On-Air Interviews – A Complex Equation

Erin Burnett interviewing Sam Nunberg on March 6.

Journalists must know when to move discussions off air.

Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide, granted many interviews to journalists Monday that produced several accusations and conflicting statements.

Some interviews with Nunberg were conducted live on television, including one in which CNN’s Erin Burnett said she smelled alcohol on his breath. Nunberg said he was not drinking.

Nunberg’s exchanges throughout the day ignited questions on social media about the ethics of journalists interviewing people who are acting erratic or possibly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

(There is no evidence – other than Burnett’s statement and question – that Nunberg was under the influence of any substance.)

Like most questions about ethics, the answer is complicated and must account for several factors. Some of those basic factors include – but are not limited to – a person’s experience with media, the topic of the story, the person’s role in the story and the person’s age.

Thinking more broadly, journalists must also consider whether the information being provided by the person is accurate and how it affects people at home reading the newspaper, watching television, listening to the radio or interacting with the news online.

In most cases, these factors would lead journalists to forgo interviewing people for person-on-the-street columns or about local news events like fires and robberies.

The story Nunberg is involved in is not routine, however. He is also not a random person on the street.

Nunberg reportedly has experience dealing with the media. He worked – at one point – for the future president and is now involved in an investigation into accusations that could have very serious consequences. There is no question that his words are newsworthy.

Journalists should not be chastised for speaking with Nunberg, but that does not mean each of his statements and accusations should be printed or broadcast.

By the time he arrived on air with CNN’s Burnett, Nunberg already claimed a former Trump advisor colluded with Russia and criticized the appearance of the president’s press secretary. Burnett said she smelled alcohol on Nunberg’s breath, which he denied. Also, the seriousness of the investigation at the heart of the interview cannot be overstated.

The combination of these factors suggests it may have been best and more responsible to tape an interview with Nunberg instead of airing it on live television. The decision would give journalists, editors and producers more time to evaluate the accusations he made during the interview. They could also put his statements into context.

To be fair, the same could be said for many other interviews when questions about alcohol and mental health don’t arise.

The bottom line is that a journalist’s primary obligation is to present the truth as they know it right now and minimize harm in its pursuit. A journalist should ask if they are leaving their readers, viewers or listeners with the most accurate information without causing unnecessary harm.

In many cases – including this one, I think journalists can do better.

Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee.

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