to a farm or blame my recorder (if I was planning to record the interview). I don’t understand why a source would set up a meeting and never intend to go through with it. People talk all the time about journalists “deceiving” the public, but what happens when the tables turn? I’m glad Emily made it home with good material, but that is a risk I wouldn’t want to take.

  9. asussell1 says:

    This is a tough decision. I probably would have felt the need to compromise with the man. I would have requested that we do some of the interview in the McDonald’s as planned and after, gone to the farm. The pre-interview would have given me time to judge whether or not this man was dangerous or had bad intensions.

    I also might have asked if I could follow him to the farm in my car instead of riding in his truck. If he was the type of man who would not calmly compromise with me, he is probably not the type of man who is safe to be trapped in a truck with.

  10. Anna Carlson says:

    If I’m being honest, I don’t think I would have gotten into the truck.

    Some factors that would play into my decision would be how long I had been working on the story, how long I had been working with this source or how well I knew them and if another source would be easy to find.

    If a source had asked me to get into his truck, I would have first asked, “Why?” and if I continued to feel uncomfortable I probably would have said something like, “I would love to go see your farm, but I think it would be great to set up another time where we can meet and I can be fully prepared. Plus, I could bring a photographer along so we can have some pictures.”

    I also think Hilary’s idea of “blaming the editor” is a great idea. Even if I did decide in the end to go along, talking to my editor would be a good idea so someone knows what the new plans are.

    I’m glad Emily shared her experience because now I have thought about what I would do in that situation and will not be caught off guard if I ever find myself in a similar one.

  11. benunglesbee says:

    That’s definitely a tough situation Emily was put in, and to me it suggests that the source was pulling some kind of weird power play. I’m impressed by the mettle Emily showed in going along even though she felt uncomfortable. I think we as journalists reserve the same right to say “no” that all people in all situations have, especially when our personal safety is involved. Piecing apart when we say “yes” in a situation that carries unknown risk, and why we say yes, is a very tricky issue, I think.

    There are stories out there that ask journalists to take risks of all kinds, including risking their lives, and there are journalists willingly do this. There are areas all around the world where it is extremely dangerous to be a journalist, and there are journalists that have died covering wars and other conflict zones. But those journalists walk onto the job knowing the risks. What Emily encountered was a surprise—it wasn’t something she bargained for, so I can totally understand why someone in the same situation might decline to get into the truck with the source and hand control over the situation to him. I think it would be totally within any journalist’s professional and personal rights to decline to go. By the way, I found Hilary’s advice about calling an editor at the site, in front of the source, incredibly useful (not to mention clever).

    Emily’s concerns over feeling unprepared for the new journalistic situation is also a really interesting issue. But I think this aspect of Emily’s experience, specifically of being thrown into the interview with a farmer without preparation—if it’s even possible to separate this part of the experience from looming worries over physical safety—this is something that is part of every journalist’s job. Sometimes we have to do what we do on the fly, off balance, without notice, without having a list of questions handy, without having time to do any homework. It will always make for less than perfect work, but I feel this is part of the work. But… it may be that it’s not possible to separate this issue out from the experience as a whole. If it is impossible, then forget what I just said.

    Anyway, Props to Emily for following her gut and coming out safe—with notes!

  12. I can’t fault Emily for how she reacted, but I can’t say I’d do the same.

    The first thing I would have asked is where we were going. I wouldn’t have gotten into his truck if I didn’t know where he was taking me. I also think I flat out wouldn’t get in his truck. I would ask to follow him in my car.

    However, I would also try to get him to go into McDonalds first, saying I’d like to sit down and talk for a few minutes and then go out to his farm. I think going and sitting down and talking, even just for five minutes would have let her take control of the conversation. However, I do realize this could have been potentially damaging to the interview, so I would handle the situation by saying something like “That sounds great, I’d love to see your farm but could we just sit down for five to ten minutes and go through these questions I have before we head out there?”

    This post has also made me think about putting some stuff in my car. I have already stashed a notebook in my glovebox just incase, but I think I might add some tennis shoes to that too, just in case this kind of situation happens to me.

  13. While I’d like to think that I would have been able to quickly come up with an alternative plan, if I’d only had a few seconds to make a decision I probably would have just gotten into the truck. I wouldn’t want to jeopardize the interview and the rest of the story. I probably would have felt pretty uncomfortable the whole time, though, and my interview would have reflected that. That being said, I’m glad Emily was able to share this experience so that I can be more prepared for interviews ahead of time. I never would have thought of a source wanting to change locations on the spur of the moment, so having a planned response should that occur would make the interview run a lot more smoothly. Like a few other people mentioned, I would offer to drive myself and make sure that there were other people who knew where I was.

  14. Crystal Herber says:

    I think I would have gotten in the truck. Unfortunately my trusting Oklahoma background has caused me to develop the attitude that everyone is basically good. In the end the farmer did turn out to be “good,” but Emily’s experience could have been very very different. Thank goodness it wasn’t.
    As a female journalist I think it is important to remember that every situation holds a certain amount of danger. Perhaps there should be a self-defense class in the journalism school.

  15. Carlos D. Navarro says:

    I would like to start by saying I think Emily showed professionalism and determination to do her job in the best possible way, considering the circumstances she was under. I definitely admire her courage and willingness to get a potentially great interview.

    That being said, I do believe the situation could have been worse than it turned out to be. My thinking this way may derive from the fact that I come from a country where people deal with that type of situations in a very different way. In Venezuela, any female reporter would have automatically refused to get into a stranger’s car if they had not agreed to do so in advance. And even though I realize the differences there are between my home country and the US, I believe most people in America would also feel skeptical (at best) about the nature of that guy’s intentions.

    What I have tried to do is put myself in Emily’s situation. Even though I’m a guy and guys generally pay less attention to that kind of signals (that’s what female intuition is all about, isn’t it?), I think it’s safe to say that any of us could also face a potentially dangerous situation. Which I guess teaches me that as a reporter (male or female), the most important thing is to be alert at all times. Being totally aware of our surroundings can lead us to discover material for great stories, or help us avoid uncomfortable and/or dangerous situations.

    Bottom line, I think we should always try to use our common sense whenever in doubt about the safety of a particular situation. Things seldom work out the way we plan them, so there should always be room for plan B, or even for plan C.

    And in this respect, I think Emily did great, although I wouldn’t have hurt to call or text somebody and tell them what was going on.

  16. schacht99 says:

    It doesn’t sound like there’s a hard and fast rule (or right answer) for this case. Emily sized up the situation and went with her gut. Others with different guts may have chosen otherwise.

    Besides some of the tricks suggested by Hillary, I wonder if Emily thinks she should have done anything differently.

    Also, I’m wondering if this kind of situation is more threatening to a female reporter. Put another way, if the source in this case had been a female, would a change of venue have been a threat to safety?

    -Matt

  17. mcadykramer says:

    If I was in this situation, I could probably assume that I’d panic and create awkwardness through hesitation. I would not get in the truck. I commend Emily for being brave and trusting her gut, especially since she got some great material out of it.

    Hillary’s suggestion to ride in your own car is very logical, as well as making a call to the editor. But I really like Anna’s suggestion to request another meeting in order to be more prepared and bring a photographer. It’s an excellent and legitimate excuse to not venture into an uncomfortable and unannounced change of plans (it also wouldn’t offend the source).

  18. allisonseibel says:

    Wow, Emily – thanks for sharing this story! It is really a good issue I think for us to talk about and I really give you props for handling the situation.

    If it was me, I probably wouldn’t have gotten in the truck, because I’ve just heard so many really scary stories lately about college girls being targeted – and I’m really paranoid now about that kind of thing. I think every noise outside of my apartment is someone trying to break in. But anyways, I think that some of the comments here have great suggestions: ask if you can follow in your car, say its against our policy, etc. But then again, actually being in that situation is far different than talking about it and saying what I think I would do – I’m sure its much harder and a lot more awkward when it actually happens. Emily I think you made a good judgement call by kind of looking around and seeing where you were at, and you also got an interview out of it. But I do see how you feel that you can’t trust this source. I know I would feel…strange or almost betrayed. But at least you can learn from the experience.

    I’m glad that this got brought up actually, because I think its good for us to think about and if we’re ever in that situation we can be more prepared.

  19. I have to admit, that after reading this blog post and evaluating, I can’t say that I would have handled it differently in the moment. I would have kept my cell phone handy (in case I needed to make an emergency call) and been aware of my surroundings (people nearby, etc.) While it is important to maintain focus and momentum during an interview, and the situation was unorthodox, I do not feel that, in general, we as reporters need to have “total control” in an interview. That is to say, that some interviewees will have the very real sense that your piece is about them; they are the star; they’re doing you a favor and not the other way around, and they may act accordingly. Likewise, deviation from one’s expectations for an interview is not always negative (it’s a shame that it was in this situation.) Sometimes, the subject may present a new angle that is better than the original plan and, to an extent, we should be open to that.

  20. Vandrelyst says:

    I like to travel a lot and often in ‘unconventional ways’. This puts me in many similar situations where all I can do is go with my gut, because being too cautious can keep you from some of the most amazing possible experiences. I’ve said no dozens of times and once or twice I wish I’d said no even though everything turned out to be okay in the end… but there were just as many times that, after checking my instincts, I felt like I should proceed (with caution) and I’ve met some truly amazing people and had some very special experiences that way. In the above situation, since I would have my car with me, I would probably suggest that I follow in my own car… that way I would feel that I had control over when I could leave (which I like), and, in the car, I could call someone to let them know about the change of plans without making the interviewee feel uncomfortable. However, I can also see myself getting in the car if I felt that the situation was pretty safe.

  21. Kip Hill says:

    I like the language you used to describe the interview dynamic, Emily. From the interviewing I’ve done, I’ve noticed the inherent shifts in power and influence that occur throughout a discussion. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic or dangerous as this situation was or could have been, either. You have to walk a fine line of commanding respect and gathering the information you need, while also allowing leeway for the conversation to take turns you weren’t expecting. In that sense, Christa’s right that we don’t need to strive for total control when conducting an interview. Like all other posters, though, I think there are situations like threats to our safety where we should pause to consider just how much control we are relinquishing.

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