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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Insiders say...

[Note to those readers who happen to be my boss: This is a purely academic discussion. Naturally, I would not dream of doing any of this myself.]

Today's episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: How to leak information to a reporter.

I was at a party one evening when talk turned to an intrepid reporter and his fabulous sources. (I say "his", although to be honest I can't remember who it was.) This reporter always got the best leaks.

I started to laugh, as did a fellow party-goer.

We both knew what a leak is: an intentional release of information that only LOOKS unintentional. The others were horrified when we explained this.

When you hear the Ottawa or Washington press whine about how nobody in the government is leaking information, go ahead and laugh. For one thing, your heart will just be bleeding for these poor reporters. For another, they are stupid enough to believe that they are actually getting information that nobody wants them to have.

Here's how it works:

  1. Think up something to leak. You might have a variety of reasons to release the information this way. Maybe you're just floating an idea to see if the public will go for it. More likely, it's good information and you want to get an extra day's play in the media. For the sake of illustration, let's say that you're in charge of the city budget and the official announcement will be made on March 2. You want to leak something good, to distract people from the bad stuff.
  2. Decide who to leak the information to. You'll probably want to leak it to someone you have a decent relationship with. Like a reporter you've leaked information to before. Also for the sake of illustration, let's say you're going to leak to the daily newspaper in your city. You could also leak to TV, radio or online media. But let's keep this simple.
  3. On March 1, move the plants on your back porch to send a secret signal to the reporter, and then meet her in a parking garage. HAHAHAHAHA! Not really! Just call her and tell her that the budget will include money for building ten new schools and hiring a hundred new doctors. Make sure she knows it's a leak, so she feels extra special.
  4. This part happens in the newsroom, so you won't see it, but it's always the same. The reporter will feel powerful, smart and successful for getting this top-secret information out of you. She will immediately go to her editor with the exciting news that she has a scoop: the city budget will include money for ten new schools and a hundred new doctors. She is such a good reporter! This should be on the front page! Time for an award!
  5. The good news you wanted on the front page of the paper is on the front page on March 2. It's there on March 3, too -- remember that the announcement was made on the second, so it will be reported again on the third. The purpose of the second story is to pat the reporter (and by extension the newspaper) on the back for getting it right. They have such good sources! They always have the news before anyone else!
  6. On March 4, you'll need a favour from the reporter. You see, by this time someone will have figured out that although the budget includes money to build ten schools, it also calls for ten firehouses to be closed. Naturally, the reporter's on the story. Fortunately, she now owes you a favour. Isn't that convenient?
You can do this for lots of things. A common twist is to release information about something you're not sure you really want to do.

For example, you might be thinking about putting tolls on the highway. You definitely won't want to send out a press release about this, because people will go nuts. Instead, you want to have a casual conversation with a reporter about how it's something you're considering -- off the record, of course. The reporter will be all excited. She is such a good reporter! This should be on the front page! The next morning, you'll read in the paper that sources say that you are considering putting tolls on the highway. There are two possibilities, both good for you:
  1. People think it's a fabulous idea. The next week, you announce your plan to put tolls on the highway. The reporter covers the story and owes you another favour.
  2. People think it's a terrible idea. You loudly proclaim that you can't believe anyone would tell such a ridiculous lie to a reporter. You were never considering putting tolls on the highway! The reporter does a story about your denial. You still look good.
Now, here's the best part: Reporters know that this is the way the game is played. Yet they insist on pretending that the people who leak information are the most ethical people imaginable. They are gutsy people who look out for the public interest! They provide information to reporters -- beyond what's in the official press release!

It's hard to imagine what it would be like to be in the presence of a person who would be quite so selfless, so just think about how honoured the reporters who actually get to talk to these leakers are. That's the most important part here. Think about the reporters. They're the real heroes.

So the next time you hear a reporter complain about how nobody's leaking information, go ahead and sob. It really is a tragedy.


Torq said...

I had thought that I was being sufficiently harsh simply by implying that you might be involved in propaganda in some small way. Here I see you are not only an active propagandist but you are also providing directions to any would be propagandists out there so that they won't have any difficulty in figuring out HOW!!!

I think it is time that I addressed the issue of misinformation and deception in a more forthright fashion. This will need to be dealt with.

Steve & Megan said...

That is just plain mean. I specifically said that this is an academic discussion and I would never dream of doing any of this myself.

Glen said... academic discussion, really? You've never done this before? Then I guess I've never had a reason to be disappointed.

Steve & Megan said...

Oooh, you are sneaky. Perhaps I should practise the eyebrow motion with some other phrase, like "Where the hell is my cell phone?" or "Who wants to see my new iPod?".

Glen said...

Remember, I have more Clay Aiken albums and I'm prepared to use them against you.

Steve & Megan said...

Stop, stop! We must not say anything that could arouse the anger of the Clay Nation.