This Is One Way To Report A Story, We Guess
All the BARC brouhaha today brought us an interesting bit of e-mail correspondence, forwarded to us from a chain that began with a Houston Chronicle reporter.
Rebecca Maitland, a freelancer who writes occasionally for the Chron's Fort Bend zoned edition, was doing a story on animal shelters in that area. Here's the e-mail she sent to one official, with the name of the recipient and the relevant organization omitted. (The stuff in brackets is what was removed by the person who forwarded it to us; the underscored lines, for filling in the blanks, are in the original.)
Hi [volunteer's name], As you know I'm a reporter and I am working on an article that I have to turn in tomorrow on the over population of unwanted animals, which I suggested and was approved. However, right now it was only approved for the Fort Bend County area. I would like some quotes from [animal rescue group] and here they are- this is not the whole article just the quotes I need - can I use your name or can you direct me somewhere?:
"Animals and people have one thing in common, and that is all they want is to be loved and cared for," said _____ [animal rescue group] animal rescue volunteer.
One of the saddest aspects of this, according to _________, is some pet owners drop their animals off in subdivisions, along highways, or in parking lots hoping someone will find them and take them in.
"With all of the shelters and rescue groups full, many just toss their pets out the windows. But what people do not understand is these animals stay where they were dropped off, waiting for their owners to come back and get them. While they wait, these animals often starve, are hit by cars or are attacked by wildlife or other stray animals. We beg people not to do this, please try to find some other alternative," _____ ______ said.
"But most of all, please understand that pets are people too, with the same emotions and needs that we all have. So before you cut your pets out of your life, consider other options, options that could allow the pet to stay or a chance to find a good home," ________ said.
For the second time today in regards to the Chronicle, we find ourselves asking WTF?
Reporters sometimes call or e-mail looking for sources who will say something specific -- "Hey, I need someone to tell me that it's this high-pressure system that's responsible for the heat wave," or something like that -- but we have to admit we've never seen the full-service idea of providing paragraph-long quotes, and just asking for a name to attach to them.
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Maitland has a rather rambling explanation, which is that she talked to volunteers at a shelter where she works (another red flag: doing a story on a place you work at), and none of them wanted to be quoted. So she took the gist of what they had said and tried to find a spokesperson.
"I didn't make the quotes up," she tells Hair Balls. "I had all these quotes and I went to look for a supervisor who would be able to talk to me."
Hey, the zoned edition of any paper can be staffed with stringers who may not be as well-versed in journalistic practices as career reporters are. So we talked to Maitland's editor, Karen Zurawski.
Zurawski gave the same explanation as Maitland. "She was a volunteer with the organization and she talked to some of the other volunteers and they didn't want to be quoted," Zurawski told us. "And so she took the quotes that she thought would be best-used in her story and sent it to somebody who was in a position to speak on behalf of the agency."
Zurawski said a spokesperson never got back to Maitland, so the story -- submitted today but not yet published -- does not include anything from the group for whom she volunteers.
Frankly, we were expecting Maitland's editor to be a bit aggrieved and follow up with something like "Of course that's not the way to go about it," but instead there was silence.
So we had to ask: "Umm, yeah, that's why it all seemed odd to me, that a) she'd be writing a news story about the organization she's a part of, but also I've never heard of furnishing complete quotes and saying 'Can I have you say this?'"
To which Zurawski replied: "She got the quotes from volunteers who did not want to be quoted and so what she said is she sent that to someone who was a spokesperson for the agency and asked if anybody would be able to comment or use those quotes and she got no response. I have never done this before, so I don't know. As far as I know, she doesn't write for us very often."
Eventually, after some prodding from us, Zurawski admitted what Maitland had done was "not an acceptable practice."
So hey, we at least got the Chron on the record saying that. Although that, too, was a struggle. At the end of the conversation -- after we had identified ourself as a reporter, after we had e-mailed her as a reporter, and she's an editor who understands journalism rules, you'd think -- she said "You're not going to quote me, are you?"
Zoned editions. You gotta love them.