May 4, 2016

Whether he’s gabbing with Zach Galifianakis between two ferns or talking to Marc Maron in his garage, President Obama is used to orchestrating unconventional interviews to get his message out.

His latest effort came earlier this week, when he invited several journalists from local TV stations to the White House for one-on-one interviews. Six local anchors spent the day in Washington, talking to the president and meeting with his advisers. The catch: They had to ask the commander-in-chief a question about his Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.

Generally, agreeing to conditional interviews is frowned upon in journalism, where no-holds barred questioning is preferred. But was it permissible in this case? Below is a question-and-answer session with Kelly McBride, vice president of The Poynter Institute and its media ethicist, on whether news organizations should agree to restrict their questioning in order to land rare interviews.

Were these journalists justified in accepting a conditional interview with the president? Why or why not?

The conditions on this were that they ask a question about the nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s not so bad. You can ask any other questions, too, but you have to ask this one question. The conditions didn’t say that the reporters had to air the answer to that question. As long as the journalists control what goes on their air, then agreeing to ask a question and listen to answer is fairly innocuous. I’m much more concerned when pre-interview conditions restrict the reporter from certain topics. So this was fairly mild.

Are there circumstances under which agreeing to conditional interviews is OK? What are they?

A journalist should not sacrifice the needs of her audience for access. The most egregious conditions are those that restrict the reporter from asking about the issue that is top of mind for the audience. Remember when Bill Cosby was loaning out his art collection and he was trying to get reporters to agree to not ask him about the sexual assault charges? Anytime an interview subject tried to restrict the topic, there’s a good chance the audience will actually be interested in that topic. So it’s a lot easier to agree to cover a particular issue, rather than agreeing to avoid an issue.

When it comes to interviews, how many conditions is too many? Some publications and journalists, for example, allow the subjects of their articles to read stories about them in advance of publication.

There are so many ways sources impose restrictions. They limit the amount of time. They control the environment. So it’s hard to put a firm number on it. The tipping point for journalists is when they can no longer gain any information that will serve the needs of their audience. Once that is no longer possible, you might as well not do the interview.

When a journalist agrees to conditions in an interview, they’re effectively ceding some of their control to be a representative for the audience member, right?

Yup. But the more powerful the person, the more control they exert over the interview. Look at athletes and entertainers.

Are journalists ever justified in breaking the ground rules for the conversation?

Yes, and many journalists do. As some reporters are preparing for an interview, they discover the conditions imposed will undermine their ability to get answers to the most pressing questions. So they wait till the end of the interview and then break the rules. The worst thing that can happen is they end the interview and they cut off your access.

I noticed that WKRC’s story doesn’t disclose the interview was explicitly transactional. When you agree to a conditional interview, is it important to disclose those conditions for your audience? Why or why not?

This is the place where a lot of journalists fall down. Disclosing the condition of the interview is important. If you don’t do that, then you’ve left out an important piece of information. Yet a lot of journalists fail to do this. I suspect that many of them worry that it will hurt their credibility with their audience. If you really believe that, you have to ask why agreed to the conditions in the first place.

Poynter Managing Editor Benjamin Mullin contributed to this report.

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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
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