Teaching Young Journalists to Stand Up to Bullies
February 5, 2014
Jackie Incollingo

Video footage of U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm threatening to throw a television reporter off a Capitol Hill balcony for asking the congressman about a campaign finance investigation after this year’s State of the Union speech has gone viral.

Since then, reporters in newsrooms have been trading their own favorite tales of threats from sources or officials — much like Quint and Hooper comparing scars from bar battles and moray eel bites with gleeful one-upsmanship in the classic scene from the movie “Jaws.”

Threats from ticked-off newsmakers can be marks of experience, even badges of honor — signs of a reporter coming too close to uncovering the uncomfortable, inconvenient or even illegal. In other words, evidence of a journalist’s job well done.

Pushback in this profession is expected and demands an unblinking toughness that is usually cultivated with experience.

But how do you teach this grit to a young student journalist or new reporter? How can an educator or editor prepare a beginner to stand their ground when attempts at bullying or intimidation may come their way on sensitive stories?

These questions become increasingly important in education, as more journalism schools incorporate aspects of the “teaching hospital” model — which strives to promote learning by having students produce print and broadcast stories that reach real audiences and provide news coverage in their communities.

Providing real news to real audiences also means having students interact with real sources — including those who might seek to influence or even push around a young reporter.

One of the best ways to prepare students or new reporters may well be to accept the likelihood that this could happen. As part of orientation, all student reporters or young hires could be given specific directions on what to do when they are confronted with intimidating demands or threatening behavior from sources, like NY1 reporter Michael Scotto encountered in the U.S. Capitol.

Grimm told Scotto: “Let me be clear to you, you ever do that to me again I’ll throw you off this f—ing balcony,” according to the taped exchange.

When Scotto insisted his question about campaign finance was valid, the Staten Island Republican responded: “No, no, you’re not man enough, you’re not man enough. I’ll break you in half. Like a boy.”

Tirades at journalists may not always be as colorful as Grimm’s, but they can be intimidating — particularly to young reporters.

Last year, a press office staffer for Vice President Joe Biden demanded that a Capital News Service student reporter delete photographs taken during an official event in Rockville, Md., and insisted she watch while he complied.

The reporter was a credentialed member of the press and a student at the University of Maryland, College Park, which runs the student-powered news service.

Biden’s press secretary apologized to the reporter after a formal complaint was filed by Lucy A. Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

Journalism schools need to develop policy statements and distribute them to students, so students know about their rights to stand firm and resist unreasonable and intimidating demands regarding their documents, photographs and other source material.

Reporters should be advised that if a source demands to see or take notes, drafts of stories and any other documents created as part of their reporting, the reporter should not comply unless they are physically threatened.

Instead, reporters should say they need to call their editor and then do so.

And most important of all, student-reporters and young journalists must be advised to immediately  call their editor when faced with unreasonable demands or threats. They should not face intimidation without the support of educators and editors. When these sort of things happen, it’s always best to stand as a team.

They should also call their editor if a source is treating them in an unprofessional manner.

The Grimm-Scotto incident captured on video is an extreme case of intimidating behavior toward a reporter. For journalists and educators it is an opportunity to consider appropriate reactions and responses to inappropriate conduct they may face while on the job.

In a subsequent written statement after the confrontation, Grimm insisted that Scotto’s question was “off-topic” and suggested the reporter was unprofessional and disrespectful. After the incident became national news, Scotto’s station reported that Grimm called the reporter and apologized.


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