Aspiring journalist? Use recording devices

Even your smartphone has a recorder.

I recently read Wired magazine’s “Sore Subject” (October 20, 2012), a report and editorial response addressing every journalist’s worst fear: doubt.  At issue is an article by Noah Shachtman. The piece, “Russia’s Top Cyber Sleuth Foils US Spies, Helps Kremlin Pals,” profiles Eugene Kaspersky, creator of the Kaspersky internet security software.

Wired magazine's October 20,2012 issue
In this issue, the magazine stands by its writer, Noah Shachtman.

Here is what can happen to interview subjects once they’ve read through your published account. Cries of foul, misquotes and inaccuracies emerge and get thrown about. That is precisely the situation in Kaspersky versus Shachtman.  Most interesting in this case? How the magazine weighed in. Wired deftly presented points of argument from first, the “Russian security-software magnate” Kaspersky, followed by highlights of  Shachtman’s blogged response.

The lesson: record that interview. Sure, you might think it’s a good habit to send the draft copy of your article to your subjects for preview (uh, why?) but first, understand people’s tendency to suffer sober second thoughts. It’s a natural inclination for interview subjects to reconsider what they said. More often than not, they’ll ponder long and hard, especially after people start reacting to their words.

Given that natural instinct, a recording clears up that fog, where sober second thoughts wander ironically in confusion. Faced with the very serious accusation of misquoting, a journalist gets to say: “You said it. I wrote it, I recorded it. Here it is.”

If—in addition to your pages of short-hand scribbles—a recording exists, then managing editors need only request a listen of what was said. As it turns out, Wired stands by its writer, going so far as to state: “Wired believes that Shachtman’s story is fair and accurate.”

Did Shachtman, a seasoned journalist, record his interview with Kaspersky? Did he quote the man from recordings?  I don’t know. But if a digital version of that contested interview does exist, then a publication can easily settle the dispute standing by what was said and not by what was meant.

Penned by Saada STYLO © 2012



Published by Saada STYLO

Saada Branker is a freelance features writer and copy editor putting words to work. Her home-based business, Saada STYLO, offers organizations and businesses writing and editing services. A Ryerson University journalism graduate, Saada specializes in delivering clean copy and is guided by her recorder, dictionary, and bank of ideas. She seeks other nomads of different cultures, shoe sizes, opinions, and experiences to keep her focused as a features writer, forever documenting for posterity.

5 thoughts on “Aspiring journalist? Use recording devices

  1. So true. It’s good to make sure no one is misquoted and for accuracy. (Never been keen on just note-taking and I’m no good at shorthand anyway.)

    1. Thanks for the comment, Powys. In addition to taking notes, a recorder provides the right back up. Keeping in mind that devices can fail at the most crucial time (Oh no, it didn’t record!) it’s always good note taking that saves the day. I think effective short hand requires practice. The more you do it…

  2. Yes, an excellent point. The only way to get quotes verbatim is to record them, and it is the only way to prove them accurate. But let’s be realistic. Most journalists are not given the resources in time and money to allow them to do this properly – ie go over the tape afterwards and take down the exact words used. Moreover recorders sometimes are felt to inhibit a conversational interview, which is the kind which yields more confidences than the formal interview.

    If the source aqcuiesces to the use of a recorder then sending him the result seems a perfectly reasonable way of double checking that the piece reflects his views. Assuming that it is not an investigative piece, of course. But you are very helpful to point out that sources who are not used to being covered often will want to backtrack, so it simply leads to trouble if you let them see the piece in advance of publication.

    The Kaspersky article in Wired seems reliable and professional to me, as far as I have read it, and it is very surprising that he objected to it so strongly. Perhaps that is the proof that he wants to conceal the very thing he denies now – a too close relationship with the Kremlin. On the other hand, WIred has a good relationship with government agencies and officials too, it seems clear. And why not?

    In the end, it strikes one that Kaspersky is a little paranoid – as a long time virus hunter is likely to be!

  3. Anthony, I appreciate your thoughtful comment. Personally, I’m not in the habit of showing my draft article to any one else but the assigning editor. Indeed, as a subject, it’s tough being disappointed by an article in which you’re featured. Eugene Kaspersky found his own forum to share his discontent. Fair enough. Claiming a journalist got his facts wrong is a serious accusation; one that requires a response. Wish I were that fly on the editor’s wall when Wired’s managers got involved.

    As a reporter, I really dislike transcribing interviews. It’s time consuming, tedious work, but a necessary evil. My tip to fellow writers: As soon as possible, listen to the recorded interview in its entirety to familiarize yourself with what was said. If it wasn’t done during the interview, mark the IN & OUT times of important quotes. Then transcribe only these portions you’ve highlighted. By then, one should have a clear idea of the story and what quotes are needed to enhance the piece.

  4. If you do that SS you are setting a very fine example indeed. By the way, I did Q/A on various top scientists for a long time and always went over every word of the interview, and checked my final edit with them. Only one ever objected to what she had said and wanted to leave out revelations about how difficult senior scientists had been with her in her youth when she was trying to get her new discoveries accepted (they won a Nobel in the end) and I have a horrible confession to make, I basically ignored her objections since such prejudicial opposition to new ideas is a problem which needs airing (every Nobel winner complains about it!).

    I guess I was showing it to her without any promise to change it although an actual misunderstanding and/or mishearing I would have adjusted. Showing doesn’t necessarily involved a promise to change it. Of course Kaspersky probably has a strong political reason to tone down any suggestion he is in bed with Putin, if that was the implication.

    But you are setting a very fine example. I hope they pay you for your service to truth.

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