One of the most frequent judgment calls journalists make is how much time to give someone to respond to a request for comment or information.

[[{“fid”:”3937″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:”398″,”width”:”620″,”style”:”width: 400px; height: 257px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: right;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]By Patricia Graham

One of the most frequent judgment calls journalists make is how much time to give someone to respond to a request for comment or information.

Earlier this month I was contacted by Bruce Macfarlane, director of communications for the provincial Department of Health, who was concerned that his department hadn’t been given sufficient time to respond to a critical story in the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

Reporters are expected to give people a “reasonable” amount of time to respond; what is reasonable, however, can vary significantly depending on the circumstances. The goal is for stories to be accurate, fair and balanced. That means being diligent about getting what’s needed, and this is especially so when giving someone an opportunity to respond to criticism. 

Because there is no “one-size-fits-all,” journalists at this newspaper have a non-exhaustive list of guidelines they can use to help them determine what is reasonable in a given instance. They are:

  • Your source’s familiarity/experience with media—politicians can normally be expected to respond more quickly than someone who has never dealt with media before.
  • The importance of the information to the fairness/completeness of the story—for example, if someone is being personally criticized, a response is very important.
  • The number of requests you’ve made.
  • The complexity and extent of information sought.
  • The degree of expertise required. For example, if you are asking a press operative about a particular tax principle, you have to give them time to find the right person to answer. 
  • The extent of resources the source has access to. For example, Statistics Canada is likely to have more capability to answer a statistical question than would the mayor of [a small town].
  • Whether the information being sought relates to a current or a past event – the latter might take longer to acquire.
  • Your deadline and whethet it is flexible.
  • Whether or not a determination of “responsible communication” may be relevant.
  • Any past relevant experience with the source—for example, whether the source is usually quick to respond, or has never once responded. 

The story that prompted Mr. Macfarlane’s complaint was about provincial Medicare policy regarding living expenses for people awaiting organ transplants. 

Jim Noseworthy and his wife, Joy, had gone to Toronto, where Jim had a double lung transplant. They’d rented an apartment there together because transplant patients are required to have a full-time caregiver before, during and after surgery.

Medicare pays $1,500 monthly for the living expenses of people awaiting transplants; once they enter hospital, however, the funding stops. 

Joy Noseworthy was upset that provincial funding was no longer available for her and her husband’s stay in Toronto pending his recovery. She contacted The Daily Gleaner, and reporter Laverne Stewart got to work on the story. At about 11:15 a.m. she called a representative in the Department of Health communications department, seeking comment.

Eighteen minutes later an editor posted a story online. It set out the Noseworthys’ complaint and stated, “The Department of Health has been contacted for comment. More to come.”

Mr. Macfarlane’s position is that 18 minutes isn’t “fair and reasonable time to reply.” I agree. (It’s worth noting that this wasn’t the first instance of this sort Macfarlane had experienced; it was simply the one that caused him to contact me.)

Newsrooms today need to post content online as soon as possible, but the need for speed can’t trump the need for accuracy. And a one-sided story, where one party is at liberty to criticize and the other has had no chance to respond, is incomplete and so lacking in balance and fairness that it cannot be characterized as accurate. 

The Gleaner newsroom was of the mistaken view that by inserting a note in the story saying comment had been sought, it had fulfilled its obligations. The Brunswick News newsrooms have been reminded that the need to be current in a digital first world doesn’t absolve journalists of their responsibility to permit a reasonable time to respond.

I believe that in this case it would have been reasonable for the department to respond within the day, which it didn’t do.

The Easter long weekend intervened between the publication of the story in print and the reporter’s next attempt to get comment. This time,  Macfarlane himself responded, providing statements regarding the relevant government policy.

The newsroom did another story to get the comments on record. Unfortunately, in my view, the second story constituted another mistake. An appropriate second story would have given primacy to the response, setting out only enough of the concerns expressed in the initial story to make the issues comprehensible to readers. Instead, the second story was written much like the first story, restating the complaints at length, but adding in the very modest response. Intended as a follow story to get the government’s response on record, it instead gave the complainant a second kick at the can.

Reporters have legitimate concerns about dealing with government departments: usually the answer they get from them is that “privacy laws” prevent comment. My advice to reporters in these situations is to insist on getting the particular sections of the legislation that spokespeople say limits their response.

Reporters are also well aware that many people and institutions will try to delay providing a response in order to manage the message to their own advantage. 

These frustrations don’t negate the journalistic obligation to be diligent in getting a response within a reasonable time. A good rule of thumb is, “Treat others as you yourself would wish to be treated, but don’t be a pushover.” 

This column was originally published on the Times & Transcript’s website, and is reprinted here with permission.