Montana Public Radio

Parsing The Press: Conflicts Of Interest And Off-The-Record Threats

Feb 19, 2021

Journalists try to keep an ethical distance between themselves and their news sources, but that presents challenges sometimes. This week's guest, University of Montana Journalism Professor Dennis Swibold, discusses that relationship — and the criticism aimed at female journalists that sometimes crosses lines that shouldn't be crossed.

Listen now on Parsing the Press with Sally Mauk, Gwen Florio and guest Dennis Swibold.

Sally Mauk Well, Gwen is unable to join us this week, but will be back next week. And my guest today is University of Montana Journalism Professor Dennis Swibold. Dennis teaches journalism ethics, among other things. And that's our topic today, especially the ethics surrounding the relationship between journalists and their sources.

A White House official, TJ Ducklo, was forced to resign recently after his romantic relationship with a reporter for Axios, Alexi McCammond, came to light. And it wasn't that relationship that cost him his job, but how he dealt with another reporter who was doing a story about it. But before we get to that, Dennis, let's talk first about the problems that can arise when reporters become personally involved with their sources. It's just generally not a good idea.

Dennis Swibold I think that's right, Sally. And, you know, I think it's generally agreed upon among most journalists. In practical matters I think that kind of relationship is not unknown, but it's uncommon, in my experience anyway. Journalists tend to hang around with journalists, and people who are not hang out with people who are not. But it does happen sometimes, we're human and we meet people and things click. And I've been, as an editor, I've had reporters in that situation and had to deal with it over time. And when it does happen, I think you have to look for, you know, solutions and look for creative ways to sort of work it out. And sometimes you can and sometimes you can't. And I guess I've been fortunate in my career to to have situations which we could we could find solutions.

Sally Mauk So Ducklo and McCammond told their employers about their involvement, and McCammond was taken off the presidential beat. So Dennis, basically, they handled it in an ethical way as best they could.

Dennis Swibold I think so. You know, that's the kind of solution that, you know, I was able to come up with and and was fortunate to be able to do that. I had a reporter who was covering the justice beat and fell in love, a romantic relationship with one of the people on that beat, and came to me, told me about it, you know, because she knew about the ethical situation she was under. And it was simply a matter of changing beats, which she had recommended in the first place. So it is sort of well known among most reporters that you're just going to get into a situation where people aren't gonna believe you. They may think that you're getting favorable treatment from the news source. And in a place like Washington where access is such a much bigger game than it is in Montana, you know, that can cause jealousies within the group of people who cover that. They can also wonder if people are throwing softballs by people who are trying to make their bosses look good. So, you know, it is an ethical problem and it's something that people have to watch out for. And I know most editors have had experience with this.

Sally Mauk and Gwen Florio, hosts of Parsing The Press

Sally Mauk Perception matters as much as reality, often. But then what happened that got Ducklo out of his job was a reporter for Politico, Tara Palmeri, was working on a story about the relationship. And in an off the record phone call, Ducklo threatened to "destroy her" if she published the story. And he went on to make very insulting and demeaning remarks to her. And that's what ultimately got him fired. And I think him losing his job was appropriate in that case, Dennis.

Dennis Swibold Well, I think that's right. And it was also fitting in light of what, you know, President Biden had said about his own employees and the way they treat people. And there was a moment of time there when Ducklo was initially suspended that a lot of people were sort of asking critical questions about how could that work. And one of my favorite comments was from Erik Wemple of The Washington Post, who is a media critic. And he said, apparently members of the media don't merit the same protections from Biden as his colleagues do. And then there were some difficult questions at a press conference. And the next thing you know there's another conversation between Ducklo and his boss where some sort of agreement happened and he resigned shortly thereafter. You know, and I think that was the right call, right move. He could have been fired early on. So he got a little bit of a different sort of situation. He wasn't fired on the spot, but it probably was a good lesson for the new press shop.

Sally Mauk I don't want to repeat what Ducklo said to the reporter from Politico because it's too awful. But speaking from my own experience, Dennis, and that of other women journalists, I know sources who are upset over a story will berate female reporters in ways they would never use with a male reporter. And in fact, a lot of male reporters in the wake of this incident pointed that out, that even though they've had sources be upset with them about coverage, they've never been treated or spoken to the way the political female journalists were spoken to by this White House guy.

Dennis Swibold Yeah, and I think that's right. And if I even think of my own experience, I've had people mad at me before and they've been sometimes very pointed and maybe even profane, but never to the degree where they were disrespectful to the point where Ducklo was to Palmeri.

And I don't have a personal knowledge of this, but I've talked to lots of reporters who've run afoul of sources, male sources, and have been told that they get a much harsher sort of response than male reporters do. I even follow, you know, sometimes on Twitter and see some of the reaction, not just from the source, but from the public. I mean, the reaction to women reporters who make people angry by just doing their job is much more over the top than it is for male, I would think.

Sally Mauk And often have a really disgusting sexual nature, too.

Dennis Swibold Exactly.

Sally Mauk Ducklo's insulting phone call with Palmeri was off-the-record, Dennis, but it became public when he stepped over the line and threatened her. And is that, you think, the line not to be crossed when an off-the-record conversation is to remain off-the-record? I mean, it's important if you're agreeing with a source that this conversation is off-the-record, that it remain off-the-record. But in this case, it did not. Do you think that was appropriate in this case?

Dennis Swibold Well, I think it was appropriate, although it is an issue that journalists debate among themselves. I mean, well, I tell people in reporting classes, you know, that if you make a promise to keep this off-the-record, that you need to keep that promise, because if you get a reputation for going back on that, you may have a hard time talking to sources. But I also know that there are situations in which people will take advantage of that off-the-record situation to berate a reporter or to try to throw them off a story, or in this case, to insult them to a degree that would not be acceptable or appropriate in any case. And in this case, I mean, the reporter Palmeri didn't release this off-the-record information. She told her editors about it, which is fairly standard procedure in off-the-record conversations. In fact, in some places it's required. I mean, editors want to know what you're hearing, what you're saying and what sort of promises you're making. It's a check on this thing that can be difficult to deal with sometimes. And so when they decided that there was a threat here to one of their reporters, they felt they had to act. And this is an abuse of the off-the-record, the privilege, I think, and it's an abuse that means the deal is off. You've changed this from being an informational exchange to being an insulting and harassing and intimidating situation. And you need to be called out for that. And and I don't have any problem at all with Politico's editors going to their reporters defense here.

Sally Mauk Lastly, Dennis, the distance between news sources and journalists, it seems to me, is a lot easier to maintain if you live in a city of a million people than if you live in a state that only has a million people. And in other words, and you alluded to this earlier, journalists working in Montana versus D.C. are much more likely to, for example, socialize with their news sources, know them personally. It's tougher in a state with a small population, I think.

Dennis Swibold I think it is, too, especially since sources wear so many different hats, too. They know you in context other than as a journalist. They may be your landlord. They may be your insurance agent. They may be somebody that you work with in some other context. So I think it is difficult for journalists to sort of maintain that a little bit of distance. And it's a dance. How do you get close and yet keep people to stay away at the same point? As you said, perception is a part of it, and I think that's true. If people believe that you're going to be treating someone favorably and can't cover something fairly, then your credibility as a journalist is going to be reduced.

Sally Mauk I've been speaking with University of Montana Journalism Professor Dennis Swibold. Gwen will return next week. And Dennis, thank you so much.

Dennis Swibold Thanks, it was a pleasure.

You've been listening to Parsing the Press, a weekly look at how the news is reported featuring journalist and novelist Gwen Florio and NPR's Sally Mauk.

Do you have a comment or suggestion for a future show? Contact Sally Mauk at

Parsing the Press is a weekly look at how the news is reported, featuring journalist and novelist Gwen Florio and Montana Public Radio's Sally Mauk. Listen on MTPR Fridays at 7:50 a.m., or find it wherever you get your podcasts.