More on Why People Talk to Reporters

More on Why People Talk to Reporters

More on Why People Talk to Reporters

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
July 7 1999 1:06 PM

More on Why People Talk to Reporters

Chatterbox's plea for readers to suggest psychological studies explaining the darker and more irrational reasons why people talk to journalists (see "Why Are People Dumb About Talking to Reporters?") yielded three book recommendations. Several readers urged Chatterbox to read Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer (click here to buy the book), a book Chatterbox had found somewhat melodramatic when it first came out; dutifully, he took a second look and found that the prose was even more purple than he'd remembered. (Sample: "Like the young Aztec men and women selected for sacrifice, who lived in delightful ease and luxury until the appointed day when their hearts were to be carved from their chests, journalistic subjects know all too well what awaits them when the days of wine and roses--the days of the interviews--are over. And still they say yes when a journalist calls, and still they are astonished when they see the flash of the knife." Booga booga!) For a book by a journalist who's obsessed with Psychoanalytic Truth, The Journalist and the Murderer offers little in the way of cogent theory.

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Chatterbox was also urged to read News and the Culture of Lying (click here to buy the book), by P.H. Weaver, a pretty smart (if somewhat sour) explanation of how and why journalists often take mundane reality and turn it into high, vaguely phony drama. The author, Paul Weaver, has an interesting perspective, having been both a successful journalist (he was formerly Washington bureau chief for Fortune) and a political scientist. Unfortunately, there isn't much in the book that explains the behavior of sources; Weaver is much more interested in the psychology of reporters. Chatterbox reluctantly agrees that this is a legitimate subject for inquiry, and will perhaps get back to it at some future date.

The most useful book recommended to Chatterbox wasn't about journalism at all. It's Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (click here to buy the book), by Robert Cialdini, who teaches psychology at Arizona State. Cialdini outlines six human vulnerabilities to manipulation that, he says, account for the majority of instances in which people do things that run counter to their rational self-interest. These are: 1) the urge to reciprocate what's perceived as thoughtful behavior; 2) the need, once one has chosen to do a foolish thing, to continue to behave foolishly in the name of consistency; 3) the need to run with the herd, even when the herd is a fabrication (example: people think TV laugh tracks are stupid, but laugh more at shows that have them); 4) the need to do things for people one likes for superficial reasons--for instance, because they're physically attractive, or because they flatter you; 5) the need to defer to authority (most famous example: the Milgram "banality of evil" experiment in which subjects were persuaded to administer electric shocks to others); and 6) the need to get or experience something that will cease to be available soon--even if the thing to be gotten or experienced isn't really desired.

Every one of these vulnerabilities, of course, can be exploited by inquiring journalists. A common form of the reciprocity trick--or rather, of a refinement discussed by Cialdini, in which the manipulator first asks for one thing, is refused, and then asks for something much more modest, prompting the victim to want to say yes to mimic the "compromise"--is when a reporter asks a source to tell him something on the record, is refused, and then says OK, tell it to me on a not-for-attribution basis. Consistency works for reporters whenever a source, having already told a reporter one indiscreet thing, continues to tell that reporter more indiscreet things, because why would it be wrong to tell one and not the other? The herd instinct, Chatterbox suspects, helps explain Bob Woodward's ability to get people to talk to him; having established that many, many important people have spoken to him in the past, Woodward may not need to work so hard to convince new important people to cough up. Liking on the basis of physical attraction or flattery is so obvious that Chatterbox need hardly point out that reporters, and especially reporters on TV, are often good-looking; in addition to having to appeal to the people who watch them on TV, the latter are more likely than print reporters to conduct interviews face-to-face (as opposed to on the phone). Deference to authority helps explain why the families of accident victims pour out their feelings to the press (even though reporters are not public officials). And the desire to accommodate scarcity helps explain why people will often help a reporter on deadline--It's now or never!

Chatterbox is especially grateful to Cialdini for explaining, inadvertently, why reporters take subjects to lunch. During the 1930s, a psychologist named Gregory Razran did a series of experiments in which people were shown political statements twice--once on an empty stomach, and once while they were eating. He found that they liked the political statements more when they were eating. Apparently people are more accomodating when they are consuming food--even if there isn't any liquor. Cialdini points out that this technique is exploited by politicians when they are trying to sway other legislators or when they are soliciting political contributions (in the latter case, this is done en masse at fund-raising dinners). But it applies equally well to the reporter who takes a source out for a swank lunch. Chatterbox previously believed that lunches were an inefficient and artificial way to get information out of people, but he will now reconsider.