For a guest lecture once at Pacific Lutheran University, I compiled a list of interviewing techniques for journalism students. The key lesson that topped them all was this:
Do not lie. Be smart enough to figure out how to get the story without deception.
Being upfront has saved me embarrassment many times in my career — whether it’s when an e-mail I wrote was forwarded up some chain and back to my boss, or, whether it was when I found myself questioned by authorities about my intentions.
In each case, I could say that I had honestly represented myself at all times. (Phew!)
Intellectual honesty is a virtue, I think, in any profession. It is particularly necessary for anyone working in the information business, and that’s nearly everyone these days! All we have to go on is our integrity. It’s not worth blowing it, even for a seemingly harmless white lie.
Now: You should have a healthy skepticism of anyone who would blog about how honest he or she is, in life or her job. So, instead of bragging to you about how awesome it is to work honestly, let me tell you about the time I screwed up, and got schooled in front of my peers in this regard.
In college, I majored in computer information systems and only discovered as a junior that I absolutely loved reporting. I felt as if my career were seriously behind my peers who had known what they wanted to do since age six, and so, I jumped at any head start I could get.
My first head start came via an exclusive class taught at The Washington Post, for journalism majors. I applied to the program and was amazed when I got in despite my major.
Each Friday, select students from Howard University, George Washington University and American University (my undergrad alma mater), got to learn one-on-one from the pros at the Post.
One particular Friday was Bob Woodward day. (Who’s Bob Woodward? Wikipedia.)
Instead of talking about his accomplishments, as I’d expected he would, he did a Socratic method exercise with us instead.
“Imagine,” he said, “It’s early in the morning at the Washington Post. You’re a young and hungry journalist, so you got in early. All of a sudden, the metro editor transfers a call to you. There’s someone on the line, a woman, and she sounds frantic. She says, ‘There’s been an anthrax outbreak and they’re taking the victims to GWU Hospital.’ And then she hangs up.”
Woodward posed this question to all of us: “What do you do?”
The students went around the board room with their ideas. Call the health inspector. Call the mayor’s office. Call the hospital.
I piped in, “Run to the drug store, buy a face mask and get down to that hospital.”
“Yes!” Woodward said.
(Of course, I was feeling quite proud that I gave the gutsy, and apparently correct, answer. My victory, however, was short lived.)
He looked at me, and continued the story. “Ok, you go into the hospital waiting room and you see people sitting around. Some look sick. There’s some bustle and then you realize that they are closing the entrance. You were one of the last people to get into the hospital. It’s now sealed off. What do you do?”
What would I do? I had no idea. “Duck into the bathroom!” I said.
“Ok,” Woodward continues. “Now you’re in the bathroom. There’s a nurse in there and she looks frightened. What do you do?”
“Ask her if there’s been an anthrax outbreak,” I said.
Woodward: “She turns to you and asks, ‘Who are you?'”
My mind raced. I felt trapped. I answered, “Say, ‘I’m here with my dad, who broke his leg.'”
Woodward stared hard at me. “You would lie?”
Crap. Wrong answer.
“Well, I didn’t want to tell her I was a reporter right away,” I explained.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Andrea,” I said.
He said, “Ok then. You respond, ‘I’m Andrea.'”
Me, incredulous it was that simple: “That’s it?”
Woodward: “That’s it. And when asked, always identify yourself as a reporter. Always.”
This lesson against deception is one that I never forgot, and carry with me to this day. Thanks, Bob.
By the way: If you ever happen to be a reporter trapped in a hospital during an anthrax outbreak, the proper next step is to call your editor. At that point, the news outlet is going to want to get more bodies on the story.
Oh, and proof that this exchange actually happened, or at least as much proof as I can muster. Here’s a photo from that day in spring 2003: