Random News Quotes Not as Random as You Might Think

Atrios links today to a Ryan Chittum piece at CJR that revolves around a small businessman named Drew Greenblatt who seems to have a side business as man-on-the-street for news reporters. Just in June alone, he got quoted by the New York Times (three times), NBC Nightly News, PBS Newshour (twice), NPR’s Morning Edition, and The Hamilton Spectator. Earlier in the year he got hits from CNN Newsroom and Fox Business (four times), the Financial Times, Reuters, and the Associated Press.

You will be unsurprised to learn that Greenblatt is not just some random steel wire manufacturer from Baltimore. He’s an executive-committee member of the board of the National Association of Manufacturers, a DC trade lobby. Chittum explains:

Here’s how you should assume this works, because it’s how it very often does: A journalist is on deadline on a story and needs an anecdote to make it feel “real” with some color—preferably someone who will add balance and/or support the journalist’s thesis. A speed-dialed call is made to industry flacks to supply a quotable small-business person…and, voilà!

Right. But don’t assume this is only the case for industry flacks. Suppose you need an anecdote about credit card fraud. Who ya gonna call? Consumer groups will be happy to hook you up with a fully vetted sob story. An anecdote about malpractice abuse? There are plenty of business groups that can put you in touch with a doctor who has an outrageous story to tell. Someone ripped off by a mortgage lender? You get the idea: just call a group that specializes in lobbying for tougher mortgage regulation. They’ve got plenty of examples.

Journalists like to talk a lot about ethics and transparency. But here’s a transparency rule I’d like to see: when you quote an alleged random man on the street, tell us how you found him. Did you really hoof around until you finally got what you wanted? Is he a friend of your cousin’s? Did you call an interest group and ask for someone? Did you ask for contacts via Twitter or Facebook? If reporters were required to tell us, I think you’d be surprised at how few of these random examples turn out to be truly random.