Ask an Expert Questions and Answers Reporting

Our reporters have difficulty getting public officials to return phone calls about controversial issues. How can we prod those officials into being more responsive?

For starters, make the officials accountable for not talking to the newspaper. If the county commissioner’s role is part of a larger story, report that he or she would not return phone calls or would not discuss the issue, make sure to place that fact where readers would otherwise expect the official’s response to be. Placing it at the end of the story only trivializes the official’s failure to act responsibly.

And, remember that sometimes, that official’s failure to respond might change the complexion of your story to the extent that that failure now becomes the news peg.

And if a pattern emerges, you’ve got a great opportunity to use the opinion page as leverage. But make sure it’s clear that the official’s failure to respond isn’t a sore point with your newspaper — that sounds like whining — but is a failure to meet his or her responsibility to the general public. Make sure you’re readers know that it’s them, and not you, getting the short end of the stick.

In the meantime, here’s what your reporters can do to strengthen their own case with the official and readers, in case you do have to play hardball.

  • Make sure they’ve done their research before they start asking questions. They ought to be just about as knowledgable on the subject as the official.
  • Make sure they call as far in advance as possible
  • And make sure they make numerous good faith efforts.
  • And, if it’s a last-minute or breaking story, and it’s reasonable that an official might not have time to reply before your deadline, soften the blow, you might write that “the mayor couldn’t be reached at press time” rather than “the mayor did not return phone calls.” Both may be accurate, but only one will fairly depict the context of the situation.