I’m a reporter at heart so being told I can’t publish usually means I have to. Even if you genuinely don’t mean any harm, be prepared for conflict and enemies if your story strikes a nerve.
I walked up to him cavalierly. As I drew nearer, I noticed his eyes glowed with anger; his fist clenched. In my mind I was innocent, but I knew I had made an enemy.
The pain I had caused him sat deep. I had sweet-talked him into setting up a call with his boss, I had assured him of my professionalism, I had convinced him that there was no danger in talking to me, but I had wrecked it all.
What did I do to cause this guy so much distress? I was doing my job and published an article. I published an article about a deal that his boss shouldn’t have talked to me about. That’s not all. I released the story after he called me and pleaded with me to hold the story as it may put the deal in jeopardy, losing months of hard work and millions.
My story ran. The deal closed. Nothing happened — end of story. The wheels of capitalism kept spinning, I thought. So, seeing him that day, red in the face and full of fury, I saw no danger in approaching him to touch base. (Luckily he was an even-mannered guy and we were at a five-star location, not the right place for a brawl).
I had conducted an on-record and scheduled interview with his boss, and there were no restrictions on the information. His boss spilled the beans and gave me some juicy details. He didn’t say anything was off-record. The story was accurate and true and came straight from lead dealmaker. I had an obligation to provide our readers with the intel.
So, I got my story ready and sent the company a quick line that the story would run and was about to hit publish when his call came.
The only agreement I had in place with these guys was to tip them off about the headlines before publishing. For whatever reason, I had agreed to that just to get the interview in the first place. Not ideal but some companies and PR agencies in Germany only give access on these conditions. It’s only a courtesy call, not on an opportunity for them to change or stay the information. What was said, was said.
My contact, matter of factly, told me flat out that the company did not sanction the use of the information for publication. Really? Too late buddy, not my problem. You can’t tell me to hold a planned and on-record story. It’s not my fault your boss spoke too freely. That’s your problem.
Why would I wait? If I wait there might not be a scoop (the deal will close or another outlet will beat me to it), I won’t have the knock-out story. No. I alerted compliance, sent out emails to my editors to make sure I’d followed due process. I didn’t for a second consider that my contact would pay the price with the full weight of responsibility resting on his shoulders for my conduct.
His anger was justified: his job and millions on the line. He had put his faith in me, and I had misused his trust. Could I have waited a few days to hit publish? Possibly, but I’m a reporter and being told I can’t, usually means I have to.
With the full awareness of the backlash, he’d face I may have shown more empathy but I didn’t have that insight. Usually, a sleight of hand means a contact may dodge me for a while but they often come around after a few weeks or months — not this guy.
I was never out to harm this guy, following my instinct on a good and true story that was slipped to me by someone who should have known better. I had done nothing wrong process-wise but I did neglect the human element and some empathy. I'm not without fault.
Was that scoop worth the pennies it earned? I honestly don’t know but what I do know, once a reporter, always a reporter and sometimes you’ll end up making an enemy.
“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything is public relations.” - George Orwell
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