Journalism basics, part 3 (in which I quote Tennesse Williams)

Blanche (Vivien Leigh) and Stanley (Marlon Brando)
in the film version of "A Streetcar Named Desire."

The theme for this, my third installment of Journalism Basics for New Media Types, comes to us courtesy Blanche DuBois, one of the central characters in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire." In her most famous line, Blanche explains one of the central tenets of her life:

"I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

What does Blanche's easy virtue have to do with journalism?

It means that journalists are always depending on others to help us get our stories. People tell us things. They give us documents. They guide us when we are lost ("Follow the money," Deep Throat famously told Bob Woodward during the Watergate investigation). They invite us to events. They consent to sit for interviews and they take our phone calls. They answer our questions.

And it means that, unlike Blanche, we should always be questioning their motives (this is a corollary to our last installment: If your mother says she loves you, check it out). Why is that person calling to give you a scoop? Why didn't he or she call your competitor? Are they giving you the story because they like you or because they think you're more likely to be easily deceived?

Does the person calling you have a vested interest in the story? What is it? How might it be clouding their motives? Is he or she giving you those documents simply because they like you and they want to see justice done? Or are they trying to get even with someone? Or, maybe, draw attention away from something even more important?

What's the real story here?

While many reporters are skeptical and always dig and ask hard questions, others aren't so tough minded. They happily take a story lead without asking "why me?" And, sometimes, they get used.

Another reason not to depend too closely on the kindness of strangers: If someone offers you money or merchandise or a free trip somewhere, just say no. It's best to stay pure and not even have the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Next installment: Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

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